After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
A Polish Nobleman is probably not a portrait of a specific individual; instead it represents a more generic exotic type that Rembrandt favored during the 1630s. The beaver hat, dark fur cloak, and massive gold chain and medallion have suggested to many that the sitter was Slavic, but the painting's title has no factual basis. Such exotic paintings allowed Rembrandt to expand the limits of portraiture because he was not constrained by traditional conventions. Through dramatic accents of light and dark on the sitter's face, bold brushwork, and dense application of paint, Rembrandt created a powerful, almost sculptural presence. By emphasizing the man’s furrowed brow and by shading his eyes, Rembrandt has portrayed him as a thoughtful individual. The penetrating expression of A Polish Nobleman and the striking resemblance of the sitter’s features to Rembrandt’s, particularly in the area around the eyes and nose, make one wonder if this painting is not, in fact, a fanciful and liberally embellished self-portrait.
One of Rembrandt’s most powerfully evocative paintings from the late 1630s, A Polish Nobleman displays a richness of conception and technique that is unmatched by any other painting by the master in the Gallery’s collection. As this imposing figure stares out beneath his tall beaver hat, he at once confronts the viewer with directness and draws him in with his introspective gaze. His confident stance as he grasps a gold-topped wooden staff, his broad mustache, and the gold chain and pendant that hang over the broad fur collar that covers his jacket give him an air of authority and exotic grandeur. At the same time, the shaded eyes, furrowed brow, and partially opened mouth suggest a caring and thoughtful individual, far more approachable than the pose and costume would initially imply.
Largely because of the individualized character of the sitter, but also because of the obvious care with which Rembrandt modeled the forms, scholars have since the nineteenth century sought to identify this sitter with a specific individual, despite the fact that no suggested identifications are given in the earlier eighteenth century references to the painting. The earliest, and most persistent, of these identifications is the one mentioned by John Smith in 1836: Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696), who was king of Poland from 1674 until his death.
John Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, 9 vols. (London, 1829–1842), 7:310: “A Military Gentleman, styled ‘Sobieski.’” Although the tradition was already questioned in Livret de la Galerie Impérial de l'Ermitage de Saint-Pétersbourg (Saint Petersburg, 1838; “n’est justificée par aucun des documents que nous avons à notre déposition”), the identification continued to be proposed as an option throughout most of the nineteenth century.
Wilhelm von Bode, Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei (Braunschweig, 1883), 464.
A more recent proposal that the figure represents the Polish nobleman Andrzej Rej would seem to have more merit.
First proposed by Otaker Odlozilik, “Rembrandt’s Polish Nobleman,” Polish Review 7 (Autumn 1963): 3–32. This identification was supported by Ben P. J. Broos, “Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Pole and His Horse,” Simiolus 7, no. 4 (1974): 210–213.
King Wladyslaw had just gone back on his highly controversial plan to marry the niece of Charles I of England. The niece was Elizabeth, daughter of Frederick V, king of Bohemia and elector of the Palatinate, and his consort Elizabeth Stuart. The king and queen of Bohemia, the so-called Winter King and Winter Queen, were also intimates with the Prince of Orange, Frederik Hendrik, and his wife, Amalia van Solms. Not only was Frederik Hendrik the uncle of Frederick V, but when the Bohemian king and queen had come to The Hague in exile in the 1620s, Amalia van Solms came with them as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.
Ben P. J. Broos, “Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Pole and His Horse,” Simiolus 7, no. 4 (1974): 213, note 49. The document was published by Abraham Bredius, Künstler-Inventare . . . , 8 vols. (The Hague, 1915–1922), 5:1688.
The coincidence of Rej’s presence in Amsterdam in 1637 and Rembrandt’s portrait of a Polish nobleman of that date would lead one to hypothesize a connection even if a document did not exist confirming that a portrait was in fact painted. Since Hendrik van Uylenburgh, who was of Polish descent, had had a business connection with Rembrandt in the early 1630s, one might assume that Van Uylenburgh would have arranged for Rembrandt to paint a portrait of Andrzej Rej. Nevertheless, the evidence is not compelling enough to make a convincing connection. To begin with, Rembrandt is not mentioned in the document. Secondly, the price for the portrait would have been extremely low for such a large-scale, fully worked-out painting of this date by the master.
As Henriette Rahusen has noted (oral communication), however, the fifty guilders that Mikolaj Rej owed on the painting in 1641 may not represent the full price, but rather the balance remaining from the original commission.
I am indebted for this information to Dr. Julius Chroscicki, from the University of Warsaw, who, as a fellow at the NGA Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, studied the problem of Rembrandt’s depictions of Polish subjects.
Rather than depicting a specific individual, A Polish Nobleman is very likely part of the same tradition of fanciful portraits of figures in oriental costumes to which Man in Oriental Costume belongs (for a discussion of this type of portraiture see the entry on
Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 3, 1635–1642, ed. Josua Bruyn et al. (Dordrecht, Boston, and London, 1989), 247, considers this work a tronie, a term that seems inappropriate for such a large, fully conceived three-quarter-length figure. Although the meaning of the term as used in the seventeenth century is not clear, it seems most probable that tronies were bust-length studies of heads rather than finished paintings. The prices paid for tronies were quite low, as noted in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 3, 1635–1642, ed. Josua Bruyn et al. (Dordrecht, Boston, and London, 1989), 23, “a relatively cheap product.” See also Dagmar Hirschfelder, Tronie und Porträt in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 2008), cat. 430.
Kurt Bauch, Der frühe Rembrandt und seine Zeit: Studien zur geschichtlichten Bedeutung seines Frühstils (Berlin, 1960), 168, suggested that Adriaen van Rijn was the model for A Polish Nobleman. No identifiable portraits of Adriaen, however, are known.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
The connections to Rembrandt’s own physiognomy in the original concept for the portrait are particularly evident in a comparison of the X-radiographs with those of other Rembrandt self-portraits from the late 1630s. See in particular the X-radiographs of Bust of Rembrandt with an Architectural Background, Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. 1746, reproduced in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 3, 1635–1642, ed. Josua Bruyn et al. (Dordrecht, Boston, and London, 1989), 499.
A few other minor changes, such as those on the staff and the gold medallion on the hat, are evident in the X-radiograph and upon close observation of the painting itself.
The extraordinary power of A Polish Nobleman, which is painted on a single, large oak panel, is all the more enhanced because it has been so well preserved. Rich impastos on the face, which can be seen in the photograph of the painting taken in a raking light
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
upper right: Rembrandt.f:. / 1637
Possibly Harman van Swol; possibly (his sale, Jan Pietersz. Zomer, Amsterdam, 20 April 1707, no. 15). Acquired 1765 in Rotterdam by (Philippus Florentinus Vergeloo, Antwerp) for Count Johan Carl Philipp Cobenzl [1712-1770]; sold 1768 to Catherine II, empress of Russia [1729-1796], Saint Petersburg; Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg; sold February 1931 through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London; and M. Knoedler & Co., New York) to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington; deeded 30 March 1932 to The A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
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The panel is composed of a single piece of oak with a vertical grain and has been cradled. Dendrochronology dates the tree felling to about 1633. Old repaired vertical splits are found at top center and bottom left. Moderate-sized losses of splintered wood have occurred in the panel edges.
The ground consists of two layers, a lower white layer of medium thickness covered by a very thin ocher layer. A rich paste paint layer of moderate thickness has been applied with a dry brush producing a highly textured surface, with thick impasted accents on the jewels and staff. The tan ground layer is visible between the broad, opaque brushmarks and is incorporated into the structure of the cloak. Individual fur hairs have been rapidly painted with a broad, fanned-out brush. The fur hat has been incised with the butt end of a brush to expose the ground layer. Glazing is minimal, employed chiefly in the dark shadows of the face and hand.
Several pentimenti are visible with the naked eye and in the X-radiographs. Slight color variations in the background to the sitter’s right were occasioned by the artist’s repainting of the facial contour to slim the profile. The X-radiographs confirm alterations as well that reshape the lower portion of the head and show that the thumb was once inclined downward at a sharper angle and the index finger was more tightly curved. This original position of the hand corresponds to the grip necessary to hold the staff in its initial position, inclined away from the sitter, as evidenced by a reserve left in the background. Once adjusted to its more upright position, the staff was longer than it now appears. Its earlier form is visible through the gray covering paint of the background. A pearl drop, which once hung from the hat jewel, and a pearl earring attached to the proper left earlobe were both painted out.
The paint layer is in excellent condition, with minimal abrasion and only minor losses in the face and around the edges. A conservation treatment was carried out in 1985 to remove an aged varnish as well as discolored inpainting and overpaint.
 Dendrochronological examination by Dr. Joseph Bauch of Universität Hamburg in 1977 has determined that the wood comes from a tree felled around 1633 (see report dated November 29, 1977, in NGA Conservation files). Panels from the same tree were used for two other paintings by Rembrandt at the end of the 1630s, the Concord of State (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and River Landscape with a Windmill (Staatliche Kuntsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel). See Dr. Peter Klein letter, dated September 25, 1987, in NGA curatorial files.
 The pigments and media were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using polarized light microscopy, X-ray diffraction (XRD), X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), and cross-sections in conjunction with stains (see reports on dated December 1984 and February 25, 1985, in NGA Conservation files).
Related IconClass Terms
- expressive conotations
- Historical person +Jan III Sobieski