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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt van Rijn/A Polish Nobleman/1637,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 18, 2024).

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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.[1] Since Sobieski was only eight years old in 1637, such an identification is clearly impossible. Stefan Batory, the other Polish king whose name was mentioned in the nineteenth century in connection with this painting, is likewise mistaken, for he died in 1586.[2]

A more recent proposal that the figure represents the Polish nobleman Andrzej Rej would seem to have more merit.[3] Rej, who was well traveled, well educated, and well bred, had a close and cordial relationship to the royal court in Poland. As one of the most influential and trusted Protestants in the country, he was chosen by King Wladyslaw in 1637 to act as a special envoy to England and to the Netherlands at a time when relations between Poland and these countries were rather frosty.[4] His diplomatic ventures, first in England, where Charles I would not even receive him, and then in the Netherlands, were not successful. After leaving The Hague on December 19, 1637, he seems to have traveled to Amsterdam where his son, Mikolaj, was enrolled as a student at the Amsterdam “Athenaeum Illustre.” Although Rej must not have stayed long—he was documented in Hamburg by January 19, 1638—he did take time to have his portrait painted. In a document from 1641, Mikolaj acknowledges that he owes Hendrik van Uylenburgh fifty guilders “for portraying my father.”[5]

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.[6] Moreover, despite their earlier business relations, it is unlikely that in 1637 Van Uylenburgh was actively procuring commissions for Rembrandt or administering his financial affairs. Finally, the costume is not one that a Polish nobleman on an official diplomatic mission would have worn at that time. Although the elements of the costume are essentially Polish, they had been in fashion some twenty years earlier.[7]

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 Man in Oriental Costume).[8] The models for such paintings seem to have been people close to Rembrandt, among them his wife, Saskia, his mother, possibly his father, and his brother Adriaen.[9] Rembrandt also used himself as a model for figures in his etchings and paintings. Quite frequently he radically changed his appearance with different hairstyles, beards, and mustaches. 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 self-portrait. The main objection to this hypothesis is that Rembrandt had not yet developed such a jowled countenance at this date. However, X-radiography clearly indicates that the pronounced jowls were not part of the initial concept but were an adaptation done when Rembrandt altered the right contour of the face [fig. 1].[10] At that time he also eliminated the earlobe and a pearl earring.[11]

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 [fig. 2], reinforce the three-dimensional presence of the image. Similar impastos accent the gold medallion falling over his shoulder. The brown collar and reddish brown sleeve of the jacket, however, are painted thinly to suggest the softer textures of fur and cloth. In these areas the ocher ground, which is allowed to show through the surface paint, provides a unifying tone. Rembrandt has consciously sought to reveal this tone by wiping his wet paint with a cloth or, as in the beaver hat, by scratching the surface with the butt end of his brush. Even the background, which because of the painted crack must represent a wall, has been carefully modeled. Since the restoration of the painting, the care with which Rembrandt modulated his paints over the entire surface is once again visible. Indeed, he even left a thumbprint along the lower edge.

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).[1] 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;[2] 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.

Exhibition History

Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 3, 13, repro.

Technical Summary

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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).


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