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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Anonymous Artist, Rembrandt van Rijn/Portrait of Rembrandt/1650,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed September 23, 2017).


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For an artist whose face is so well known through his numerous painted, drawn, and etched self-portraits, it is quite remarkable that Rembrandt’s image in this painting was not recognized by early nineteenth-century critics. While it was in the possession of Chevalier Érard and William Williams Hope, two important and discerning collectors, the sitter was thought to be the important Dutch admiral Maerten Harpertsz Tromp (1598–1653). One wonders what prompted this unexpected belief since Tromp’s known portraits look totally different.[1] To judge from the commentary in the Érard catalog, the theory seems to have been based partially on the outmoded costume: the pleated white shirt, the dark overdress with its rich impastos bordering the front and slashed purple sleeves lined with yellow, and the brown beret worn at a jaunty angle over the elaborate yellow-and-red skullcap. The theory that the portrait depicted an admiral was reinforced by the gold-handled staff upon which the sitter rests his hand. But primarily, it seems, the depiction of the sitter’s character fit what was thought to be Tromp’s assured, noble, and philosophical nature.[2]

While the sitter’s expression, created through subtle effects of lighting on the face as well as the unusual, sidelong glance, has continued to intrigue writers, entirely different interpretations of its character have been advanced by critics who recognized that the painting represented Rembrandt.[3] Bode found little evidence of a philosophical mind in the image. He wrote that the “somewhat leering expression, half weary, half watchful, . . . is by no means favourable to his appearance.”[4] Valentiner, on the other hand, saw in the face “a forehead already deeply lined, melancholy, almost despondent of aspect, indicating how early he had experienced the tragic side of life.”[5] While Rosenberg described the same expression as “critical and deeply questioning,”[6] Pinder, reflecting more closely the sentiments of Valentiner, felt that the portrait expressed the cares and worries that were beginning to beset Rembrandt.[7] Contrary to these interpretations of the image as representing a despondent and questioning individual was that of Goldscheider, who described the Rembrandt portrayed here as “a handsome, distinguished adventurer without the slightest resemblance to a humble Mennonite.”[8]

While the reading of the emotional impact of the image may have varied markedly among these and other authors, they had in common a conviction that this painting was an exceptional work by the master.[9] Thus the shock that greeted Horst Gerson’s 1969 pronouncement that the painting was an “18th- or 19th-century imitation, combining light effects typical of Rembrandt’s early work with a composition and mood characteristic of the later period” was felt throughout the world of Rembrandt scholarship.[10] With that statement Gerson altered once again the way the painting has been viewed. For just as nineteenth-century critics had to reassess their interpretations of the figure’s mood when the identification of the sitter changed, it is necessary to raise the more fundamental question as to whether the expressive character of the painting is, after all, consistent with Rembrandt, and even with seventeenth-century sensibilities.

Technical analyses have shown that Gerson’s assertion that the painting is a later imitation is wrong. The character of the paint mixtures, the types of pigments used, and the presence of a double Ground—a red lower ground covered by a dark gray upper layer—are all totally consistent with Rembrandt’s workshop practices (see Technical Summary).[11] There also appears to be nothing unusual in the type of canvas used or in the buildup of the image. The initial blocking-in of the form, which can be seen in the waist and unfinished right hand, is also consistent with Rembrandt’s manner of painting. Finally, X-radiographs [see X-radiography] reveal that modifications to the shape of the hat were made during the execution of the painting [fig. 1], a phenomenon that is commonly found in Rembrandt’s own paintings (see his Self-Portrait). Originally, the plaid-patterned skullcap under the beret extended out behind the head more than it presently does.[12]

The conservation treatment of the painting in 1993, however, revealed that Gerson was correct in his intuition that the execution was somehow at variance with that found in Rembrandt’s own works around 1650.[13] Although the general disposition of the figure, standing at an angle to the picture plane and looking quizzically at the viewer over his near shoulder, is consistent with Rembrandt self-portraits [fig. 2], the brushwork used to model the figure lacks both Rembrandt’s sensitivity and vigor. The most obvious instance where the modeling is at variance with Rembrandt’s style is the hand resting on the staff. Its superficially rendered form has nothing to do with his manner of modeling hands.

The modeling of the face, likewise, lacks firmness and conviction. While the play of light across the features is sensitively rendered, the restrained brushstrokes only vaguely suggest the underlying form, whether it be the shape of the eyelids or the contour of the nose. The weakness of character conveyed through Rembrandt’s questioning expression is also the result of the irresolute contours defining his features.

Another unusual aspect of this painting is that the costume is executed in a manner quite different from the face. Whereas the features are modeled with delicate nuance, the costume is indicated with a variety of bold techniques.[14] Broad, flat planes of purple and yellow enliven the surface of the split sleeve; thick impastos, mixed with a variety of bright colors and then toned with a dark brown glaze, create the appearance of an embroidered frontispiece across the chest; and, finally, the plaid pattern of the skullcap is painted with vigorous, and quite specific, strokes of red and yellow. The attribution problems raised here are threefold. First, Rembrandt generally did not use such markedly different techniques in the face and costume of a portrait. Second, by the 1650s, he had developed a manner of painting that would allow him to suggest a wide range of textures in materials without significantly altering the techniques that he used to depict them. Finally, his paint always worked toward creating structure. In this costume, most of the accents of color, as for example on the sleeve or in the skullcap, do not work effectively to convey the nature of the material. This problem is also particularly evident in the superficial black strokes that define the collar of the costume.

Although these stylistic considerations are sufficient to remove the painting from Rembrandt’s own oeuvre, the identity of the artist who actually executed this portrait cannot be determined. The signature and date, while apparently not written by Rembrandt, appear to be integral to the surface and probably indicate that the painting was executed by a member of the workshop in about 1650 to be sold on the open market. It may well be that Rembrandt, after having posed for this painting, approved its concept and manner of execution before allowing its sale. To judge from the number of self-portraits Rembrandt painted and etched, and from the numerous portraits of him painted by members of his workshop, there must have been a ready market for images of the artist.

None of the painters known to have been in Rembrandt’s workshop around 1650, including Willem Drost (Dutch, active c. 1650 - active 1655), Jacobus Leveck (1634–1675), Nicolaes Maes (Dutch, 1634 - 1693), and Constantijn van Renesse (Dutch, 1626 - 1680), can be convincingly associated with this work. The differences in the handling of the paint in the head and the costume are so pronounced in this work that I have wondered whether two artists might have executed the painting. No technical evidence, however, suggests that the painting was a collaborative effort. The stylistic discrepancies are probably the result of a workshop assistant basing his style for modeling the head on Rembrandt’s work of the mid-1630s and his manner of painting drapery on Rembrandt’s style of the early 1650s. Close stylistic comparison can be made to Man with a Gilded Helmet [fig. 3], an unsigned and undated work from the Rembrandt workshop that is datable to the early 1650s.[15] In this work, too, the face and costume are rendered in strikingly different manners. In the Berlin painting a marked contrast exists between the relatively delicate modeling of the face and the thick impastos in the helmet, a contrast in techniques quite similar to that found in the Portrait of Rembrandt. While various attributions have been suggested for Man with a Gilded Helmet, including the artists Karel van der Pluym (1625–1672) and Heyman Dullaert (1636–1684), none is convincing.[16] As noted by the Rembrandt Research Project, an even closer correlation exists between Portrait of Rembrandt and two pendant portraits from 1650 by an unknown artist from Rembrandt’s workshop: Man in a Military Costume, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge [fig. 4],[17] and Woman in a Fanciful Costume, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.[18] They reached their conclusions on the basis of technical analyses of the paint layers, and a comparable contrast between carefully modeled faces and freely rendered historicizing costumes as seen in Portrait of Rembrandt.[19]  Whether or not the same unknown artist painted all of these historicizing portraits is a puzzle yet to be solved.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


center right: Rembrandt f. / 1650



Chevalier Sébastien Érard [1752-1831], Château de la Muette, near the Bois de Boulogne, Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence by Lacoste and Coutelier, 7-14 August 1832 [originally scheduled for 23 April and days following], no. 119, as Portrait de Martin-Kappertz-Tromp). William Williams Hope [1802-1855], Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, by 1836;[1] (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 14-16 June 1849, 2nd day, no. 116, as a Portrait of Admiral Van Tromp); Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild, 1st bt. [1810-1876], London, and Aston Clinton House, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire; by inheritance to his wife, Lady Anthony de Rothschild [née Louise Montefiore, 1821-1910], London and Aston Clinton House; (Thos. Agnew & Sons, London); sold 13 May 1908 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania;[2] inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Exhibition of Works by Rembrandt. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1899, no. 18.
The Hudson-Fulton Celebration, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1909, no. 94.
Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 10, repro.
Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 7(1836):86-87, no. 211.
Érard Collection. Catalogue des tableaux italiens, flamands, hollandais et français: des anciennes écoles, qui composent la magnifique galerie de M. le Chevalier Érard. Paris, 1831: 136-137, no. 119.
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: 2:281.
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre et son temps. Paris, 1893: 558.
Michel, Émile. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time. 2 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. New York, 1894: 2:237.
Bode, Wilhelm von, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. 8 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. Paris, 1897-1906: 5:15, 102, no. 346, repro.
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn and His Work. London, 1899: 81, 150-151.
Royal Academy of Arts. Exhibition of works by Rembrandt. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1899: 13, no. 18.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart, 1904: 174, repro.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1906: repro. 260, 401.
Bell, Malcolm. Rembrandt van Rijn. The great masters in painting and sculpture. London, 1907: 78, 129.
Brown, Gerard Baldwin. Rembrandt: A Study of His Life and Work. London, 1907: 256-257.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 6(1916):281-282, no. 574.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 6(1915):248, no. 574.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. New York, 1907: 260, repro.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1908: repro. 319, 559.
Cox, Kenyon. "Art in America, Dutch Paintings in the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition I." The Burlington Magazine 16, no. 81 (December 1909): 183, as Self-Portrait by Rembrandt.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: Des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1909: repro. 319, 559.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Catalogue of a collection of paintings by Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. The Hudson-Fulton Celebration 1. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1909: xix, 95, no. 94, repro., 156, 161.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Paintings by Old Dutch Masters Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Connection with the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. New York, 1910: 9, repro. 318, 319, no. 94.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Die Ausstellung holländischer Gemälde in New York." Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft 3 (1910): 9.
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis, and Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Pictures in the collection of P. A. B. Widener at Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania: Early German, Dutch & Flemish Schools. Philadelphia, 1913: unpaginated, intro., no. 33, repro.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. 2nd ed. New York, 1913: repro. 319.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Art of the Low Countries. Translated by Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. Garden City, NY, 1914: 247, no. 58.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 319, repro.
Meldrum, David S. Rembrandt’s Painting, with an Essay on His Life and Work. New York, 1923: 110,196, pl. 262.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro., as Portrait of Himself by Rembrandt.
Glück, Gustav. "Rembrandts Selbstbildnis aus dem Jahre 1652." Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 2 (1928): 317-328.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Important Rembrandts in American Collections." Art News 28, no. 30 (26 April 1930): 3-4, repro.
Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 88, repro., as Portrait of Himself by Rembrandt.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: intro., no. 105, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Gemälde, 630 Abbildungen. Vienna, 1935: no. 39, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen. Utrecht, 1935: no. 39, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1936: no. 39, repro.
Goldscheider, Ludwig, ed. Five hundred self-portraits from antique times to the present day, in sculpture, painting, drawing and engraving. Translated by J. Byam Shaw. Vienna, 1937: 43, no. 199, repro.
Waldmann, Emil. "Die Sammlung Widener." Pantheon 22 (November 1938): 341-342.
Adlow, Dorothy. "Self Portrait: A Painting by Rembrandt van Rijn." Christian Science Monitor (4 February 1939): 8, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. 2 vols. Translated by John Byam Shaw. Oxford, 1942: 1:4, no. 39, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Works of art from the Widener collection. Washington, 1942: 6, no. 666.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Washington, 1948: 40, no. 666, repro.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1948: 1:27-28; 2:fig. 37.
Pinder, Wilhelm. Rembrandts Selbstbildnisse. Die blauen Bücher. Königstein im Taunus, 1950: 78, repro., 81-82.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Widener Collection. Reprint. Washington, DC, 1959: 40, repro.
Goldscheider, Ludwig. Rembrandt Paintings, Drawings and Etchings. London, 1960: 174, no. 65, repro.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art. Translated. New York, 1962: 94, color repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 312, repro.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life and Work. Revised ed. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1964: 42-44, fig. 37.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 111.
Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt Gemälde. Berlin, 1966: 17, no. 321, repro.
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1: 222, color repro., as Self-Portrait by Rembrandt.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 97, no. 666, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Revised by Horst Gerson. 3rd ed. London, 1969: repro. 35, 550, no. 39.
National Gallery of Art. Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art: Commemorating the tercentenary of the artist's death. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1969: 7, 20, no. 10, cover repro.
Haverkamp-Begemann, Egbert. "The Present State of Rembrandt Studies." The Art Bulletin 53, no. 1 (March 1971): 93-94.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 290-291, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 272, no. 360, color repro.
Bolten, J., and H. Bolten-Rempt. The Hidden Rembrandt. Translated by Danielle Adkinson. Milan and Chicago, 1977: 193, no. 378, repro.
Wright, Christopher. Rembrandt: Self-Portraits. New York, 1982: 29-30, 43, 131-132, no. 38, fig. 73.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 273, no. 354, color repro. as Self-Portrait by Rembrandt van Ryn.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 333, repro.
Pelfrey, Robert H., and Mary Hall-Pelfrey. Art and Mass Media. New York, 1985: no. 4.10, 96-97, repro., as Self-Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn.
Alpers, Svetlana. Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market. Chicago, 1988: 121, repro.
Crawshaw, Richard. "Vaughn and Rembrandt." In From Renaissance to Baroque. Edited by Louis L. Martz. Columbia, Missouri, 1991: 242-245, fig. 38.
White, Murray. "Curator Questions Gallery's Rembrandts." Legal Times (1 March 1993): 50-51, repro.
Richard, Paul. "Rembrandt Reconsidered: Did He Paint Them? Does It Matter?" The Washington Post (30 January 1994): G1, G6, repro.
Fleming, William. Arts & Ideas. 9th ed. Fort Worth, 1995: 447 fig. 15.8.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 296-300, color repro. 297.
Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. Facsimile edition of London 1854. London, 2003: 2:281.
Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. Vol. 4: The Self-Portraits. Edited by Ernst van de Wetering. Dordrecht, 2005: 94, 110, 111, 116, 249, 254 fig. 255, 260 fig. 262, 261, 394-401.
Gopnik, Blake. "Rembrandt’s Genius Lies in the Brand, Not in the Hand." The Washington Post, (30 April 2006): N1, N4, repro.
Technical Summary

The original support, a plain-woven fabric composed of tightly spun, irregular, fine threads, has been lined with the left and right tacking margins trimmed. The bottom and top tacking margins, which contain original selvages, have been opened flat and incorporated into the picture plane, slightly enlarging the dimensions. Cusping is pronounced along the top and bottom edges, slight along the right edge, and absent at the left. Original ground layers extend onto both tacking margins. Most likely, a large piece of canvas with full selvage-to-selvage width was primed on a stretching frame then cut to size.

The double ground layer consists of a thick, red lower layer covered with a thin, dark gray upper layer.[1] The ground layer is not incorporated as a mid-tone in the painting. The paint was applied thinly in broad, fluidly blended brushstrokes, with impasto in the beret and skullcap and the white and dark trim of the costume.[2] Layering is complex, resulting in some wide-aperture crackle, especially in the dark trim where dark paint was applied over thick, lighter-colored underlayers. The proper left hand is not as highly finished as the face. The background consists of a light paint layer overlaid with thin glazes.

Several artist’s changes are found in the X-radiographs. The skullcap once continued farther beyond the rear of the head, and the hair farther outward on the left. The beret appears to have been repositioned several times, or perhaps reshaped. The X-radiographs also show an area of confusing brushwork to the front of the beret, and sharp-edged marks that may be scrapings of a former lining adhesive.

A small loss is found in the upper right background, and slight abrasion in thin, dark passages such as the lower jacket. The painting was treated in 1992 to remove discolored varnish and inpainting, including a later black overglaze.


[1] The paint and ground layers were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and cross-sections (see reports dated July 6, 1981, August 18, 1981, October 20, 1981, and May 14, 1991, in NGA Conservation department files). The ground was further analyzed by Karin Goren using cross-sections and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (see Karin Groen, "Grounds in Rembrandt’s Workshop and in Paintings by His Contemporaries," in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 4, Self-Portraits, ed. Ernst van de Wetering [Dordrecht, 2005], 664-665). Groen found quartz in the lower ground layer.

[2] Technical examination and pigment analysis by Ashok Roy and David Bomford, National Gallery, London, May 1988, confirmed the use of smalt as an extender in impasted areas of red and yellow paint.

Related IconClass Terms
expressive conotations
historical costume
artist +Nicolaes Maes