Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam)
Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo
signed and dated lower left: “Rembrandt 1658”
Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man dated 1658 is one of the last works from his late career left in private hands and also one of the master’s least known paintings. A boldly conceived work painted in his most assured and painterly later manner, it depicts the sitter frontally and three quarter length with arms akimbo. The unidentified sitter meets the viewer’s gaze with a steady and confident expression, bordering on defiance. A young man in his prime, apparently in his thirties, he has broad chest, full form and wide face, featuring a short black beard. He wears a brown doublet with yellow and gold highlights, upturned collar, small buttons and a clasp at the chest, over a white chemise. On his head is a large black beret, sometimes called a notched bonnet. The fingers of his right hand are splayed across his hip and his thumb is tucked into the sash that encircles his waist. A strong light falls from the upper left illuminating his face and catching highlights on his right shoulder and the sleeve of his left arm, expertly turning the figure in space and impressing on the viewer the sitter’s substance and authority. The broad strokes of paint that model the figure are applied with great confidence, mostly in layers, often slashed and dragged over painted substrata , or hatched with a lively staccato stroke, brilliantly conveying the richness of his striated garment and its glinting fabric. The effect is of a rich abundance of textures, despite a limited palette of only a few colors.
The painting was executed in one of the most innovative but also the most difficult moments of Rembrandt’s career. The artist had enjoyed remarkable professional success in the first decade following his arrival in Amsterdam in 1631/32, but over the course of the 1640s he received (or perhaps only accepted) fewer requests for lucrative portraits. By the mid 1650s his expansive lifestyle and the mismanagement of his finances had created a precarious life. In 1656 he was forced to declare bankruptcy. His art collections and possessions were gradually auctioned off between 1656 and 1658 and in the latter year he was forced to sell his elegant house on the Sint Anthoniebreestraat and move across town to a more modest home in the Jordaan. He was required by the insolvency courts to enter into an agreement whereby he worked as an employee for his son, Titus, and common law wife, Hendrijkje, to protect him from his creditors. Works like the ravishing Portrait of Nicolaes Bruynigh of 1652 (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel) and the noble Portrait of Jan Six (Six Foundation, Amsterdam) and the Floris Soop (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of 1654 prove that Rembrandt had tried in the early 1650s to revive his career as a portraitist to Amsterdam’s wealthy investors and businessmen and had provided excellent service. But in the late 1650s there are very few works that would attest to regular commissions; indeed the only image aside from the present work that was dated between 1657 and 1659 is the Portrait of Catharina Hooghsaet (Penryn Castle), which shares passages of brilliance with the present work but which is a much more conventionalized portrait . And indeed there are only two other works dated 1658 in Rembrandt’s entire oeuvre: the incomparably magisterial Self Portrait (fig. 1, Frick Collection, New York) and the sadly abraded but dramatically conceived little Philomen and Baucis (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
Not only is the subject of the present work unknown but it is even uncertain that it is a portrait at all and not simply an image of a picturesque individual in an historicized costume with vaguely exotic associations. Certainly the person depicted has individualized features but he is not readily a figure from Rembrandt’s world; the head of the Rembrandt Research Committee, Ernst van de Wetering, has speculated that he might have been a visitor to Amsterdam, possibly from the Mediterranean. The costume specialist, Marieke de Winkel, has noted that the figure’s outfit has little to do with contemporary, e.g. seventeenth century costume, but notes that fanciful, antique elements, such as the notched bonnet/beret appear in self portraits by Rembrandt that are derived from earlier sixteenth century haberdashery.
The earliest published reference to the painting was in Liverpool in 1798 in the sale of the collection of David Daulby (d.1797), who was one of the most celebrated British collectors of Rembrandt’s works in his day and the author of one of the first catalogues of Rembrandt’s etchings (1796). In his sale and the painting’s subsequent appearance in William Clarke’s sale in 1806, also in Liverpool, it was simply described as a portrait. But when it was sold in William Earle’s sale in Liverpool in 1839, it was described as “The Portrait of a Dutch Admiral. He wears a rich Dress and Beret Cap; his right hand rests upon his side. Painted with a bold free pencil and powerful effect.” Subsequently it was acquired by George Folliott, of Vicars Cross, who lent it to an exhibition at the British Institution in 1847, where it was again titled “A Dutch Admiral.” Notwithstanding the figure’s authoritative and assertive bearing, he does not approach the pomp, let alone the multitude of military attributes in seventeenth century portraits of actual Dutch Admirals, such as Cornelis Tromp and Michael de Ruyter (see for example Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of the latter, dated 1667, Mauritshuis, The Hague, which is replete with a globe, charts, and ships in the distance).
Early descriptions of the present work therefore suggest that by the mid 19th century a proud figure in a jerkin and large beret with arms akimbo had gained nautical associations. While images of sailors are surprisingly scarce in seventeenth century Dutch art, appearing mostly in genre scenes but not portraits, there is some evidence that that these nautical associations may have already arisen in Rembrandt’s time; Moses ter Borch’s drawing of a sailor depicts a proud figure full length with arms akimbo wearing a three quarter length jerkin cinched at the waist (fig. 2, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam). In the burgeoning port of Amsterdam, Rembrandt surely had extensive dealings with seamen, captains and shipowners. We know for example that the earliest exchange of his Abraham and the Angels of 1646 was evidently involved in a deal for ships’ supplies. And recently discovered documents (see Lauro Magnani, in Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis, 2007, pp. 13 – 15) relating to negotiations over a commission in 1666 for two modelli by the Sauli family of Genoa for a church in Carignano was conducted by the ship captain, Gio Lorenzo Viviano, who together with the Sauli’s local agents, complained repeatedly about the artist’s late delivery and eccentric, unpredictable (stravagante) ways.
The history of gesture provides some support for the notion that a figure with arms akimbo in Rembrandt’s time evoked military authority and a figure’s assertion of his self possession, success and defiance (see Joanneath Spicer, “The Renaissance Elbow,” in J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg, ed., A Cultural History of Gesture: from Antiquity to Present Day [Cambridge, 1991, pp. 84 – 128, especially pp. 86 and 95). Rembrandt’s own Standard Bearer as a Landsknecht of 1636 (Rothschild Collection, Paris) follows the tradition (employed by Evert van der Maes, Frans Hals, Bartholomeus van der Helst, and many other Dutch portraitists) of depicting standard bearers as proud figures , who rather than face us, turn to the side and poke their elbow at the viewer . The arms akimbo could signal that a figure is bold, alert and on guard, but it could also be associated with pride; in his book on gentlemanly comportment, Il Galateo (1558), Giovanni della Casa, condemned those who would “set their hands to their sides and go up and down like a Pecock.” Bonafacio (L’arte de’cenni, 1616) cited Plautus, who derided those who go around with their hands on their hips as “handle men.” And in 1644, John Bulwer’s text on rhetoric, Chironomia admonished that “to set the arms agambo or aprank, and to rest the turned-in back of the hand upon the side is an action of pride and ostentation, unbeseeming the hand of an orator.”
A bust length copy of present work discussed by Ernst van de Wetering at the time of the painting’s sale in 2009 (fig. 3, present location unknown) also depicted the sitter with an earring in his left ear, evidently added after the work was conceived, since no evidence appears anywhere of this detail in x-rays of the painting or during its recent cleaning. There also are traces of an object inserted into the sash around the figure’s waist; on the viewer’s right there are a series of vertical strokes which do not correspond to the horizontal wrap of the figure’s sash (see detail, fig. 4). One theory is that these are the remnants of the hilt of a dagger, which would augment the figure’s dramatic and potentially fierce persona. Daggers and rapiers appear in Rembrandt’s etchings of fanciful exotics (see for example, Self Portrait as an Oriental with a Kris [an Indonesian sword], of 1634, Bartsch/ Holllstein no. 18) as well as in his copies of Persian miniatures (see, as examples, Benesch nos. 1190 and 1203). Daggers (degen) also regularly figure in the inventories of the clothing and possessions ofseventeenth century artists (see M. de Winkel ”Rembrandt’s Clothes – Dress and Meaning in his Self Portraits” in Corpus, vol. IV , Chapter 2, Addendum, pp. 82 ,84, 85 and 86), presumably as studio props for history paintings but also as potential means of personal defense. The combination of the fierce expression, dagger and earring has prompted speculation that the figure in the present work might be a pirate. While there were famously ruthless pirates in this era (see David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag, New York, 1996; and Alex Ritsema, Pirates and Privateers from the Low Countries, c. 1500 – c.1810, Deventer, 2008), such as Francis Lolonois (fig. 5), an authority on Dutch pirates and privateers, R. van Gelder, points out (private communication) that pirates were hunted outlaws; if one had turned up in Dutch Republic he would have been immediately hanged, hence unlikely to have time to sit for Rembrandt’s portrait.
The memorable pose, with arms akimbo, was one that Rembrandt himself had earlier adopted for a Self Portrait dated 1652 in the KunsthistorischesMuseum, Vienna (fig. 6). In this work he wears a simple brown robe over a black doublet and sports a black gathered beret, With the exception of the last garment, these probably were the work clothes that he wore in the studio. Indeed a drawing in the Rembrandthuis (fig. 7) that was long assigned to Rembrandt depicts him in the same pose but full length wearing a similar robe. An early, though not autograph, inscription on a piece of paper adhered to the drawing is inscribed in Dutch: “Drawn by Rembrandt van Rijn after his own image/ as he was attired in his own studio.” Thus the robe was probably actual seventeenth century attire; however the beret or bonnet (as they then were called in both contemporary Dutch and English) in the Vienna portrait was a sixteenth century article that had been thoroughly outmoded by this date. Rembrandt drew studies of heads with different berets and headgear to be consulted in composing his history subjects (see, for example, Study of Four Heads, fig. 8, Maida and George Abrams Collection; compare especially the figure at the left with the head of the man in the present painting). As de Winkel has demonstrated (op. cit pp. 62 – 63), the gathered bonnet that Rembrandt favored was probably taken from sixteenth century printed portraits of famous earlier artists. Indeed by the time that the Vienna portrait was painted the beret had become Rembrandt’s trademark, as it remains an artist’s emblem to this day, and was even imitated by his pupils, such as Gerard Dou.
One should ask, therefore, whether the proud sitter in the present, vaguely historicized costume might also be an artist. In Rembrandt’s only other dated portrait of this year, the great Self Portrait in the Frick Collection (fig. 1), he depicts himself with a gold brocaded scarf, and bright yellow jerkin with red sash that has sometimes been mistakenly described as Venetian in origins and princely in its associations. However it seems again to be an amalgam of sixteenth century Northern and Eastern components probably alluding to great artists of the past (de Winkel op cit. p. 75). An undated painting, which probably also dates from c. 1658, is the lovely Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Titus (fig. 9) in the Wallace Collection which shows the young man at about age seventeen. The composition has a similar directness and the broad but subtly nuanced paint handling, especially in the beret and cloak, may be compared to that of the present work.
Although out of the public’s eye for much of its existence, the present work has long been admired. When it first appeared in the sale in 1798 of the collection of the distinguished Rembrandt scholar, Daniel Daulby, it was characterized as “universally acknowledged by some of the finest judges in the kingdom to be a genuine and very capital picture of the […] master, and is in high preservation.” In the Clarke sale in 1806 it was regarded as in the “finest manner of Rembrandt” and, as we have seen, it was commended for its “bold free pencil and powerful effect” in William Earle’s sale in 1839. When it resurfaced almost a century later In the Folliott sale in 1930 it was described as “an entirely unrecorded portrait of Rembrandt, painted according to the date inscribed on it during the period of his career so valued by collectors.” Soon following the sales, the distinguished art historian, Tancred Borenius, published the work in The Burlington Magazine, praising it as “undoubtedly one of the most notable additions made for a long time to the list of Rembrandt’s extant works.” Remarking that it had only just been cleaned, he observed that it was in “an absolutely perfect condition”. He as even inspired to compare the “magnificently boldly planted” figure to the emergence of the hero in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer . Writing several months later in the same periodical, the Rembrandt scholar and museum director, W.R. Valentiner, also commended it as “the largest and most impressive among the rediscovered paintings,” comparing it to the Frick Self Portrait (fig. 1). Valentiner later suggested in an exhibition in Raleigh in1956 that the sitter could be the lawyer, Louis Craeyers, who assisted in Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, but there is no basis whatsoever for this identification. Following its sudden appearance in 1930, the painting subsequently appeared as part of the canonical oeuvre in the standard monographs on Rembrandt by Bredius (1935), Bauch (1966) and Gerson (1968), but remained largely unavailable to scholars between 1970 and 2009. It was only then viewed by Ernst van de Wetering, Chairman of the Rembrandt Research Project, and subjected to scientific analysis shortly before its sale at auction in London in 2009. Van de Wetering wrote (private correspondence, recorded in sale catalogue 12/8/09) in May 2009, “One of the most striking qualities of the painting throughout is the remarkably intelligent and sensitive dealing with delicate light effects and the dosage of light. … Judged after my long experience with Rembrandt, this painting is in that respect one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces.”
In Borenius’s appreciative and thoughtful analysis of the painting in 1930, he emphasized its indebtedness to Italian painting, specifically comparing it to Raphael’s Portrait of Baldisssare Castiglione (Louvre, Paris), which passed through Amsterdam in a sale in 1639 and was personally recorded by Rembrandt in a drawn copy (Albertina, Vienna). The monumental presence, indeed sheer bulk, and notched beret of Raphael’s portrait may well be recollected in the present work, as are other Italian precedents invoked by Borenius, notably Titian, whose late works are often seen as precedents for painterly and diaphanous products of Rembrandt’s own late career (see Kenneth Clark, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance, New York, 1966; Amy Golahny, “Rembrandt’s Paintings and the Venetian Tradition”, Ph.D, Columbia University, 1984; exh. cat. New York, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence, 2000). The inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions included “a very large album with almost all the works of Titian”, meaning prints after his designs, engravings after his paintings, and etchings after his drawings. He also undoubtedly had seen actual paintings by Titian; Alphonso Lopez, who bought the Castiglione in the Van Uffelen sale in Amsterdam also owned Titian’s Flora, (Uffizi, Florence), and Portrait of a Man (so-called Ariosto), (National Gallery London). The frontal grandeur and hand-on-hip pose of the present sitter was often employed by Titian, who also depicted figures in exotic costume (see, for example, The Portrait of Fabrizio Salvaresio, 1658, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). However it was not Titian’s compendium of poses that attracted Rembrandt in his later years but the great Venetian master’s use of light and color, notably its tenebrous and richly veiled atmospherics, which had little to do with the distinct contours, clear forms and slick surface refinement of the international Classicist manner then increasingly finding favor in the Dutch Republic. Indeed Rembrandt’s late, broad and painterly, rouw (“rough”) manner , as opposed to his early net (“smooth”) style, (distinctions codified as early as 1604 by Karel van Mander) has been assumed to have been a factor contributing to his personal financial troubles in later life. However, contrary to popular romantic notions of Rembrandt’s final neglect, even in his last decade he remained a figure of international renown, sought after and visited by the rich, famous and noble.
The provenance of the painting is notable. As Burton Fredericksen first observed (Salesroom Notice in the auction, London, December 8, 2009), the earliest known owner of the picture was Daniel Daulby, the greatest collector of Rembrandt’s etchings in England in his day and author of the first catalogue in English of the etchings (A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Rembrandt … compiled from original etchings, Liverpool, 1796). When his collection was sold (Sale T. Vernon, Liverpool, August 19, 1799 = 7th day of the sale), it was described as “the most complete School of Rembrandt now existing in the kingdom.” He was a close friend of his brother-in-law, William Roscoe, who shared his passion for prints and drawings. Roscoe formed the Weld-Blundell Collection now preserved in Liverpool (see X. Brooke, Mantegna to Rubens. The Weld-Blundell Drawings Collection, 1998). The present painting was acquired at Daulby’s sale by William Clarke, who was a friend of Roscoe and perhaps of Daulby, and assembled a collection of Old Masters and Modern British paintings, including works by Rubens and Wright of Derby, that fetched high prices when it was sold in 1806. The shipper, William Earle, who later owned the painting, had spent much of his life in Italy, probably Livorno and Genoa, and owned major works by Ribera, perhaps acquired in Naples or Spain. The son of William Harwood Folliott, of Chester and Stapeley House, Nantwich, and his wife Catharine, the heiress of John Burcoe of Stapley, George Folliott was married to Dorothea Elizabeth, daughter of W.J. Moore, of Dublin, and acquired the estate of Vicars Cross, on the outskirts of Chester. According to Borenius, he added a top-lit gallery to the house to accommodate his collection, in which the Rembrandt was hung as “primus inter pares.” Folliott died at fifty, bequeathing his collection to his daughter, Mrs. E.I.E Folingsby Walker. It was under her and her son’s direction that the Old Master pictures were sold at Sotheby’s in London on May 14, 1930. Of the thirty eight paintings from their collection that were sold, there were many Dutch landscapes, Rembrandt School works and Italian view paintings. Notable paintings included Holbein’s Portrait of Lady Guilford (now in the St Louis Art Museum) and Bernardo Bellotto’s, View of the Tiber with the Castel Saint Angelo (now in the Detroit Institute of Arts).
By 1939, the Rembrandt had been acquired for a reputed $185,000 by George Huntington Hartford II, heir to the Atlantic & Pacific (A & P) supermarket chain and a member of one of the wealthiest families in America. Hartford squandered much of his fortune on quixotic commercial and artistic ventures as well as costly divorces. One of his most ambitious projects, was the creation of his own museum on Columbus Circle in Manhattan (today the Museum of Arts and Design), designed by Edward Durrell Stone, to house his collection, comprised mostly of Impressionist, Pre-Raphaelite and Surrealist art. Hartford disdained much of Modern Art and his museum proved unpopular, closing after only a few years. He considered the present work ‘the greatest Rembrandt portrait I have ever seen” but never exhibited it in his museum. In 1958 he donated it to Columbia University, with the intention that it be sold to support research in the department of Neurology, College of Physicians and Surgeons. The portrait was displayed in the office of the President until it was occupied by dissenting students in 1968, when it was removed to storage for safekeeping. The painting was sold in 1974 to support the endowment fund. It was acquired by the dealer Harold Diamond, who paid an undisclosed amount, but which was reported to have been in excess of $1 million. It was acquired in the same year by J. Steward Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, then by inheritance to his widow, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who became a benefactor of causes in her native Poland but is perhaps most famous for a series of lawsuits brought against her by her late husband’s disinherited children. She consigned the painting to the sale in London in 2009, where it was purchased by the Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn.
- Peter C. Sutton