Although trained as a history painter in his native Leiden, Rembrandt achieved widespread fame as a portraitist not long after arriving in Amsterdam in the early 1630s. From that time on, portraits – both of individuals and of groups – became his financial mainstay. If one includes his tronies (character studies of heads in exotic or fanciful costumes), portraiture accounts for almost two-thirds of the great Dutch master’s entire oeuvre.
This frontal three-quarter-length portrait of a man employs a classic pyramidal format, but one animated by a slight baroque twist that provides a note of self-conscious alertness. The sitter, whose identity is unknown, is dressed in contemporary attire (he wears the standard black garments of the well-to-do burgher), his long hair styled in the fashion of the later seventeenth century, and very like that of the painter Gérard de Lairesse in Rembrandt’s 1665 portrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Rembrandt’s white-haired man rests his left hand on his hat, which is now very difficult to distinguish. His right hand is cropped, a detail that at one stage gave rise to speculation that the canvas had been cut. Technical evidence, however, indicates that this is not the case and that the composition is exactly as Rembrandt intended it to be.
The man is seated in an armchair, set against a neutral background; behind him, at the upper right, is a swathe of red drapery, which is painted with bold, broad brushwork. Level with the loosely painted drapery is the face, which, by contrast, is modelled in great detail, its accumulated layers of visible brushstrokes building up into a surface that is palpable both as flesh and as paint. The sitter’s curling hair is in some areas depicted by mere suggestion, and, in other areas, by carefully applied detail: one section of waves at the right has been defined with the blunt end of a brush pushed through wet paint, whereas elsewhere individual strands have been carefully isolated. The collar, like the drapery, the brown undergarment and the white cuffs, is daring in its broad handling. The sitter’s lips are slightly parted. His eyes, as John Gregory pointed out in 1988 in Rembrandt in the Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, seem to slip in and out of focus. In this, the gaze is like the brushwork itself, which alternates between crisp, illusionistic representation and the broader handling characteristic of an assertive, painterly presence.
This painting is an outstanding example of Rembrandt’s late style and, executed in 1667, just two years before his death, is one of the last two signed and dated portraits he made.
Text by Irena Zdanowicz from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 85.