In this painting, Rembrandt turned his attention to the subject of old age, a recurring theme in his work that was also the focus of a large number of self portraits. The identity of the figure in the painting is, however, unknown. The rich costume that he is wearing gives no indication of the old man's occupation or social status. Rather, it appears to be an accessory belonging to the painter's studio that he used as a powerfully effective decorative element.
Rendered in a highly intimiste style, the work calls to mind other pieces by the artist in that it marries the simplicity of Dutch taste with the Italian predilection for warm colours. Realistic, expressive, psychologically dense and emotionally suggestive, the portrait reveals a new form of pictorial narration through which the spectator is given a sense of the spiritual space inhabited by the figure. This aspect is further highlighted by the painter’s prodigious use of chiaroscuro.
Like Pallas Athena, another painting by Rembrandt which Calouste Gulbenkian bought from the Hermitage Museum in 1930, this work formed part of the collection of Catherine II of Russia.