Described as Portrait of a Jewish Philosopher by early twentieth-century scholars, this painting is alternately titled The Philosopher, and is described in recent literature as Bust of a Man in Fancy Dress. The painting has long been recognized as a significant work of seventeenth-century Dutch art. It was once attributed to the master Rembrandt van Rijn (it bore a false signature and date at the lower center, “Rembrandt f. 1646”), and later to his star pupil Willem Drost, who was active between 1650 and 1655. The complexity of Rembrandt’s workshop makes identification of the artist difficult, as it was common for Rembrandt to sign paintings produced in his workshop. The most current scholarship suggests that the painting is a copy of Rembrandt’s The Philosopher, c. 1653, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The sitter is thought to have posed for several Rembrandt paintings.
Curator Arthur Wheelock writes: From 1639 until 1656 Rembrandt lived in a large house on the Jodenbreestraat on the edge of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam. During those years, and particularly from the late 1640s, he frequently depicted Jewish models in his paintings. As Rosenberg has suggested, Rembrandt probably found in the picturesque faces of the Ashkenazi Jews an intense spirituality that suggested to him the spirit of the people who populated the ancient world. At a time when he was searching for a deeper emotional understanding of biblical and historical figures, he found in these care-worn faces an underlying philosophical awareness of human existence. Although a painting such as this was undoubtedly executed from life, it was not considered a portrait in the conventional sense, but rather a tronie, a bust-length figure study that was an imaginative evocation of the model.