The young man in this portrait leans on a stone ornament, confident and at his ease. Dressed fashionably in black, with large amounts of expensive lace on show, he has a falling collar – a relatively new trend in Holland – and a multitude of tiny buttons down the front of his coat. The black satin gleams, and the coat sleeve is slashed to display the fine silk and lace cuff of his shirt.
Bartholomeus van der Helst was considered one of the leading portrait painters in Amsterdam, becoming very successful and, after a while, overtaking Rembrandt in popularity. As Rembrandt’s style became looser – and rougher and more unfinished in the eyes of the time – van der Helst developed a much smoother, perhaps more classical, way of painting, with brushstrokes less visible.
The young man in this portrait leans on a stone ornament, confident and at his ease. Dressed fashionably in black, with large amounts of expensive lace on show, he has a falling collar – a relatively new trend in Holland – and a multitude of tiny buttons down the front of his coat. His hair is also on trend with the time, with long waves and an artfully casual stray lock over one eyebrow. The black satin gleams, and the coat sleeve is slashed to display the fine silk and lace cuff of his shirt. The portrayal of the extravagant folds and creases of the sleeve is particularly eye-catching; taken in isolation, they almost make a small abstract painting on their own.
The man rests the back of a gloved hand on his hip. The second glove is held lightly between two long, elegant fingers, as if it is about to drop to the floor. We don't know who he is. His dress, his full moustache and tiny beard imply he’s a man of fashion with money to spend. His florid complexion, slight paunch and sturdy legs in their satin breeches, and the suggestion of a smile, imply an enjoyment of the good life. But the falling glove may hold the smallest of clues to another side of his character. Gloves were fashionable items, but could sometimes symbolise love and friendship, or sometimes, if one is shown removed from the hand and especially if allowed to drop, could mean the end of a valued friendship or the letting go of authority. In his case, we shall probably never know.
In this portrait, van der Helst has shown his familiarity with the Flemish style made popular by Anthony Van Dyck – the long slender fingers, the nonchalant but sophisticated pose and the fine detail of dress and features. He also placed the young man against a curtain looped back to reveal a stone wall, with the suggestion of a view of a garden outside, a device that had originated with Van Dyck. The plant close behind is quickly sketched in just one colour, with quick half circles of paint seemingly hanging in space, making it, whatever it might be, as anonymous – but not as earth bound – as the young man himself.
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