This image of a man lit dramatically from one side as he grasps his walking stick and stares rather aloofly at the viewer is probably not a portrait. Rather it is a study of a character type, dressed in an exotic costume intended to evoke an earlier era.
Portraying figures in imaginary historical costume was common at the time. Rembrandt painted several and the subject, the lighting and the use of colour in this painting is reminiscent of his work. But while his signature can be seen on the bottom left of the painting, most art historians now believe it to be false and that this is a work by one of his students or imitators. The numerous adjustments to the sitter’s position and the shape of his hat revealed in X-ray images suggest a less confident approach to the painting than might be expected from Rembrandt himself.
A man, lit dramatically from one side, sits in a darkened room, grasping his walking stick with both hands and staring rather aloofly at the viewer. The light that sweeps across the painting from the left highlights one side of his face and shimmers on his silk cloak and the plume of his hat.
He makes an imposing figure, but this is probably not a portrait. Rather it is a study of a character type, dressed not in the fashion of his time but in an exotic costume intended to evoke an earlier era. The style, notably the plumed beret, derives loosely from sixteenth-century dress, although the design of the sleeve, with its numerous small slashes, seems to have been invented by the painter. The luxurious gold-coloured cloak or wrap has overtones of Turkish or Eastern Mediterranean styles.
Portraying figures in imaginary historical costume was common at the time. Rembrandt painted several, including a self portrait in Italian dress of 150 years earlier. The subject, the lighting and the use of colour in this painting is highly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s work, and his signature and the remains of a date can be seen on the bottom left of the painting. For many years it was believed to be by him, but most art historians now believe it to be a work by one of his students or imitators.
This assessment is based mostly on some rather clumsy brushwork which does not reflect Rembrandt’s usual technique. For example, when painting flesh, the direction and shape of Rembrandt’s brushstrokes tend to confirm the structures and curves of a sitter’s face and features. Here, they are less carefully formed, especially the dabbing of the highlights on the nose and on the back of the right hand. While the textures and folds of the gathered cloak at the left side of the painting are expressed with thick layers of colourful paint, a technique typical of Rembrandt, it is not done as convincingly as in other paintings that we know are by him. In summary, this picture is clearly influenced by Rembrandt’s own work, but it is less skilfully executed.
Rembrandt ran a large studio which employed several apprentices who were encouraged to copy his work directly and to create their own compositions inspired by his original paintings. This may well be an example of such a work. X-ray images reveal that the figure has been painted over a rather roughly sketched image of the Crucifixion, suggesting that this was a piece of canvas on which a previous composition had been tried but then abandoned, before being re-used for this painting.
Both the sketch and the painting were made using the same or similar pigments, probably meaning that both images were made in the same studio, possibly by the same painter. This would be consistent with the idea that it was made by one of Rembrandt’s pupils. And numerous adjustments to the sitter’s position and the shape of his hat revealed by the X-ray images also suggest a less confident approach to the painting than we might expect from Rembrandt himself (although he did often make some adjustments to his works too).
Rembrandt probably did sign some paintings made by, or with the help of, his apprentices, when they were deemed of sufficient quality. But in this case the signature is probably false and may have been added some years after it was made in order to increase the picture’s value.
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