Jan de Reus is about 70 years old in this portrait. He looks out from a dark background, his lined face framed by the long curls of a full-bottomed wig. Each wrinkle is rendered with meticulous care. His mouth is sensitive, though the lips are perhaps not as clearly defined as they once would have been. His deep brown eyes are sunk back in his head but they seem to radiate intelligence, maturity and wisdom. It seems as if Nicolas Maes has painted the picture as a celebration of old age.
De Reus was an eminent Rotterdam citizen. Although showing the influence of the innovative, relaxed style of Anthony van Dyck in the depiction of the old man’s costume, Maes seems more to return to lessons learned from Rembrandt, his teacher, painting what he saw unflinchingly. Rembrandt esteemed his aged sitters, as Maes does in this portrait, and seems to have enjoyed being with them too.
Jan de Reus is about 70 years old in this portrait. He looks out from a dark background, his lined face framed by the long curls of a full-bottomed wig. Each wrinkle is rendered with meticulous care. His mouth is sensitive, though the lips are perhaps not as clearly defined as they once would have been. His deep brown eyes are sunk back in his head but they seem to radiate intelligence, maturity and wisdom. It seems as if Nicolaes Maes has painted the picture as a celebration of old age.
De Reus was an eminent Rotterdam citizen – burgomaster (or mayor) eight times and from 1658, and for some years a director of the Dutch East India Company. This powerful trading organisation was the source of the extraordinary prosperity enjoyed by Holland during the seventeenth century. Its tentacles spread across Africa and the Pacific to the East Indies, importing spices, textiles, ivory and other luxury goods that made Holland and merchants, like de Reus, wealthy.
Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that de Reus chose to be painted in informal dress, rather than in the heavy black coat and high collar that is often seen in pictures of other important Dutch men at the time. But this was a new style in portraiture made fashionable by the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, whose new and innovative techniques Maes had adopted for his portraits and which influenced portrait painting for over 150 years. The old man’s white shirt rolls over casually at the neck and his soft, silk robe is loosely held across his chest with a single clasp. His fashionable moustache turns up friskily at the tip and he sports the tiny ‘Van Dyck’ scut of beard under his chin.
The hands too, seem to owe to Van Dyck, who was known for painting hands with long, elegant fingers, often caught in an action that revealed the character of a sitter (as in Portrait of Giovanni Battista Cattaneo). The hand catching the light in Maes’s picture seems younger than de Reus’s face, less veined and gnarled than a 70 year-old’s hand might be expected to be. The flesh of the wrist looks firm under the plain, turned-back cuff. He tucks his thumb into his robe and a fringe of the garment tickles his finger in a playful way.
Van Dyck flattered his sitters but, apart perhaps from the hands, in this portrait it would appear that Maes has returned to lessons learned from Rembrandt, his teacher. Rembrandt painted what he saw unflinchingly, as he did in his Portrait of Jacob Trip. He esteemed his aged sitters, as Maes does in this portrait. De Reus doesn’t need flattery because Maes shows him as he was: a man of great integrity, with a long and valuable experience of life. Like Rembrandt, Maes was interested in proving that there is dignity and beauty in old age.
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