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Essay – Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn – Bust of an old man with turban

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Essay - Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - Bust of an old man with turban

In inventories of seventeenth-century collections one very often comes across descriptions such as ‘Portrait in oil of a sultan’, ‘A Turkish general’ or ‘A Turkish head by Rembrandt’.1 The popularity early in the seventeenth century of exotic figures and character studies in fanciful dress was largely the result of the visits by eastern emissaries to the Republic and contact with foreign cultures by Dutch merchants abroad. Rembrandt’s oeuvre, too, bears witness to a certain fascination with these types.2 This old man is one of the earliest examples: he is depicted in three-quarter view, his head turned towards the spectator and slightly bending forward. He wears a turban, the end of which hangs over his left shoulder. The identity of the man, who often posed for Rembrandt and other artists of his circle, has remained a mystery. In 1935 Abraham Bredius claimed he was one of the artist’s relatives,3 but in light of what we know today this seems like a somewhat overly romantic interpretation.4 What we are dealing with here is a so-called tronie, a type of painting in which the artist’s primary aim was to capture a distinctive type, often dressed in fantastical or exotic costume.

Rembrandt executed this tronie of an old man around 1627-1628, early in his career. Strong contrasts of light and shade are not unusual in his work of this period, but here his interest in this aspect appears to be particularly strong. The light coming from the background left starkly illuminates half the man’s face and his turban, casting the other half in deep shadow. The transition between the two is smooth and subtle. The lines and wrinkles in the face create their own shadows in the lit area, while accents on the nose, moustache and goatee enliven the darker parts. Particularly striking is the bright, gold-coloured clasp adorned with a red gem that pins the feather to the turban. The tip of the feather, too, catches the light. Such accents give depth to the shadowed area. Another interesting detail is the ear: strongly lit from behind, it appears a translucent pink.

The head is executed with a powerful, self-confident brush. The turban is built up of delicate streaks of paint that suggest the material, with golden highlights added using a wet-in-wet technique. The clasp consists of nothing but a few yellow, red and black-brown lines. Rembrandt employs a somewhat rougher technique for the face, using broad strokes that convincingly suggest creased skin. The artist has applied the paint more thickly in the lighted area, spreading it in long flourishes, while in the transitional zone it is applied locally, helping to model the wrinkles and eyebrows. On the other hand, the hairs of his moustache and goatee, which the light just grazes, are once again subtly reproduced. The cloak is executed with quick, almost careless brushstrokes.

The history of the painting’s attribution has been a turbulent one. In 1935 Bredius still attributed it to Rembrandt. A few years later, Bauch came to the conclusion that it had more likely been painted by Jan Lievens.5 In 1969 Gerson published a revised edition of Bredius’s 1935 catalogue in which the Bust of an old man was no longer included. He was not, however, entirely convinced of the attribution to Lievens. He did admit that he had not seen the picture itself and that his judgement was based on a photograph.6 Sumowski, finally, claimed it was the work of Jacques des Rousseaux (c. 1600-1638), a painter who had studied with Rembrandt shortly before 1630. The painting came on the market in 1995, having spent almost 40 years out of the public eye. At the behest of the Rembrandt Research Project it was subjected to a thorough art-historical and technical examination. This resulted in a number of new and surprising insights, which eventually led to Ernst van de Wetering’s reattribution to Rembrandt – a conclusion that could be tested by a broader audience during the work’s recent showing at the exhibition The mystery of the young Rembrandt, on view in Kassel and Amsterdam in 2001-02.

The most important arguments in favour of the attribution are the similar­­ities in terms of technique and the treatment of light in other Rembrandt paintings of the period, as well as the form of the RHL monogram (fig. 1). Like all early Rembrandts, the Bust of an old man is painted on an oak panel.7 Research carried out with infrared-reflectography and x-rays revealed the contours of an underlying image. Panel reuse – a so-called ‘palimpsest’ – is not unusual in early Rembrandt.8

The same stark, oblique illumination from behind can be found in other youthful works, such as the earliest Self-portrait painted around 1628 (fig. 2). Here we also find the glowing pink ear. In addition, the painting can be linked to other works of the period 1626-29 in terms of technique as well, here characterised by a careful application of paint and little impasto.9 The dating is supported by the form of the monogram, brought on while the paint was still wet, which was only used by the artist for a brief time (fig. 1). The letters are elongated, the ‘R’ is open at the top, and the stem and leg join above the horizontal transverse line of the ‘H’. Related monograms can be found on The rich man of 1627 (see cat. no. 28, fig. 1) and St Paul in prison of 1627 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart).10

Assuming a date of 1627 or 1628 and given the attention the artist has paid to the lighting, Van de Wetering has suggested the picture may have played a role in Rembrandt’s conception of his most ambitious early biblical scene, Judas repentant, returning the thirty pieces of silver, painted in 1629 (fig. 3). The pose and lighting of the standing man at the far left in particular strongly recalls the figure in the Bust of an old man with turban.11 Given this, the painting appears to have its thematic place in Rembrandt’s oeuvre as well.