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Elderly Man

Leiden School

(Leiden 1613 – 1675 Leiden)
ca. 1630
oil on panel
50.9 x 40.6 cm
inventory number

Rahusen, Henriette. “Elderly Man” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed July 15, 2024).

Seen in profile, the elderly man seems lost in thought as he gazes quietly downward in a pose echoing the sloped shape of his left shoulder. Intense light reflecting off the sitter’s bald head helps draw attention to his finely rendered and precisely articulated features. No attributes identify the sitter, who wears a softly-rendered reddish-brown woolen cloak that covers a simple white shirt visible at the neck. The painting is, in fact, a character study, or tronie, probably done from life, rather than a commissioned portrait.

In many respects the clarity of modeling in this well-preserved panel painting is similar to that seen in works by Gerrit Dou from the early to mid-1630s. Nevertheless, Dou’s painterly techniques are more nuanced than those evident in this work, as can be seen in a comparison with Dou’s Astronomer (Heraclitus?), ca. 1631–32, in the Hermitage (), where the same model is depicted. Instead of the blended and smooth brushwork and linear definition of features evident in Elderly Man, in the Hermitage painting Dou used careful parallel hatchings to help enliven the astronomer’s face. Indeed, the glint of light off the sitter’s forehead in Elderly Man is more akin to the reflections off hard, inanimate surfaces in Dou’s Still Life with Globe, Lute, and Books, ca. 1635 (), than in his images of living individuals.

The model for this tronie, who appears in multiple paintings and etchings by Dou, Jan Lievens (1607–74), and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) around 1630, was well-known in the Leiden artistic community. He is, for example, seen in Rembrandt’s etching, Bust of an Old Man, 1630 (). This man also sat for Lievens, as is evident in that master’s Head of an Old Man, ca. 1629, in the National Gallery of Ireland (). Since the late nineteenth century, this model has often been identified as Rembrandt’s father. However, a drawing in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (inv. WA1855.11), of a bearded old man bearing the inscription “HARMAN GERRITS” and signed by Rembrandt (“van de Rhijn”), depicts an elderly man whose features clearly differ from those of the sitter in the Leiden Collection work.

A more likely identification of the model comes from documentation related to another painting in which he appears: Jan Lievens’s Old Man Holding a Skull, ca. 1630 (). As Lloyd DeWitt has noted, this painting is listed in the 1640 inventory of Jan Jansz. Orlers as “the keeper of the Almshouse with a Skull in his hand” that was “painted from life.” Two archival documents reveal that in 1629 and 1631 the financial officer (rentmeester) of the Sint Catharina Gasthuys in Leiden was named Jan van Heussen, who resided in the “Rijn” district of town. An engraved portrait Jan van Heussen at the Age of 27 by Hendrick Goltzius, dated ca. 1581 (), sufficiently resembles the model—including early baldness and the heavy lidded eyes—to suggest that the model for this tronie may have been Jan van Heussen, who would have been seventy-five years old in 1629. Regardless of the man’s identity, his distinctive features inspired Rembrandt, Lievens and Dou, and other unidentified artists from Leiden, to repeatedly use him as a model for tronies and in a number of multifigure compositions.

- Henriette Rahusen, 2017
  • Private collection, The Netherlands [Marina Aarts, Amsterdam, 2006].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner.
  • Leiden, Lakenhal Museum, “Gerrit Dou: The Leiden Collection from New York,” 9 March–31 August 2014 [lent by the present owner].
  • Kingston, Queen’s University, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, “Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges,” 24 August–1 December 2019; Edmonton, Art Gallery of Alberta, 7 March–27 September, 2020; Regina, MacKenzie Art Gallery, 5 December 2020–21 February 2021; Hamilton, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 13 March–30 May 2021, no. 15 [lent by the present owner].
  • Surh, Dominique, Ilona van Tuinen, and John Twilley. “Insights from Technical Analysis on a Group of Paintings by Gerrit Dou in the Leiden Collection.” JHNA 6:1 (Winter 2014): n. 12. DOI:10.5092/jhna.2014.6.1.3
  • Coutré, Jacquelyn N., Ed. Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges. Exh. cat. Kingston, Agnes Etherington; Edmonton, Art Gallery of Alberta; Hamilton, Art Gallery of Hamilton. Kingston, 2019, 186-89, no. 15.

The painting is executed on a composite panel comprised of two vertically grained and oriented oak planks, stemming from different trees of Baltic origin, felled between 1611 and 1620. The vertical join is located (ca. 20.5 cm from the left edge) through the center of the composition, directly through the sitter’s face. A portion of the left plank has been previously planed and is lighter in color. Two rectangular 3.5 cm H x 6 cm W, horizontally grained, rectangular wooden cleats have been adhered to the upper and center portions of the panel join with a radio-opaque adhesive. There are thin remnants of a third cleat along the lower portion of the panel join.

There are wide, shallow bevels along all four edges. The panel has a very slight convex warp when viewed from the front and is of slightly varying thickness, ranging from 0.3 to 0.5 cm. In addition, a narrow bevel along the entire width of the reverse of the lower edge is the result of the composite panel being prepared for tree ring analyses by Dr. Peter Klein in September 2006 and by Ian Tyers in November 2010.

There are no wax seals, panel maker’s marks or import stamps.

A light-colored ground has been thinly and evenly applied and the oil (est.) paint has been built up in successive thin layers. Both the paint and ground spill over onto the thickness of the panel edges slightly along all four edges.

No underdrawing is evident in infrared photography at 780, 750, or 1000 nanometers, and there are no pentimenti or compositional changes visible in the X-radiograph or infrared images.

The painting is unsigned and undated.

Damar varnish was thinly and evenly applied by brush in 2006 and by spray in July 2008. It has a satin finish and saturates the image.

Related Print

  1. Rembrandt van Rijn, Bust of an Old Man, 1630, etching, 11.8 x 9.7 cm, Rijksprentenkabinet, inv. no. RP-P-OB-590.
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