Skip to main content

Bust of a Bearded Old Man

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam)
oil on paper, mounted on panel
10.6 x 7.2 cm
signed information

signed and dated along top: “Rembrandt 1633”

inventory number

Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Bust of a Bearded Old Man” (2019). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed May 28, 2024).

Situated close to the picture plane, head turned sharply and eyes cast downward, the elderly man depicted in Rembrandt’s small, monochromatic oil sketch pulsates with life. With his lips slightly parted and his body seeming to rise with a passing breath, he occupies a world that is nearly the viewer’s own. Rembrandt’s vigorous brushstrokes animate the sitter’s psychological being and physical presence, making this bust-length image seem far larger than it is in reality. Light streaming in from the upper left falls on the right side of the elderly man’s face and models his three-dimensional form. His eyes are open and alert as they focus intensely upon something beyond the composition. Rembrandt emphasized the sitter’s emotional energy through the rhythmic interplay of grays and browns, adding ocher and white accents that appear on the subject’s wiry beard and the curly hair tumbling over his forehead. Both delicate and powerful, Bust of a Bearded Old Man encapsulates the profound humanity of Rembrandt’s finest works.

Bust of a Bearded Old Man is Rembrandt’s smallest known painting, and the only grisaille by the artist in private hands. The deep resonance it carries for the beholder arises from an extraordinary paradox: its size—it fits in the palm of one’s hand—belies its monumentality. As Wilhelm Martin, who was then director of the Mauritshuis, noted in 1923, all of Rembrandt’s “prodigious virtuosity” is found in the power of the bearded man’s face. The painting was at that point in the collection of Baron Leon Janssen in Brussels, but Martin would not forget it, and when the painting was auctioned in 1927 after the Baron’s death, the Mauritshuis actively sought to acquire it. The museum, however, was outbid by Knoedler’s, which immediately offered the painting to Andrew W. Mellon, noting in its letter to Mellon, “This is considered by the greatest connoisseurs of Rembrandt as one of his greatest gems.”

Rembrandt’s interest in depicting the physical and psychological character of aging men and women emerged in the late 1620s, when he was a young artist in Leiden, and continued unabated throughout his life. The elderly, whether family members, models in his studio, or random figures he encountered conversing on street corners, clearly fascinated Rembrandt for their expressive physical qualities and underlying humanity. He made individual character studies, or tronies, of the elderly in drawings, etchings, and paintings, and these works often served as inspiration for figures in his biblical and mythological scenes.

Rembrandt painted Bust of a Bearded Old Man in 1633, shortly after he had settled in Amsterdam, revisiting—and in many ways reinventing—a figural type that had preoccupied him when he was in Leiden. In a group of drawings and etchings that he executed in 1630 and 1631, Rembrandt depicted an elderly man with a thick, wiry beard, large forehead, and distinctive features. A core image from this group is a red-chalk drawing of the figure seen full length and gazing downward as he sits in an armchair with hands folded in his lap (). The drawing is a masterly depiction of mood, not only because of the elderly man’s reflective pose but also because of the strong contrasts of light and shade that play out in rich variations of red chalk. The related etchings that Rembrandt made in 1630–31 are bust-length images that focus on the bearded man’s head and upper body (). In each of these etchings, Rembrandt subtly varied the man’s pose by changing the angle of his head and altering the length and texture of his beard. The loose and fluid lines of the etching needle enhance the plasticity of the figure. Most importantly, Rembrandt adjusted the intensity and focus of his chiaroscuro effects to convey a different psychological state of mind in each of the etchings.

Bust of a Bearded Old Man transcends Rembrandt’s depictions of the elderly man seen in the earlier etchings. Boldly executed, the figure in this oil sketch fills the composition, his darkened forearm extending beyond the picture plane. The man’s physical appearance is also somewhat different, as curly hair now falls over his wrinkled forehead, visually evoking his active mind and emotional energy. Rembrandt created this tronie with great assuredness and seeming speed, laying out the entire composition alla prima and making no changes during the painting process. He exploited the physical characteristics of paint, oscillating between controlled refinement and loose, textured bravura. For example, while thick, fluid strokes define the man’s sleeve, the ground layer remains visible in other parts of his robe and hair. It is unlikely, however, that Rembrandt painted this image directly from life (naar het leven). His adaptation of a figural motif developed in Leiden suggests that he rendered it uit den gheest, or from his imagination, nevertheless imbuing it with the sensitivity and immediacy of a life study.

Scholars have consistently remarked on the extraordinary character of Bust of a Bearded Old Man, although the small size of this grisaille oil sketch and its unusual support—paper mounted on panel—have elicited a number of differing opinions about its original function. In 1968, Horst Gerson suggested that the painting represented “a fragment of a grisaille sketch,” but the integrity of the composition as a whole and its “self-contained” nature argue otherwise. The bold black lines that surround the composition, which act as a kind of framing device, as well as the brushstrokes that extend confidently along the edges of the paper, indicate that the painting has not been reduced in size.

In the 1980s, Bob Haak and Josua Bruyn, members of the Rembrandt Research Project, suggested that, because of its size and paper support, Bust of a Bearded Old Man may have been intended as a preparatory oil sketch, or modello, for an etching or engraving. The limited tones of blacks, whites, and grays in grisaille were beneficial for working out the design of a print, particularly in the depiction of light and shadow. Artists and printmakers employed this practice regularly in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Rembrandt himself used it on at least one occasion. The Ecce Homo from 1634 (), which he executed in grisaille, was transferred directly onto an etching plate. Rembrandt produced several other grisaille sketches in the mid-1630s, including Joseph Telling His Dreams, 1634 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), but it is unclear whether they were also designs intended for prints, as no corresponding etchings for any of them survive. The narrative subject matter, multifigural composition, and coarse handling of these grisailles, however, share little with the character of Bust of a Bearded Old Man, whose powerful ability to move the viewer—in its painterly technique and emotional spirit—suggests that Rembrandt intended it as an independent work of art.

Haak and Bruyn also proposed that Rembrandt may have painted Bust of a Bearded Old Man for an album amicorum, or friendship album. They suggested that this context could explain the painting’s large signature and date, and paper support. Their point of reference was a pen-and-wash drawing of an old man that Rembrandt executed for the Album amicorum II van Burchard Grossmann in 1634 (). Depicted half length and in three-quarter view, the drawing of a bearded man, with his head turned and his left arm placed prominently in the foreground, bears a number of similarities to Bust of a Bearded Old Man. Yet this delicate drawing, which is accompanied by a moralizing inscription, has an entirely different character than the oil sketch in The Leiden Collection. Moreover, as Albert Blankert has rightly argued, the physical character of an oil painting, particularly in a work painted with this rich impasto, makes it unlikely that it was intended for the pages of an album amicorum.

The confident, self-contained nature of Bust of a Bearded Old Man argues strongly that Rembrandt painted this remarkable oil sketch as an independent work of art. Intimately connected to his ongoing interest in depicting reflective, elderly men, the painting is one of Rembrandt’s most compelling explorations of the physical and psychological character of such figures. By executing this study in grisaille, Rembrandt captured subtleties of form, light, and shade in unparalleled ways, evoking the inner life and individuality of this expressive sitter. Bust of a Bearded Old Man is exceptional for its visual power and masterly technique, and for the way it allows the viewer to look closely and reflect deeply about the human emotions so poignantly captured in this small masterpiece.

Bust of a Bearded Old Man carries an illustrious provenance that stretches back to the late eighteenth century. One of its most important owners was Andrew W. Mellon, who acquired the painting from Knoedler’s in 1928, and it immediately became one of the jewels of his collection. Mellon had a special velvet-encased travel box made for the painting, which still exists (). It is rumored that he carried the work with him everywhere he went and otherwise displayed it on his desk. Bust of a Bearded Old Man captivated the present collector over fifteen years ago when he first saw it in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and, like Wilhelm Martin, he never forgot it. He was finally able to acquire it in 2018, and this small gem is now one of the pinnacles of The Leiden Collection’s extensive assemblage of works by Rembrandt.

- Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 2019
For further discussion about this artwork, see The Signing of Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries.
  • Possibly Mrs. Van Sonsbeeck, before 1751.
  • Fréderic Szarvady (d. 1882), Paris (his sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 21 February 1874, no. 39 [for 2500 francs]).
  •  V. Borie, Paris, 1881.
  • Private collection, Paris, 1900 [to F. Kleinberger Galleries]).
  • [F. Kleinberger Galleries, Paris, 1900 (to Baron Léon Janssen)].
  • Baron Léon Janssen (1849–1923), Brussels, by 1905 (his sale, Frederik Muller & Cie, Amsterdam, 26 April 1927, no. 94 [to M. Knoedler & Co. for 35,200 florins]).
  • [M. Knoedler & Co., New York (to Andrew W. Mellon for $18,000)].
  • Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937), Washington, D.C., 1928; by descent to his son Paul Mellon (1907–99) (to Arthur Amory Houghton Jr.).
  • Arthur Amory Houghton Jr. (1906–90), New York and Queenstown, M.D., by 1955 [through Richard L. Feigen & Co., New York (to Saul P. Steinberg)].
  • Saul P. Steinberg (1939–2012), New York, 1984 (sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 30 January 1997, no. 39 [to private collection, Tokyo and London).
  • Private collection, Tokyo and London.
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2018.
  • Leiden, Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, “Rembrandt-hulde te Leiden,” 15 July–15 September 1906, no. 51 [lent by Baron Léon Janssen].
  • Brussels, “International Exhibition of Miniatures,” 1912, no. 1046 [lent by Baron Léon Janssen].
  • The Hague, Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp, “Tentoonstelling van schilderijen door oud-hollandsche en vlaamsche meesters,” 1927, no. 32 [lent by Baron Léon Janssen].
  • New York, National Academy of Design, “Dutch and Flemish Paintings from New York Private Collections,” 1988–89, no. 38 [lent by Saul P. Steinberg].
  • Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, “Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact,” 1 October–7 December 1997; Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, 17 December 1997–15 February 1998, no. 9 [lent by private collection].
  • Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, “Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher,” 26 October 2003–18 January 2004; Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 14 February–9 May 2004, no. 31 [lent by private collection].
  • Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, “Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age. Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre,” 14 February–18 May 2019 [lent by the present owner].
  • Amsterdam, Hermitage Amsterdam, “Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection,” 4 February–27 August 2023, no. 8 [lent by the present owner].
  • Von Bode, Wilhelm, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. Rembrandt: beschreibendes Verzeichnis seiner Gemälde mit den heliographischen Nachbildungen: Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Kunst. Paris, 1906, 8: no. 565.
  • Von Bode, Wilhelm, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. History, Description and Heliographic Reproduction of all the Master’s Pictures with a Study of his Life and His Art. Translated by F. Simmonds. Paris, 1906, 8: 37, 91–93, no. 565.
  • Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal. Rembrandt-hulde te Leiden: catalogus der tentoonstelling van schilderijen en teekeningen van Rembrandt en van schilderijen van andere Leidsche Meesters der Zeventiende Eeuw. Exh. cat. Leiden, Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal. Leiden, 1906, 17, no. 51.
  • Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Fêtes de Rembrandt à Leyde: Catalogue de l’exposition de tableaux et de dessins de Rembrandt et d’autres maîtres de Leyde, du dix-septième siècle. Exh. cat. Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Leiden, 1906, 17, no. 51.
  • Schmidt-Degener, Frederik. “Le troisième centenaire de Rembrandt en Hollande.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 36 (1906): 276.
  • Possibly Bredius, Abraham. “Eenige taxaties van schilderijen in de XVIIe en in het begin der XVIIIe eeuw.” Oud Holland 24 (1906): 238.
  • Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben. 3rd Edition. Stuttgart, 1908, 114, no. B 565.
  • Von Wurzbach, Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon. Vienna, 1910, 2: 397.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith. Translated and edited by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1916, 6: 206, no. 369.
  • L’Exposition de la miniature à Bruxelles en 1912: recueil des oeuvres les plus remarquables des minaturistes de toutes les Ecoles, du XVIe au XIXe siècle. Brussels, 1913, 94, pl. LVII, no. 1046.
  • Lambotte, Paul. “Exposition de la Miniature.” L’Art Flamand & Hollandais Revue Mensuelle Illustrée 17 (1912): 156, ill.
  • Lambotte, Paul. “Tentoonstelling van Miniaturen.” Onze kunst, voorzetting van de Vlaamsche school 21 (1912): 210, ill.
  • Martin, Wilhelm. Catalogue de la Collection de Peintures du Baron Janssen à Bruxelles. Brussels, 1923, v-vi, 140–41, no. 94.
  • Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp. Tentoonstelling van schilderijen door oud-hollandsche en vlaamsche meesters. Exh. cat. The Hague, Koninklijke Kunstzaal Kleykamp. The Hague, 1927, 16, no. 32.
  • Martin, Wilhelm. Collection de feu le Baron Janssen: Catalogue des tableaux anciens des écoles Hollandaise et Flamande des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Sales cat. Amsterdam, Frederik Muller & Cie, 1927, 38, no. 94.
  • Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. Vienna, 1936, no. 183.
  • Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt: Gemälde. Berlin, 1966, no. 153.
  • Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt: Paintings. Amsterdam, 1968, 274, 494, no. 136.
  • Bredius, Abraham, and Horst Gerson. Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. London, 1969, 563, no. 182.
  • Arpino, Giovanni, and Paolo Lecaldano. The Complete Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1969, 100, no. 114.
  • Dony, Frans L.M., and Karel Braun. Meesters der Schilderkunst: Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Rembrandt en een beknopt overzicht van zijn voornaamste werk als etser en tekenaar. Rotterdam, 1969, 96, no. 114.
  • Bolten, Jaap, and Henriette Bolten-Rempt. The Hidden Rembrandt. Oxford, 1978, 181, no. 174.
  • Bruyn, Josua, et al. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. Vol. 2, 1631–1634. Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project. The Hague, 1986, 351–54, no. A 74.
  • Jensen Adams, Ann. Dutch and Flemish Paintings from New York Private Collections. Exh. cat. New York, National Academy of Design. New York, 1988, 87, 103, no. 38.
  • Slatkes, Leonard. Rembrandt: Catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1992, 325, no. 213.
  • Tümpel, Christian. Rembrandt: All Paintings in Colour. Antwerp, 1993, 187, 409, no. 134.
  • Blankert, Albert, ed. Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact. Exh. cat. Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Canberra, National Gallery of Australia. Zwolle, 1997, 115, no.   9.
  • Ackley, Clifford S. Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher. Exh. cat. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago. Boston, 2003, 95–96, 313–14, no. 31.
  • Van de Wetering, Ernst, et al. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. Vol. 6, Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited: A Complete Survey. With the collaboration of Carin van Nes. Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project. Dordrecht, 2014, 529, no. 103.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “The Leiden Collection and the Dutch Golden Age.” In Rembrandt,   Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age. Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre. Edited by Blaise Ducos and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 26, 30.  Exh. cat. Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi. London, 2019. [Exhibition catalogue also published in French and Arabic.]
  • Ducos, Blaise, and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, eds. Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age. Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre. Exh. cat. Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi. London, 2019, 88–89, no. 23. [Exhibition catalogue also published in French and Arabic.]
  • Manuth, Volker, Marieke de Winkel, and Rudie van Leeuwen. Rembrandt. The Complete Paintings. Cologne, 2019, 260, 269, 686, no. 283.
  • Giltaij, Jeroen. Het Grote Rembrandt Boek: Alle 684 schilderijen. Zwolle, 2022, 142, no. 203.
  • Van Cauwenberge, Caroline. “Rembrandt van Rijn, Bust of a Bearded Old Man.” In Rembrandt and His Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Caroline Van Cauwenberge, 48–49, no. 8. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Hermitage Amsterdam. Zwolle, 2023. [Exhibition catalogue also published in Dutch.]
  • Vogelaar, Christiaan. “The Leiden Collection.” In Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Caroline Van Cauwenberge, 10, no. 8. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Hermitage Amsterdam. Zwolle, 2023. [Exhibition catalogue also published in Dutch.]

The paper support has been adhered to a cradled wooden panel of considerable age (presumably oak). The small size of the oil sketch is exceptional, as is its finished appearance, a characteristic that sets this work apart from other grisailles dating to this period. The sketch reveals an exceptional degree of confidence in the handling of paint, particularly in the strokes used to depict the hair, beard, and clothing.

Examination with X-radiography, infrared photography, and infrared reflectography did not reveal any distinctive changes to the composition. Before the preliminary painted sketch was executed, the paper support was given a warm tone with a fluid, dark brown paint. The figure was then quickly and confidently painted with browns, yellows, white, and black; the mouth was formed by applying a tiny, singular daub of red lake. A similarly muted palette was used to further refine and develop areas of the drapery, the face, and the hair. Paint was applied both wet-over-dry and wet-into-wet.

The background has an overall green-gray tone, which was also used to refine the contours of the figure. Final details were applied to the hair and beard. To establish the final format of the composition, the artist applied black outlines along the outer edges of the painting.

The painting is signed and dated in dark paint along the upper edge.

The work was conserved in 2018 and is in excellent and stable condition.

Further technical information about this artwork is available in The Rembrandt Database.


  1. After Rembrandt, Bust of a Bearded Old Man, n.d., dimensions and medium unknown, current whereabouts unknown.

Scroll back to top