The bearded elder in this imposing painting commands attention through his piercing gaze and compelling, dignified presence. Standing before a stone wall and a dark curtain with his hands gently clasped at his waist, the figure conveys a powerful sense of gravitas. Light from the upper left illuminates the rough features of his deeply lined face, which is unmoving yet psychologically alert. His white turban, with its strands of gold, and the stunning gold-and-jeweled clasp of his fur-trimmed cloak, evokes an historical past of biblical times and lands where stories from scripture express moral and ethical concerns fundamental to human existence. That this elder has thought carefully about such issues is evident in the dim recesses of the interior behind him, where one sees an opened book on his desk, a skull, and a sculpted serpent with an animal-like head entwined around a column.
The visual and psychological power of Man in Oriental Costume reflects the impact of Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606–69) artistic achievement, for this painting is a direct copy, nearly identical in size and handling, of the master’s large Man in Oriental Costume (King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy), ca. 1639, in Chatsworth House (fig 1).1 The artist who made this copy, likely a member of Rembrandt’s workshop, used a similar palette of browns, ochres, grays, and white. He also varied his brushwork to emulate that of the prototype, building up and densely layering paints in some areas and applying them thinly in others. He used assured, unblended brushstrokes to model the flesh tones on the left side of the man’s face, applying pinks and yellows to highlight the bridge of the nose and the cheekbone. As in the original, small specks of white are visible along the lower eyelid, and a reddish-brown stroke defines the pouches of skin beneath the left eye. Like Rembrandt, the copyist created shadows on the right side of the face by allowing the ground to remain largely exposed. He used a similar technique to render shadows in the beard, eyebrows, and forehead.2 As in the Chatsworth painting, thick, layered brushstrokes evoke the complex structure of the turban.
Despite these considerable similarities, the paintings display certain differences. Rembrandt’s modeling in the Chatsworth painting is more integrated, allowing for softer transitions between areas of light and shadow, such as along the side of the elder’s face and near the hands.3 In addition, the figure’s head is slightly tilted to the right in the prototype, giving him a reflective, self-contained appearance, whereas the straightforward positioning of the head and neck in the Leiden Collection painting, as well as the figure’s determined expression, is more assertive.
Rembrandt depicted figures in Orientalizing costume throughout the 1630s and early 1640s.4 He portrayed many of these in bust or half-length formats, often tronies, or character studies, of individuals dressed in imaginative and fanciful clothing. Elements of Turkish and Persian dress often appear in these works, such as in Man in a Turban (fig 2) from 1632.5 These paintings, which appealed to a taste for the “exotic” among collectors, gave Rembrandt the opportunity to explore different figure types, as well as the effects of light and shadow on a range of materials and textures. Figures in Orientalizing costume were also important for Rembrandt’s historical scenes, where Eastern-style or exotic dress lent a degree of authenticity to biblical narratives.6 In Belshazzar’s Feast (fig 3) from ca. 1636–38, for instance, Belshazzar wears an imposing white turban with ornamental features and a lavish robe with a golden clasp, similar to those in Man in Oriental Costume.7
The subject of the Chatsworth painting and the identification of the elder have been matters of some dispute.8 Throughout its early history, the Chatsworth painting was widely described as depicting “a rabbi” or “a Turk,” while twentieth-century scholars offered more specific identifications, suggesting that the figure represented Moses or his brother Aaron from the Old Testament, or the Renaissance alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus.9 In 1948, Robert Eisler proposed that the Chatsworth painting represented Uzziah, king of Judea, who had been struck with leprosy for having entered the temple in Jerusalem during a sacrifice (2 Chronicles 26:16–20).10 Eisler connected the episode in Chronicles to a later one, in which King Hezekiah ordered the brazen serpent to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). This interpretation rests primarily on the patches of gray, mottled skin on the elder’s face.11
Many subsequent scholars have agreed with Eisler’s identification. Gary Schwartz, for example, argued that Rembrandt would have relied on Flavius Josephus’s account of Uzziah’s fall from grace as told in the Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus is the only author who mentions the figure’s mottled skin, the altar and temple setting, and the light entering the space through a window.12 Nonetheless, questions persist about the identity of the elder in the Chatsworth painting that are also relevant when considering the copy in The Leiden Collection. The blotchy areas on the figure’s cheeks in the Chatsworth painting are noticeably absent in the Leiden Collection version, as well as in other near-contemporary painted copies (discussed below). The blotches also do not appear in eighteenth-century mezzotints made after the Chatsworth painting by William Pether (1731–1819) (fig 4).13 As the artist responsible for the Leiden Collection version adhered closely to Rembrandt’s prototype, it is unlikely that he would have altered this crucial detail. Instead, Rembrandt likely depicted another biblical figure than Uzziah.14
Christian Tümpel has provided the most likely identification of the sitter, arguing that he represents Dan, one of the twelve patriarchs and one of the twelve sons of Jacob, as told in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.15 Tümpel situated Rembrandt’s painting in relation to an engraving of Dan from a print series of the Twelve Patriarchs by Jacques de Gheyn II after Karel van Mander (fig 5).16 The imposing figure of Dan, wearing a large turban, appears in the foreground of a rocky landscape holding a scroll and a rod entwined with a snake, the attribute associated with Dan’s dispensation of justice. The scene behind the patriarch in De Gheyn’s print refers to Jacob’s prophecy for his son: “Dan shall judge his people like another tribe in Israel. Let Dan be a snake in the way, a serpent in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels that his rider may fall backward” (Genesis 49:16–17).17
Although the elder in Rembrandt’s painting does not hold the rod or scroll associated with Dan’s dispensation of justice, his commanding stature in the foreground of the composition reflects De Gheyn’s print, as well as the sense of authority and moral strength embodied in the engraved figure.18 The presence of the serpent-like creature wrapped around the column in the background—with a leonine face, fangs, and horns—also supports this identification. As the inscription that appears beneath the image of Dan in Jan Sadeler’s series of the Twelve Patriarchs (1585) describes, Dan “is otherwise as a horned viper on the path,” a figure who is associated not only with prudence, but also with the dangers of its failings.19
The high quality of the Leiden Collection painting and its similarities to Rembrandt’s original, both in size and execution, are striking.20 The artist worked confidently and freely from the Chatsworth composition to achieve the powerful characterization of this patriarch. With only a few exceptions—the adjustment of the angle of the sitter’s face and minor changes to the figure’s right eye, the upper contour of the turban, and the ruffles of the white shirt—he made no changes to the composition.21 The artist must have worked directly from Rembrandt’s prototype and was closely acquainted with the master’s technique and distinctive manner of painting.
The making of copies formed an integral part of Rembrandt’s workshop practice, both as a teaching device and as a way to satisfy the market demand for replicas.22 While pupils copied Rembrandt’s works in order to learn his manner of painting, he often encouraged them to develop their own interpretations of his subjects. An excellent example of this practice is Ferdinand Bol’s The Angel Leaving Tobias and His Family from around 1637, in which the artist, who was active as a pupil and assistant in Rembrandt’s workshop from about 1636 until 1641, copied Rembrandt’s prototype but changed the direction of the departing angel.23 A direct copy such as Man in Oriental Costume, on the other hand, would have been made for the market.24 As Josua Bruyn has suggested, at times Rembrandt’s paintings must have (temporarily) remained in the studio in order to provide prototypes for artists to copy, a scenario that is likely to have been the case with the Chatsworth painting.25 Dendrochronology dates the Leiden Collection panel to around 1637 or later,26 which corresponds to the painting’s signature and date of “Rembrandt : / f. 164(1?)” (fig 6).27 This evidence suggests that Man in Oriental Costume was executed almost contemporaneously with the original, making it among the earliest known copies—if not the earliest—after Rembrandt’s prototype.28
Despite the Leiden Collection painting’s outstanding quality, identifying its artist is challenging. One strong possibility is that Ferdinand Bol executed this work in his final year in Rembrandt’s workshop. Rembrandt had engaged Bol in making copies after his paintings regularly in the late 1630s, a practice that may have continued as part of Rembrandt’s workshop production into the following decade.29 Bol has been associated with other copies after the Chatsworth painting,30 and he executed a closely related work, The Philosopher (fig 7), in the early 1640s.31 This painting depicts a similarly clothed and turbaned figure who sits wearily in his chair with his head on his hand, gazing at the viewer with a melancholic expression. The painting’s strong contrasts of light and dark, which Bol used to highlight the figure’s features and the different textures of the costume, as well as the reuse of certain pictorial motifs from the Chatsworth painting, such as the nearly identical interior setting, reflect the influence of Rembrandt’s prototype.32 Bol continued to work in a manner strongly impacted by his master following his departure from the workshop in 1641, adapting compositional and figural motifs from Rembrandt’s work into his own and using light as a powerful means of expression.33 This approach to handling light and form, especially in the rendering of material surfaces, emerges in a number of Bol’s works from the 1640s, including those in The Leiden Collection.34 An attribution of Man in Oriental Costume to Bol, an artist well trained in Rembrandt’s painterly style, would explain the highly capable hand responsible for this extraordinary copy.35
The appeal of Rembrandt’s Man in Oriental Costume was immediate and lasting. The existence of the Leiden Collection version and other seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century copies, including those in the Kingston Lacy Estate, Dresden, and Potsdam—the former documented as early as 1659—indicate that a market for the subject existed shortly after Rembrandt completed the composition.36 Its appeal continued over the centuries, and nearly forty copies and variants after it exist, some dating as late as the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.37
The particular esteem enjoyed by the Chatsworth painting and the Leiden Collection copy is reflected in their impressive early provenances. The Chatsworth painting is first documented in Rome, in the collection of the sister of Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602–61), before it entered the Cardinal’s collection in Paris around the time of his death in 1661.38 It subsequently changed hands several times before the 3rd Duke of Devonshire purchased it in 1742. By the mid-eighteenth century, The Leiden Collection’s Man in Oriental Costume was also in Paris, where, after possibly belonging to King Louis XV of France (1710–74), the king gave it to Gerard Binet (1712–80), valet de chambre for the dauphin, Louis de France, and governor of the Louvre.39 The high regard for Man in Oriental Costume in Paris is fittingly captured in its sale catalogue entry from the collection of the royal secretary Pierre Caulet d’Hauteville in 1774, which describes it as “surprising for [its] character, [and] beauty of color and effect.”40 The painting changed hands several times in the late eighteenth century and finally entered a private English collection two centuries later, where it remained until its acquisition by The Leiden Collection in 2019.