Judging from the formal portraits produced by seventeenth-century artists, one would have to conclude that the Dutch were a pretty dour people, particularly the men. Invariably dressed in black with stiff starched collars, the sitters in these portraits rarely invoke inner warmth or a sense of joy. This broad overgeneralization, which to a certain extent excludes Frans Hals (1582/83–1666), seems rather apt for the greatest portraitist of the era, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt had a remarkable ability to capture a lifelike presence in his commissioned portraits, but, for the most part, one comes away admiring the sincerity and inner strength of his sitters, not their ease of lifting one’s spirits through the glints in their eyes.
Set against this backdrop, Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat is like a breath of fresh air. Here is a man not averse to twirling his moustache upward to cast a friendly demeanor as he looks directly out at the viewer, the crinkles around his eyes and his arched eyebrows indicating that smiles easily cross his face. Even the tips of his white starched collar rise up positively to greet the world. His robust features and ample body further suggest a person who enjoys the fullness of life, both spiritually and physically. Adding to this sense is the bold red doublet he wears, one that Rembrandt brushes with an appropriate freedom of touch, particularly in articulating the horizontal braided clasps along the garments central divide.
Like Rembrandt’s Minerva in Her Study (RR-107), Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat was for a long time largely unknown. It surfaced in an English collection only at the beginning of the twentieth century (see Provenance). After Wilhelm Valentiner first published the portrait in 1930 as one of his “rediscovered Rembrandt paintings,” it circulated on the art market and was almost inaccessible to Rembrandt researchers.1 Largely on the basis of photographs, some authors doubted the work’s authenticity.2 The painting remained in relative obscurity until 1992, when its owner at the time drew it to the attention of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). After thorough examination of the original in 1994 and 1997, the RRP judged the portrait, on both technical and stylistic grounds, to be an authentic work by Rembrandt.3
Stylistically as well as technically, Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat is in keeping with Rembrandt’s portraits of the early 1630s, at which time he sought to achieve great spatial depth and plasticity in his figures. Here, he achieved this effect by rendering physiognomic details, such as the hair and facial wrinkles, with utmost meticulousness, while executing the braided fastenings on the red jacket in a much sketchier manner. Another typical feature is the way he set off the contour of the most brightly lit form (in this case the collar) from the dark background.4 On the other hand, he juxtaposed the shaded portion of the collar with the bright part of the background. Another means of heightening the illusion of depth was to leave the sitter’s foremost arm partly in shadow. The strongly illuminated shoulder forms a repoussoir, at the same time amplifying the effect of the light hitting the collar and the face. Finally, the form of the signature and the way it is rendered with a mixture of dark paint and lead white are typical of Rembrandt in this period.5
The oak of the panel comes from the Baltic-Polish region and corresponds to a type of wood frequently used in Rembrandt’s studio. Dendrochronological research has shown that the tree could not have been felled before 1629, which means that in theory the panel—after a period of at least two years for aging or drying—could have been ready for use after 1631.6 The panel consists of two parts: a wider plank (37.8 cm) and a narrower one (13 cm). For his portraits and tronies Rembrandt often used panels composed of planks of different widths so that the seam would not run through the face. Although the oval format was popular for portraits around 1633,7 Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat seems originally to have had an upright rectangular shape, which was later changed into an oval. The back of the panel is planed and cradled, whereas a panel that was originally oval would show beveling that followed its oval shape. It is probable that the portrait was originally surrounded by an oval “window,” such as Rembrandt often painted on rectangular supports (see Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes, RR-110), and that the panel was later cut into an oval shape along the inner edge of this painted “window.”8
Rembrandt generally designed his compositions with a free sketch rather than with an elaborate underdrawing. A close comparison of the paint surface and the X-radiograph in this portrait makes it is clear that Rembrandt painted the background first, leaving a reserve for the figure. The contours of the figure, especially in the area of the hair and the collar, often deviate from the reserve. Rembrandt has here made a number of painted corrections, or pentimenti, as in, for example, the shape of the right shoulder, which was originally higher.
An unusual aspect of this painting is the sitter’s conspicuous red coat, very different from the black attire generally seen in portraiture of the 1630s. A red coat with red braided fastenings on the front and the sleeves was at that time associated with the military, and for this reason Valentiner assumed that the sitter was a member of the military.9 In support of this theory, he referred to similar braided clasps in the portrait of Philips van Dorp (1587–1652), an officer in the service of the States General, known from a print by Salomon Saverij (1594–ca. 1678) (fig 1). Saverij’s etching bears an inscription claiming that it was made after a (lost) portrait by Rembrandt of 1634. Red coats (including one with braided fastenings) are listed in a 1638 inventory of Floris II, Count of Culemborg, one of the highest ranking officers in the Northern Netherlands.10 A Portrait of an Unknown Officer by Isaack Jacobsz van Hooren (1620–52) of 1646 depicts the sitter in a red coat with braided clasps along with other military accessories, including a plumed hat, gorget, and rapier attached to the bandolier 11.
Significantly, these last pictorial elements are lacking in Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat, and without them it is impossible to say with certainty that the sitter was actually a member of the military. The coat’s red color and braiding and the wide, starched linen collar also occur in contemporary fashions, not only in the Netherlands, but also in France, England and Germany.12 For example, a gouache dated around 1634 by the French engraver Abraham Bosse shows a dancing man wearing a similar costume (fig 2),13 as does the elegant painter in his studio in a print dating from 1642 (fig 3). The painter wears a collar identical to the one worn by the man in Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat.14 The hairstyle—with pipe curls over the ears and a lock of hair on the forehead—and the moustache with its twisted ends reflect Spanish fashions, but, as with the man’s wardrobe, these styles were to be found all over Europe. The international character of the man’s appearance has led to speculations that the sitter was either a foreigner or a Dutchman who moved in international circles.15
The manner in which the man turns to the right suggests that the portrait originally had a female pendant, which Valentiner assumed to be the Portrait of a Young Woman, likewise dated 1633.16 This hypothesis was rightly questioned in the Corpus. Its authors point out that although the dimensions of the two works are nearly the same, the woman’s portrait is painted on a different kind of wood, the panel consists of three planks, and it was originally oval in shape.17 Furthermore, the authors argued that the woman’s portrait is unlikely to have been the painting’s pendant because it was executed by a studio assistant and not by the master.18 Other reasons exist for rejecting the woman’s portrait as this painting’s companion piece: her dark clothes, with the white cap and the large pleated ruff, are typical of the conservative Dutch middle class and contrast with the stylish and colorful costume of her supposed mate.
A much more suitable candidate for the pendant to Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat is a female portrait, also dated 1633, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (fig 4).19 The sitter’s black gown with slashed sleeves is set off by a colorful ribbon around her waist. The gown, the collar, and the hairstyle likewise conform to the fashions then prevailing in France.20 Moreover, the oval support of the female portrait in Houston is nearly identical in size to Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat. Originally it, too, was probably rectangular in shape and only later made into an oval.21 Although the woman is more subtle and more delicately modeled than the man in Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat, pendants portraying young women are often more delicately executed than those of their male counterparts.22 Not only do their facial features and skin require different handling of the paint, but also the light coming from the left falls frontally on the woman’s face. The man’s face, which is turned to the right, is partly in shadow, and, as a result, his physicality is emphasized. With or without this purported pendant, however, this distinctive gentleman has a compelling presence that fully engages the viewer. Perhaps someday we will learn more about him and his life’s story.