The young woman in this bust-length portrait captivates the beholder with her beguiling gaze and unassuming smile. Her wide, engaging eyes, creamy complexion, and flushed cheeks suggest a gentle, reserved demeanor. Light falling from the upper left illuminates her face, the lace-trimmed coif adorning her hair, and her gold necklace, which glistens as it rests atop her millstone ruff collar.
Rembrandt van Rijn depicted his sitter with great care and sensitivity using well-blended, assured brushstrokes to define her cheekbones, small chin, round nose, and wide forehead. A cool, even light falls across the composition, and shadows along the left side of her face have been rendered with areas of gray applied thinly over underlying flesh tones. Rembrandt applied white highlights to the bridge of her nose and eyes, and he used long, thin strokes as well as short dabs of white to define the individual pleats of her collar. He left a brownish-yellow underpainting visible in some of the lobes of the collar, revealing the black costume beneath it and evoking a sense of plasticity and depth. The illusionistic “see-through” effect of the woman’s cap, though likely overemphasized on the right as a result of abrasion from a previous restoration, has been rendered with sketchier gray brushwork to create translucency in the lace coif.1 For the depiction of the trim, Rembrandt employed a new technique of applying black paint over white. He also used various tones of gray and short, quick highlights to animate the intricate pattern of lace fabric.2
Rembrandt executed this striking portrait in 1633, shortly after having settled in Amsterdam to head up the workshop of the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1584/89–ca. 1660).3 The Dutch Republic’s role on the global stage through trade and seafaring brought significant wealth to the provinces and contributed to the flourishing art market in Amsterdam, particularly for portraiture.4 From 1632 to 1635, Rembrandt oversaw the activities of Uylenburgh’s bustling studio. Because of the dynamic manner in which he captured the physical and psychological individuality of each of his sitters, he quickly rose to become one of the leading portraitists in the city.5 Rembrandt received dozens of portrait commissions in the 1630s, including Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat (1633), Portrait of Petronella Buys (1635) (fig 1), and Portrait of Antonie Coopal (1635) in The Leiden Collection. Although the identity of this sitter is unknown, her conservative black dress, coupled with its attractive and fashionable adornments, indicates that she belonged to one of the well-to-do families who patronized Rembrandt in this decade.6
Portrait of a Young Woman is consistent with Rembrandt’s portraits of other female sitters from 1633, including Portrait of Maertgen van Bilderbeecq in Frankfurt (fig 2) and Portrait of a Woman in Braunschweig (fig 3).7 In each of these works, Rembrandt illuminated the figure with bright, even lighting, and he modeled the subjects’ features with comparably smooth, controlled brushstrokes. Both the plump, ruddy-cheeked Van Bilderbeecq and the more restrained woman in the Braunschweig painting are turned to the left in three-quarter view and wear large ruff collars and translucent caps with lace-trimmed edges. The sitter in the latter painting also has a gold-chained necklace that she wears tight to her neck, and, as in Portrait of a Young Woman, the thickly painted gold links give the necklace an appealing texture and weight (fig 4).
The refined character of Portrait of a Young Woman earned it admiration among early scholars and collectors. In 1836, the English dealer John Smith (1781–1855)—who owned the portrait himself not long thereafter—praised the work as “a carefully finished picture” by the master.8 Nearly a century later, in 1923, Otto Hirschmann exclaimed how, “in a stroke,” Rembrandt had surpassed “the older generation of Amsterdam portrait painters . . . with the unpretentious self-assurance with which he portrayed this girl, as if there were no difficulties of representation to overcome.”9 The painting’s distinguished provenance likewise reflects the high regard in which it has been held. Among its notable nineteenth- and twentieth-century owners were Thomas Turton (1780–1864), the Bishop of Ely; Sir John Poynder Dickson-Poynder (1866–1914), the first Lord Islington, who kept the painting at Hilmarton Manor in Wiltshire; and the New York collector Frederick Brown, whose acquisition of the portrait in 1925 was heralded in newspapers along the East Coast.10
In 1986, however, the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) brought into question the traditional attribution of Portrait of a Young Woman to Rembrandt and argued that it was likely executed by an assistant in the master’s studio.11 The RRP concluded that certain aspects of the painting’s handling, including what they described as its “undifferentiated” and smooth manner of execution, differed from Rembrandt’s technique.12 Nevertheless, and somewhat inconsistently, the RRP closely associated Portrait of a Young Woman with Portrait of Maertgen van Bilderbeecq, also dated 1633, which it fully attributed to Rembrandt. Describing similarities in the use of motifs, the application of paint in the lace and the ruff, including in the preparatory stage, and the distribution of light and shade across the sitters’ faces, the RRP’s authors judged the works to be “so alike that one has to conclude that there is some direct link between [them] and that they were probably produced in the same workshop.”13
Rembrandt painted many portraits completely by himself in the early 1630s, but he also worked closely with assistants when producing others. There is no stylistic or technical reason to believe that Portrait of a Young Woman is this kind of collaborative work, however, and the full attribution to Rembrandt is entirely convincing. Just how Uylenburgh’s workshop functioned in this period remains a matter of dispute.14 During the years that Rembrandt oversaw Uylenburgh’s studio, it focused on the production of portraits, and Rembrandt occasionally enlisted some level of assistance because of the high demand. In keeping with the practices of Dutch and Flemish workshops, assistants familiar with Rembrandt’s manner of working would have contributed to elements such as the sitter’s costume or hands.15 Nevertheless, little is known about those who assisted Rembrandt with his portrait commissions. Beyond the portrait painter Dirk Santvoort (1610/11–80), and Isaac de Jouderville (ca. 1612–48), a pupil of Rembrandt’s in Leiden who likely accompanied the master when he moved to Amsterdam, no other names have been proposed.16 S.A.C. Dudok van Heel has recently argued that “there was only one master painter [Rembrandt] working in the [Uylenburgh] studio,” and “fifty years of Rembrandt research has not revealed any new names of possible Uylenburgh employees. . . . Thus there is no ‘Circle of Rembrandt.’”17
The evolving views on Rembrandt’s workshop practice have prompted renewed reflections on a number of portraits from the early 1630s, as well as a less narrowly defined idea of Rembrandt’s manner of working.18 Although the reservations expressed by the RRP about the attribution of Portrait of a Young Woman to Rembrandt have not been further discussed in the literature, when the painting was included in the Young Rembrandt exhibition in 2019, it was once again fully attributed to Rembrandt.19 Indeed, since 1986, a number of scholars, including Ernst van de Wetering, one of the authors of the RRP’s commentary on this painting, have developed a more nuanced perspective on Rembrandt’s approach to portraiture in this period, particularly with his depiction of female sitters.20 They have cited various factors that contributed to a portrait’s handling and character, including the master’s relationship to his sitters and their personalities, backgrounds, and gender. Other intangibles, such as the speed in which the commissions were executed, even with pendant portraits, likewise need to be considered.21
Portrait of a Young Woman should be understood within this framework. Rembrandt’s smooth handling of his sitter complements her quietly confident demeanor, one that may have been impacted by the formality of the commission.22 At a point when he was just starting out in Amsterdam, Rembrandt preferred a more restrained approach in his depiction of young women, often in contrast to the broader execution that characterizes their male counterparts.23 This approach is evident in Portrait of a Woman in Braunschweig (fig 3), whose attribution was also questioned by the RRP in 1986. Reattributing the portrait to Rembrandt in 2014, Ernst van de Wetering wrote that “the highly detailed and smooth execution” of the woman’s portrait had previously been seen as “incompatible with the idea of Rembrandt’s manner of painting to which the RRP was [then] committed.”24 Whether Rembrandt’s approach in these female portraits can be explained by his reticence to introduce too much personality in his sitters, or an effort to meet the needs of a new clientele, his subtle manner of painting in The Leiden Collection’s Portrait of a Young Woman captures the sitter’s sensitive and curious nature with great assurance.25 This approach, together with the pictorial—and somewhat experimental—treatment of the lace, makes this portrait a compelling example of Rembrandt’s entrée onto the Amsterdam market.26
One unresolved question is whether Portrait of a Young Woman had a male pendant. In 1930, Wilhelm Valentiner suggested that this work may have served as the companion to Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat, now in The Leiden Collection (fig 5).27 Although the sitters in these two paintings, which have the same date and nearly identical dimensions, turn toward one another, this proposal is unlikely. As the authors of the Corpus first pointed out, the differences in the original shape of the panels (Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat was only later cut into an oval), as well the structure of the wood used, make the pairing unlikely.28 Moreover, the notable differences in the sitters’ appearance and style of dress argue against it: the hairstyle and the red braided doublet worn by the male sitter indicate that he was either a foreigner or a member of the military, an unlikely match for the conservatively dressed Dutch sitter in Portrait of a Young Woman.29
Nevertheless, the two portraits have crossed paths at various points in their histories. In 1930, when held in separate American private collections, both were exhibited at The Thirteenth Loan Exhibition of Old Master Paintings by Rembrandt at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which was one of the first Rembrandt exhibitions in the United States.30 The paintings later appeared in the same auction at Sotheby’s in 1998, after which Portrait of a Young Woman entered the collection of Ambassador J. William Middendorf II.31 A former United States Ambassador to the Netherlands (1969–73) and Secretary of the Navy (1974–77), Middendorf has been a passionate collector of Dutch and Flemish paintings, including several Rembrandts, for more than five decades.32 In honor of his many inspiring contributions to both the nation and the history of collecting, the present collector has aptly named Portrait of a Young Woman the “Middendorf Rembrandt.” The painting’s acquisition by The Leiden Collection thus not only deepens its representation of this dynamic decade of Rembrandt’s career in Amsterdam, but it also reflects a rich tradition of collecting Dutch art.33