Govert Flinck (1615-1660) and Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) were two of Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606-1669) most successful students. After establishing their own studios in the 1640s, both achieved acclaim equal to their teacher. The British painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) once remarked that he thought Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch was more likely to be by Bol. Today, as Christie’s Old Masters specialist John Hawley explains, both artists remain in Rembrandt’s considerable shadow.
A recent exhibition at the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam re-examined the output of Flinck and Bol, and included The Standard Bearer (below), which is an unsigned reproduction of Rembrandt’s original that now hangs in a private collection in Paris. The show’s catalogue attributed the circa 1630s work, which is the only painted studio reproduction of the image, to ‘possibly Govert Flinck or Ferdinand Bol’. According to Hawley, ‘These are the only two painters working in Rembrandt’s studio in the 1630s who were advanced enough in their studies to create such a masterful variant.’
By 1631 Rembrandt had become the head of an Amsterdam workshop where pupils could learn the painting trade under his tutelage. To provide additional cash flow, he charged them 100 guilders a year (roughly $6,000 in today’s money), which covered tuition fees and materials, but not board. Over his 40-year career, he took on no fewer than 50 students (at least 20 are named in documents, and another 30 are identifiable on stylistic grounds), and in one year alone earned 2,500 guilders from running one of the busiest art enterprises of the 17th century.
Entry to the studio was usually dependent on talent. Fortunately, both Flinck and Bol had previously trained in other workshops and came to Rembrandt to polish their skills. They were probably therefore able to skip the lessons on mixing pigments and stretching canvases, and begin instead with reproducing Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings, commencing with studies in perspective and texture before advancing on to the flesh of figures and faces. During training, which typically lasted between one and four years, Rembrandt contractually retained the right to sell their works and retain all the proceeds, so long as he supplied their materials.
‘While at least five later painted variants of The Standard Bearer are known, the evidence suggests this painting could have only been made by Flinck or Bol’
As reproductive exercises, these pictures by Rembrandt’s students suppressed individual creativity and were rarely signed by the artists responsible. In addition, works by Rembrandt’s pupils were frequently mixed with his own when entering the market, and various names would be posited to anonymous pictures when they changed hands. It is testament to the quality of The Standard Bearer that when it was bought in the late 19th century by the American businessman and collector P.A.B. Widener, it was widely considered to be by Rembrandt himself, rather than by Bol, Flinck, or any other of his students.
‘The original Standard Bearer quickly became one of Rembrandt’s most iconic images and was subsequently reproduced in drawings and paintings well into the 18th century,’ explains Hawley. ‘And while at least five later painted variants are known, the evidence suggests this painting could have only been made by Flinck or Bol. The way the light delicately catches the figure’s billowing sleeves and the man’s nuanced facial features, complete with wispy hair and fleshy, pinkish jowls, are the tells of a particularly skilled painter,’ adds the specialist. ‘The only two artists working with Rembrandt in the mid-1630s who were this advanced were Flinck and Bol.’
By the time Bol entered Rembrandt’s second studio in 1636, he had already apprenticed under Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (1594-1652). ‘In light of Bol’s status it’s not not hard to envision Rembrandt setting him the challenge of producing the present work from the prime version, which probably remained in the artist’s studio at this time,’ says Hawley. A drawing by Bol in the British Museum proves that he tackled the subject at least once, the specialist points out.
Flinck on the other hand, who was one of Rembrandt’s first students, had finished his apprenticeship by 1636 and was now running the Amsterdam studio that Rembrandt had previously managed. Visual evidence suggests the pair remained close; in 1636, around the same time this picture was painted, Flinck also reproduced Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac. With the two artists living just blocks away from each other in Amsterdam during the 1630s, it’s possible Flinck may have seen The Standard Bearer, suggests Hawley.
A final piece of evidence can be found on the reverse of Rembrandt’s drawing of Susanna and the Elders, from circa 1636, which is now in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It contains a small, hand-written note by Rembrandt which outlines the sale of several of his works, alongside those of his pupils. One of the works, which is described as ‘Sijn vaendrager’ (his standard bearer) and contains a frustratingly indecipherable name, is listed as changing hands for 15 guilders. This would not have been expensive enough to be an autograph work by Rembrandt, and so the note leads us to believe that around 1636 the artist sold an accomplished studio variant of his original painting. It is tantalising to believe that Rembrandt’s note may well refer to the present painting.