Having been examined in 1971 by Dr. Simon Levie and Professor Joshua Bruyn, then members of the Rembrandt Research Project, the present lot was included as no. A 63 in volume II of the Project's Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, published in 1986. The Project's assessment of the painting was thus summarised: '... an outstanding specimen of Rembrandt's portraits from his early days in Amsterdam ...' a view that has subsequently been re-endorsed by Professor Ernst van de Wetering who has recently examined the painting.
The present work is a testimony to Rembrandt's deep sincerity, utter integrity and concentrated application as a portraitist of genius. The sitter was obviously a petite individual, as the small volume of her head indicates (Rembrandt allowed too great a reserve for it). Her lively personality is set off by the rippling outline of her sleeve and the raised shoulder padding. X-radiographs show that Rembrandt paid much attention to the outline of the costume; he seems to have lowered the outline of her left shoulder twice before arriving at the final configuration.
When examined in 1971 the members of the Rembrandt Research Project reported that 'a yellowed varnish, forming patchy lumps over deep places, interferes with observation and impairs overall effect; they stated that 'if the painting were cleaned its quality would undoubtedly come even more to the fore and the details would appear more clearly'. These remarks are more than borne out by a recent cleaning (when a thin layer of old varnish was left undisturbed).
Two copies are known: at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, and in the Gemäldegalerie, Dessau (for which see S. Klingen, Kataloge der Anhaltischen Gemäldegalerie Dessau. Die Deutschen Gemälde des 16. Und 17. Jahrhunderts, p. 88, no. 134, illustrated p. 87). These are both rectangular; however removal of paper stuck to the edge of the support of the present lot revealed that the panel is bevelled and thus proves that the oval format is indeed original.
1632 was an important year in Rembrandt's early career. Having moved from Leiden (hence the 'L' [=Leiden] in his monogram) and settled in Amsterdam in 1631 or early in 1632, he painted numerous portraits of prosperous merchants, prominent clergymen, administrators and other individuals with whom he either had a business or a private connection. In 1632 Rembrandt received the important commission to paint a group portrait of surgeons, with their praelector anatomiae Nicolaes Tulp. This masterpiece is now in the Mauritshuis. From the same year dates the present work, the identity of whose sitter has remained as yet unknown. Rembrandt's portraits in general give hardly any clues as to their identity. In the present painting, however, the age of the sitter provides an important clue. As she is portrayed at the age of 62, the year of her birth would probably be 1570. Going through the list of names and men and women known to have been portrayed by Rembrandt - these names have been obtained from archival sources - only one emerges as a possibility. This is Aeltje Pietersdr. Uylenburgh, wife of the Calvinist clergyman Johannes Cornelisz. Sylvius (1564-1638). Her precise date of birth is unknown, but it is generally believed to be 1571. Rembrandt is known to have painted the husband and wife as their son bequeathed portraits of them in his will of 1681: 'de twee contrefeytsels van zijn heer testateurs vader en moeder saliger door rembrant van Rijn geschildert' (the two portraits of the testators's late father and mother painted by Rembrandt van Rijn).
Rembrandt is known to have had close contact with the couple and their relatives. He worked for the art dealer Hendrik Uylenburgh in his first years in Amsterdam and lived in his house. He also had close links with the clergyman Sylvius, who had married Aeltje Uylenburgh in Leeuwarden in 1595. She was a daughter of Pieter Rommertsz. Uylenburgh, whose brother Robertus was Saskia Uylenburgh's father, and thus Rembrandt's future father-in-law. When in 1634 the notice of marriage between Saskia and Rembrandt was drawn up, Sylvius vouched for her as she was a niece of his wife. Again Sylvius was a witness at the christening of Saskia's and Rembrandt's first child, Rombertus, in 1635. He himself christened their daughter, Cornelia, in 1638. Finally Aeltje Sylvius, née Uylenburgh, then already widowed, was a witness at the christening of Titus in 1641.
In view of these connections, it is not surprising that he portrayed several members of the Sylvius and Uylenburgh families. From 1633 dates the etched portrait of Johannes Sylvius (Bartsch, Hollstein 266). From 1646 dates another etched portrait of the same sitter (Bartsch, Hollstein 280). Of the last, posthumous portrayal, preliminary drawings exist. His son, Petrus Sylvius, also a clergyman, is probably the sitter in the etching of a 'A young Man in a velvet cap' from 1637 (Bartsch, Hollstein 268), since the sitter is thus identified on one impression by a seventeenth-century hand.
Besides the etched portraits the will referred to above of 1681 confirms that Rembrandt also painted portraits of the Sylvius couple. These portraits probably went by descent to Cornelis Sylvius, after the death of Aeltje Sylvius in 1644. It is likely that the portraits still remained in the family at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Thereafter their trace is lost; the present lot is first certainly recorded as having been owned by the famous, London dealer John Smith early in the nineteenth century. Examination of Smith's ledgers in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum show the recorded payment by G.C. Coesvelt (either an inaccuracy of Smith's, or a relation of W.G. Coesvelt) to Smith of a commission for entering the present picture into the 1828 George Stanley sale (see provenance above), indicating that it was Coesvelt who was the actual owner, and that Smith was at that time acting merely as an agent. William G. Coesvelt was a banker who formed a collection of pictures, many of them acquired in Spain between 1809-13, and who at times backed G. A. Wallis and William Buchanan in their purchasing in Spain and Italy at the period (see W. Buchanan, Memoirs of Painting, II, London, 1824, pp. 229-35). The painting does, however, appear to have entered Smith's possession by the time of his sale of it to the dealer, Albert Brondgeest, in July 1835, a date that presumably precedes Smith's authorship of volume VII of his Catalogue Raisonné, published in 1836, which refers to the painting as being 'Now in the possession of the writer ... Price 200l'.
Best known to posterity for his Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters (1829-37), the important dealer, connoisseur and art historian, John Smith, trained as a carver and gilder but later set up a business dealing in fine art in Great Marlborough Street, London, later moving to New Bond Street. He is known to have numbered members of the Rothschild family among his clients, and it is therefore possible that Brondgeest acted as an agent for a Rothschild. His catalogues raisonnés formed the basis of modern study of the oeuvres of the artists concerned and were outstanding examples of scholarship in their time.
We are grateful to Jaap van der Veen, a freelance historian who has worked for the Rembrandt Research Project, for his substantial help in cataloguing this lot and proposing the identification of the sitter.