This powerful and well-preserved painting has been recorded since 1891 when it was sold at Christie's on behalf of the 5th Marquess of Ely as a Rembrandt. This attribution seems to have found support amongst the leading Rembrandt scholars of the day, including Bode, Valentiner and Hofstede de Groot, before the hand was first correctly identified in 1922 as that of the rare Leiden painter Karel van der Pluym (see Bredius, 1922, op. cit.). The artist was the son of a Leiden master craftsman whose wife (Karel's mother) was the first cousin of Rembrandt, which was to earn Van der Pluym lasting notoriety as the 'second cousin' of the great Dutch painter. Given this family connection and his bold Rembrandtesque style of painting, it can safely be assumed (although it is undocumented), that Van der Pluym was apprenticed to Rembrandt in the early to mid-1640s. He joined the newly formed Leiden Guild of painters in 1648 and served as Dean of the Guild in 1654-1655. He held several other public offices in Leiden, leading some to suggest that painting may have become no more than a sideline for him. This would also explain why his surviving oeuvre is so limited, consisting of no more than around a dozen securely attributed works.
This example may be compared to a few other intently observed single figure depictions by the artist that are similarly characterised by their dramatic lighting and heavily impastoed application of paint. Amongst these are the Goldweigher (private collection) and the Geographer (Chicago, private collection). In the latter the sitter is shown holding the same reading glasses (see Sumowski, op. cit., 1984, nos. 1594 and 1598). These works are likely to date from the mid-1650s and reveal Van der Pluym's steadfast adherence to Rembrandt's broad technique, in the face of overwhelming popularity in Leiden at this time for the fijnschilder style of painting. Van der Pluym clearly maintained links with his famous cousin throughout his life and in 1662 he drew up a will bequeathing the considerable sum of 3000 guilders to Rembrandt's son Titus.
The present work originally had a pendant depicting a woman holding a book, seen in profile, turned towards the sitter in the present work (Sumowski, 1984, op. cit., no. 1593; see fig. 1). The two pictures were sold as consecutive lots at Christie's in 1891, but remained together with Colnaghi and subsequently with Jules Porgès (1832-1921) in Paris. The two pictures must have been separated whilst with Porgès and the current location of the pendant is unknown.
We are grateful to Professor Werner Sumowski for re-confirming the attribution to Van der Pluym on the basis of photographs.