First documented in 1929, around the time of its acquisition by Heinrich Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Man in a gorget and a cap holds an incontrovertible place within the oeuvre of Rembrandt's paintings. Accepted as autograph by all of the key twentieth-century Rembrandt scholars, including Hofstede de Groot, Valentiner, Bredius, Bauch and Gerson, the attribution has never seriously been disputed. It was examined for the first time by the Rembrandt Research Project in 1973, who subsequently included it in the first volume of the Rembrandt Corpus in 1982, acknowledging it as an outstanding early work datable to 1626/27, thus cementing its place amongst the 'hard core' of securely attributed early paintings. Since 1997, the Dreesmann picture has featured in no fewer than five major monographic exhibitions on Rembrandt, making it one of the most widely exhibited and best documented of any painting by the artist in recent years.
Rembrandt would have been in his early twenties when he painted this picture working as an independent artist in Leiden alongside Jan Lievens. This period in Rembrandt's career is marked by the astonishing rapidity of his stylistic development. Within the space of months he can be seen to move away from the colourful clustered compositions of his first works, which were strongly influenced by Pieter Lastman, to focus on direct observation, using strong lighting effects, a more subdued palette and an increasingly bold application of paint. The present work, widely considered to be the artist's earliest extant single figure picture, is a seminal document of Rembrandt's extraordinary artistic evolution.
Early attempts to identify the sitter as a contemporary soldier or even, as Kurt Bauch suggested, as the artist's brother Adriaen, have been dismissed in favour of interpreting the picture as a tronie, or character study. This was a genre that held special appeal to Rembrandt throughout his career, allowing him to choose his models purely for picturesque reasons, to dress them in antique, or exotic costume and to submit them to his own intensive artistic observation, free from the dictates of a formal portrait commission. While the identity of the present sitter will probably never be known, there can be no doubt that he was painted from life. His elaborate plumed and slashed cap and his gorget are unmistakably from the sixteenth century, thus casting him in the guise of a historical figure of some kind. A number of possible visual sources for this character type found in sixteenth-century prints have been suggested. Rembrandt was an avid collector of prints and even at a young age is likely to have been extremely well versed in printed iconography. Lyckle de Vries noted a resemblence to the boisterous 'Capitano' character from the comedia dell'arte, as depicted for instance in a print by Jacques Callot from 1618/19; (cited by J. Lange, in The mystery of the young Rembrandt, exhibtion catalogue, 2001, p. 354, fig. 74a; see fig. 1). More plausibly, given the sitter's serious countenance, and as first advanced by Albert Blankert, Rembrandt may have been influenced by sixteenth-century German woodcuts depicting lansquenets, Swiss or German mercenary fighters, known for their extravagant costume and ruthlessness in combat. Rembrandt is known to have owned prints of this subject by 1656, and woodcuts such as the one by Hans Rudolf Manuel from 1547 may well have been familiar to the young Rembrandt (fig. 2).
Notwithstanding the picture's possible historical associations, Rembrandt's primary concern with the present work would have been to experiment with pictorial solutions and to produce a vivid demonstration of his own technical virtuosity. His sitter is shown addressing the viewer with a direct gaze from a slightly higher vantage point, looking over his left shoulder with his eyebrows raised and his head tilted back slightly. His expression is equivocal but his overall demeanour conveys a pervading sense of self-confidence and authority. Rembrandt shows considerable interest in the play of light, which falls diagonally downwards from left to right, casting a dramatic shadow across the wall. The articulation of the surface behind the sitter, with cracks and some exposed brickwork, serves to enhance the sense of space and to heighten the very realistic sense of the man's presence. The lighting inevitably casts the right side of the subject into shade but also causes a dramatic shadow to fall under the brim of the cap across the man's forehead and right eye. In these respects, Rembrandt probably drew inspiration from Caravaggio and, closer to home, from the dramatically lit paintings of drinkers and musicians made by the Utrecht Caravaggisti in the early 1620s (Dibbits, op. cit., p. 44).
Rembrandt's interest in the effects of light are evident to an even greater degree in his exploration of the various means of rendering reflections. The wetness of the eye, the tip of the nose, the sparkling butt of the sword, are all made using deft strokes of white paint applied with brilliant verve and to superb effect. The mirror-like gorget gave an opportunity for the young master to show the full extent of his brio, applying thick yellow impasto in short rapid strokes to demark highlights across the surface. Rembrandt's profound understanding of the properties of paint meant that he was able to render different textures and lighting effects by merely altering the application of paint. He explores this further in painting the man's hair using the butt-end of the brush to scratch through to the ground layer, making it appear that these strands of hair are catching the light. The same applies to the moustache and the stubble on his chin. This sgraffito technique was to find perhaps its ultimate expression in Rembrandt's painting just a few years later, in his dramatically lit, youthful Self-Portrait of circa 1628 (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; fig. 3). While in the present work smooth fluent brushwork is used in the painting of the jacket, thin, dry brushstrokes are used to define the texture of the ostrich feathers. This relentless exploration of the expressive possibilities of paint is typical of Rembrandt's work at this time.
An x-radiograph of the present panel shows that the Man in a gorget and cap was painted over a depiction of the head of an old man (fig. 4). It was entirely characteristic for Rembrandt to re-use panels and paint over works that were considered unsatisfactory in some way. Another example of this is the David with the Head of Goliath (Basel, Kunstsammlung), painted in the same period (1627) over a male head study. The underlying painting in this instance appears to be similar in character to a number of head studies of bearded men that became a recurrent motif in the output of both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, for example Jan Lievens's Head of an Old Man (Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste; see fig. 5). Indeed, the Rembrandt Research Project speculate that the freer handling evident in the hidden painting indicates that it might be closer to Jan Lievens than to Rembrandt, which throws an interesting light on the relationship between the two artists at that time.
A copy of the present work was sold at Christie's in 1952 (25 April 1952, lot 148, as 'De Poorter'). Valentiner briefly certified it as original after the sale, but it was correctly dismissed by the Rembrandt Research Project, after inspection in 1970, as a 'later free copy certainly not done by anyone in Rembrandt's entourage'. The early provenance of the present work, pre-1930, has kindly been identified by Ingrid Goddeeris of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
With the Man in a gorget and cap, Rembrandt conceived a pictorial formula that would define his approach to portraiture for the rest of his career. The structure of the composition, in which the subject is addressed at close quarters and shown turning to face the viewer, recurs in countless bust-length portraits, self-portraits and tronies throughout his career. In the same way, the uncompromising realism of the present work, its psychological insight and its technical virtuosity, are the key stylistic attributes that remained central to Rembrandt's art and that earned him unrivalled success in the ensuing years.
Beyond Rembrandt's lifetime, much has been written about the influence that he exerted on successive generations of artists right up until the present day. Only recently, one of his paintings, a Self-Portrait of circa 1659 (Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet) served as the keystone of an exhibition exploring the impact of his art on the work of Francis Bacon (London, Ordovas, Irrational Marks -- Bacon and Rembrandt, 2011). In this context, it is not surprising that Rembrandt also found a fervent admirer in the greatest of all twentieth-century European painters -- Pablo Picasso, who according to John Richardson, saw the Dutch artist as: 'an all powerful God-the-Father figure whom he [Picasso] had to internalize before he died'. This was said with reference to Picasso's Musketeer pictures that he started to paint from around 1966, many of which clearly evoke the spirit of Rembrandt's historical tronies and self-portraits. Although it is unlikely that Picasso ever set eyes on the present work, his Buste, painted in November 1970, certainly recalls its character and serves as testament to Rembrandt's enduring fame as one of the greatest portrait painters of all time (fig. 6).