Both the authorship and the subject of this striking portrait have yet to be established with certainty. First documented in a sale in Amsterdam in 1912, scholars have remained perplexed by it ever since and it is perhaps a measure both of its enigma and its powerful presence that it has been associated in the past with the most mysterious of all Dutch painters - Johannes Vermeer.
In an interior setting, an elegantly dressed man is shown sketching at a table, holding a crayon in his left hand. He looks up and turns his head to address the viewer with complete confidence, holding his chin pensively in his right hand. The direct manner of his pose has inevitably led to suggestions in the past that this is a self-portrait, although this is far from clear. His costume is conspicuously lavish. He wears an olive grey halfbuttoned waistcoat trimmed with gold embroidery over a linen shirt with flat collar and voluminous sleeves. His scarlet mantle, adorned with golden buttons and braids, has fallen from his shoulder, and is artfully arranged, suspended from the sitter’s waist. The man’s dark hair reaches his shoulder and he wears a wide-brimmed hat with large black feathers. The flamboyant nature of his attire, combined with his stylish pose, naturally endow the sitter with a pervading air of sophistication and learning. Furthermore, it is made abundantly clear to the viewer from the prominent placement on the table of the book, that classical antiquity is the focus of his studies. The book is a copy of the Funerali antichi di diversi popoli et nationi, an early antiquarian survey of the burial practices of the ancient world published by Tommaso Porcacchi in 1574.
The artistic pursuit of the sitter does not necessarily prove he was an artist by profession. By the mid-17th century, sketching was not merely the preserve of the artist but an activity that was encouraged as part of the education of the well-heeled gentleman. The sitter’s grand demeanour and his costume alone indeed points more to him being a connoisseur than an artist, and comparisons can be made with the great Dutch collector Jan Six, who styles himself in the same fashion, wearing the same kind of red mantle, for Rembrandt’s iconic 1654 portrait (fig. 1; Six Collection, Amsterdam).
Although the portrait has traditionally always been linked to Delft, whether to Cornelis Bisschop or to Vermeer, the overt allusion to classical antiquity combined with the dramatic lighting effects and the fanciful costume, point to Italy, and to Rome in particular, as its more likely place of origin. This would place the artist in the milieu of the significant number of northern painters active in Rome in the 1650s, in or around the artistic group known as the Schildersbent. A steady stream of Dutch Grand Tourists and merchants were the most important benefactors for the group, either commissioning portraits or buying contemporary Italian scenes, such as the low life subjects favoured by the Bamboccianti. This portrait bears similarities with the work of Michiel Sweerts, an artist at the centre of this community in Rome who excelled in dramatically lit half-length portraits and character studies. His celebrated Man in a Red Cloak, datable to his Roman period, circa 1652-54, is a good example, showing a man in almost the same costume as that worn by the sitter in the present portrait (fig. 2; London, Wallace Collection).
It has been suggested more recently that a French rather than Dutch artist may be behind the present work. The possibility of a French painter active in Rome at the same time as Sweerts, such as Charles- Alphonse Dufresnoy, whose Portrait of a young man with classical ruins beyond (Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum) share stylistic similarities with the present work, should not be discounted. More tantalising is the suggestion that the sitter may actually be identifiable as the artist Nicolas-Pierre Loir, on the basis of the clear likeness he shares with an 18th century engraving of Loir in Dezallier d’Argenville’s Abregé de la vie des plus fameux peintres, a volume devoted to the lives of the most famous painters (fig. 3). A little-known figure today, Nicolas Loir was a celebrated exponent of French classicism. He had studied under Simon Vouet and Sébastien Bourdon, before spending two years in Rome from 1647 to 1649. In Italy, he fell under the spell of Nicolas Poussin’s art and upon his return to Paris, he became a fashionable history painter. Loir may have become well acquainted with Dutch and Flemish artists during his stay in Rome – one of whom may be responsible for the present portrait – through his teacher Sébastien Bourdon, himself a central figure of the Bamboccianti.
If the portrait is of Loir, it would be natural for him to be shown making studies from classical antiquity. We know from Dezallier d’Argenville that ‘while in Rome [Nicolas Loir] was commissioned a large painting which subject was Darius visiting the tomb of Semiramis, and the success of this piece was very glorious’ (A.J. Dezallier d’Argenville, Abregé de la vie des plus fameux peintres, Paris, II, 1745, p. 318). Though this painting is lost today, such a specific and unusual iconography would likely have required the artist to become familiar with ancient Eastern funerary rituals, at a time where the concern for historical accuracy in depictions of classical events was growing among both painters and patrons. The Funerali Antichi, with its section on ‘Persi & loro costume verso i corpi morti’ (‘Persians and their customs with regards to dead bodies’), would therefore have been the ideal resource for Loir to consult for such an important commission.