Formerly considered a portrait of the young Rembrandt by both J.W. von Moltke and Werner Sumowski (loc. cit.), this engaging tronie (head study) of a dashing young man sporting an extravagant moustache and theatrically dressed in a gorget and white feathered red cap is among the most important works Flinck produced immediately following the completion of his training with Rembrandt in Hendrik Uylenburgh’s workshop. While von Moltke suggested that Flinck had begun his studies with Rembrandt around 1633 (loc. cit., p. 10), it has more recently – and convincingly – been suggested that Flinck arrived the following year and that his training may have come to an end on 1 May 1635, when Rembrandt departed the Uylenburgh workshop and Flinck likely took over as its head (D. de Witt, 'Govert Flinck Learns to Paint Like Rembrandt', in Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck: Rembrandt’s Master Pupils, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 2017, pp. 19, 23). Such a timeline accords well with information provided by Arnold Houbraken, who, citing information relayed to him by Flinck’s son, Nicolaas Anthoni, wrote that Flinck had spent only a year with Rembrandt (see A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, II, Amsterdam, 1719, p. 21).
Despite the brevity of Flinck’s tenure with Rembrandt, the elder master’s work would continue to be the defining influence on his paintings through the early 1640s. So closely could Flinck approximate his master’s style that Houbraken mentioned that several of his paintings were sold as works by Rembrandt (op. cit., p. 21). But, in the second half of the 1630s, Flinck was anything but a slavish copyist of his master’s works. Indeed, the Italian biographer Filippo Baldinucci, whose information on Flinck had come from Rembrandt’s pupil, Bernhard Keil, recorded that Uylenburgh so trusted the young head of his workshop that he gave Flinck free reign in the selection of his subjects (F. Baldinucci, Notizie dei professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua…, V, Florence, 1702, p. 484).
Flinck’s fanciful sartorial choices for this smiling young cavalier reflect the visual vocabulary established by Rembrandt in the decade or so before Flinck set brush to canvas but are reimagined in Flinck’s distinctive style in which bold contrasts, smooth surfaces and rounded features prevail. Among the closest parallels with the present painting is Rembrandt’s masterful early Man in a gorget and cap (fig. 1), which likewise depicts a mustachioed man at bust-length wearing a fanciful feathered cap, gorget and bandolier slung diagonally across his chest. Executed circa 1626/27 while Rembrandt was still in Leiden, it is unclear whether Flinck would have known or had access to the painting. However, paintings executed in Amsterdam like the artist’s Portrait of Joris de Caulerij of 1632 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) likewise portray the sitter, a member of a citizens’ militia in The Hague and captain at sea, wearing a gorget and richly embroidered bandolier. Closer still is the artist’s Standard bearer, which, perhaps more than coincidentally, dates to the same year as the present painting (Private collection) and may well have served as direct inspiration for Flinck’s tronie. Unlike the afore-mentioned works by Rembrandt, Flinck clothed his fancifully dressed young man in a coat with elaborately decorated rows of metallic braiding. Such details are consistent with the hongerlijn, a thigh-length overcoat typical of Hungarian dress, which was regarded as a valuable, exotic garment that, much like the man’s gorget and bandolier, held militaristic overtones (for a fuller discussion of the hongerlijn and the interest in eastern European dress more generally, see E. Gordenker, ‘Cuyp’s Horsemen: What Do Costumes Tell Us?,’ in Aelbert Cuyp, ed. A.K. Wheelock, Jr., Washington, 2001, pp. 53-63).
While this painting can no longer be identified as a portrait of the young Rembrandt, the man’s features, notably his small eyes and broad nose, recall those found in Rembrandt’s many self-portraits. In the catalogue to the recent exhibition Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck: Rembrandt’s Master Pupils held at the Rembrandt House and Amsterdam Museum, David de Witt perceptively suggested that the man’s features derive from the face of the shepherd in Flinck’s Portrait of Rembrandt as a shepherd, also painted in 1636 and today in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 2; op. cit., p. 28). Moreover, the head-on presentation of the subject, his head slightly cocked to the side, his parted lips and the striking chiaroscuro all suggest that Flinck adapted his composition from Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with shaded eyes of 1634. Rembrandt must have left this painting unfinished when he departed the Uylenburgh workshop and, as demonstrated by its appearance prior to a conservation treatment completed in 2002, Flinck appears to have finished it (figs. 3 and 4).
Flinck’s seemingly endless fascination with the tactility of the depicted garments afforded him the opportunity to experiment with pictorial solutions and produce a vivid demonstration of his own technical virtuosity. Like Rembrandt, he probably worked directly from actual objects, items that he could have gained access to from Rembrandt’s enormous collection of studio props, or, perhaps likelier still, his own budding collection. It is not known when exactly Flinck began to acquire such items, though in 1644 he bought two adjacent houses in Amsterdam’s Lauriergracht for the exceptional sum of 10,000 guilders. Shortly thereafter he built a large painting gallery with high windows, on the upper ledges of which he housed his collection of ‘busts of the emperors, many handsome casts of the finest Antique marbles, and, hanging in between, all kinds of exotic robes, garments, harnesses, rifles, and swords…’ (see S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, ‘Het “schilderhuis” van Govaert Flinck en de Kunsthandel van Uylenburch aan de Lauriersgracht te Amsterdam,’ Jaarboek van het Genootschap Amstelodamum, LXXIV, 1982, pp. 70-78).
Research conducted in 2018 by Geerte Broersma and Prof. Jacek Tylicki on behalf of the painting’s owner suggests it is first recorded in Danzig in 1781. This tantalizingly suggests that when Flinck completed the painting in 1636 while working for Hendrik Uylenburgh, it may have left for Poland shortly thereafter. Uylenburgh was well-connected in the Baltic port city. He was raised in Krakow and advised King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland and his son, Crown Prince Wladislaus IV on his acquisitions of art After moving to Amsterdam, he maintained strong relationships in Danzig, where his brother, Rombout, lived as court painter to Sigismund III and assisted Uylenburgh with his activities as an art dealer.