A work of brooding intensity, the Old Bearded Man is here presented as a compelling late work by the greatest Dutch painter of the seventeenth century: Rembrandt van Rijn. Documented since the mid-eighteenth century and recorded in all of the most significant works on the artist’s paintings, this picture disappeared from the public eye in the 1930s, only to re-emerge again in 2010 when rediscovered by Arthur Wheelock in an American private collection. Wheelock conducted a thorough re-assessment of the painting, further to restoration and technical study, publishing his findings in a 2011 article in which he puts forward a persuasive case to admit the picture unequivocally into Rembrandt’s illustrious late oeuvre. Wheelock recognised ‘a colour palette and brushwork entirely consistent with Rembrandt’s work’, and in the sitter’s face ‘the pulsating sense of life characteristic of the master’s late portraits’. A subsequent technical analysis of the painting conducted in London by Art Analysis & Research (report available on request; fig. 5) has revealed several factors to support Wheelock’s view, including the presence of a quartz ground specific to Rembrandt’s studio; the use of a range of pigments and certain technical traits that are entirely characteristic with Rembrandt’s output; and the re-use of another portrait as the support, cut down and rotated before the existing composition was developed - a practice also in keeping with the artist’s working method.
Rembrandt’s late works, painted during the 1650s and 1660s, constitute a remarkable period of creativity, invention and experimentation in the painter’s corpus. Representing the ‘enthralling climax of his spectacular artistry’, the artist’s later paintings display his ever expanding engagement with a range of sources and his continual exploration of form, light and shadow articulated in a ‘relentlessly experimental approach to expressive technique’ (J. Bikker and G.J.M. Weber, Rembrandt: The Late Works, exhibition catalogue, London, National Gallery and Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 2014, p. 13). Never formally addressed by the Rembrandt Research Project, whose chronological survey of the Rembrandt corpus only reached as far as 1642, the recent exhibition of late works (cited above) shone much needed light on the artist’s output from the last two decades of his life. Although the exhibition pointedly avoided issues of attribution, it nevertheless revealed how disagreements amongst scholars remain, even with the artist’s most celebrated works. For instance the 1664 Lucretia (Washington D.C., National Gallery), central to the exhibition, is regarded by Professor Ernst van der Wetering as a work by a pupil (Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited – A Complete Survey, Rembrandt Research Project, VI, p. 682). It is therefore somewhat unsurprising that opinion on the work here under discussion also remains divided. It is also undeniable that the complicated condition of the Old Bearded Man - past cleaning and restoration of the paint surface has resulted in a degree of abrasion and a slight loss of form and detail in areas - has made it difficult for several key scholars to conclude decisively on attribution.
The Old Bearded Man bears an indistinct date of ‘166[…]’, with later damage rendering the last number difficult to determine. Strengthening has meant that the final number of the date has traditionally been read as a ‘7’, and was recorded as such in the catalogue of the Northbrook collection in 1889. Wheelock, however, has argued that it is more likely to have originally been a ‘1’ and has, historically, been misread. Indeed, a date in the early 1660s would appear to be more consistent between the richly layered paint and expressive use of light falling on the face of the old man, and other works of the same period by Rembrandt. Comparison can, for example, be drawn with Rembrandt’s 1660 Self-Portrait now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. no. 14.40.618; fig. 1). As noted by Arnold Houbraken in his 1718 biography of the painter, the modelling of the faces displays Rembrandt’s tendency to sculpt with paint using heavy dabs and strokes to build up the features. Both faces are half illuminated with strong light emanating outside the composition from the left, allowing the other half to be thrown into shadow. The skin tones of the Self-Portrait and the Old Man are typical of the painter’s late working practice, as described by André Félibien in his discussion of Rembrandt, that ‘often he [Rembrandt] simply used broad strokes of the brush, layering thick colours one on top of another, without blurring and blending them together’ (Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages des plus excellens peintres anciens et modernes, Paris, 1685, IV, p. 150). The paint is worked wet-in-wet, building the layers of colour to formulate a homogenous and dynamic rendering of skin and flesh, with the oblique light allowing for a more pronounced definition of the main features. Likewise the hair of the two portraits incorporates a surprisingly varied range of whites, greys, browns, blacks and yellows, again making use of rapid brush strokes to define the curls made with a thick bristle brush whose individual hairs remain visible in the white highlights. The present Old Man also makes use of another typical technique which features heavily in many of Rembrandt’s later works: in the old man’s hair and in the fur lining of his cloak, the painter has employed the end of his paint brush to incise lines into the wet paint. Such distinctive visual and technical traits are identifiable in other pictures like the Portrait of Jacob Trip painted in circa 1661 (fig. 2; London, National Gallery, inv. no.NG1674), the Apostle James the Minor of 1661 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and in the Man with a falcon on his wrist in Göteborg (circa 1662-1665; Göteborg Museum of Art, inv. no. GKM 0698). In these pictures, the faces of the figures are again modelled in a similarly animated way and the clothes, as with the present work, are reduced to summary, almost impressionistic, strokes of colour, modulating between light and shade, with local highlights applied to give a more complete form to their modelling.
The true ‘subject’ of the Old Man remains elusive. The setting and format of the picture counts against it being a formal portrait. The heavy, fur-lined cloak worn by the old man, held at the neck by an elaborate metal clasp decorated with two small tear-drop pearls, became a regular trope in Rembrandt’s work and was typically used to signify the figure as one from Biblical or ancient history. As such, the clothing and presentation of the figure would be unusual if the sitter was a patron commissioning his likeness. While certainly painted from life, carefully observing a sitting model, the old man should more probably be seen not as a portrait but rather as an allegorical, historical or spiritual figure in an image that as Wheelock points out ‘transcends strict classification’ (op.cit., p. 19). He emphasises the similarities between the model in the present work and that in the Saint Matthew the Evangelist in Paris (fig. 3; Musée du Louvre, inv. no. 1738), though noting the differences in the shape of the nose and beard that are not obviously comparable and thus should perhaps be regarded as separate sitters. Indeed, the present Old Man, both in terms of its conception, scale and the figure’s dress, cannot be associated with the small series of Apostles Rembrandt painted in the early 1660s, of which the Louvre Saint Matthew formed a part. In many respects the picture corresponds more closely with the earlier Old Man in Costume painted in 1643 (fig.4; Private collection), a work almost identical in scale, offering a similar meditation on old age. Both sitters adopt a similar frontal pose with hand(s) resting on the hilt of a staff, in a slightly less than life-size format.
The existence of a prominent border across the lower edge of the present work is a motif that can be found in several other Rembrandt paintings, although the precise function they served remains uncertain. In this case it is not clear whether the border was intended to denote a wooden parapet, as can be seen for example in the Scholar at his desk (1641; Warsaw, Royal Castle) and Titus at his desk (c. 1655; Rotterdam, Boymans van Beuningen Museum), or, more likely, whether it was originally painted as a neutral dark border, in keeping with numerous Rembrandt paintings in the 1660s, including several of the apostles and the painting of the Holy Family (St. Petersburg, Hermitage). While these borders are not sufficiently detailed to offer some kind of illusionism, they must originally have created the effect of a window or parapet to add some sense of spatial depth. It is also possible that the artist used them merely to remind himself where the picture area ended. Regardless of its function, it was clearly a framework that Rembrandt favoured, although many of these borders have either been removed or framed out today (for a broader discussion on this subject see P. Noble, S. Meloni, C. Pottasch, and P. van der Ploeg, Preserving our Heritage: Conservation, Restoration and Technical Research in the Mauritshuis, The Hague and Zwolle, 2009, pp. 142-5).
A recently conducted technical report of the Old Bearded Man has revealed a number of crucial pieces of evidence in establishing the history of the painting’s facture. X-ray scans revealed the presence of a head of a young woman, painted to a relatively complete stage turned at 90 degrees on the right of the canvas. This portrait was apparently abandoned and the canvas cut and reused for the study of an old man. The reuse of canvases was not unusual in Rembrandt’s studio. Indeed, studies undertaken on the master’s self-portraits have found that more than a quarter are painted on so-called ‘palimpsest’ supports, and such have also been found, for example, in Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (inv. no. 828H; E. van der Wetering, ‘Rembrandt’s self-portraits: problems of authenticity and function’, in E. van der Wetering (ed.), A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (The Self Portraits), Dordrecht, 2005, IV, p. 96). This reuse was recently demonstrated to great interest at the 2014 exhibition of the painter’s late work, in Rembrandt’s monumental equestrian Portrait of Frederik Rihel on horseback, painted in circa 1663, which was likewise found to have an initial painting beneath (a full-length standing gentleman in a landscape) and had then been rotated and reworked into a new painting (M.E. Wieseman, ‘Rembrandt’s Portrait(s?) of Frederik Rihel’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, XXXI, 2010).
Analysis has also confirmed the presence of a so-called ‘quartz’ ground as the priming of the canvas. Extensive research has been undertaken into the usage of this priming layer in Rembrandt’s oeuvre and is crucial in establishing the likely authorship into paintings attributed to the master or his circle. In consequence, widespread analysis has been made of works by a range of painter’s working in Amsterdam from circa 1640, when the ground is first known to have been used by Rembrandt in The Night Watch (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. no. SK-C-5). A large number of these Amsterdam school grounds have been tested and none have so far been found to contain such a composition in the ground (C.M. Groen, ‘Grounds in Rembrandt’s workshop and in painting by his contemporaries’, E. van der Wetering (ed.), A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (The Self Portraits), Dordrecht, 2005, IV, p. 332). The technique, therefore, appears exclusively in Rembrandt’s workshop. Composed of ground quartz, mixed with pottery clay and brown earth pigments and bound in generous amounts of drying oil, it provided a smooth and flexible surface for painting, allowing for more durable painted surfaces. Its presence in this painting, therefore, immediately situates the picture in Rembrandt’s studio in a period when his workshop was not an active employer of assistants and pupils.
The pigments used across the picture are entirely consistent with those found in Rembrandt’s studied oeuvre. His palette consisted of lead white, lead tin yellow, red lake, bone black, vermillion and brown, red and yellow earths. The detection of smalt, an inexpensive blue pigment made from glass, which was widely used in the Netherlands from the sixteenth century onwards, is significant as it was particularly frequently used by Rembrandt in his later work. Azurite, another, more expensive blue, was also detected in the picture and though typically more common in the master’s early period, its presence is not unusual. The presence of Hematite in the red earth, also used for example in the Jewish Bride, points to the master painter rather than a pupil. The lack of any green pigment is likewise typical of Rembrandt’s working method. The impasto application and thick layering of the paint, particularly in the face of the man, is also a typical feature of the freedom and energy that typifies the master’s late work.