Orientalised subjects form an integral part of Rembrandt’s œuvre, appearing in his paintings throughout his life – a preoccupation that was probably first inspired by his teacher, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), and which would in turn influence his contemporaries, such as Jan Lievens. Rembrandt painted the costume and settings of the Orient not only in order to ground the subjects historically – particularly in Old Testament scenes – but more significantly for the way in which he was able to delight in the representation of the fabrics and accessories.
Here, the complicated knots of the yellow-and-white-striped turban, held in place with a jeweled, gold brooch, are contrasted with the dark fur of the man’s wide collar, which is itself fastened with an elaborate gold clasp, decorated with gems, pearls and a central medallion showing a man in profile, likewise wearing a turban. Beyond the protagonist a chamber is visible, lit from the left through a window, with a chair and draped table, upon which stands an open book. Behind this is a column, around which a golden snake twists itself, with a leonine mask at the capital.
It is a painting that has perennially confounded scholars as to its subject. Described variously as a man in oriental costume or a rabbi, and even as a portrait historié of Rembrandt’s own father, the figure has also been identified as Paracelsus, Renaissance physician and astrologer, as well as several Old Testament figures, including Moses and Aaron. In 1986, Christian Tümpel associated the figure with Jacob’s son, the judge Dan – one of the twelve patriarchs – based on a depiction of Dan in a series of prints by Jacques de Gheyn II, after Karel van Mander, showing him with the attribute of a snake.1 This figure, however, bears none of the traditional attributes of a judge, such as a rodd (which Dan is shown holding in the de Gheyn print).
The subject with which the work is most commonly associated – King Uzziah – was identified by Dr Robert Eisler in 1948. The wringing of his hands and the rather patchy appearance of the man’s skin, depicted in Rembrandt’s original work and in this version, correspond with the story of Uzziah, who is related in 2 Chronicles 26: 16-20 as illicitly attempting to burn incense in the Temple, whereupon he is struck with leprosy. However, it must also be noted that notwithstanding the rich garb, expression and countenance of the man, the interior in the background of the painting would not appear to resemble that of the Temple in Jerusalem (which, furthermore, Rembrandt depicted on several occasions). Indeed, the interior bears much comparison to that in a painting ascribed to Ferdinand Bol, showing a man similarly dressed in eastern costume, behind which a sort of study can be seen, invariably described as a ‘Portrait of a philosopher.’2
Rembrandt’s work at Chatsworth is signed and dated with digits that have been read both as ‘1635’ and ‘1639.’ Most recently, the Rembrandt Research Project has, based on stylistic comparison of execution and palette with other works of the middle- to late-1630s, dated the painting to circa 1640. Furthermore, the Chatsworth painting is executed on the highly unusual support of poplar panel (rather than oak, like the present, uncradled panel), as are a small group of works dating to the end of the 1630s, when it is known that Rembrandt acquired and used a batch of such panels – almost unheard of in other Northern works of this date. Several versions of the Chatsworth painting exist, testament to the popularity of Rembrandt’s original work, among which the present work must count among the earliest examples.
A Note on the Provenance
The description in the earliest recorded sale of this painting in 1774 reads: ‘[…] il a appartenu à M. Binet, premier Valet de Chambre de feu Mgr. le Dauphin, à que le Roi l’avoit donné’. Gérard Binet (1712–1780) served as Valet de Chambre for Louis XV’s son, the Dauphin, Louis de France (1729–1765), as had his father, Georges-René Binet (1688–1741), before him.
Hofstede de Groot records that there are numerous versions of the Chatsworth painting, dating right into the eighteenth century. He lists seven contemporary works, all but one in public collections (Berlin, Dresden, Emden, Turin, Dessau and Lisbon).3 The seventh painting is that formerly in the collection of Viscount Powerscourt, of very similar dimensions to the present work, which was exhibited at least twice alongside the Chatsworth painting in exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London, in 1878 and 1899, as Rembrandt. It was sold anonymously in a sale at Christie’s, London, 9 July 1904, lot 119. That painting has been tentatively associated with the work that is now in the collection of Lord Margadale, Tisbury, Wiltshire. It is most likely that the present work was acquired at around this time or a generation earlier in the 19th century, when it entered the family of the present owner, descended from Richard Colley Wellesley (1760-1842), 1st Marquess Wellesley, later Viscount Wellesley, The Earl of Mornington.
1 C. Tümpel and A. Tümpel, Rembrandt, Amsterdam 1986, p. 187, cat. no. 77.
2 Sold London, Christie’s, 13 December 1985, lot 79.
3 C. Hofstede de Groot, A catalogue raisonné…, London 1916, pp. 197–98, under cat. no. 346.
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