Convention and uniqueness in Rembrandt’s response to the east

The full version of an essay published in the catalogue to the exhibition Rembandt’s Orient: West Meets East in Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century, Basel (Kunstmuseum Basel) and Potsdam (Museum Barberini) 2020-21.

At a given moment in his later life Rembrandt van Rijn performed the most unconventional artistic deed of his career. He took the time to draw some twenty-five copies of miniature paintings by artists from halfway around the globe, artists whose names he did not know and who had been studied by no other European master. He carried this out conscientiously and respectfully, on expensive Asian paper that he never used before or after for drawings. This campaign was not only out of the ordinary for Rembrandt. It remained unique in European artistic practice throughout the seventeenth century and thereafter.

The models for his copies were color miniatures of figures from a mighty imperial court in India, that of the Mughal emperors Jahangir (1569-1627; reigned 1605-27) and his son Shah Jahan (1592-1666; reigned 1628-58). All but two of the drawings show men, among them the emperors themselves, not only Jahangir and Shah Jahan but also Jahangir’s father Akbar (1542-1605; reigned 1556-1605). The other men portrayed are minor princes or officials unknown to us, drawn without a background. One exceptional drawing of four Islamic sages of the time shows them engaged in a bucolic symposium, seated beneath a tree in a rocky landscape, sipping drinks and conversing. The two drawings of women show only their heads and busts.

The better to understand the significance of this group of works, which stand outside the pictorial tradition in which Rembrandt was trained and worked, let us first inspect oriental motifs in the tradition he did inherit, and his way with it.

Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg, The Siege of Bethulia, ca. 1615 | Oil on canvas, 101 x 125.5 cm | Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal (S 5189)


If there ever was a time in Rembrandt’s life as an artist before there was the orient, it would have been in the studio of his first master, Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg (1571-1638). This rather eccentric artist, the son of one of Leiden’s foremost masters, took Rembrandt on as a pupil upon his return from Italy, where he lived and worked for twenty-five years in Venice, Rome, and for most of the time Naples. Swanenburg was an artist of the fantastic. His preferred subject matter was the inferno, whether in classical mythology or Christian belief. Paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony have been attributed to him. This predilection got him into trouble with the Inquisition in Naples, when he was interrogated for the public display of a painting of witches at the entrance to his shop. (He got off with the lame excuse that he only put it out to dry.) The closest van Swanenburg came to oriental motifs was in a painting of the Israelite victory over Assyrian forces at the city of Bethulia, from the Book of Judith. He did his best to evoke a battle between the “one hundred and twenty thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry” of the Assyrians (Judith 2:5, 15) and “all the Israelites, […] even those from Jerusalem and the rest of the hill country, […] the Gileadites and the Galileans” (Judith 15: 5). The rare subject gave him the opportunity of pulling out the orientalizing stops, but he didn’t. You can find three or four turbans among the vast armies on the canvas, but otherwise the arms and outfits of the figures are European, and the architecture of Bethulia Roman. What the young Rembrandt would have acquired from his master was a license to fantasize. Van Swanenburg will never have said to his pupil that the proper object of making pictures was to describe visual reality. Anything that looked as if it could exist was good enough. And if it couldn’t exist, even better.

This will have made Rembrandt’s confrontation with the east in the studio of his next master all the more striking. Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) was incapable of painting a scene from the Old Testament and certain scenes from the New Testament without dressing his figures in eastern fashion and dropping hints that the action was taking place in the lands of the Bible. Not only Lastman, but more of the Amsterdam painters that Rembrandt came to know were attached to this habit. The compositions they created were never attempts to recreate an historically or ethnographically correct image of the east. The landscapes in which they placed the scenes were mainly imaginary hill countries of a kind that can be found in generic landscapes. If there is architecture in the background, it tends to be Roman ruins, sometimes with an identifiable feature like the round temple of Vesta in Tivoli. No longer did Dutch artists follow in the footsteps of Jan van Scorel (1495-1562), who in 1520 visited Jerusalem, drew its skyline and its architecture and incorporated them into some of his biblical paintings. To my knowledge, not a single Dutch artist after van Scorel made the pilgrimage journey.

Pieter Lastman, Laban Searching for the Lost Idols, 1622 | Oil on panel, 110 x 152 cm |Boulogne-Billancourt, Musée Boulogne sur Mer (147)
Ornamental Lotto carpet with cartouche design in border, early seventeenth century, thought to be made in Turkey | 123.8 x 175.9 cm | New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The James F. Ballard Collection, gift of James F. Ballard, 1922 (22.100.112)

The main manufactured objects encountered in Amsterdam painting in the 1620s that were actually imported from the east are carpets, which came from Turkey, Persia, and Egypt. Several paintings by Lastman display Anatolian carpets of the type named Lotto, after the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480-1556), who was fond of including them in paintings. More often than depicting them as objects in their own right, he would extract motifs for use in creating oriental costume, like the hem on Laban’s cloak in a painting in Musée Boulogne sur Mer, with a cartouche design.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers, 1516 | Oil on panel, 121.8 x 150.4 cm | Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection (1961.9.37)

Lastman was not the first to do so. Flemish and Italian painters of the fifteenth and even the fourteenth century included accurate renditions of oriental carpets, especially in paintings of the Madonna, where their geometrics fed into numerological symbolism. He was not even the first to paint Lotto carpets, a distinction belonging to Sebastiano del Piombo (ca. 1485-1547) in his 1516 portrait of Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, a secretary and two geographers.[1] In that striking work a printed atlas lies on top of the carpet, while two men identified as geographers are engaged in lively discussion. It would seem that the carpet, in a rather overstated way, is included at least in part for its exotic origins. In later Italian painting it was mainly Paolo Veronese (1528-88) who favored colorful oriental textiles and tapestries. In his work the function of the carpets is primarily decorative rather than iconographical, which is also true of the extremely sparse numbers of oriental carpets in Dutch painting of the sixteenth century.

Around the year 1600 a reversal took place. In the seventeenth century the overwhelming preponderance of oriental carpets is found in Netherlandish rather than Italian painting.[2] A key role in this development was played by Pieter Lastman. It is in his paintings, starting in 1608 after his return from Italy, that we find deliberate placing of oriental attributes not only in biblical but also in historical subjects. These include carpets, but also weapons and most abundantly turbans. It has been suggested that he acquired this taste from Veronese when he visited Venice about 1603.[3]

In paintings by Lastman we find various patterns that can only have been drawn from existing textiles, such as cartouche borders and the cloud band motif derived from Chinese models. These could have been painted from entire carpets or, as was mainly the case with articles of clothing, fragments that were cheap and easy to keep in the studio.[4] The latter makes it understandable that the forms of Lastman’s oriental carpets and textiles do not add up to complete, recognizable wholes. The same is true of the textile designs in Rembrandt’s paintings. Neither artist was out for ethnographical accuracy, and it is a mistake to take them to task for not having achieved it.[5] What they did achieve, aside from giving the viewer a small thrill, was placing markers of difference, and in this they practiced a certain consistency, as we shall see.

Even when the depiction of an object is true to life, the context never is. This is most apparent in the case of weapons. In one remarkable instance, weapon experts have identified a Japanese short-sword, a wakizashi, on the hip of the Good Samaritan helping the victim of bandits on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.[6] Hardly less remarkable is the Asian stabbing weapon of the sandag walikat type given by Lastman to a soldier in the army of the Egyptian warlord Sesostris.[7]

A natural product that can only have come from the east is the nautilus shell, which Dutch goldsmiths would put into precious mounts. Lastman’s brother Zeeger was a goldsmith, and the painter used whatever chances he had to show products of that craft to good advantage. Birds like the parrot and the peacock and animals like the camel found their way into Lastman paintings of the Bible lands. The inventory taken after Lastman’s death in March 1633 includes these intriguing items: “een cocodril” (a crocodile) and “een gaytge” (a parrot). These may well have been stuffed animals brought back by employees of the Dutch East India Company. Lastman had a sizeable investment in the Company, which sometimes paid out dividends in kind rather than cash. In this way he could also have come into possession of the Asian ceramics and chest in his will. They look more like household items than collectors’ objects, but they may have been the first objects from the east the young Rembrandt saw with his own eyes. Not on a large scale, we see in the work of both artists an occasional weapon made in Asia or a parasol of a kind associated with too sunny countries far from the Netherlands.

The way Lastman dresses his biblical figures is clearly intended to evoke the orient. They wear long loosely fitting robes, often brightly colored and patterned, and sashes around the waist. Women might have headscarves. Some of the fabrics are imported Indian cottons. Royal persons are given capes set off in ermine and joined at the front with ornate golden clasps. Few of these garments were typically oriental in origin or use. Lastman and his Amsterdam colleagues were perfectly able to dress mythological and historical figures in the same way. The true marker of Middle Easternness, however, which is never found in other contexts, was the turban.

Pieter Lastman, The Adoration of the Magi, 1608 | Oil on canvas, 97.5 x 132 cm | Prague, Národní Galerie

In a painting by Lastman of a subject later to be painted by Rembrandt in a more intimate setting, The Adoration of the Magi, the turbans of the kings are major attributes. The magi have taken them off their heads to pay honor to the newborn king. Two of them, on the sides, are held by pages; the one in the center occupies a prominent position. The turbans are topped by the crowns of the Magis’ royalty. Even when a turban is worn without a crown, it bears an air of dignity. Two eastern kings in other paintings by Lastman are accorded turbans, seemingly as a mark of high office. The king of the Persians in the book of Esther, Ahasuerus, is given a turban with a large feather, and King Midas of Phrygia a more modest model.[9] Turbans come in a number of varieties, adorned with pins or feathers or rods, seemingly without reference to  usage in the lands of origin.

A given rule emerges from the study of examples throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is, that the turban is never put on the head of a Christian. Although the apostles were just as Levantine as the kings from the east or Jews like Abraham, Joseph, King David, and Mordechai, who are turbaned by Lastman, the biblical followers of Christ are not marked this way. A borderline case is Nicodemus, who paid Christ the honor of arranging for his burial. Lastman painted him with a turban, identifying him, in accord with the gospel of St. John, as a Pharisee and member of the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. The turban was a sign of heathendom or Jewishness, not of disrespect.

Pieter Lastman was a learned artist. The inventory of his goods included “Omtrent hondert ende bijde vijftigh boecken” (about a hundred and more or less fifty books), which made him one of the most serious intellectuals among artists of the west. As has been shown in a thorough study by Tico Seifert of his mythological and historical paintings, Lastman was a true “pictor doctus,” a learned painter. Like Rembrandt, he attended a Latin school, the highest form of secondary education in the Netherlands, and he took book knowledge seriously.

The compositions by Lastman that Rembrandt now studied and took for inspiration were therefore hybrids. The stories came from Bible texts, learned tractates, and popular literature. The idea to paint them at all was an inheritance of pictorial tradition in the most cases going back to the Middle Ages. There are countless stories in the Bible and in classical literature that are never depicted in art. The settings are conventional landscapes and interiors, following slowly changing international modes. The buildings tend to be Roman ruins, fictive or not. The models are Dutchmen from the street, their garb a mixture of likely and unlikely unidentifiable garments, with no iconographical meaning except easternness.


Rembrandt responded to this stimulus immediately and with unrelenting enthusiasm. It has been pointed out astutely that few of the biblical subjects in Rembrandt’s art were not depicted earlier by Pieter Lastman.[10] Much the same can be said of his orientalizing tactics, with three main exceptions that we will come to below one by one.

Pieter Lastman, Bileam’s Ass Balking at the Angel, 1622 | Oil on panel, 41.3 x 60.3 cm | Jerusalem, Israel Museum, Gift of Lila and Herman Shickman, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum (B97.0069)

Rembrandt, Bileam’s Ass Balking at the Angel, 1626 | Oil on panel, 63 x 48.5 cm |Paris, Musée Cognacq-Jay (J 95; following a spectacular cleaning)

A striking early example is Rembrandt’s adaption (1626) of Lastman’s painting of Bileam’s ass (1622).[11] One by one, Rembrandt takes over motifs from his master’s composition: most literally the ass, but also the figure and dress of the barefooted Bileam, the accompanying servants on horseback, the angel and the setting. Rembrandt enhances the oriental features by giving proper turbans to Bileam and his two servants, where Lastman’s Bileam wears only a long headscarf that flutters in the breeze. We are looking at Rembrandt’s first biblical oriental.

As it happens, we know to whom Rembrandt sold the painting. The identity of that man is fascinatingly relevant to the subject of the painting and to the subject of the exhibition. It is worth while to stand still for a moment at this important juncture.

The strange story of Bileam takes up three entire chapters of the Old Testament book Numbers. It tells how King Balak of Moab, in panic at the military threat posed by the Israelites, called upon a prophet named Bileam, who enjoyed a reputation for casting hardball spells. When Balak sent for him, he had his messengers say “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” What Balak wanted from Bileam, in exchange for a “fee for divination,” is that he curse the people of Israel. Bileam consulted God, who first told him not to go, but in the second instance commanded him to go after all, with the proviso that he say only what God told him to. Although Bileam seems to have been following divine instruction, God grew angry with him and sent an angel to block his way. At first the angel was visible only to Bileam’s ass, who balked and was thereupon whipped by the prophet, first when he went off the road and two more times in a narrow passageway. After the third whipping, God opened the mouth of the ass, who protested his beatings to Bileam, and the eyes of Bileam, who was now allowed to see the angel. The angel berated him for the whippings and commanded him to resume his journey. In art, only the first of the beatings of the ass ever seems to be depicted, as in the paintings by Lastman and Rembrandt.

When he reached Balak, Bileam told him that he could only say what God told him to say, no matter how much money he was offered, and he then proceeded to enunciate blessings on Israel in seven messages. Although the text in Numbers does not seem to warrant it, both Christian and Jewish commentators come down on him hard. Bileam is vilified in the New Testament itself (2 Peter 2:15-16) as a false prophet “who loves the wages of wickedness.” The Talmud makes fun of his pretension – “Bileam did not know the mind of his animal; and he did know the mind of the Most High?” (Berachot 7a)  – but also listed him among the seven non-Jews endowed with prophetic powers (Bava Batra 15b). Nonetheless, his prophecies are cherished by both faiths. In his third message, he said “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling-places, Israel!,” a phrase that pious Jews still utter when entering a synagogue and is included in the sabbath prayers. His fourth message contains the words “A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel,” which Christians read as a prophecy of the coming of Christ.[12] With his refractory relations to the Lord and his angelic messenger, to Balak, to the Jews, and even to his donkey, it is hard to know what to make of the mystically gifted Bileam.

And then, unexpectedly, comes a document identifying the first owner of the painting. Fifteen years after its creation in 1626, in November 1641, the French artist Claude Vignon wrote this in a letter to François Langlois: “In Amsterdam give my greetings to Mr. Rembrandt and bring back something by him. Tell him also that yesterday I appraised his painting The Prophet Balaam which Mr. Lopez bought from him. This piece will be sold together with the ones mentioned above.”[13]

“Mr. Lopez” is one of the most intriguing people Rembrandt ever met. Alfonso Lopez was a Portuguese Jew converted to Catholicism, but the sincerity of whose conversion was widely doubted. He was a jeweler by trade, with something like a monopoly on diamond cutting in Paris. He also worked as an agent for Cardinal Richelieu of France, who valued his services so highly that Lopez’s position was unassailable to Jew-hating detractors. Detraction went very far. In a gossipy notice about Lopez written by someone who knew him we read the following quip: “Lopez sold a crucifix for a pretty steep price. ‘Hey,’ they said to him, ‘you delivered the original so cheaply.’” And: “I would burst out laughing (my father was his neighbor) to see him eating pork just about every day. No one thought that made him a better Christian.”[14]

Lopez, a jeweler by trade, engaged in diplomatic and military supply missions at the highest level, especially to the Netherlands.[15] In addition, however, to buying ships, cannon, gunpowder, saltpeter, and miscellaneous materiel for the French navy, which he had great difficulty getting out of the country, he also bought “collectors’ items, diamonds, tapestries, Dutch textiles, laces, pictures, etc….”[16] “In Holland he bought a thousand curios from the east; [his display of them in Paris] looked like an abridged version of the Saint Germain fair.”[17]

His first arrival in the Netherlands dates from November 1627, the year after Rembrandt painted his Bileam. Although it is often assumed, as I did until now, that Lopez bought the painting when it was new, I now think it more likely that he bought it twelve years later, in 1639. We know that the two men were in the same room on April 9, 1639, when Rembrandt attended the sale of a legendary painting collection at which Lopez bought Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione for the French crown. This moment in the auction was documented by Rembrandt in words and a quick sketch. [18]

Renier Persijn after Joachim von Sandrart after Titian, Ludovico Ariosto, ca. latter 1630s | Engraving, 26.0 x 19.6 cm. End of inscription: E. Titiani Prototypo in aedibus Alph: Lopez | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-60.201)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill, 1639 | Etching, 20.6 x 16.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-37)

More direct evidence of their acquaintance in that year is provided by an etched self-portrait by Rembrandt. In it Rembrandt takes on the pose of the sitter for a portrait by Titian that was owned by Lopez. His self-portrait in the guise of Ariosto is a tribute to Lopez as well as Titian. It was at this juncture, I believe, that Lopez bought the Bileam, which Rembrandt still had in stock. That Lopez made this choice rather than a newer painting by Rembrandt, in his mature style, must then have had to do with the subject. The choice is highly suggestive. Lopez may well have seen himself as a latter-day Bileam, a mistrusted outsider who served the interests of the powers that be and brought blessing to the Jewish people. (In the 1610s Lopez played a key role in assuring safe passage to France for Jews expelled from Portugal.) That Rembrandt framed Bileam as a turbaned oriental creates from the start of his career a somewhat indeterminate constellation of images and meanings that persisted for decades. The turban tells us no more than that the wearer is from the countries of the east, that he is not a Christian, and not without means. A figure marked in this way takes on an air of otherness that is not necessarily antagonistic. The ambivalent Bileam, with his reception by an ambivalent “converted” Jew, is a perfect introduction to the image of the oriental in Rembrandt’s biblical creations. Whether other Rembrandt buyers or commissioners of oriental subjects had a personal interest in the subject we cannot know. Except for one other exceptional possibility, to be discussed below.

Pieter Lastman has been called “the Dutch Rubens.” The two artists must have met when they were both in Rome, and kept contact thereafter.[19] Rembrandt knew about the famous Fleming from his youth in Leiden – Jacob van Swanenburg’s brother Willem had made engravings of Rubens paintings – but working with Lastman raised his awareness and interest to a new level.

Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1621 (detail, in mirror image) | Engraving after a painting now in Lyon, 55.8 x 73.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-70.341)

Rembrandt, David Presenting the Head of Goliath to Saul, 1627 (detail) | Oil on panel, 27.4 x 39.7 cm | Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel (G 1958.37)

A famous early borrowing is Rembrandt’s King Saul, receiving from David the head of Goliath in a painting of 1627. The little boy pages holding the king’s cape and Saul himself are adapted from one of the wise men from the east in a print of 1621 after a Rubens Adoration of the Magi. Perhaps the nicest little touch is Saul’s extended left hand, the thumb lowered, like that of the magus. The Jewish king is given a robe and turban on the model of an oriental heathen.

For Rembrandt, this was more a matter of décor than principle. That was not always true of Rubens. Starting at the time he worked for the Gonzaga court in Mantua in the early years of the seventeenth century, he was acutely aware of the strained relations between Europe – mainly Habsburg Europe – and the Ottoman Empire. Current developments as well as history played into his imagery of the oriental. Sometimes this spilled over into the Rubens reception in the Dutch Republic. Look only at these four images:

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, Mulay Ahmed, ca. 1535-36 | Etching on paper, 46.4 x 37.7 cm | Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (L 1959/51 (PK))

Peter Paul Rubens, Mulay Ahmed, ca. 1609 | Oil on panel, 99.7 x 71.5 cm | Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (40.2)

Pieter Lastman, Baptism of the Eunuch, 1620 (detail) | Oil on panel, 70 x 104 cm | Munich, Alte Pinakothek (10735)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1609 | Oil on canvas, 355.5 x 493 cm | Madrid, Museo del Prado (P001638)

On the left is a portrait of the Tunis emir Mulay Ahmad by Jan Vermeyen, who went as a war artist on Emperor Charles V’s conquest of Tunis, undertaken on behalf of Ahmad’s father Mulay Hassan.[20] This alliance between the Habsburgs and the Muslim rulers of Tunis made a lasting artistic-military impression. So much so that Rubens was also thinking of a west-east bond when he recreated the image in a splendid copy after the lost portrait in oils by Vermeyen and gave his features to one of the kings in a monumental Adoration of the Magi painted in 1609 for the town hall of Antwerp. The situation was complex. In 1606 Emperor Rudolf II had concluded a treaty with the sultan of Morocco, hoping to form a united front against the threat of the Ottoman Turks, a reprise of Charles V’s alliance of 1533. But the good will this engendered was undermined three years later. In 1609 Rudolf’s cousin Philip III of Spain expelled thousands of moriscos, Muslims converted to Catholicism in order to stay in the country but whose sincerity remained in doubt. That was the moment when Rubens brought Vermeyen’s befriended Muslim leader back into the picture, in the guise of an eastern king paying honor to Christ.

And the face on the right? That posthumous reappearance of Mulay Ahmad was painted in 1620, in the Northern Netherlands, by no one other than Pieter Lastman. The character to whom it belongs is a member of the retinue of the Ethiopian eunuch who is being baptized by St. Philip, a role like that of the magi, a black stranger who comes to Palestine and finds out that the Christ has come.

Geuzenpenning, 1570 | Cast silver. ca. 35 mm, with texts LIVER TVRCX DAN PAVS and ENDESPIT DELA MES, “I’d rather be a Turk than a Catholic” and “In defiance of the Mass” | Private collection

Was Lastman, like Rubens, thinking of politics? It would be fitting it he were. In 1621 the Twelve-Year Truce in what was to  become an Eighty-Years War between the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands and Spain was to expire, and the Dutch too were looking for military cooperation with Muslim forces. In fact, the Dutch and the Ottomans, both at war with the Habsburgs, saw each other as natural allies. This thought was as old as the revolt itself, since 1568, and it went further than just shared antagonism to a common foe. The Dutch rebels against Catholic Spain praised the Ottomans for the religious tolerance in their realm, a compliment that was returned by the Turks, giving rise to the denigrating expression Calvino-Turcisme for Dutch geo-religious policy.[21] And it went even further: the rebels took the Ottoman crescent moon as an emblem of their own struggle, and propagated the war cry “Liever Turks dan Paaps” – I’d rather be a Turk than a Papist. Although it never came to an actual two-front war against the Holy Roman Empire, and although these expressions of mutual admiration went only so far, they were part of Dutch culture and helped define the stance of the Republic in world affairs.

This was however a fairly abstract part of the background against which Rembrandt’s orientalism played off. More concrete were the ongoing depredations against European shipping and communities on the Mediterranean by privateers licensed by kingdoms on the North African, Barbary coast. They operated from ports in the Maghreb and went by the name Barbary pirates. Their core business was capturing Christians – in the hundreds of thousands! – to be sold as slaves or held for ransom. (In 1642 Rembrandt participated in the release of a captive from Edam.[22]) This engendered in the west an enemy image of a barbarous people, marked by the barbarity that gave the Maghreb its name. This could better have served the purpose of xenophobic demagoguery if not for a certain irony. That is, not a few of the Barbary pirates were renegade Europeans, including Dutchmen, who converted to Islam and who indeed, more clearly than Bileam, loved the wages of wickedness.

Jan Lievens, Man Dressed as an Oriental Prince, ca. 1629 | Oil on canvas, 135 x 100.5 cm | Potsdam, Bildergalerie Sans Souci (GK I 884)

Rembrandt, Man in Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”), 1632 | Oil on canvas, 152.7 x 111.1 cm | New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (20.155.2)

It remains doubtful that Pieter Lastman thought of his Rubensesque moor as a bearer of heavy meaning. The same can be said of a painting of an oriental by another of Lastman’s Leiden pupils alongside Rembrandt, Jan Lievens (1607-72). There is a famous one-liner to this point in the memoir of Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange. “There is, in my Prince’s house, a portrait [by Jan Lievens] of a so-called Turkish potentate, done from the head of some Dutchman or other.…”[23] Although this is how all but the most credulous contemporaries would have seen that painting, it was nonetheless listed in later inventories of the collections of the House of Orange as “the Great Turk” and “Sultan Soliman by Rembrandt.” To my knowledge, not a single portrait of a known personality from the orient was ever made by a Dutch artist in the seventeenth century.[24]

Rembrandt, Bust of an Old Man in a Turban, ca. 1627-28 | Oil on panel, 26.5 x 20 cm | The Kremer Collection

Jan Gillisz van Vliet after Rembrandt, Bust of an Oriental, ca. 1634 | Etching on paper, 22.8 x 18.8 cm | London, British Museum (F,6.151)

Rembrandt too played this game. Early paintings by or after him that have been lost are listed in the inventory of the Leeuwarden painter Lambert Jacobsz as “A fine young Turkish prince” and “A small tronie of an oriental woman, the likeness of Uilenburgh’s wife.”[25] This would have been the wife of Rembrandt’s business associate and cousin-in-law Hendrick van Uylenburgh, posing like Huygens’s “some Dutchman” for a painting with an interesting exotic twist. The engraver Jan van Vliet immortalized a lost Rembrandt that closely resembles Rembrandt’s earliest known tronie of an oriental.

The climax of Rembrandt’s faux-oriental figures is the so-called Noble Slav, more properly Man in Oriental Dress. It is unusually large for what it is – a half-length tronie of a studio model posing as an oriental. At life size, it is the largest non-portrait figure painting Rembrandt ever made. He painted it in 1632, the year he presented his calling card to the city of Amsterdam, beginning with the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp. The man emanates regality, dressed as richly as can be imagined. He wears a glowing golden robe, embroidered with floral and jewel-like motifs, lined with precious fur, and falling to the ground in a train. The robe falls open on the front to reveal a more closely fitting tunic bound by a sash. Around his neck is wrapped a scarf of fine silk, shot through with stripes in gold and blue and ending in a black-bordered golden band from which a tassel hangs. His fringed turban is wrapped four or five times around his head. It is painted with immense delicacy and finesse, the light picking up the smallest strands and shadows. The turban is held in place by two large golden pins; around the man’s neck hangs a chain with a large golden pendant, suggestive of a sign of distinction. As a finishing touch, the man wears large pearl earrings. The fall of light on the right embraces the figure, nearly like an aureole. It seems unlikely that Rembrandt disposed over garments and accessories of a kind that would have been worn by any particular person. His Man in Oriental Dress is therefore a hybrid product – a paid Dutch model (the man occurs in paintings by other Amsterdam artists of the time) dressed in an assortment of clothing and jewelry intended to convey an oriental look.

The question to whom an image of that sort would appeal has an easy answer: just about anyone. Owners of oriental tronies from these years we have already met are the stadholder, Frederik Hendrik (1584-1647), in The Hague, and the painter Lambert Jacobsz (ca. 1598-1636) in Leeuwarden, covering the full price range of Dutch paintings, from high to low. Rembrandt’s painting is obviously aimed at the high end of the market. There were enough Amsterdam merchants in his new location who could afford it. Another possible function for the painting was to serve as an ad for Rembrandt’s skill as a portraitist. In the year of Man in Oriental Dress, he painted one other portrait of similar pose and format in The Hague and two in Amsterdam, of men in their own clothing. Of particular fascination is that one of those sitters, Marten Looten, may well have been the first owner of Man in Oriental Dress. The estate of a grandson of Marten Looten’s, Govert Looten, sold on March 31, 1729 in Amsterdam, included “A Turkish ruler or Grand Vizier, painted skillfully and powerfully by Rembrandt.”[26]

Jan Lievens, Old Man With Skullcap, ca. 1630-32 or 1635-44 | Etching, 16.4 x 14.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1952-367) Jan Lievens, Old Man With Headscarf, ca. 1630-32 | Etching, 16.4 x 14.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.559) Jan Lievens, An Oriental With Beard and Headscarf, ca. 1630-32 | Etching, 16.0 x 14.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.553) Jan Lievens, A Young Man With a Velvet Beret, ca. 1631-32 | Etching, 14.6 x 12.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.570)
Rembrandt, The First Oriental Head, 1635 | Etching, 15.1 x 12.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-581) Rembrandt, The Second Oriental Head, ca. 1635 | Etching, 15.1 x 12.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-582) Rembrandt, The Third Oriental Head, 1635 | Etching, 15.4 x 13.0 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-583) Rembrandt, The Fourth Oriental Head, ca. 1635 | Etching, 15.8 x 13.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-585)

That Rembrandt followed the lead of Jan Lievens in the creation of oriental visages cannot be denied or ignored. In 1635 Rembrandt produced four copies of etchings made by Lievens a few years before, with big, eye-catching inscriptions on each saying they were “retouched” by him. While they have gone into the literature as “The Four Oriental Heads,” only the Third Oriental Head is oriental at all. Rembrandt’s addition of a feather in the man’s turban gave it an extra touch of exoticism. This the last of Rembrandt’s etchings of a tronie with an oriental touch. It is as if he had to satisfy himself that he could defeat Lievens at his own game before he could let the genre rest. But the motive behind this remarkable instance of appropriation, performed in a year when Lievens was en route from London, where he had been since 1631, to Antwerp, where he was to stay until 1644, remains unexplained and highly intriguing.

Rembrandt and workshop, A Bearded Old Man in Middle Eastern Dress, signed and dated Rembrandt f. / 163[6 or 7] | Oil on panel, 74.7 x 54.5 cm | Knowsley Hall, The Earl of Derby

One painted tronie with an oriental cast, by Rembrandt and his studio, postdated the “Oriental Heads.” It is a powerful image of a brooding old man, in a mode that presages his pensive old men and women of the 1650s. The motif corresponds to an exceptionally reliable archival reference of 1637. After the death in Leeuwarden of the painter and art dealer Lambert Jacobsz, who had family as well as business relations with Hendrick Uylenburgh, owner of the studio where Rembrandt worked in Amsterdam, his estate included a painting described as “Een outmans troni met een lange bredebaert van M. Rembrant van Rijn selfs” (A tronie of an old man with a long, full beard by Master Rembrandt van Rijn himself). The painting in Knowsley Hall is one of two surviving paintings that match this description, but the likelihood that it is the one intended is enhanced by two other items in the Lambert Jacobsz inventory: “A fine young Turkish prince, after Remb[randt]” and “A small tronie of an Oriental woman, the likeness of H. Uylenburgh’s wife, after Rembrandt.” There was a taste in Leeuwarden for Rembrandt’s oriental paintings, even to the point of ordering copies after them, which would have been satisfied more by the Knowsley Hall old man than the other contender. It is a distinction of the exhibition Rembrandt’s Orient that the painting was displayed there for the first time since 1898.


The most interested sitter for a portrait in oriental garb was Rembrandt himself. In 1633 he stood in front of the mirror and painted his first and what was to be his only full-length self-portrait, in garments of the same kind as the Man in Oriental Dress, though in smaller size. He adopts a commanding pose, with his right elbow protruding and holding a stick at an angle with his left hand. A gold-hued tunic with a richly adorned border and a tassel is bound at his waist with a colored sash that resembles the oriental man’s scarf. Over the tunic a dark-colored heavy cape, clasped at the shoulder, is draped over Rembrandt’s upper body on the front and falls to below his knees on the back. His turban is of a dark, striped material and is crowned by a feather, attached with a small cross-pin. Behind Rembrandt, on a table, lies a helmet and a silver vessel, neither of them particularly suggestive of the east. Nor is the large poodle at his feet, a dog that originated in Germany or France.

The function of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is a subject of considerable disagreement and debate. An important thing to know about them is that they were collected by (or planted at the courts of) the royal heads of Europe and enjoyed popularity among Dutch burghers as well.[27] That Rembrandt issued editions of etchings with his own likeness assured his self-portraits a far wider distribution than could be achieved with the sale of paintings, giving him one of the most recognizable physiognomies in art.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in Oriental Dress, 1631 | Oil on panel, 63 x 56 cm | Paris, Musée du Petit Palais (PTUD925)

My own suggestion for the deeper meaning of Rembrandt’s practice is that self-portraiture afforded him emotional contact with others, a means of equating his image with theirs.[28] For the most part these were sitters, models, and figures in portraits, tronies, and history paintings. In depicting himself as an oriental, Rembrandt forges links to artists who were the sources of his inspiration.

Costanzo da Ferrara after Gentile Bellini, Turkish Man Standing, ca. 1495 | Pen and ink on paper, 30.1 x 20.4 cm | Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques (4655 recto)

Bernardo Pinturicchio, Pope Pius II arriving in Ancona, ca. 1502-07 (detail) | Fresco | Siena, Cathedral, Biblioteca Piccolomini

Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1621 (detail) | Engraving after a painting now in Lyon, 55.8 x 73.3 cm |
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-70.341)

Peter Paul Rubens, Nicholas de Respaigne, 1620 or earlier | Oil on canvas, 205 x 119.5 cm | Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GK 92)

One likely source for the figure is the same print of the Adoration of the Magi by Lucas Vorsterman after a painting by Rubens from which Rembrandt had already borrowed one of the kings from the east for his King Saul. Another of the kings stands in pretty much the same pose, although dressed differently. Rembrandt will not have been aware of it, but Rubens drew on Italian pictorial sources going back to a drawing made in Constantinople by Gentile Bellini during his stay there around 1480. For 150 years, one can say, an observation from life enjoyed an afterlife that no longer had any direct connection to eastern reality. Yet, it came into the mind’s eye of Rubens when telling his sitter Nicolas de Respaigne how to stand when he painted a portrait from life of a fellow Antwerper, and relative by marriage, who had traveled east and imported clothing from the Levant. The decision to have himself painted as a distinguished easterner was not only an advertisement of his wares and a reminder of his interesting background. De Respaigne was campaigning for elevation to the nobility. One stepping stone was his installment as a knight of the Holy Sepulchre. The palm branch in his portrait may allude to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.[29]

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Raised Sabre, 1634 | Etching on paper, 12.5 x 10.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1961-987)

Extract from Tijdinghe uyt Verscheide Kwartieren, March 15, 1621

Rembrandt was playing with the identities not only of a wise man from the east and a knight of the Holy Sepulchre but also that of an oriental prince who rules by the sword. In a self-portrait etching of 1634 he wears an ermine collar with a gold chain and holds a kris. Whether or not it was Rembrandt’s conscious intention, he was projecting an image with the most mixed of meanings. If Rembrandt read the papers, he could have seen Sultan Mohammed’s declaration of war against Poland, in which the Ottoman ruler called himself “the invincible, powerful emperor and angel of God,… ruler of all of Christendom and Europe, king in Alexandria and Judea,… lord of the lords over all countries, maintainer of the heathen paradise and the Holy Sepulchre as well as the great prophet Mohammed in Mecca and the outstanding prophets in Jerusalem…” who was going to smash Poland to smithereens and murder its king. The document was a patently provocative forgery, but one should never underestimate the impact of scary fake news. Not fake were the reports of devastating attacks of Turkish and Tartar armies deep into Transylvania, Hungary, and Poland. At the same time Rembrandt could have read that Christian peoples in eastern Europe often preferred Ottoman rule to that of their own autocratic potentates; that the Calvinist ally of the Dutch Republic in Transylvania, Bethlen Gabor, had Muslim troops in his army; and that Christian mercenaries fought for the Turks. Indeed, none of Rembrandt’s tronies or self-portraits with an eastern look  are overtly xenophobic.


This is all the more true of the other main genre in Rembrandt’s art that invokes the orient. That is, as we saw above, the way he depicts biblical figures in oriental style. In a famous passage in a lecture by a Dutch artist for other Dutch artists, Rembrandt’s practice in this respect came in for emphatic praise. In 1642, in a festive address to the painters of Leiden at a celebration of the day of St. Luke, patron saint of painters, Philips Angel said and later printed: “I once saw a depiction by Rembrant of the Wedding of Samson, of which we read in Judges, chapter 14, verse 10. You can see in it how that keen intelligence, by thinking hard about the actual way the guests sit (or in this this case recline) at table – since the ancients used small beds on which to lie, not sitting at table the way we do today, but lying on their elbows the way the Turks still do in that part of the world – showed it very nicely.”[30] There follows a further appreciation of other details, none of them derived from Scripture, ending, “these fruits of natural representation, true to the subject, come into being by reading the story well and analyzing it in lofty and wide reflections (hooge en verre na-gedachten).”[31]

Angel uses Rembrandt’s painting to illustrate a point about artistic license in relation to the literal depiction of a story. Artists who think that artistic license allows them to give free rein to their imaginations abuse that privilege. Their first allegiance must be to the meaning of the story (sin der Hystorien) and specificities (eygentlickheyt) of the actions and objects displayed. In this, Angel writes, the “highly renowned Rembrant” sets a standard with his painting of Samson’s wedding. In saying that, he implies that the behavior of contemporaneous denizens of “that [eastern] part of the world” had changed so little since biblical times that it can still provide authentic specificities for the painter. Other details in Samson Posing a Riddle to his Wedding Guests that can be seen in this light are the feathered hat of a man at the left and costume features, including the attire of Samson and his bride.

Rembrandt, Samson Posing a Riddle to the Wedding Guests, 1638 | Oil on canvas, 126 x 175 cm | Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (1560)

Jan Gerritsz or Jan Lucasz van Hasselt, Group Portrait Historié of the Wedding Feast of Grietje Hermans van Hasselt and Jochum Berntsen van Haecken, 1636 | Oil on canvas, 102.1 x 135.5 cm | Utrecht, Centraal Museum (10046)

What Angel does not say is that Rembrandt was looking not only at Turkish custom (if he was) but also at a Dutch group portrait made a few years before his of another oriental wedding. Here too a similarly composed company is seated at a table covered with a white tablecloth, with a baldachine behind the central figure. The groom wears the same kind of crown Rembrandt gives to Samson’s Philistine bride (not Delilah, but his unnamed first wife). The carpet in the portrait, with small lobes connecting larger lozenges, suggests an origin in the Persian center of Shiraz. Rembrandt’s carpets, on the other hand, are not identifiably oriental.


What makes the source so interesting is that it may have been painted by the only artist in the Netherlands who had actually spent time at an oriental court. The bride in the painting is known to be Grietje Hermans van Hasselt, who married Jochum Berntsen van Haecken in Utrecht on May 15, 1636; the canvas is signed J. Hasselt fe 1636. Of the various painters with that name, the one who stands out in this connection is Jan Lucasz van Hasselt. He had traveled extensively in the east, in the cortege of the Italian adventurer Pietro della Valle, before leaving his service in 1617 for that of Shah ‘Abbas in Isfahan. Van Hasselt was a painter to the shah until 1631, when he overplayed his hand in a mission to the Netherlands and found himself stranded back where he started. Although there is no further documentation to support the supposition, the temptation to identify the painter of this bridal portrait historié as Jan Lucasz van Hasselt, and to think of him as a relative of the bride, is too great to cast aside.[32]

As exciting as this possibility may be, it also brings with it considerable disappointment. Jan Lucasz van Hasselt participated as a familiar of the shah of Persia in the extensive culture of conviviality at ‘Abbas’s court.[33] He is even reported to have been responsible for the decoration of the Safavid royal palace in Ashraf. An English envoy, Thomas Herbert, wrote of the reception hall there that “the seeling was garnished with gold, and pencill’d with Story in lively colours; all which seem’d to strive whether Art or Nature to a judicious eye would be more acceptable. One John a Dutch-man (who had long served the King) celebrated his skill here to the admiration of the Persians and his own advantage.”[34] From an artist with that kind of access to one of the greatest Muslim courts in the world of its time, one could have expected more by way of a visual impression of those surroundings. If the wedding portrait in Utrecht was painted or informed by him, we can only conclude that Jan Lucasz van Hasselt was no more interested than Pieter Lastman or Rembrandt in truth to oriental life.

By or after Philips Angel, Return from the Hunt, mid-seventeenth century | Wall painting, tempera on plaster, 71 x 111 cm | Isfahan, Chihil Sotun

A further connection between Rembrandt’s Samson and the Persian court that I for one find astonishing is that ten years after writing his commendation of Rembrandt’s attention to the way things are done in the east Philips Angel too, like Jan Lucasz van Hasselt before him, became a painter to the shah of Persia, ’Abbas II. And he too created palace decorations for his imperial patron. Several frescoes in the pavilion of Chihil Sotun (Palace of Forty Columns) in Isfahan are very likely based on his designs, if not executed by him. Neither these works nor any other possible creations of Angel in Persia had an impact on the image in the Netherlands of eastern art, but another of his works did, in arcane form.

Philips Angel, Title plate and first two avatars of Vishnu, Matsyāvatāra and Kūrmāvatāra, from manuscript Deex-Autaers (Ten Avatars), 1658 | Postel Abbey, Mol, Belgium (with thanks to Pater Ivo Billiaert)

In 1658, for the director-general of Netherlands East India, Carel Hartsinck, Angel produced an illustrated translation of a book on the avatars of Vishnu. The manuscript reached Europe in 1664 and provided (without credit to the artist) part of the contents of Athanasius Kircher’s groundbreaking China Illustrata, published in Amsterdam in 1667. The man who lauded Rembrandt for his familiarity with eastern customs became the author of the single most significant contribution by a European artist to knowledge of an eastern religion.[35]


That was the extent and nature of the oriental touches in Rembrandt’s work until the mid-1650s. Derivations from Pieter Lastman, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Lucasz van Hasselt, and miscellaneous sources; weapons from Japan and the East Indies; and snatches of oriental patterning from nowhere in particular. And then came the campaign with which this essay opened. Taking to hand a cache of oriental paper of a kind he otherwise used only for expensive etchings, Rembrandt sat down to draw copies of (as far as we know) twenty-five portrait miniatures (of which twenty-three are still extant) that had been made in earlier decades halfway around the world, at the courts of Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. For each of the drawings a corresponding composition has been identified in surviving Mughal portraits, but never an exact model.[36] This set of works is unique. While Rembrandt emulated Albrecht Dürer and made incidental copies of compositions by Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, and others, we know of no other suite of copies as extensive as this. This being so uncharacteristic of Rembrandt, an uncharacteristic explanation of how they came into being might be in order. Just such an explanation is advanced below.

Unknown Indian artist, Four Mullahs (Sheikh Husain Jami, Sheikh Husain Ajmeri, Sheikh Muhammad Mazandarani, and Sheikh Miyan Mir, 1627-28 | Watercolor on paper mounted on wood | Vienna, Schloss Schönbrunn (SKB002606)

Rembrandt, Four Mullahs Seated Under a Tree, copied after a Mughal miniature resembling fig. XX, ca. 1656 or earlier | Pen and wash on Asian paper, 10.4 x 12.4 cm | London, British Museum (1895.0915.1275)

Rembrandt, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, 1656 | Etching and drypoint, 16 x 13.2 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1954-135)

Mughal miniaturists and Viennese artisans, Cartouche with miniature of four mullahs in the lower left | Vienna, Schloss Schönbrunn (364410EX1)

The lack of comparative material makes it difficult to date the drawings. “Ca. 1656” is conventional, but in the most recent publication, the catalog of the exhibition Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, the authors have fallen back to an indeterminate dating of 1656-61. This I find unsatisfactory, since the drawings have all the appearance of having been made in a concerted campaign. By the year 1656, when Rembrandt famously adapted the composition of a miniature of four sheikhs under a tree for an etching, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, he knew at least one and probably all of the Mughal models. However, that does not eliminate the possibility that he made the copies earlier or later. When Rembrandt’s drawings are first documented, in 1747, they are described as “A book of Indian Drawings, by Rembrandt, 25 in number.” If the original intention was to bind them in a book or album, this too suggests that they were made at one go. The Mughal miniatures after which they were copied seem all to have been lost, except possibly one (such as the above) or two. For the others, no source has been identified that sufficiently agrees with Rembrandt’s copy to pass muster as the model.[37] Only generic relatives have been identified, for which we are very grateful. This being so, the greatest likelihood is that Rembrandt’s models were also in album form, and the entire album has been lost. If the album had been split up, surely some of the contents would have been identified by now as Rembrandt’s source. This reasoning implies the lovely possibility that the album may still exist and may some day be rediscovered. (For a guess at where it might be, see below.)


Whatever the date of the copies, Rembrandt’s etching of Abraham Receiving the Three Angels leave us in no doubt that by 1656 he knew the Mughal originals. It is therefore quite legitimate to ask whether his exposure to Indian art impacted his own practice and concept of art and why he made copies of the miniatures. These question have occupied Rembrandt scholarship more than any other in regard to the Mughal copies.

A common position on the copies is that Rembrandt himself was the owner of the originals, and that both reflect his ambitions as a collector, and his curiosity concerning the exotic. The likelihood that he was in possession of such a valuable collector’s item in the very year of his bankruptcy is however so unlikely as to be impossible. (See also below.) It has also been asked quite rightly why, if he owned the originals, Rembrandt would have made copies of objects he had directly at hand.

Other answers have been sought in matters of motif, style, and spirit. Since they were first studied, the copies have been seen as explorations of Indian costume. The drawings, William W. Robinson observes,

reproduce portraits of splendidly costumed figures from a foreign culture, and they are exceptionally meticulous in representing elements of the originals that interested Rembrandt – particularly faces, clothing, and accessories such as weapons, turbans, sashes, jewelry, and shoes. Art historians since [Friedrich] Sarre [in 1904] have assumed that Rembrandt’s primary motivation for copying Mughal paintings was to incorporate their costumes and body language in his biblical histories. However, he never quoted directly from them, and he dressed biblical figures in fanciful Asianized costume long before he made the copies.[38]

That explanation, I agree with Robinson, has had its time. Of the attempts made to replace it, I cite four recent ones.

Zirka Filipczak finds repercussions of the miniatures in Rembrandt’s art not from the costume but the bodies they clothe. She relates the stiff poses of the Mughals to those of the sitters in late portraits by Rembrandt. However, she also admits that “they do not look sufficiently distinct from examples found in European art to classify them as imports from Mughal art.”[39] Nonetheless, Filipczak is convinced that the Mughal miniatures led Rembrandt to adopt “narrative stillness” in his late histories. Concerning one example, Haman and Ahasuerus at Esther’s Feast in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, dated 1600, she writes: “Although the painting’s stark composition has no counterpart in the miniatures, it derives from Rembrandt’s experience in making the copies.”[40]

A similarly general effect is detected by Stephanie Schrader, who writes that Rembrandt’s “careful consideration of Mughal compositions pushed the boundaries of his own drawing style, making it more curious, more Mughal.”[41]

More concretely, Nicola Courtright brings evidence to bear suggesting that Rembrandt thought of the miniatures as a pathway to knowledge of the ancients.

Mughal miniatures may also have been a source of knowledge about ancient style. This notion is suggested by another text that was published in Holland, a discussion of the contest between Apelles and Protogenes. As part of his argument, a late sixteenth-century French writer, Luis de Montjosieu (or Demontiosius), cited Indian manuscripts as an example of ancient monochrome painting. Rembrandt did not hesitate to apply what this writer evidently considered an ancient style, handed down from another venerable culture, to religious works.[42]

Corinna Forberg too links Rembrandt’s religious art to sources in antiquity via the Mughals. She sees references to the emperor Timur, as drawn by Rembrandt, in a drawing of his own of the patriarch Jacob, and to Shah Jahan as well as Timur in his painting of Alexander the Great.

In building a bridge between Alexander, Timur and Shah Jahan, Rembrandt actualizes the syncretistic ideal of Alexander in classical antiquity, of merging the cultures of east and west. At the same time, he gives substance to the claim of the historians Daniel Heinsius and Gerard Vossius that study of the oriental world will lead to a corrective integration and deepening of the western conception of history. Against this background, Rembrandt’s pictorial syncretism can be seen as update to the parallel lives of Plutarch, in which ancient Greek and Roman heroes are juxtaposed to orientals.[43]

Forberg sees further links between Rembrandt’s drawings of Homer (1652, 1663) and the Four Sheikhs Sitting Beneath a Tree, as conveyors of divine inspiration. She assigns to Rembrandt the role of a “witness of history.”[44]

The opinions of these colleagues, it seems to me, go off in different directions and could just as easily go off in more. The links they propose to values in Rembrandt’s other work are more projections than demonstrations.


The opinions cited above take for granted that the impulse to make the copies was an autonomous artistic choice on Rembrandt’s part. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was a commission? There is an argument to be made that it was.

It has long been assumed that the originals after which Rembrandt made his copies were in his own collection. The inventory of his goods drawn up on July 25-26, 1656 included “A book full of curious miniature drawings as well as various woodblocks and copperplate prints of all kinds of costume.“[45] That is a fairly nondescript phrase, however, for such characteristic objects, especially considering that Rembrandt was probably the one describing his possessions to the notary. It has also been pointed out that since other exotic items in the inventory are labeled by origin – “a Japanese helmet,… a Turkish powder flask,… 60 Indian guns,… an Indian cup,” one would have expected the miniatures too, had they been the readily recognizable ones that Rembrandt copied, to have been called “Surats” or “Mogols.”[46] (At this point, it is well to remark parenthetically, none of the items in Rembrandt’s collection seem to have found their way into his imagery.)

In 1996, the Rijksmuseum curator of oriental art Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer published a list of drawings and paintings from India documented in the Netherlands in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.[47] Rembrandt’s copies, which Lunsingh Scheurleer, like most others, dated to 1656, is listed as the second such instance. There was only one earlier one, from 1655. In the intervening years since 1996 no still earlier reference has been found. It is to this object that I now wish to turn attention: “Another small book with East Indian drawings” from a 1655 inventory of the estate of Aletheia Talbot, Lady Arundel.[48]

Peter Paul Rubens, Aletheia Talbot, Lady Arundel, 1620 | Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 266 cm | Munich, Alte Pinakothek (352)

In 1654 the widow of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585-1646), died in Amsterdam. Lady Aletheia Talbot (ca. 1585-1654) left a fortune in art that had been amassed by her and (with her money) her husband, the most prodigious collectors of their time. For oriental imports in their collection we need look no further than the magnificent Persian carpet in the life-size portrait of Aletheia painted by Rubens in Antwerp in 1620. Also of interest in our context is that four paintings and a drawing by Rembrandt – none of them identifiable today – occur in inventories of Aletheia’s estate.[49] Given that she had been living in the Netherlands since 1641 and in Amsterdam for the last years of her life, there is every chance that she had contact with the artist himself.

Rembrandt, Joannes Wtenbogaert, 1639 | Etching, 25.2 20.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1938-692)

She was not the only one involved who had contact with Rembrandt. Aletheia’s estate was heavily encumbered with debt, so that the heirs flailed about looking for ways to turn the collections into cash. Not all the proceedings were as above board as they might have been. Among those who took advantage of this situation was a wealthy Amsterdam collector of prints and drawings, the tax collector Joannes Wtenbogaert (1608-80).[50] On October 1, 1658, Wtenbogaert was subpoenaed to account for art from the Arundel collection of which he had taken charge, without permission of one of the two competing heirs. (Astonishingly, Aletheia left no testament.) He replied that “the art specified in the subpoena he had partially divided, sold, and traded with the Honorable Joan Six and [Jan] de Wael, both fellow lovers of art, as well as other art lovers.”[51] The names of two of these men – Joannes Wtenbogaert and Jan Six (1618-1702) – stand out in the biography of Rembrandt. His portraits of both of them are among his best works; he made drawings and prints of their country houses; and he sold to and bought art from them, up into the 1650s.

The Arundel book of East Indian drawings is not mentioned in the subpoena to Wtenbogaert, but there is another, quite exceptional document in which he turns out to be in possession of such an object. On Thursday, January 5, 1668, Wtenbogaert paid a visit – or came “in audience” – to Cosimo de’ Medici (1642-1723), the future grand duke of Tuscany, who was paying a two-month study trip to the Netherlands. After lunch, Cosimo’s chronicler noted, Wtenbogaert presented the crown prince with “a quite valuable book of Mughal portraits” along with two coins and a dagger from that part of the world.[52] For the translation of the Italian word “stimabile” as “valuable” I refer to a 1611 Italian-English dictionary:[53]

This description would then fit the lost album of Mughal portraits of which Rembrandt made copies.

The question now arises: given the existence of a “small book with East Indian drawings” (1655) and a “quite valuable book of Mughal portraits” (1668) in Rembrandt’s close environment, with a strong presumption of a link between them, is it not possible that these were one and the same object and that they were the drawings of which he made copies? What we know for a fact is that Lord and/or Lady Arundel acquired an album of East Indian drawings before Aletheia’s death in Amsterdam in 1654. (Although it is not necessary to argue that the Arundels had access to art works from anywhere in the world, it is worth noting for the record that Thomas engaged in major collecting from the Levant and had worked closely in 1639 with the English East India Company on an aborted scheme to colonize Madagascar.[54]) They were the kind of collectors who sometimes had copies made of their art.[55]

We also know that between Aletheia’s death in 1654 and the charge against him in 1658 Joannes Wtenbogaert had acquired works of art from the Arundel estate. The archivist S.A.C. Dudok van Heel points out that since Wtenbogaert’s main interest lay in work on paper, the drawings from the collection, of which there were “twelve chests,” would have been his main target.[56] We know that in January 1668 Wtenbogaert presented Cosimo de’ Medici with an album of Mughal portraits. Finally, we know that Rembrandt made copies of hitherto unidentified original Mughal portraits. In all awareness of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, I nonetheless advance here the hypothesis that the Arundel and Wtenbogaert albums are one and the same, and that it was in this album that Rembrandt found the miniatures of which he made copies. One benefit of this hypothesis is that it helps explain why we know of no direct models for Rembrandt’s copies. They would have been carried off by Cosimo to Florence (perhaps after the removal of one or two sheets) and lost sight of.

There is one more thing that we know. Wtenbogaert’s “audience” with Cosimo was a return visit. On Wednesday, December 28, 1667, the publisher Pieter Blaeu, who was Cosimo’s cicerone in Amsterdam, brought the prince and his party to “the house of the [tax] receiver Wyttemboghert, who holds all the city’s money; [following] his inclination, for forty years he has found pleasure in collecting, type by type, shells and minerals that come in on all the ships from Italy and other parts of the world. He has formed a most intriguing cabinet, adorned with paintings of some quality.”[57] That evening Cosimo met with a merchant experienced in the Indian trade, presumably  to acquire information for his own ambitions in that direction, and the next day he visited Rembrandt.[58]

Rembrandt, Woman Standing, Wearing an Oriental Costume, ca. 1638 – or April 1639? | Pen and wash on prepared paper, 20 x 14.2 cm | Stockholm, Nationalmuseum (2076/1863)

Rembrandt, A Deccan Nobleman Standing (Muhammad ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur), 1667-68 | Ink and wash on Asian paper, 19.6 x 15.8 cm | London, British Museum (1895.0915.1280)

These linked circumstances suggest the following chain of events. On his visit to Wtenbogaert, or at the lavish, six-hour long dinner that evening, Cosimo spoke of his interest in India. Wtenbogaert thereupon decided to give Cosimo one of the treasures in his collection, an album of Mughal portraits. In order to preserve the memory of this proud possession and to retain as study material images of the costumes and appurtenances depicted, he commissioned Rembrandt to draw copies of its contents. The copies will therefore have been made In New Years week between December 28, 1667 and January 5, 1668. The expensive Asian paper will have been provided by Joannes Wtenbogaert.

Rembrandt in fact had earlier, in the late 1630s, copied an Indian miniature, in a form that seems to have served as a model for this speed job. That drawing after an Asian costume study is the same size as his Mughal copies. Because Mughal miniatures were exceedingly rare in Europe, the question arises where Rembrandt could have seen one. Of all his known patrons, customers, and connections of the 1630s, there is one who is a documented possibility as owner of such an object. That was Alfonso Lopez, who––as already cited––“in Holland bought a thousand curiosities from the Indies.” The impulse to create such copies probably originated with collectors––who were used to having copies made of items they owned––rather than with artists.[59]

As daring as this hypothesis may seem, I let it stand, as the only suggestion as of yet that is rooted in documented events and objects. It puts a different cast on the entire subject. If the creation of the miniatures was the result of a one-off commission, toward the end of Rembrandt’s life, the assumption that the copying was artistically significant for him falls away. His drawings came into being not as a deliberate transcultural choice, but in the interest of a collector friend. Rembrandt was acting not as a witness of history but as a hired hand.


Attributed to Bichitr, Akbar and Jahangir in apotheosis, ca. 1640 (detail) | Watercolor, ink and gold on paper, 48.4 x 33 cm (sheet) | Private collection

Rembrandt, The Emperor Akbar and Jahangir in Apotheosis, After a Mughal Miniature, 1667-68 | Ink and wash on Asian paper, 21.2 x 17.6 cm | Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (R 36 (PK))

Willem Schellinks, Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants, ca 1660s (detail) | Oil on canvas, 78 x 83.8 cm | London, V&A (IS.30-1892)

Willem Schellinks, Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants, ca. 1660s | Oil on canvas, 78 x 83.8 cm |London, V&A (IS.30-1892)

Of particular fascination is that Rembrandt was not the only Amsterdam artist to have been given access to the Mughal miniatures. Adaptations of one of the motifs recur in two paintings by Rembrandt’s younger contemporary Willem Schellinks (1627-78), and for Schellinks the borrowings were definitely intentional. While Rembrandt made literal copies of the miniatures, Schellinks did the opposite. He made them more exotic than the originals. One of the models concerned shows father and son Mughal rulers Akbar (1542-1605) and Jahangir (1569-1627), years after their death, as semi-divinities, seated on a cloud in the sky. (The example illustrated shows the same iconography, but was not the visual source for the two Dutch artists.) Rembrandt downplays the metaphysics of the vision. He keeps the emperors’ haloes and the angels flying over their heads, but otherwise stays quite sober. Not so Schellinks, who pulls in motifs from a variety of other sources to create a full-scale theatrical spectacle. Under the aegis of Akbar and Jahangir, four sons of Jahangir’s son Shah Jahan (1592-1666) ride composite beasts in an other-worldly cavalcade. In reversal of expectations, the apotheosized princes in the sky have greater reality than the chimerical beings below.

Jos Gommans finds in these visionary paintings a Neoplatonist propensity.

Although Schellinks uses an Indian visual vocabulary, his human forms composed of animals more immediately recall the […] portraits of Rudolf II by Arcimboldo. Schellinks’s […] naturalism is subordinate to a desire to convey the hidden and the equivocal.

In linking these Amsterdam paintings of Indian subjects to Italian art at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, Gommans is underscoring an argument about seventeenth-century spiritual geography as well. He points out insightfully that the commercial VOC sea route was not the only connection between the Low Countries and India. The Netherlands bordered on the Habsburg Empire, which bordered on the Ottoman, which bordered on the Persian. Arriving in Safavid Persia, we find ourselves in the same linguistic, royalistic, and religious environment as Mughal India. And in the court cultures of all these contiguous realms, immense – indeed, ascendant – value was attached to the search for a higher unity behind everyday diversity, the Platonic form toward which the visible world aspires. Elector Palatinate Frederick V in the Netherlands, Rudolf II in Prague, Sultan Murad in Istanbul, Shah ‘Abbas in Isfahan, and Shah Jahan in Agra would have understood each other perfectly on this score. In this view of things, west does not have to travel to meet east. West is east! Schellinks’s paintings come closer than Rembrandt’s drawings to the syncretism posited by Corinna Forberg and Nicola Courtright.

The paintings of Indian phantasmagoria (and two more down-to-earth motifs) were not the only tribute Schellinks paid to Indian art. His fantasies are dated to the 1660s, but in 1657 he came out with an extraordinary poem in hyperbolic praise of that school. It was printed, with five other poems by him, in the second volume of an anthology called Klioos kraam, vol verscheiden gedichten (Clio’s nursery, replete with various poems).[60] I render it here in literal prose, with each of the twenty-one couplets in a single phrase.

On the painting of the Benjans [Indians[61]]

The invention of painting lends the Chaldeans honor to be remembered forevermore.
The crown of art was stolen from their head by artists elsewhere.
The eagerness of the Greeks to learn brought with it the ability to raise this art sky-high.
The honor was unflinchingly stolen again by Roman diligence.
Fortunately, the challenge [to win] this prize was also taken up by the Germans, Dutch, and French,
Whose valiant perseverance proved that the crown of art fitted them as well.
Now the clever Gusuratt [Indian] shows most delightfully on the silken sheet
His painting, as marvelously noble as artist’s brush could ever paint.
So that he scorns Europe and makes off with the crown of painting.
Thus is art despoiled by art. What artist ever thought
It would be there that the art of painting would climb to the heights, to the very stars.
Rightfully, all of Christendom is now totally astonished and stands speechless.
The Greek, with a discerning eye, admonishes Apelles and Zeuxis, who rose
To great heights through their art, saying: You may have deceived animals
But the Hindustan has succeeded in enthralling us all with art.
Chaldeans show us at a remote distance the source of painting, and nothing more.
The Moghul boasts of his discovery, braving Peru, which caused Gualpa’s mouth
To spew up silver, to its good fortune; and Spain, for which it serves as a crutch.
Were the West Indies to offer the Benjan for its art all the silver that Potozi
Still has in store, he’d say “I’ll not trade art for treasure.”
Which teaches all of us in Europe this lesson: “Art is not for sale for any amount of money.”

W: Schellinks.

It is a mystery why Schellinks ends with the patently untrue statement that art is not for sale, when so much of it, including Mughal miniatures, was made for the market. One wonders whether this has to do with his equally mysterious choice to play off Spanish silver from the Peruvian mine of Potosi (discovered in 1545 by the local servant Diego Gualpa) against the value of Indian painting. Nor is it clear why he found it necessary to deride European in favor of Indian art, of which he cannot have known more than a few examples. But these conceits only make his message all the more striking: ultimate quality in art has now been achieved by Indian artists.

The proximity in time and place between Rembrandt’s and Schellinks’s response to one and the same Mughal motif makes it to my mind inconceivable that they were not in contact with each other and with the owner of the miniatures. I see them pondering, discussing and copying the strange drawings together, in the company of the owner, the only artists of their time to incorporate art from the oriental world into their own.

In 1984, in a biography of Rembrandt, I suggested that two subsequent paintings by Rembrandt had subjects related to orientalizing plays staged in Amsterdam in the 1650s and ‘60s. “The Polish Rider” of about 1657 I brought into connection with Joannes Serwouter’s play The Great Tamerlane (1657). Tamerlane, or Timur, was the founder of the Mughal dynasty. “The Jewish Bride” (ca. 1665-69), I argued, was actually the shepherdess Aspasia and her lover King Cyrus of Babylon, from a play by Jacob Cats (1656, also staged in 1657-60 and 1662).[62] I mention this as an art-historical association of Rembrandt with the orient. But since my colleagues have chosen not to go along with these suggestions I leave the matter at that. For the time being.


Rembrandt let himself be inspired by his master Pieter Lastman, his buddy Jan Lievens, and the hero of them all, Peter Paul Rubens, to employ an assorted mix of Eastern-leaning elements in tronies and biblical paintings. Some of the elements derive from older art, in sixteenth-century prints of the kind he collected. Nowhere do we encounter direct knowledge of an Eastern source (as sometimes in the work of Rubens). Although Rembrandt was following contemporary convention in his Eastern motifs, his twenty-five free copies of Mughal miniatures were one of a kind. One could say that this is the opposite constellation to the above. Rembrandt’s appropriation of oriental motifs had almost nothing to do with the authentic imagery of the East but had an aura in his home surroundings. However, the moment in Rembrandt’s art with uniquely authentic input had no impact at all. Had this moment been primarily artistic, one would expect it to have had consequences and to have yielded responses. That this did not happen, is the result of the artist’s role as a contract worker. Rembrandt was not out to inject a dose of the orient into Western art or into his own art. He was serving the purposes of private and princely collectors who preceded European artists in cultivating a taste for the art of foreign cultures.

This view puts Rembrandt into a global context far greater than even the expansionistic Dutch world of art, with its emanations into all the countries of Europe. Rembrandt’s first-degree network in his meetings with the East extended from the Arundel exile in Italy and the Netherlands to a French royal agent from Paris to a voracious Amsterdam collector. In second degree it reached the courts of the Bourbons in Paris, the Medici in Florence, the Safavids in Isfahan, and the Mughals in Agra, connected by the Dutch East India Company and intermediate agents. If Rembrandt’s contribution to this nexus was less autonomous than has been supposed, that does not diminish its importance. It takes his achievement outside the studio and the privacy of his own mind to the great chain of interdependent realms where West truly met East.

© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist 31 October 2020.

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[1] Washington, National Gallery of Art. See

[2] Onno Ydema, Carpets and Their Datings in Netherlandish Paintings, 1540-1700 (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1991), 10.

[3] Christian Tico Seifert, Pieter Lastman: Studien zu Leben und Werk (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2011), 32. Seifert demonstrates convincingly that Lastman indeed visited Venice.

[4] Marieke de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 169-70.

[5] This point was made, in criticism of remarks by myself and Marieke de Winkel, by Claudia Swan, “Lost in Translation: Exoticism in Early Modern Holland,” in Axel Lange, ed., The Fascination of Persia: The Persian-European Dialogue in Seventeenth-Century Art and Contemporary Art of Teheran (Zürich: Museum Rietberg and Scheideger & Spiess, 2013), 113-14.

[6] Christian Tico Seifert, “Pieter Lastman’s ‘The Good Samaritan” Rediscovered,” The Burlington Magazine 156 (February 2014), 99-101.

[7] Christian Tico Seifert, Pieter Lastman, Studien zu Leben und Werk (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2011), 299.

[8] De Winkel (note XX), 170.

[9] The Feast of Esther, dated to the 1610s, is in the National Gallery, Warsaw, and the painting of Midas, dated 1616, in a private collection.

[10] Josua Bruyn, Rembrandt’s keuze van Bijbelse onderwerpen (Utrecht: Kunsthistorisch Instituut der Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, 1959).

[11] The name is sometimes, as in the King James version of the Bible, spelled Balaam. Bileam is however closer to the Hebrew pronunciation Bil’am.

[12] A Leiden humanist who played an important part in Rembrandt’s career, Petrus Scriverius, wrote this in 1618 about Bileam’s third message: “No prophesy or prediction of the coming and the might of the Lord Christ is clearer, gives greater pleasure to the believer and more terrible for the non-believer and enemies of the Lord Christ, than we read in Numbers 24.” Bacchus en Christus, twee lofzangen van Daniel Heinsius, ed. L. Ph. Rank et al., Zwolle: Tjeenk Willink, 1954, p. 274.

[13] Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York: Abaris Books, 1979), 212: “e in Asterdamme mi saluti anche il sig. Rembrant, e porti seco qualcosa del suo. Gli dica pure, che io feci jeri la stima del suo quadro del profeta Balam, che comprò da lui il sig. Lopez, il qual quadro si vendrà fra quelli sopradetti.”

[14] “Lopès vendoit un crucifix bien cher: ‘Ha, lui dit-on, vous avez livré l’original à si bon marché.’” “Je me crevois de rire, car mon père étoit son voisin, de le voir manger du pourceau quasi tous les jours. On ne l’en croyoit meilleur chrétien pour cela.” Gédéon Tallement de Réaux, Les historiettes, mémoire pour servir à l’histoire du XVIIe siècle, vol. 2 (Paris: Le Vavasseur, 1834), 46.

[15] Henri Baraude, Lopez, agent financier et confident de Richelieu (Paris: Editions de la “Revue Mondiale,” 1933).

[16] Baraude (note XX), 147.

[17] Tallemant de Réaux (note XX), 46.

[18] Strauss and van der Meulen (note XX), 176-77.

[19] Seifert (note XX), 236-39.

[20] The information in this section is from Ulrich Heinen, “Antwerpen am Euphrat verteidigen: Rubens malt für Europa. Zur Vielfalt des frühneuzeitlichen Orientalismus,” in Eckhard Leuschner and Thomas Wünsch, eds., Das Bild des Feindes: Konstruktion von Antagonismen und Kulturtransfer im Zeitalter der Türkenkriege (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2013), 355-447.

[21] M.E.H.N. Mout, “Calvinoturcisme in de zeventiende eeuw: Comenius, Leidse oriëntalisten en de Turkse bijbel,” Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 91 (1978), 576-607.

[22] Strauss and van der Meulen (note XX), 230-31.

[23] J. Bruyn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 2 (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986), 156. “Est apud Principem meum Turcici quasi Ducis effigies, ad Bataui cuiuspiam caput expressa […]” J. Worp, “Constanyn Huygens over de schilders van zijn tijd,” Oud Holland 9 (1893), 128.

[24] For portrait prints of Persian emissaries to the court of Rudolf II by Flemish artists, see Gary Schwartz, “Terms of Reception: Europeans and Persians and Each Other’s Art,” in Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia, ed. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014), 23-63.

[25] “Een schone jonge Turcksche prince nae Remb,” “Noch een cleine oostersche vrouwen troni het conterfeisel van H. Ulenburgs huijsvrouwe nae Rembrant,” Strauss and van der Meulen (note XX), 144. Document dated 2 October 1637.

[26] “Een Turkse Vorst of primo Vizier, door Rembrant konstig en kragtig geschildert.” Gerard Hoet, Caalogus of naamlyst van schilderyen, vol. 1 (The Hague: Pieter Gerard van Baalen, 1752), 333. Cited with translation in J. Bruyn et al. (note XX), 157.

[27] Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt, his life, his paintings (New York: Viking, 1985), 347-50.

[28] Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt’s Universe (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 371-72, with further references.

[29] Heinen (note XX), 386-90.

[30] Philips Angel, Lof der schilder-konst (Leiden: Willem Christiaensz, 1642), 47.

[31] Angel (note XX), 48. Available online at (accessed June 25, 2018).

[32] In this I follow the conviction of Leonard J. Slatkes, Rembrandt and Persia (New York: Abaris Books, 1973).

[33] For the centrality of this side of life, see Sussan Babaie, Isfahan and its Palaces: Statecraft, Shi’ism and the Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

[34] [Thomas Herbert], A relation of some yeares travaile, begunne anno 1626… (London: William Stansby and Jacob Bloome, 1634), 175.

[35] For the contents and history of this remarkable manuscript, see Carolien Stolte, Philip Angel’s Deex-Autaers: Vaișņava Mythology from Manuscript to Book Market in the Context of the Dutch East India Company, c. 1600-1672 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2012).

[36] The fundamental study of Rembrandt’s drawings in relation to their models is by Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer, “Mogol-miniaturen door Rembrandt nagetekend,” De Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis 32 (1980), 10-40. See now the essential exhibition catalog Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018), edited and with an essay by Stephanie Schrader.

[37] Corinna Forberg, Die Rezeption Indischer Miniaturen in der europäischer Kunst des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Petersberg: Michael Imhoff Verlag, 2015), 22-23, argues strongly for regarding some of the miniatures mounted into the wall of the Millionenzimmer in Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna as the models copied by and owned by Rembrandt. However, she is too quick to dismiss apparent differences as deliberate changes by Rembrandt for compositional effect. I do not regard this as a valid explanation when speaking of copies such as these.

[38] Robinson (note XX), 54.

[39] Filipczak (note XX), 177.

[40] Filipczak (note XX), 179.

[41] Stephanie Schrader, “Rembrandt and the Mughal Line: Artistic Inspiration in the Global City of Amsterdam,” in the Getty exhibition catalog (note XX), 21.

[42] Nicola Courtright, “Origins and Meanings of Rembrandt’s Late Drawing Style,” The Art Bulletin 78 (1996), 485-510, 503-04.

[43] Forberg (note XX), 30.

[44] Forberg (note XX), 33-39.

[45] “Een dito [kunstboeck] vol curieuse minijateur teeckeninge nevens verscheijde hout en kopere printen van alderhande dragt.” Walter Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York: Abaris Press, 1979), 369, as number 203 in the inventory.

[46] Marijn Schapelhouman, Rembrandt en de kunst van het tekenen (Zwolle: Uitgeverij Waanders and Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2006), 19. Zirka Z. Filipczak, “Rembrandt and the Body Language of Mughal Miniatures,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 58 (2007-08), 163-87, 166.

[47] Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer, “Het Witsenalbum: Zeventiende-eeuwse Indiase portretten op bestelling,” Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 44 (1996), 167-254, with the appendix “Aanwijzingen voor de aanwezigheid van Indiase miniaturen in de Republiek in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw,” 211-22.

[48] “Noch een boexken met eenige Oostindise tekeningen.” S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “Een Holbein uit de collectie Six,” Maandblad Amstelodamum 79 (1992), 55.

[49] M. Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt 2006: New Rembrandt Documents (Leiden: Foleor Publishers, 2006), 73-76, esp. note 6.

[50] S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “Mr. Joannes Wtenbogaert (1608-1680): een man uit Remonstrants milieu en Rembrandt van Rijn,” Jaarboek Amstelodamum 70 (1978), 146-69. Pierre Tuynman, “Manuscript Caption to the 1639 Portrait of Joannes Wtenbogaert, Receiver of Inland Revenue in the Service of the States of Holland in Amsterdam and District,” in Roscam Abbing (note XX), 155-68.

[51] “[Aan] de E. Joan Six ende de Wael, beijde mede liefhebbers van const, […] de const in het doen van ‘t arrest vermelt, seijde ten deele verdeelt, vercoft ende aen de selve beneffens andere liefhebbers verhandelt hadde.” Losse stukken van not. J. Crosse, N.A.A. nr 2435, fol. 23.

[52] With great thanks to Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer for bringing this passage to my attention. G.J. Hoogewerff, De twee reizen van Cosimo de’ Medici prins van Toscane door de Nederlanden (1667-1669): journalen en documenten (Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1919), 83: “… dopo di che fu da sa S.A. il Sig. Wittemboghert, che li regalò un libro assai stimabile di ritratti del Mogor con due monete et un pugnale di quelle parti.” In the redaction of the text by Cosimo Prie Wtenbogaert is said to have come “all’ audienza.” See also Lodewijk Wagenaar and Bertie Eringa, Een toscaanse prins bezoekt Nederland: de twee reizen van Cosimo de’ Medici 1667-1669 (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen, 2014), 85. Eringa’s translation into Dutch calls the book “een fraai boek met afbeeldingen van de Mogol,” which Wagenaar interprets as a printed book on East India, doubting that Wtenbogaert would have given the prince a costly gift. I do not share this opinion.

[53] Iohn Florio, Queen Anna’s New World of Words or Dictionarie of the Italian and English Tongues (London: Melch. Bradwood, 1611), 534. Accessed on June 20, 2018 at

[54] Mary Frederica Sophia Hervey, The Life, Correspondence & Collections of Thomas Harvey, Earl of Arundel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), her chapter “Research in the Levant, 1622-1628,” 266-80, and “The Madagascar Scheme…,” 397-416. Available on Internet at (accessed  June 17, 2018).

[55] Not quite on the same scale, but perhaps in the same spirit, Thomas Howard is reported to have commissioned Joachim von Sandrart to make copies of portraits from his collection by Holbein and others, to the point of imitating the style of the original. Jean-Baptiste Descamps, La vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandois, vol. 2, 102. An image of the page is at (accessed June 17, 2018).

[56] Dudok van Heel (note XX), 146-47.

[57] Hoogewerff (note XX), 64: “… successivamente fu alla casa del ricevitore Wyttemboghert, che tiene tutto il denaro della cittá; questo per suo genio particolare s’è dilettato nel corso di 40 anni di raccogliere in genere di nicchi e di minerali quanto anno mai condotto le navi dell’ Italia et alte parti del mono, onde ha formato un curiosissimo gabinetto, ornato di quadri assai buoni.”

[58] Hoogewerff (note XX), 65: “Mercoledì 28 […] La sera la passò col Blaeu e con un altro perito del traffico e commercio delle Indie da detto quivi condotto. Furono da’ Signori Osspied [Hochepied] I Signori marchesi Corsini e Guadagni in compagnia d’altri mercanti e principali della città.” How could Wtenbogaert, a principal of the city who had been visited earlier that day, not have been a member of the party? Hoogewerff (note XX), 67: “Giovedì 29 […] S.A. udita la messa andò col Blaeu e con Ferroni a vedere pitture di diversi maestri, come del […] Reinbrent, pittore famoso […].

[59] Benesch 450. The drawing is in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. William W. Robinson, “A Book of Indian Drawings by Rembrandt, 25 in Number,” in the Getty exhibition catalog (note XX), 43-62, especially note 69. Concerning the Stockholm drawing, Robinson writes that Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer and Catherine Glynn both doubted that the costume of the woman is Indian.

[60] Klioos kraam, vol verscheiden gedichten, de tweede opening (Leeuwarden: Henrik Rintjus, 1657) 351-53. See also the somewhat less literal translation by Steve Green in Jos Gommans, The Unseen World: The Netherlands and India from 1550 (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum and Nijmegen: Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2018), 219.

[61] “’Benjanen’ is a Dutch rendering of banias, which is used as a pars pro toto for both ‘Indians’ and ‘Hindus […].” Stolte (note XX), 105.

[62] Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt, His Life, His Paintings: A New Biography with all Accessible Paintings Illustrated in Colour (New York: Viking, 1985; first published in Dutch, in the translation of Loekie Schwartz, in 1984), 277, 328.

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