323 The Rákóczy identity

The emergence of an unknown painting with a close resemblance to an engraving said to reproduce a painting by Rembrandt brings a host of associated images, objects and persons into play.

The Schwartzlist owes its existence to a short article that I published in the cultural supplement of the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad on 10 May 1996. The editors were so pleased with it that they offered me a biweekly column for the period of one year. When on 5 July 1996 the first column appeared, I mailed the English version, number 1 of the 323 installments to date, to my 50-odd e-mail correspondents of that early age. (The list now has 1401 subscribers.)

Because the ur-article has never been reprinted, I am reproducing, for readers of Dutch, the piece as it appeared. (Click for larger image.)

The occasion for the article was an exhibition in the Rembrandt House Museum – Rembrandt & Van Vliet: a collaboration on copper – on the ties between the young all-round genius Rembrandt and a craftsman printmaker, apparently a fellow Leidener of Rembrandt’s, who signed J.G. van Vliet and about whom nothing much is known. Yet, van Vliet enjoyed Rembrandt’s confidence to the point that he was permitted to copy quite a few Rembrandt paintings in print, signing his name and Rembrandt’s in the plates. He is even believed to have been entrusted by Rembrandt with work on the master’s own plates.

What struck me was the high rate of loss among the Rembrandt paintings engraved by van Vliet. Eleven of the prints were inscribed with a variant of the letters RHL v Rijn inventor. JGvVliet fecit: [composition] invented by Rembrandt van Rijn, [engraving] executed by J.G. van Vliet. (Additional examples that lack this double inscription are left out of consideration here.) Because van Vliet’s prints were sought after as collectors’ items from the time they were made, the Rembrandt paintings they reproduce were documented all over Europe. Yet, of the eleven paintings thus recorded, five have been lost without a trace. To provide you with reference material for your next visit to a garage sale, I illustrate the prints of the missing Rembrandts, following two examples of van Vliet prints after Rembrandt paintings that still exist, to show you how assiduously van Vliet followed his models. The Bartsch numbers of van Vliet’s prints were assigned to them by Adam Bartsch in 1797 and have been used ever since. The scans of the prints are from the invaluable collection websites of the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum.


Rembrandt, Bust of a laughing man in a gorget. Ca. 1627-28. Oil on copper, 15.4 x 12.2 cm. The Hague, Mauritshuis, inv. nr. 598

J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Bust of a laughing man in a gorget. Signed in the plate JG. v. vliet fec. / RHL. inventor. Etching, 22.6 x 19 cm. Bartsch 21, state 1 of 2. London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN00788094_001_l

Rembrandt, Old woman reading. Signed RHL 1631. Oil on panel, 60 x 48 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. SK-A-3066

J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Old woman reading. Signed in the plate RHL. van. Rijn. inventor / JG. van vliet fecit. Etching and engraving, 27.5 x 22.3 cm. Bartsch 18, second state of three, London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN00581879_001_l

1 J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Lot and his daughters. Signed in the plate RHL. van. Rijn. inventor / 1631./ JG. van vliet fecit. Etching and engraving, 27.5 x 22.3 cm. Bartsch 1, first state of five. London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN00241118_001_l


12 J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, The baptism of the eunuch. Signed in the plate RH.v. Rijn inv. JG.v.vliet fec. 1631. Etching and engraving, 59.2 x 49.1 cm. Bartsch 12, only state. London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN00581879_001_l

J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, St. Jerome kneeling in prayer. Signed in the plate RHL.v.Rijn jn. JG.v.vliet fec. 1631. Etching and engraving, 34.8 x 28.5 cm. Bartsch 13. first state of two. London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN00240942_001_l

J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Bust of an oriental. Signed in the plate JG.v.vliet fec. RHL. inventor. Etching, 22.8 x 18.8 cm. Bartsch 20, first state of two. London, British Museum, inv. nr. AN01037312_001_l

J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Bust of a man in a gorget and cap with feather. Signed in the plate RHL. v Rijn. jn. 1631. JG v. vliet fecit. Etching and engraving, 14.9 x 13 cm. Bartsch 26. second state of four. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. PK-P-OB-33.369

Without a trace, did I say? Every once in a long while a trace nonetheless emerges, and I am happy to publish one here, for the first time. When a German art collector asked me to research a painting he owns, I immediately recognized the striking features of the Man in a gorget and cap with feather, though without the gorget.


Profile of a man with feathered cap and long wavy hair. Monogrammed lower left RHL. Oil on panel, 23.8 x 18 cm. Germany, private collection

To bring out the resemblance more clearly, I will illustrate the painting next to a reverse image of the print. That is the direction in which van Vliet invariably made his prints, rather than re-reversing them to match the direction of the original.

The print and the painting are not the only appearances of this striking profile in Rembrandt’s work. It shows up in a drawing as well. Four or five years after 1631, Rembrandt filled a good-sized sheet of paper with the heads of men in funny hats and women with babies at the breast.

Rembrandt, Model sheet with sketches of men’s heads and women with babies at the breast, ca. 1635-36. Pen and brush in brown ink, red chalk, 22 x 23.3 cm. Benesch 340. Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The head in the lower left is undisputedly our man, and that above it seems to be him again from a different angle.

The function of drawings like this one was explicated by William Robinson in these words: “Drawings such as those in Birmingham … derive from the venerable tradition of the model sheet.  In a model sheet, studies taken from life or copies from other, sometimes disparate works of art are assembled on a single page… Their purpose was to constitute a neatly classified repertoire of motifs for incorporation in an artist’s own compositions and for the instruction of pupils.” [The resemblance of the head in the drawing in Birmingham to van Vliet and the new painting was first noticed by the Dutch historian and journalist Roelof van Gelder, in response to the initial posting of Schwartzlist 323. This section of the column was added on 23 October 2012.]

That the newly emerged painting has a close relation of some kind to Rembrandt and his studio is clear, but the exact nature of the relation is not, and I will not speculate on that question here. Fascination of another kind attaches to the image, and that is fun to examine. At least, the kind of fun that art historians tend to enjoy.


In a second state of the print the publisher added a text in letterpress (rather than incised in the plate) identifying the man in the gorget. He is said to be George Rákóczy, Prince of Transylvania, belonging to the royal Hungarian realm, and count of Székely (Georgius Ragocy, Dei gratiae Princeps Transilvaniae, Partium Regni Hungariae Dominum, & Siculorum Comes, &c.) Rákóczy was an historical personage, who lived from 1593 to 1648. His election as prince of Transylvania took place in December 1630, months before the appearance of van Vliet’s print. How nice it would be to think that Rembrandt’s painting of a man with long curls, looking as if he might well have been 37 years old in 1631, depicts the new prince of Transylvania. This would lend a timeliness to the image that is otherwise absent in Rembrandt’s face paintings. However, the fact that the identification was not included in the original printing weakens this possibility.

The Rákóczy identity was commented on in 1996 in the catalogue to that exhibition on Rembrandt and van Vliet in the Rembrandt House Museum: “the possibility cannot be excluded that [van Vliet] marketed the copperplate in its second state himself, declaring it to be a portrait of the stadholder or woiwode of Transylvania in Hungary, George Rákóczy I (1630-48). Rákóczy was the son of Gabriel Bethlen (or Bethlen Gabor) who sent a number of ambassadors to The Hague in 1624” (p. 51).

What Bethlen (also Betlem, Betleem, etc.) Gabor hoped to achieve with his embassies was recognition and compensation for his role as a Protestant prince in Eastern Europe. This was a ticklish issue in The Hague. In 1619 the Dutch state supported the appointment of the Calvinist Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632), a cousin of the Dutch stadholder Prince Maurits (1567-1625), as king of Bohemia. The dignity was his for barely a year. In November 1620, Catholic forces wiped out his army at the battle of White Mountain outside Prague. Frederick and his wife Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the sister of King Charles I of England, fled in misery to The Hague, where they lived at the expense of the States General and the House of Orange. Frederick was mocked forever after as The Winter King.

So here in 1624 was the envoy of a Hungarian prince of Transylvania, reminding Prince Maurits of this disaster and expecting to be welcomed generously as well. All he got was a sneer. As reported by the amusingly sarcastic chronicler of Netherlands political life, Lieuwe Aitzema: “Betleem Gabor desiring at this time to demonstrate to us that he was still alive, dispatched to the States General Johan Adam van Virkauw… ; his proposition being taken into consideration, it was judged that Hungary was a long way away from here, that in the past you heard more rumors about Betleem Gabor than reports of his deeds, leading Prince Maurits to remark from time to time that he doubted whether Betleem Gabor existed at all.”

A quarter of a century later, after the deaths in Transylvania of Betlem Gabor and his son George I, and in the Netherlands of Prince Maurits and his successor Frederik Hendrik, the houses of Orange and Rákóczy nonetheless were drawn together by blood. In 1651, George’s son Sigismund (1622-52) married Henrietta Maria of the Palatinate (1626-51), the daughter of the Winter King and cousin of the Oranges. Marriages such as this do not come about from one day to the next or through the bond of love. This match was in fact arranged as part of “an elaborate dynastic plan to place Sigismund on the Polish throne” (from the website of Gilau Castle in Hungary). “Although this marriage placed the Rakoczys within the orbit of west European ruling families, it was not destined to last. Shortly after a sumptuous wedding celebrated in June 1651 at the Rakoczy castle in Sarospatak, both bride and groom died tragically within months of each other.”

Elizabeth Stuart survived her husband and daughter. Living in the Netherlands, she was now related to the Transylvanian ruler, George Rákóczy II (1621-60; ruled 1648-60). The dynasty whose existence was doubted by Prince Maurits in the 1620s was married into his – following the equally young death of Stadholder Willem II (1626-50) – in 1651. Was this known to J.G. van Vliet or Hugo Allardt? Did the publisher think it would add to the sales attraction of the print if it were said to be a portrait of George – not the first, thus, but the second – Rákóczy?

A new find [made on 23 October 2012, following the initial publication of Schwartzlist 323] allows us to pinpoint the source for the identification precisely. In 1657 an eight-page Dutch-language pamphlet was published in Kleve under the title Manifest van Georgius Ragotsky, prins van Transilvanien. Vervattende de redenen waer om hy metsyn chrijchs-macht int koninck-rijck Polen valt  (A manifesto by Georgius Ragotsky, prince of Transylvania, containing the reasons why he is attacking the kingdom of Poland with his army; scanned by Google Books in the Ghent University Library). On the fourth page, the prince is introduced thus –

 – the very formula used in the print. If this is the source for the identification of Rákóczy on the print, which seems to be the inescapable conclusion, there is every reason to believe that it was put there not by van Vliet, but in 1657, when Rákóczy’s name was in circulation, by the following owner of the plate, the Amsterdam publisher Hugo Allardt (ca. 1628-1691). See below.

 This powerful theory could be disproved if the Rákóczys turned out to look like the man with the long hair in the print. But they didn’t. On their coinage, which even if it is not portraiture offers a general impression of their appearance, George Rákóczy I and II look quite alike, and quite unlike van Vliet’s print.



Left: Golden Transylvanian ducat with image of George Rákóczy I, 1646 (source: Coin facts Wiki)
Right: Silver Transylvanian thaler with image of George Rákóczy II, 1656 (source: Coin facts Wiki)


The macho Rákóczy Georges favored shaved heads and long beards, quite the opposite of van Vliet’s clean-shaven lady’s man. What they do have in common with him are feathered caps, but there is no reason to think that is anything but coincidence. That may not be the case with regard to another image by a printmaker in the Low Countries pretending to be a portrait of the prince of Transylvania. An undated portrait engraving by the Antwerp artist Pieter de Jode – either Pieter de Jode I (1570/73-1634) or his son Pieter de Jode II (1601-1674?) – is also captioned with the name George Rákóczy, prince of Transylvania.



Pieter de Jode, George Rákóczy. Engraving, first half 17th century.
Golden Transylvanian ducat with image of George Rákóczy II, 1648 (source: Coin facts Wiki, accessed 13 October 2012)

An interesting feature of this portrait is that the hairdo of the prince – a close-cropped skull topped with a prominent curl – resembles that of the bare-headed George II in a 1648 ducat. However, the absence of a beard eliminates this portrait too as a reliable likeness of either George.

The small collection of images above reveals the makeshift nature of identity in this field. Names and faces, authors and subjects, written records and vague rumors toss and tumble over each other. In this goulash of attributes, the identities of Rembrandt van Rijn and one of the Rákóczy princes of Transylvania could cross each other’s path in the mid-17th century like ships that pass in the night. In the final stage, Rákóczy remained and Rembrandt disappeared. At a given moment, Van Vliet’s plate came into the hands of the Amsterdam publisher Hugo Allardt.


Third state of print by J.G. van Vliet, impression in Albertina, Vienna

Allardt retained the caption identifying the model as George Rákóczy and added his own address below. But he rubbed out the inscriptions identifying the artist who created the image, Rembrandt van Rijn, and the engraver who immortalized it, J.G. van Vliet. What would we have thought if all the rest were lost and Allardt’s print the only piece of evidence concerning the previous existence of a painting by Rembrandt, variants on it, a drawing and captioned prints after it, to mention only the things we now think we know? Not much. How much of the past survives only in this form, if at all? A lot. And we cannot always connect the dots.

4 August 2021:  George Rákóczy was not the only identity assigned to this image. At least ten years before his name was attached to impressions of van Vliet’s etching, the French publisher François Langlois, also known as F.L.D. Ciartres (1589-1647), brought out this copy:

Unknown printmaker after J.G. van Vliet after Rembrandt, Man in a gorget and cap with feather
Inscribed Georgius Castriotus […] Scanderbeg
Engraving, 18.8 x 14.6 cm
London, British Museum, 1956,1018.35

Scanderbeg was a fascinating Albanian ruler of the fifteenth century no contemporary portrait of whom is known. Langlois, who worked as a publisher of prints from 1637 to his death ten years later, did this kind of thing to have some fun.

William W. Robinson, exhib. cat. Bruegel to Rembrandt: Dutch and Flemish drawings from the Maida and George Abrams Collection, Cambridge (Harvard University Art Museums) and New Haven/London (Yale University Press) 2002, p. 118

Christiaan Schuckman, Martin Royalton-Kisch and Erik Hinterding, Rembrandt & Van Vliet: a collaboration on copper, Studies in Dutch Graphic Art, vol. 1, Amsterdam (Rembrandt House Museum) 1996

Peter Schatborn, in exhib. cat. Rembrandt: the master and his workshop (drawings and etchings), Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) and London (National Gallery Publications) 1991, pp. 44-45, cat. nr. 8

J. Bruyn, “The documentary value of early graphic reproductions,” in J. Bruyn et al., A corpus of Rembrandt paintings, vol. 2, Dordrecht (Martinus Nijhoff) 1982, pp. 35-51

Otto Benesch, The drawings of Rembrandt, vol. 2, London (Phaidon) 1973, pp. 83-84, cat. nr. 340

[K.G. Boon and Pieter van Thiel], exhib. cat. Rembrandt 1669/1969, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1969, pp. 128-29, cat. nr. 37

[Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann], exhib. cat. Rembrandt, tentoonstelling ter herdenking van de geboorte van Rembrandt op 15 juli 1606: tekeningen, Rotterdam (Museum Boymans) and Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1956, pp. 55-56, cat. nr. 42. Here as elsewhere in the literature, the model for the heads lower left in the Birmingham drawing is identified, I believe erroneously, as the man depicted in the etching called The Fourth Oriental Head (Bartsch 289).

© Gary Schwartz 2012. Published on the Schwartzlist on 21 October 2012, revised on 23 October 2012, with the additions of new finds concerning the drawing in Birmingham and the booklet from Kleve. This is clearly work in progress.

Responses always welcome at Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

Last week I paid a visit for the first time in decades to the Index of Christian Art in the Utrecht University Library. This precious but gnarly research instrument is compiled at Princeton University and is available in Europe only in Utrecht. (Until 2005 the Vatican Library participated, but it then dropped out.) The presence in Utrecht of the ICA was one of the reasons for my choice of Utrecht as the place to come to on my Kress Fellowship (1965-66).

The Index maintains a visitor’s book, and out of curiosity I looked up the page for the time of my arrival in November 1965. What I found generated a powerful rush of nostalgia.


 I signed in on November 19, giving as my address the long-gone Domhotel, where I stayed for only a few days after getting to Utrecht. Six lines further, on November 30th, is the signature of the love of my life, Loekie, then Loekie Jeimke. By November 30th we had gotten to know each other only slightly. Most of our contact took place during the coffee and tea breaks at the Kunsthistorisch Instituut (Institute for Art History), a meeting moment for staff, students and visiting scholars. (In themselves the breaks were an academic facility of a kind that no longer exists.) Here in front of me, in October 2012, was a link between Loekie and me that predated, if only by a few weeks, our life together. The items I was looking for in the Index of Christian Art I could not find, but the lines in the visitor’s book I will never forget.