402 Rembrandt’s self-non-portraits in armor

Schwartz weighs in on the discussion of the iconography of the splendid Rembrandt Standard bearer now bought by the Rijksmuseum and comments sourly on its price.

Is he or isn’t he? Is the Rembrandt painting called The standard bearer, which the Rijksmuseum has purchased from the heirs of Elie de Rothschild for 175 million euros, a self-portrait or not?

Rembrandt, Self-portrait as a standard bearer, 1636
Oil on canvas, 111.8 x 96.8 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

A consensus is not to be found. Wilhelm Valentiner, in 1908, catalogued it as a self-portrait, but put a question mark behind the designation. In 1915, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, in the most complete catalogue of Rembrandt’s paintings ever, straddled the fence by giving it the title A standard-bearer, but writing in his entry: “The man has Rembrandt’s features” (nr. 270). In 1935, in a very summary catalogue that nonetheless replaced Hofstede de Groot as the new standard, Abraham Bredius put the painting in his section of genre paintings (nr. 433), not in the self-portraits. In the revised edition of 1969, Horst Gerson wrote that some earlier authorities “consider this to be a self-portrait, a suggestion that seems to me (and others) most unlikely.” Kurt Bauch, in his summary catalogue of 1966, was one of the others. He thought that Rembrandt’s brother Adriaen van Rijn might have modelled for the ensign (nr. 299). But then again, Bauch saw Adriaen in ten other paintings as well, which is also unlikely.

The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) sounds decided, but sheds little clarity on the question (volume III, 1986, nr. A 120): “Right into the modern literature the model has been seen as the artist himself. Bauch thought he was Rembrandt’s brother Adriaan. There is insufficient evidence for the first assumption, and no ground at all for the second. If the painter in fact used a model, it was probably not the intention to portray him as an individual […]” Did the Project members really think it possible that the painter did not use a model? Or that he found a model in the street that looked so much like him that most viewers took him to be the artist himself? Ernst van de Wetering, when in 2015 he rounded off the RRP’s Corpus of Rembrandt paintings in a personal volume VI, Rembrandt’s paintings revisited: a complete survey, wrote of nr. 147: “This painting, remarkably frequently copied, cannot be considered a portrait, nor as a self-portrait in any real sense (even though the facial features of the subject do resemble those of Rembrandt, who may well have posed for this figure in the mirror).” The RRP seems to be tripping over words and concepts, into forms of self-contradiction.

A more forthright tack was taken in 2019 by Volcker Manuth, Marieke de Winkel and Rudi van Leeuwen, in their massive Taschen catalogue of the paintings: “Although the eyes and the nose indeed show some resemblance to those of Rembrandt, the facial features are so modified by the jaw and the prominent drooping moustache that the painting cannot conceivably have been intended in the first place as a self-portrait.”

A lovely twist on the question came to me on 8 December in a mail from Joshua Rifkin, with this brilliant comparison:

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with baret and scarf (in reverse), 1633
Etching on paper, 13.3 x 10.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-32)

The etching, which Rifkin reproduced in reverse (in a different copy) and therefore in the original direction in which it was scratched into the wax, has always, since the first catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings, by Edmé Gersaint, in 1751 (nr. 22), been called a self-portrait. The title given to it by Adam Bartsch in 1797 (nr. 17) was “Portrait de Rembrandt avec l’écharpe autour du cou”  (Portrait of Rembrandt with the scarf around his neck). In the entry, Bartsch quotes Gersaint as remarking that the scarf falls onto Rembrandt’s back.

Rifkin wrote, “Not that I’d be arguing for Standard Bearer as a self-portrait. In fact I don’t think I’d be arguing for anything. But still I wonder.” So do I. The question implicit in his comparison is: “If the etching of 1633 is accepted as a self-portrait, for what reason should the painting of 1636 not be called that?” It cannot be for the drooping moustache and the form of the jaw. Or the hairdo or the scarf, for that matter, all of which are much the same in both. The most significant difference is that the Standard bearer is armed.

The documentary sources for how such images were described brings welcome enlightenment. During Rembrandt’s lifetime, two paintings by him of the type we call self-portraits are found in the records. On 27 June 1657 the paintings in the estate of the prominent art dealer Johannes de Renialme were appraised. Nr. 292 was “Rembrandts Contrefeijtsel antijcks” (Portrait of Rembrandt à l’antique). “Contrefeijtsel” was the ordinary term for a portrait, and “Antijcks” referred not to classical antiquity but anything that you might find in an antique store. Any number of Rembrandt self-portraits fit this description, perhaps even those many in which he sports a gold chain.

The second refers to a painting that was sold on 1 December 1658 by Dirck van Cattenburgh to his sisters Joanna and Margarita, to cover security for a loan. “Een schilderij sijnde een tronie door Rembrant nae hemselven geschildert” (A painting being a “tronie” painted by Rembrandt after himself). The plain definition of “tronie” is face, but it was used as a term for an image of a person, not limited to face paintings alone, that was not intended to be seen as a portrait of an identifiable individual. In fact, the Cattenburgh item fits The standard bearer quite well. All the struggles in the scholarly literature to categorize the representation and identify the model are here treated matter-of-factly. Yes, the painting is a tronie, but Rembrandt is recognized for who he was.

Along with the portraits of Rembrandt à l’antique and the tronies for which he modelled, there were also unadorned likenesses for the family. Three such paintings were in the inventory of Rembrandt’s daughter-in-law Magdalena van Loo, drawn up after her sad death on 21 October 1669 at the age of twenty-eight, just weeks after Rembrandt died on the fourth.

“een conterfeytsel van des overledens schoonvader” (A portrait of the father-in-law of the deceased; that is, Rembrandt)
“een conterfeytsel van des overledens schoonmoeder” (A portrait of the mother-in-law of the deceased; that is, Saskia)
“een conterfeytsel van des overledens man, daer hy over de leuning leyt” (A portrait of the husband of the deceased, showing him leaning on a ledge; Titus).

The portraits of Rembrandt and Saskia were painted by Ferdinand Bol, but there are self-portraits by Rembrandt that have been paired with portraits by Saskia, presumed to have been made for the family.

Distinguishing between these three types of images of Rembrandt, and placing the Standard bearer in the class of tronies for which Rembrandt modelled, what does this say about the other self-images in which he shows himself armed? Where do they belong? No other artist painted and etched himself so repeatedly in military garb as he. There are individual self-portraits of the kind, mainly by Rembrandt pupils like Paulus Lesire, Pieter Potter, Carel Fabritius, Ferdinand Bol, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Arent de Gelder (not all accepted as self-portraits), but Rembrandt was the first and only to make a specialty of it, in the years 1628-36. Added to his own images of himself in armor are a number of such portraits by others in his circle, including a marvelous one by Jan Lievens, painted perhaps even before Rembrandt started arming himself.

Jan Lievens, Portrait of Rembrandt in a gorget, ca. 1628
Oil on panel, 57 x 44.7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-C-1598)

Without details or ado, here is my present collection of Rembrandt in arms.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a gorget, laughing, ca. 1628
Oil on copper, 22.2 x 17.1 cm
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum (2013.60)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a gorget, ca. 1629
Oil on panel, 44.5 x 34.3 cm
Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art (C10063; Courtesy of The Clowes Fund)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, bareheaded, in a gorget, ca. 1629
Oil on panel, 38.2 x 31 cm
Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Gm391)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and flat cap, ca. 1631
Oil on panel, 67 x 54 cm
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi (00186869)


Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and helmet, 1634
Oil on panel, 80.5 x 66 cm
Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GK 237)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and plumed cap, 1635
Oil on panel, 91.2 x 71.9 cm
Buckland Abbey (NT 810136)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and feathered beret, ca. 1635-40
Oil on panel, 62.5 x 47 cm
The Hague, Mauritshuis (149)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait as officer, with Saskia (The Prodigal Son in the Tavern), ca. 1635
Oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie (Gal.-Nr. 1559)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and flat cap, ca. 1635
Oil on panel, 56 x 47 cm
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (808; RKD)

I know of no self-portrait drawing by Rembrandt in armor, and only two etchings.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait as an oriental ruler, 1634
Etching on paper, 12.4 x 10.2 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1961-987)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with plumed cap and sword, 1634
Etching on paper, 19.9 x 16.5 cm
London, British Museum (1847,1120.1)

The etched three-quarter length figure of 1634 comes closest in composition to the Standard bearer of 1636, and closest to it in the doubts expressed about its status as a self-portrait. My own feeling is that we should not draw too categorical a distinction between self-images à l’antique and tronies for which the artist modelled. In the captions above I have labelled them all self-portraits, but a better designation might be self-non-portraits.

Why Rembrandt should have pictured himself as a military man is a question I leave to be considered (though probably not answered) another time.

That Rembrandt’s painting of a Standard bearer is worth owning no one will dispute. But that does not mean that it is worth buying at any price whatsoever. I don’t think anyone would think it worth say the nearly half a billion that was paid for the maybe Leonardo da Vinci Salvator mundi (a freak sale that I leave further out of consideration). So it is legitimate to ask what a responsible price would be.

Early last year, ArtNews published a listing of the ten most expensive old masters sold in our time. Until 2016, when the Rijksmuseum paid Eric de Rothschild about $84 million each for Rembrandt’s portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, the top item whose price is public knowledge was a Rubens Massacre of the Innocents, which was bought at Sotheby’s in 2002 by the richest man in Canada, Kenneth Thomson, for $76.5 million dollars. Since 2016 only one other old master has fetched more: a Botticelli portrait that in 2021 went to a Russian buyer for $92.2 million.

Against this background, where did the heirs of Elie de Rothschild get the idea of asking $186 million for their Rembrandt Standard bearer? The obvious answer is that they got it from seeing their cousin Eric succeed in selling his two Rembrandt portraits for $168 million. If that kind of money could be gotten from state museums, why not double it and see what happens?

The justification that the prices for great art simply have risen to the level now paid by the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch state does not wash with me. One hundred and seventy-five million euros is more than twice the highest amount ever paid for an old master painting. In this century only four old masters changed hands for even half that amount. The French state had already turned down the option to buy at that price, and I doubt whether any other buyer would have stepped in for much more than what was paid for Maerten or Oopjen. By failing to negotiate a better price, by paying a record amount for the Rembrandt paintings, the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch state are jacking the market for old master paintings up to the speculative level at which billionaires buy contemporary art and nft’s. That contributes to a development that will make it impossibly difficult for public museums all over the world to acquire the best old masters, extending even to those that owners might want to donate. Those owners have heirs who also read the papers. That the Rembrandts are being sold for these inflated prices by one of the wealthiest families in the world makes it all the more painful. By way of comparison, let it be said in honor that Kenneth Thomson donated his Rubens free of charge to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 January 2022.

9 February 2022: On 19 January, Otto Naumann gave an eminently well-informed, entertaining talk on the prices of Rembrandt paintings, in which he disagreed pertinently with the opinion I express above. Watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nMJGzfpC7M. Otto quotes my remarks, from “By failing to negotiate a better price” to “all the more painful,” leaving out my phrase about heirs who read the papers. Otto then goes on to explain why the price is justified, with reference to long-term developments in the prices of old masters and the number of billionaires in the world (three thousand). He does not quote my figures about the price for the Standard bearer being more than twice as high as any old master ever sold, which is why I called the price inflated. Nor does he comment on the undesireability of top old masters going to billionaires rather than museums. But do watch that very good talk.

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22 thoughts on “402 Rembrandt’s self-non-portraits in armor”

  1. The Money printer is running hot and the USD/EUR is steadily loosing value. I find this price is adequate for such a fine and unique painting that will be a highlight for Holland. A wise and timely investment.

    1. Well, that’s the reasoning that carried the day, and I cannot say that I am not pleased that the painting will now be available to museumgoers. But don’t you care that the next time a painting of that quality comes available, it will now start at more than twice the price it would have had before this deal? In itself, that is an effect that accelerates the decline in the value of currency that you talk about.

  2. Really good one, Gary.
    To me, the problem underlying the (irresolvable) controversy is taking categories too seriously. The painting is what it is. Categories are invented, like the Dewey decimal system for books. Assigning paintings, or books, or animals and plants, to categories means imposing on them criteria invented to define categories. Unless you believe that there are natural categories, ones that correspond to the way things really are.

  3. They have paid through the nose; they have obtained an especially prominent and lustrous example of Spicer’s “Renaissance Elbow.”

    Property values link elements in this transaction: the ability to pay for weapons, armor, and rig-out as qualification for membership in the Schutterijen, especially for the ensign; the ability to collect such decorative textiles and metalwork – shortened to “props” by theatre companies – as the showpiece equipment declaring an upwardly mobile young artist; the ability to command so many zeroes as signifying the prestige of buyers and sellers. Can we suppose that the artist would not have enjoyed this eminence too? More power to his elbow.

    1. I’m sure Rembrandt would have been thrilled, Richard. He would immediately have demanded residual rights.

      For those who didn’t get the reference, the in-your-face “Renaissance Elbow” was noticed and named by my brilliant colleague Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore since anyone can remember, though I know here longer than that. It’s the kind of observation that once you have heard it, you never forget, and always think of Joaneath whenever you see that gesture.

  4. It would seem to me that the purpose of a portrait is representative: to represent persons as “what” they are, as defined by recognizable attributes. Thus true self-portraits painted by Rembrandt (as an artist) would be rare and date from late in his career. All the rest should be seen as tronies painted for the market, though featuring a very personal, perhaps narcissistic touch. In Rembrandt”s case, this touch paid off, so that the emphasis came to be put on his likeness. That inventories speak of “portraits” of Rembrandt can be considered historical evidence, but not art-historical proof of the artist’s intentions (which might not fit on a label anyway). Didn’t I read somewhere that the category “self-portrait” didn’t even exist in Rembrandt’s lifetime? “Self-tronie” gets my vote.

    1. Dear Jean-Marie, I agree that there is a difference between the late self-portraits, in which he did not dress up, and the earlier ones in which he did. I like your characterizations. The word self-portrait did not exist in Dutch, but I think that people would have known what you were talking about if you used it. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, hoping for a reliable date for first use, and was astonished to find that it is not in it at all.

      1. Shame on the OED! Google’s Ngram viewer dates back only to 1800 but shows frequency of usage in books: for “self-portrait,” almost nothing until about 1900.
        Performance phrasing might apply: Olivier as Lear, Callas as Tosca, Rembrandt? as Standard-Bearer. And – agreed, later – Rembrandt as Rembrandt. His greatest part.

        1. I’m with you, Richard. I had the feeling that the word self-portrait wasn’t that old, but that it was so late surprises me. Thanks.

  5. Dear Gary,

    Thank you. I like Valentiner’s simple “Self-Portrait?”. There is no secure answer here and one can sympathise with Kurt Bauch – it would be good to know what all of Rembrandt’s siblings looked like: his brothers Adriaen, Gerrit, Cornelis and Willem, his older sister, Machtelt, and younger sister, Elizabeth (Lijsbeth). In around 1900 it became fashionable among art-historians to identify Rembrandt’s family-members in his work, but now we are – rightly – more cautious, and even some “self-portraits” have of course turned out to be studio works.

    I remember the late Prof. Michael Jaffé telling me, in reference to an expensive purchase made by the National Gallery in London, that “people soon forget what you paid”. In a decade the price of the Standard-Bearer will have sunk into oblivion and might even be regarded in retrospect as something of a bargain,

    Best wishes and thanks again,


    1. Yes, Martin, we all weaned ourselves from the sentimentalizing brothers and sisters, and I’m still fighting about “Rembrandt’s mother,” who I’m sure is a woman a full generation older than Neeltje Willemsdr van Zuytbroeck.

      Michael Jaffé was right about the price of most purchases being forgotten, but there are those whose price becomes an integral part of their identity. Like the Salvator mundi. I do not in any case look forward to a near future (what’s a decade?), when so many paintings have been sold for more than 175 million euros that we yawn over the Standard bearer. That will happen if this transaction catches the attention of those people who are now buying Damien Hirsts for $125 million.

      1. Ah, you make me think of Doris Day: “The future’s not ours to see / Che sera, sera!”

        I agree that Rembrandt’s mother’s still a problem (his father, also); but see the Salvator Mundi as the one great exception to a generally-held rule that prices get forgotten,


  6. First: my very best wishes for 2022 to Loeki and you – hope we’ll be able to meet some time this year!

    I still remember all too well that the Rijksmuseum failed to buy Catrina Hooghsaet in 2007, as the owners didn’t think the 34.7 million euros the museum had managed to collect from various sources “met their expectations”. It sold in 2015 for £35m. I have always regretted this. A portrait of a woman we know much about, in the year of Rembrandt’s insolvency – the Rijksmuseum does not own paintings by Rembrandt from the 1650s. In that sense it WOULD have filled a gap in the collection. Catrina will now go to China.

    1. With this I could not agree more. Although I have my doubts about China, since no museum or collector there has yet bought a Rembrandt painting. But the amount fits the market situation as it was before the Rijksmuseum and the Rothschilds started to do business with each other. I’d bet that if the owners of Catrina Hoogsaet had waited another year, they would have asked for twice as much, just because of what was paid for Maerten and Oopjen.

  7. Fritz Grossmann was correct (in conversation) when he said that there will never be agreement about the sitters for portraits (or even whether the image in question was a portrait in the first place). I find Rifkind’s comparison quite compelling.
    As for “armed,” perhaps one needs to distinguish levels–esp separating the ordinary gorget from the lustrous banner here, for such Standard-Bearers were leaders of their military clusters (cf. Goltzius’s magnificent print of the 1580s, perhaps even an inspiration here?). And of course the “Oriental” swords and other potential “antickx” articles are something else entirely.
    Very stimulating column, plus responses. Warm thanks and happy/happier new year to all readers of Schwartzlist!

  8. Kenneth Thompson sounds like a rare art collector or someone at the end of his life with no heirs. Most art collectors are driven by social status and economic ambition since art was invented in the Renaissance and immediately commodified as something beyond base economic passions.In this way, it wss the perfect way to launder money. Rothko’s prices in the late 60s and 70s, and much later, reflect the same dynamic. The art which despises money most is often the art most attractive to money.

    I share Gary’s sadness that this will only increase Rembrandt inflation and make it harder for museums to buy but I agree with the comment that this will look like a good deal someday. When i was studying Rembrandt at NYU in 1974-6, i had to pay the outrageous monthly sum of $280.00 for a studio apartment in the Village.

    Art and “reasonable price” don’t belong in the same sentence. Price depends on the irrational desires of buyers. I would never waste even a few thousand dollars on any art work . My grandfather gave me a Whistler engraving in 1983. As as art historian, I immediately sold it and used the money to buy something useful – art books.

    I leave art ownership to those intended by God to collect art – the billionaire class. Rembrandt was himself another money grubbing, social climber, at least until tragedy finally cut him down to size, and allowed his to go in a more interesting direction in his last two decades.

    What is far worse than 150 million dollar paintings? The near complete lack of interest in the past among American college students. Rembrandt and all of Baroque art died 10 years ago when i had to cancel my courses in this area. Ditto with my two courses on Early Renaissance and my seminar on Bruegel. Student interest begins with Warhol. When I retire in a year, and my classical-medieval colleague follows suit, neither of us will be replaced. Our 4 remaining faculty will include 3 modernists teaching art after 1900 and one Asianist. Art lives; art history is dead.

    1. I wish I could disagree with you, Robert, but I’m too far from the action to dare say anything about teaching art history in the US. What I do notice is that there does not seem to be a decline in the number of young(ish) scholars submitting manuscripts on Netherlandish art to journals and publishers, or in the production of scholarly presses like Brepols.

      I must disagree with what you say about art and “reasonable price” belonging in the same sentence, given that I wrote that sentence. I base the judgment on the existence of what anyone would call an unreasonable price, such as that paid for the Salvator mundi. Moreover, all those responding seem to think that the value of art is bound to go nowhere but up, so that present prices will inevitably look low. That may happen to the Standard bearer, but it is not the rule, not even for Rembrandts. Looking at those sold for premium prices by art dealers between say 1880 and 1920, most have lost their Rembrandt attribution and would not even be taken up today by an auction house or a classy firm.

  9. Thanks to Gary for this fascinating discussion, which I’m obviously happy to have helped set in motion.

    Might I just add a small point on the military end of things? Peter Schatborn’s description of the etched “Self-portrait with beret and scarf ” in the exhibition catalogue Rembrandt by Himself (London/The Hague 1999, p. 152) includes the following: “On his shoulder is a ‘point’ – a button with laces for attaching armour. A similar fastener is visible on the sleeve of Joris de Caulerij (c.1606-after 1661), whose portrait as lieutenant of the militia in The Hague Rembrandt made in 1632…. The clothing in this etching can therefore be described as military dress, but depicted in rather an informal context.”

    So another military self-portrait – or is that “self-portrait” (a distinction adopted as well in the cited catalogue), or even self-non-portrait?

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