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Dutch Heads: Portraits and tronies in the circle of Rembrandt

One of the most captivating works in the Clowes Collection is the diminutive Old Man in a Tall, Fur-Edged Cap [Fig. 1]. Painted with a warm palette of earth tones, this venerable man seems lost in thought as he gazes out of the panel, his lips slightly parted in an expression of emotional absorption. His wrinkled skin and downy beard evoke his age and imbue him with a wisdom derived from a life long lived.

[Fig. 1] Old Man with a Tall, Fur-edged Cap, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10062

[Fig. 1] Old Man with a Tall, Fur-edged Cap, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10062

The painting has long been associated with the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Not only did the artist delight in depicting the folds and bags of old skin from early on in his career, but the manner of applying paint to the panel – contrasting thinner layers with thicker ones, using primarily broad brushstrokes – distinctly recalls the artist’s late style. Furthermore, such heavily clothed elderly men appear frequently in the artist’s compositions. They appear in various iterations as a disciple in the Supper at Emmaus of 1648, as a wise poet in his Homer of 1663, as Jacob in an illustration of Joseph recounting his dreams of the early 1640s, and even as a simple old man in a sketch from the 1640s. The clear differences in pose and scale, however, reveal that the Clowes panel is neither a preliminary study for nor direct copy after any of these works.

In addition, all indications suggest that this painting is not a fragment but a wholly independent, finished work. The man’s bust is framed at the center of the panel, without any disturbing cropping of his clothing or appendages. The neutral background does not expose any discontinuities in pattern, nor does it indicate shadows that would have suggested now-missing objects from a larger composition. The turned head and distant gaze of the sitter could imply a missing conversation partner, but it is equally likely that such a figure would have been merely implied. In fact, the averted gaze, combined with the fur-lined cap and coarse mantle, distinguish this figure as a tronie, or character study.

A tronie, a historical term meaning “head” in old Dutch, has been found to occur in 17th-century inventories to describe paintings of individual faces removed from their narrative context. The variety in usage of the word can be seen in the inventory recording the vast stock of the high-end art dealer Johannes de Renialme (c. 1600-1657): while the simple designation tronie seems to refer generically to a painted face, the term can also be used to specify the age (out troni or “old face”), sex (vrouwetronie or “woman’s face”), or even the fashion (antycqe troni or “antique face”) of the head portrayed. The term distinguishes the painting from a portrait (contrefeijtsel or portret in 17th-century Dutch), the foremost function of which is to convey the facial features of a specific person (contrefeijtsel van de Hartogh or “portrait of the duke”) and to indicate their profession or social status with secondary attributes. Tronies also differentiate themselves from single-figure history paintings, in which there is a concentration upon emotional expression and costume but also a notable narrative action. Tronies can be discerned through the handling of the paint, the posture of the body, the exaggerated facial expression, and sometimes through the obstruction of the face through dramatic shading and a communicative turn of the head. A second example in the IMA’s collection is a tronie [Fig. 2] depicting a young woman adorned with pearls and a diaphanous veil by Rembrandt’s pupil, Govaert Flinck (1615-1660).

[Fig. 2] Govaert Flinck (Dutch, 1615-1660), Woman in a Red Dress and Pearls, 1634; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Marguerite Lilly Noyes in memory of Josiah Kirby Lilly, 56.62

[Fig. 2] Govaert Flinck (Dutch, 1615-1660), Woman in a Red Dress and Pearls, 1634; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Marguerite Lilly Noyes in memory of Josiah Kirby Lilly, 56.62

Tronies occupied a special place in the oeuvres of Rembrandt and his colleague-cum-competitor Jan Lievens (1607-1674): the artists seem to have commodified the tronie as a new product for the art market during their early years in Leiden. Art historians like Yoriko Kobayashi-Sato and Franziska Gottwald have emphasized the origins of the tronie in the studios of late 15th- and early 16th-century artists like Perugino (1446-1523) and Leonardo (1452-1519), but the immediate examples for this “young and noble pair of painters” would have been the Antwerp artists Frans Floris (1517-1570), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). The major difference between the examples in the Flemish studios and those executed by Rembrandt and Lievens, however, would have been in their function. In the studio of Rubens, for example, a tronie would be painted by the master and employed as a model – by the master himself or his assistants – when executing a more complete narrative composition. Lievens and Rembrandt were young masters with few or no assistants in their Leiden workshops, and their highly worked-up tronies have little in common with their paintings of historical or mythological subjects. Rather, they came to market their tronies as independent paintings for the open market and developed such original character types as the “oriental” and “Rembrandt’s mother.” Dagmar Hirschfelder has found a reference to a tronie by Rembrandt in an inventory of 1628, just three years after he had begun to work as an independent master, which suggests that these paintings were immediately popular among art-loving audiences. The continued popularity of their tronies is demonstrated by the presence of such types of paintings by the hands of both Rembrandt and Lievens in Renialme’s estate inventory of 1657.

While the hand that executed our old man remains unknown, the overall proximity of the painting to Rembrandt’s style and its categorization as a tronie makes it a valuable asset to the Clowes Collection. Not only does this classification arrest our hunt for the composition for which it would have been made, but it redirects our attention to the general character that the artist captured through his attractive combination of costume, lighting, and facial expression. By qualifying this work as a tronie, this charming painting becomes an important marker of Rembrandt’s pioneering pictorial inventions.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, History, The Collection

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