Is he or isn’t he? Is Rembrandt’s painting titled The Standard Bearer, which the Rijksmuseum, with the support of the State, wants to buy from the heirs of Élie de Rothschild for 175 million euros, a self-portrait or not?
Art historians disagree on this. In 1908, Wilhelm Valentiner grudgingly cataloged the work as ‘De Vaandeldrager (self-portrait?)’ In 1915, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot hesitated, in the most extensive catalog of Rembrandt’s paintings ever, by giving the title ‘A standard bearer’, but to include in his description: “The man has the features of Rembrandt.”
In 1935, in a concise catalog that nevertheless replaced Hofstede de Groot as the new standard, Abraham Bredius classified the painting as genre paintings, not self-portraits. In the 1969 revised version, Horst Gerson wrote: Some earlier experts “consider this painting as a self-portrait, a suggestion that seems highly improbable to me (and others).”
The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) sounds very definite, but clarifies little on the matter: (volume III, 1989): „Until modern literature, the model has been regarded as the artist himself. Bauch thought it was Rembrandt’s brother Adriaan. There is insufficient evidence for the first assumption and none for the second. If the painter actually used a model, then it probably wasn’t the intention to portray him as an individual. […]”
Did the members of the Rembrandt Research Project really consider it possible that the painter did not use a model? Or that he happened to find a model that looked so much like him that most viewers mistook him for the artist himself? When finishing the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings project leader Ernst van de Wetering wrote about it rather confusingly: ‘This painting, copied remarkably much, cannot be regarded as a portrait, nor as a self-portrait in the true sense (even though the features of the character resemble those of Rembrandt, who perhaps posed for this figure in the mirror).”
The RRP seems to contradict itself here, stumbling over words and concepts.
Volcker Manuth, Marieke de Winkel and Rudi van Leeuwen were clearer in their extensive Taschen catalog of the paintings in 2019: “But although the eyes and nose do indeed show some resemblance to Rembrandt’s, the facial features through the double chin and prominent hanging mustache are modified to such an extent that the painting could not have had a primary function as a self-portrait.”
A brilliant comparison
Joshua Rifkin (American conductor and Rembrandt researcher, ed.), who sent me an email on December 8, 2021, shed new light on this issue with a brilliant comparison. He reproduced an etching by Rembrandt in mirror image, i.e. in the direction that the image was originally scratched in the etching wax. Since the first catalog of Rembrandt’s etchings from 1751 by Edmé Gersaint, this etching has always been called a self-portrait. The title Adam Bartsch gave it in 1797 was Portrait of Rembrandt with the scarf around his neck (Portrait of Rembrandt with a scarf around his neck). In his description Bartsch quotes Gersaint who noted that the scarf hangs on his back.
Rifkin wrote: „Not that I would argue that The Standard Bearer is a self portrait. I’m not advocating anything. But I wonder.” I do that as well. The question that this comparison implicitly raises is: if the etching from 1633 is accepted as a self-portrait, why shouldn’t the painting from 1636 be called that? It can’t be the dripping mustache or the shape of the jaw. Nor the hairstyle or the scarf, which largely match in both cases. The main difference is that The Standard Bearer wearing a ring collar.
Historical sources provide insight. During Rembrandt’s lifetime, two paintings were included in the documents as self-portraits. On June 27, 1657, the paintings from the estate of Johannes de Renialme, a prominent art dealer, were appraised. No. 292 wax’Rembrandts Contrefeijtsel antijcks‘. ‘Contrefeijtsel’ was the normal term for a portrait, and ‘antijcks’ does not refer to the ancient world, but to things you can find in an antique shop. Rembrandt with something from the antique shop, that description fits several of his self-portraits, such as the one in which he wears a ‘gold’ chain.
The second description refers to a painting that was sold on December 1, 1658 by Dirck van Cattenburgh to his sisters Joanna and Margarita, as collateral for a loan. „A painting like a tronie painted by Rembrandt nae hemselven”. A ‘tronie’ meant ‘face’ in general, but it was also used to designate an image of a person, not so much as a portrait or recognizable individual. The description of Cattenburgh’s painting also fits The Standard Bearer. The entire struggle of experts to determine who is depicted and to identify the painter’s model is rendered businesslike. Yes, the painting is a tronie, but Rembrandt is recognized as such.