This evocative character study is an early example of a type of subject that preoccupied the great Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn throughout his long career. Although his large output included landscapes, genre paintings, and the occasional still life, he focused on biblical and historical paintings and on portraits. As an extension of these interests, the artist studied the effect of a single figure, made dramatic through the use of costume and rich, subtle lighting. Rembrandt collected costumes to transform his models into characters. Here, the gold chain and steel gorget suggest an honored military career, while the plumed beret evokes an earlier time. The broad black mass of the old man's torso against a neutral background is a powerful foil for these trappings. The face is that of a real person, weathered and watchful, glowing with pride and humanity. The unidentified sitter, once thought to be the artist's father, was a favorite model, appearing in many of the artist's early works. The confident execution suggests that the young Rembrandt completed this picture about 1631, when he had left his native Leiden to pursue a career in the metropolis of Amsterdam; perhaps he wished to use this work to demonstrate his skill in a genre that combined history painting and portraiture.
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