Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Nicolaes van Bambeeck, 1641. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
At the end of last week’s talk I said that the Royal Collection contained some of the best portraits ever painted. I’m not going to talk about them today – I will leave that until Monday, as they are included in the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, which will be the subject of this week’s talk. There will be more portraits – of a very different type – in the following week as well (Monday 31 January), when we move on to consider a pair of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters who painted, according to one contemporary critic, with Uncommon Power. Thank you to those who were there last week – and for those who were not, my problem with Constable’s rainbow has finally been solved. I’m now assuming that everyone else knew what was going on – but as Stephen pointed out to me in a comment on last week’s post, ‘isn’t it simply that the sun sets at around 310 degrees around the summer solstice, so a low sun (the rainbow appears ‘tall’) would be in the right place to form this rainbow?’ Yes! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that, and why did no one else tell me?! Having learnt as a child that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, I have never moved it from these fixed points – despite being aware of the declination of the Earth. Sunrise and sunset are only due East and due West on an Equinox. So, my end of term school report would be, ‘Physics: fine; Geography and Astronomy: poor’. Even the Physics turned out to be ‘not so good’, which is one of the reasons why I am now an Art Historian! Enough. Time to move on. Today I am going to look at a portrait which is not entirely unconnected to those in the Royal Collection – Rembrandt’s painting of the wealthy wool merchant Nicolaes van Bambeeck.
Soberly dressed, as good citizens of Amsterdam were wont to be in the 17th Century, with a black hat and cloak, the painting is perfectly presented in a black ebony frame, itself beautifully carved, and highly polished. Bambeeck himself looks entirely serious, as sober as his monochrome outfit, all black and white – with the exception of the calf-skin (?) gloves. These harmonise with the sandy-coloured background, the stone of the pilasters seen on the right, and the diffuse golden light which illuminates the sitter with a healthy glow. His starched collar shines brightly in its puritanical whiteness, and the same stiff cleanliness must surely also apply to the two cuffs, although we can’t be certain as they are painted in different depths of beautifully graded shadow. However, sober as he appears here, Bambeeck was not always so serious. He was also depicted as the Ensign (or flag bearer) in one of the many groups of voluntary city guards which existed in The Netherlands at the time, The Company of Captain Reinier Reael and Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw.
Bambeeck is the one on the far left – holding the flag – with Reael and Blaeuw sitting next to him. This group portrait is one of many such images, a genre in its own right in The Netherlands, and in most of the paintings the sitters are – how can I phrase this politely? – well, they have far fuller figures. As a result, this particular group has come to be known as The Meagre Company. It was commissioned from Frans Hals in 1633, but he didn’t like the idea of travelling to Amsterdam (from nearby Haarlem) in order to paint it. A long dispute ensued, and after three years the Company hired Pieter Codde to finish the work. Bambeeck’s was the only figure Hals completed in its entirety. Although the Haarlem master planned the whole painting, and executed some of the portraits, and a few of the fabrics, it gets less like his style the further to the right you go.
That this is indeed Bambeeck can be seen by comparing details from the paintings by Hals and Rembrandt.
The angle of the face is slightly different, but that is nothing compared with difference in temperament. Hals gives us a smug, fashionable socialite, Rembrandt a contemplative scholar. But that nose is unmistakable – long, with a rounded, but almost beak-like tip, coming down below the nostrils, with a kink in the bridge.
So who was Nicolaes van Bambeeck, other than an embodiment of the styles of Holland’s two leading painters? Well, his family had originally come from Flanders, but fled to Holland after Nicolaes’s grandfather was executed by the Duke of Alva in Brussels in 1568. Alva had been sent by Phillip II of Spain to crush the rebellion in the Low Countries, but his heavy-handed tactics – exemplified by executions such as that of Bambeeck grand-père – led some of the Netherlandish provinces to break away from Spanish rule, resulting in the Eighty Years War and the establishment of the Dutch Republic as an independent nation state in 1648. Bambeeck’s father – also Nicolaes – married in Leiden in 1598, and moved to Amsterdam, where he died in 1615, leaving mother as the richest woman on her street. Nicolaes himself married in 1638, and at first the couple lived with his mother-in-law, in a house which just happened to be diagonally opposite Rembrandt’s. Within two years, they were well enough acquainted for Bambeeck to lend the artist money. He also lent money to Gerrit Uylenburgh, an art dealer, son of Hendrick (one of Rembrandt’s business partners) and cousin of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia. It was a close-knit group.
Bambeeck’s money came from trade – he was a cloth merchant, dealing mainly in Spanish wool, although he doesn’t seem to be showing off the latter in either of these portraits. But then, as I said last week, I’m not an expert on clothing.
Nevertheless, the focus in the portrait – by dint of the brilliant illumination – is the cotton collar, starched and smooth, with sharp pleats to give it its form, and minutely stitched hems. It is trimmed with copious quantities of lace. Collars had been fashionable since the 1630s, taking over from the ruff as they allowed for longer hair (as we saw when looking at Hals a few weeks back) and lace was always in favour. It may have been modestly coloured, perhaps, in chaste white, but it was hugely expensive, both to make and to clean. Note the way that, over the left shoulder (on our right), the edge of the lace just curls up and catches the light, not so very far from the signature at the top right of this detail.
The space itself is poorly defined – but then, excessive detail would distract us from looking at the sitter. Bambeeck’s face is at the height of some architectural detailing, part of two pilasters which mark a corner of the space in the background at the right. This is precisely where Rembrandt chose to paint both signature and date (1641). The whole is contained by the sober black frame – perfectly matching the blacks and greys of the costume – and just catching the light thanks to its perfect polish. The sitter wears his right glove, but has taken off the left one, and holds it in his right hand, allowing us to see his sophistication and elegance (gloves were that significant), but also, from the condition of his hand (if we could see it – sorry) that he is not a manual labourer, but a successful businessman who never needs to get his own hands dirty. He rests his right arm on a parapet – much as Rembrandt himself does in his Self Portrait at the age of 34 (which also has a semi-circular top), or for that matter, like the subject of Titian’s Portrait of Girolamo (?) Barbarigo, which was Rembrandt’s source for this motif, after he had seen the painting on the art market in Amsterdam. Both paintings are now, coincidentally, in the National Gallery in London.
But why did I trim the detail to cut off Bambeeck’s hand like that? Well, because it is precisely at this point that the painting gets truly interesting. He is resting his right arm on the parapet, yes, and he rests his left hand on it too. But is this really a parapet? And if so, of what is it made?
Well, it’s not a parapet at all. It is a picture frame – a beautifully polished black ebony picture frame. We see three glints of light reflecting off it in the bottom left-hand corner, defining its inner edge and two mouldings. But this is not the actual picture frame, as the edge and one of the mouldings are interrupted by the hem of Bambeeck’s satin cloak with its black lace trim, and then by the fingers of his empty left glove, which also cross the lower moulding. In the right corner the reflections are not so bright – although the form of the frame is still perfectly defined. The fingers of the subject’s left hand curl around it. The surface of the painting has dissolved, and the transition between our space and the space occupied by Nicolaes van Bambeeck becomes invisible – he is here with us, in one of the most brilliant trompe l’oeuil games that I know. He really could reach out and shake us by the hand (although maybe we would prefer it if he took the other glove off first). All of this should make you realise – if you hadn’t before – that the light glinting off the frame at the top right is not reflecting off the frame at all, as it is, of course, part of the painting.
The capital of the pilaster on the fictive frame sits just above the architectural detailing in the background. The bright white reflections draw our eyes towards them, and the upturned brim of the hat also seems to point the way. Just below this, this most bravura display of skill, is where Rembrandt tells you who he is, as if to see ‘Look at this! See what I can do!’ And of course, this is just above the subtly illuminated section of curling lace. ‘Put your name by the best bit’ – something else he could have learnt from Titian. The brilliance of the illusion is the result of Rembrandt’s ability to make paint look like polished ebony. This is precisely why paintings like this really should always be seen in their frames – even virtual reality can’t create such an effect: see how well the painted reflections match the reflections from the three-dimensional frame. From a photograph it is still hard to work out exactly which is which.
I said earlier that, three years before this was painted, Nicolaes van Bambeeck had married, but I didn’t tell you to whom. Her name was Agatha Bas, and she was the daughter of the mayor of Amsterdam, arms dealer Dirck Bas. Together with today’s painting Bambeeck commissioned a portrait of his wife as a pendant, and below you can see a detail from it: it is, of course, one of the Treasures from Buckingham Palace which I will be talking about on Monday. The two portraits seem to have stayed together until at least 1802, but by 1814 they had been separated. I shall reunite them in a few days’ time, when we will see what equivalent surprises Agatha has up her sleeve. Or rather, just beside it.