The traditions of portrait painting, including how the subject should be depicted, had developed over many centuries. As an artist, Rembrandt was of course familiar with these rules but he pushed the boundaries whenever possible.
In 17th century Holland many wealthy merchants and regents wanted to have themselves immortalised in order to display their social and political status. The young Rembrandt had become extremely well-known and also commercially successful as a portrait painter. Between 1642 and 1651 Rembrandt painted very little, so he made no portraits. But during his late period, he again turned to portraiture. It is striking that he started to paint different types of portraits for the first time: a family portrait (like the one from Braunschweig), a regents portrait (like The Syndics) and an equestrian portrait, namely that of the wealthy banker Frederick Rihel. In all these works he broke frequently with the current conventions, as is clear from the portrait of Rihel.
Rembrandt, the portrait painter
The Republic was governed by a broader group of dignitaries, merchants and craftsmen. Members of this elite group also wanted to have themselves immortalised, just as was done elsewhere in Europe. And to paint their portraits, Rembrandt was in great demand during his early career. It was in this period of rapidly growing celebrity as a portraitist that he accumulated a fortune. For a long time he was painting very few portraits. Then, partly driven by economic necessity, Rembrandt again turned to portraiture in his later years. Typically for Rembrandt, he did so in his own distinctive way.
A good leader
The horse in the Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback (ca. 1663) is shown in a ‘levade’: an apparently effortless but actually very difficult pose for both horse and rider. Even a highly trained horse can hold this pose for only five seconds. By having his horse perform this feat, the rider is demonstrating his fine horsemanship which is also symbolic of his excellent leadership qualities. The true sovereign could be recognised by his skill at controlling a horse. Rulers in Europe were delighted to see themselves on large equestrian portraits. It was considered ‘not done’ for ordinary citizens to have themselves portrayed in such a regal fashion. Banker Frederick Rihel (1621-1681) and Rembrandt, however, paid little attention to tradition.
A banker with ambition
In his later years, Rembrandt was constantly pushing the boundaries of tradition. In doing so, he balanced on a fine line between the expectations of his prosperous clients and his own artistic passions. Again and again, he had to try and guess how far he could go when it came to a certain patron. Frederick Rihel was originally from Strasbourg, so he probably felt more attracted to the splendour of the aristocracy and the ostentatious traditions typical of other European countries. He was an affluent merchant who, as a banker, had risen to a leading position at Bartolotti, the renowned banking house that served such clients as the House of Orange. (The Bartolotti House still stands at the bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam, at number 170-172.) Rihel had just been handed the helm at Bartolotti.
The horse was subsidiary in importance to the rider’s face and ornate dress. Thick daubs and brushstrokes of white, yellow and red paint suggest the glint of rich clothing and tack.
European rulers wanted to have themselves majestically portrayed on horseback by great painters such as Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Velázquez.
A century before, the Venetian old master Titian had painted Charles V on horseback with the horse.
Over het schilderij
- Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, ca. 1663
- Canvas, 294.5 x 241 cm
- London, National Gallery
On display at the ‘Late Rembrandt’ exhibition will be more than a hundred works created during the last phase of Rembrandt’s life. To get you in the mood, here are twelve works included in this spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
The Syndics, 1662
A meeting of five important inspectors of the Amsterdam drapers’ guild behind a table. Rembrandt turned this meeting into a visually exciting scene.Read more
Self Portrait with Two Circles, ca. 1665-1669
Rembrandt made many self-portraits during his career. What makes this one so notable is his ruthless honesty in portraying himself.Read more
Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, 1654
This is one of the most famous paintings hanging in Louvre. Here we see a beautiful young woman bathing. She has just read a letter and now finds herself in a dilemma.Read more
The Jewish Bride, ca. 1665
What you immediately notice about this large painting is Rembrandt’s rough application of paint. In this work, Rembrandt broke with all conventions of the day by smeering on and scratching through the paint.Read more
The Family Portrait, ca. 1665
‘The Family Portrait’ has not travelled since 1956. Just for this once, it is on loan to the Rijksmuseum especially for this exhibtion.Read more
A Woman bathing in a Stream, 1654
Here we see an alluring woman wading through the water while slowly lifting the hem of her dress. But who is this beauty?Read more
Recumbent Lion, ca. 1660-1665
Rembrandt preferred to draw lifelike representations of things he saw around him in real life. This lion is a good example.Read more
A Young Woman sleeping, ca. 1654
This drawing of a woman taking a quick nap is very typical of Rembrandt: an artist who was always recording the little scenes in his everyday life.Read more
Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, 1656
When painting this Biblical story about Jacob, Rembrandt chose an unexpected moment that must have been a surprising choice for viewers of his day.Read more
Titus at his Desk, 1655
Rembrandt made clever use of painting techniques to evoke a sense of endearment when viewing this work in which we can recognise his own son.Read more
The conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, ca. 1661-1662
In this painting, Rembrandt made use of a clever and entirely new technique to tell a story.Read more
Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, ca. 1663
As an artist, Rembrandt was familiar with the rules of portraiture but he pushed the boundaries whenever possible.Read more