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Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, ca. 1663

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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.

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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.

  • Rihel’s face

    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

    European rulers wanted to have themselves majestically portrayed on horseback by great painters such as Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Velázquez.

  • Charles V

    A century before, the Venetian old master Titian had painted Charles V on horseback with the horse.

A real horseman

Frederick Rihel was a real horseman. Three years before this portrait was painted, he had also been a member of the prestigious civil guard that served as a ceremonial escort for Mary Stuart, Princess of Orange, and the young Prince Willem III as they made their entrance into Amsterdam. It was an important moment in the history of the city which had achieved a better relationship with the House of Orange following years of disagreement. The portrait could thus serve as a reminder of this momentous occasion. 

Over het schilderij

  • Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, ca. 1663
  • Canvas, 294.5 x 241 cm
  • London, National Gallery
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