An unknown gentleman in black, his cape wrapped round his shoulders, addresses the beholder with an attentive gaze. His portrait imparts an air of gravitas, with the two tassels providing the only playful accent. The sitter’s starched-stiff white collar stands out against the black dress and dimly lit back wall and underlines the austere flavour.
In this portrait painted in 1649, Bol stands at the crossroads, skilfully exploiting the lessons he had learnt from his teacher Rembrandt while at the same time exploring a new pictorial language marked by an enhanced clarity of form and restrained elegance. Strongly reminiscent of Rembrandt is the dense and richly textured brushwork in the modelling of the face, achieving a powerful sense of presence. The bust formula keeping the sitter’s arms hidden under the draped mantle, however, reminds of classical sculpted busts and especially invokes comparison with the classicizing marble busts of Rombout Verhulst (1624-1698) portraying contemporary prominent figures, which Bol certainly new.
Bol did not paint many portraits but his preserved output shows a remarkable versatility.[i] Bol never treated the genre run-of-the-mill and always seems to have been conscious of the artistic possibilities this branch of art had to offer, cleverly reconciling them with his clients’ wishes. Bol started producing portraits immediately after leaving Rembrandt’s studio in 1642 and continued to paint them throughout his career. By 1649, the year of our painting, Bol was already being regarded as one of the Dutch Republic’s most respected portrait painters and in that very year finished his first group portrait; The Four Governors of the Leper Asylum (Amsterdam Museum) with many more important commissions to come. Still iconic are his portraits of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (for instance in Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum and The Hague, Mauritshuis).
Bol’s imposing corpus of portraits certainly benefitted from his ambition exploration of the human face in so-called tronies, anonymous heads often framed by exotic and fancy dress and headgear, of which he painted many in the 1640s. Bol occasionally portrayed his sitters in the guise of mythological or biblical protagonists. From c. 1650 onwards he became increasingly sensible to the elegant portrait style practiced by Flemish artists such as Anthony van Dyck and, just like a host of former fellow Rembrandt pupils, gradually adopted this new mode in his own portraits.
The present portrait could not be further away from these imaginative portraits historié’s or mundane scenes set in park-like landscapes. Here, Bol sought to capture the sitter’s inner personality by outward means, building up the appropriate image so to speak by carefully selecting a fitting portrait formula, compositional format, lighting and setting. Also the unusually small format and panel support contribute to the desired effect. Hitherto completely unknown to scholars, our painting constitutes an important rediscovery and addition to Ferdinand Bol’s oeuvre.
The present work was once owned by Georg Weifert, a Serbian industrialist and banker of German descent. He is also considered the founder of the modern mining sector in Serbia. Weifert was an important patron and supporter of humanitarian and cultural institutions. Today, his portrait adorns the 1000 Serbian dinar note.
Ferdinand Bol, the son of a prosperous surgeon, is Rembrandt’s most famous pupil. He may have received initial training from Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp in his hometown Dordrecht before studying with Rembrandt in Amsterdam. His many official commissions included large history pieces for the new Amsterdam Town Hall. In 1653 he married Lysbeth Del. His father in law held important positions in the Admiralty of Amsterdam and the wine merchants guild and was instrumental in providing Bol with commissions from both institutions. In the late 1660s, Godfried Kneller was Bol’s pupil. In 1669, Bol married the wealthy widow Anna van Erckel and almost completely stopped painting.