Mark Harden's Artchive Rembrandt van Rijn
Jan Six
1654
Oil on canvas
112 x 102 cm
Six Collection, Amsterdam

Text from Simon Schama, "Rembrandt's Eyes":

"The painting is life-size but a three-quarter-length, creating a startling impression of an immediate, living presence. When Rembrandt, in 1641, painted the figure of a patrician leaning nonchalantly against a classical column, the full-length format, in the van Dyck manner, dictated a necessary aristocratically calculated distance, a length of floor, between observer and subject. Jan Six, on the other hand, is in space, so close we can see the small cleft in his chin and the fastidiously exposed measure of pink skin between his mustache and upper lip. Normally, a three-quarter-length would have suggested a rectangular canvas support. But Rembrandt's painting is nearly square. And almost the entire left-hand third of the canvas is occupied by nothing except a thickly painted blackness, from which Jan Six projects himself into the light. Through a calculation of the optical effects of color as careful as in The Night Watch, moving diagonally from the dark pigeon-gray of the coat through the ocher of his chamois gloves and finally toward the dazzling, saturated scarlet of his cloak, Rembrandt manages to make Jan Six seem to move through space, toward us, out of the anonymous darkness into the cordial, warming light of recognition.

"His motions, as befits the gentleman virtuoso, are not unduly brisk. His regard is steady, directed at us, the business with the hands and the glove instinctively elegant. But what is that motion painted by Rembrandt as an astonishing wet-in-wet, unresolved blur of ocher, brown, gray, and white? It has always been assumed that Six is pulling his left glove more firmly onto his hand, preparing, as it were, to assume his street persona. But Rembrandt has taken the greatest care to show the thumb of that same left hand skintight snug in the glove, even to the extent of outlining the upper edge of the thumbnail beneath the soft chamois. It is just as plausible, then, to read the motion of the bare right hand as beginning to pull the glove off, rather than putting it on. It's not, of course, that we need to change the direction of Jan Six's movement from a going-out to a coming-in, from a departure to a greeting. It's rather that Rembrandt means to catch his subject precisely at the ambiguous margin between the home and the world. Ten years ago, David Smith very observantly noticed that in the Latin chronosticon, or little epithet, which Six himself wrote of the portrait in his Pandora album, he referred to himself as "lanus." So that when Six goes on to affirm (considerately, given d'Andrade's complaint that same year) that "this is the face that I, Janus Six, wore, who since childhood have worshipped the Muses," he implies punningly two faces rather than one: the face worn for the world and the face worn for his friends, for himself. Which is why Rembrandt has done everything he possibly can to make us look at those two hands: the bare hand of personal, familial greeting (the precise indication of the knuckles and even the veins, for all the loose freedom of the brushwork, heightening this sense of intimacy) and the gloved hand of social rituals. For that matter, the joining of hands or gloves was a commonplace emblem of friendship and mutual devotion, so that Rembrandt was, in effect, once again making another allusion to the amity existing between painter and poet. The greatest compliment Rembrandt could pay his patron, though, was to deliver the paint to the canvas with the appearance of pure sprezzatura, all his fine calculations disguised as elegant spontaneity, just as Castiglione had urged.

"The brushwork, then, is the personality of its subject, calling attention to itself as an astonishing act of fluent self-possession. It is the most breathtaking demonstration of what Dutch writers on painting would have called lossigheid, looseness, giving the impression (belied by Rembrandt's preparatory drawings) of paint having been laid on, wet-in-wet, at speed, very much as in the painting of Hendrickje bathing in a stream, from the same year (1654 must rank with 1629 and 1636 as one of Rembrandt's most mind-bogglingly prolific years). But even if he did paint the portrait relatively quickly, the exceptionally subtle handling of details, and the amazing variety of brushwork, even in adjacent passages, testifies to the tremendous care Rembrandt took with the conception of the painting, and above all with what art theorists of the day called the houding of the piece: the precisely interlocking relationship of colors to create credible pictorial illusions in space.

"Wherever one looks in the painting, there is startling evidence of this instinctive marriage between exact calculation and liberated handling. As Hoogstraten noticed, the passages closest to us receive the freest brushwork of all - the cloak with its broad strokes of black indicating the natural fall of the material following Six's shoulder and the amazing single dabs of yellow describing the facings and buttons; the slightly more loaded bottom edge of the brush, mixed here and there with a trace of white, managing to suggest the way in which the light might catch the fabric, just as it does more sharply on the more heavily faced gold lapel. Crucial to the overall composition is that sharp right angle, repeated in the white collar, anchoring the pose amidst all the movement of the brush. The shadows beneath the collar are exactly calculated to give the linen lightness and lift so that it seems to float over the dove-gray coat, the right corner given an exquisite little curl. And where in the 1630s Rembrandt would have painted his sitter's hair with almost pedantic care, scratching in the individual bristles with the back of his brush handle, here he manages to suggest Jan Six's full reddish mane with cloudy, almost airy brushwork, dabbed in except in the locks overhanging the white collar, where he indicates the hair ends by a web of minutely hatched vertical lines.

"The picture is, then, a virtual encyclopedia of painting, from the loosest handling to the dry brush, sparely loaded with yellow, dragged over the surface at the edge of Six's right cuff; from the finest detail to the most impressionist daring. Yet Rembrandt manages to bring all this diversity of technique into a totally resolved single image. So that Jan Six does indeed stand before us much as we would dearly wish to imagine ourselves, all the contradictions of our character - vanity and modesty, outward show and inward reflectiveness, energy and calm - miraculously fitted together."