A gentleman in his early to mid-thirties looks us self-assuredly in the eye. He appears to have just entered the ill-defined room, his hat doffed. His mantle is draped over his shoulder and wrapped around his waist. He has his left arm akimbo, with his hand on his hip. Without a doubt, the sitter is an Amsterdam merchant, eager to underline his achieved social status with this painting. Interestingly, the man’s body and face are directed towards our left. Usually in portraiture, this pose was reserved for a woman, her husband standing on the other side – his body and face directed towards her, our right. The exceptional case of this portrait suggests our man is a bachelor.
Private collection, Austria; by descent until 2018.
His black attire may not look ostentatious but in fact is quite costly. In the seventeenth century Dutch merchants and magistrates dressed themselves in black, the costliest colour to dye clothes with. Equally expensive and a status symbol were the white starched collar and matching cuffs of Flemish bobbin lace. This sitter is dressed at the height of fashion.
Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy might not be a household name nowadays, but between 1625 and 1640 he was the most sought-after portrait painter in the thriving city of Amsterdam. He kept this position even when Rembrandt in the early 1630s settled there and quickly became a successful portrait painter as well. He only lost his leading position in the 1640s to his probable pupil Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613-1670).
Pickenoy was the son of Elias Claesz, an armorial mason, and Heijltje Laurens d’Jonge, both from Antwerp. In 1621 Nicolaes Eliasz married Levina Bouwers. Although we don’t know with whom Pickenoy trained, most probably it was with Cornelis van der Voort (1576-1624), the leading Amsterdam portraitist of his time. Apparently, Pickenoy took over Van der Voort’s portrait workshop, after the latter’s death. His career took off seriously in 1625, when he received no less than three commissions for corporate group portraits. In 1634 he acted as headman of the Amsterdam painters’ guild.
Besides several biblical and mythological scenes, Pickenoy’s production largely consists of portraits of individual sitters, of which the present work is powerful example. In addition, he painted no less than five civic guard paintings and four group portraits for craft guilds or charitable institutions, which makes him even more productive in this field than Bartholomeus van der Helst.
In our portrait the sitter is depicted to the knee. Typical for Pickenoy is the rendering of the dress, which is executed deftly but with much attention to detail. A true tour de force is the cuff of the left arm that is portrayed in foreshortened perspective, creating a beautiful illusion of depth. Also impressive is the way in which the inside of the cuff is left in the shadow while the sharp edges of the openings in the lace still catch the bright light. Judging from the dress details, the painting must date from c. 1633-35. Stylistically, the painting can be compared to Pickenoy’s Civic Guard Painting of District IX of 1632 (Amsterdam Museum), which shows similar bold brushwork in the heads.
Pickenoy is known as a highly skilled specialist of portraits that, to the modern beholder, could occasionally make a somewhat earnest impression: smiling hardly ever occurs. Recent research however has made it clear that his clients must have appreciated him precisely because of this. In their view, good portrait painters like Pickenoy and his Amsterdam colleague Thomas de Keyser (1596-1667) were able provide their sitters with ‘tranquillitas’: the neo-stoic ideal of keeping control of one’s emotions. Contemporary viewers must have been aware of this intention as well. By portraying the sitter with a relatively unanimated facial expression, the painter stressed or enhanced his virtues. After all, only serious men, capable of keeping their passions in balance by reason, were fit to fulfil responsible tasks in trade or government.
However, despite these unwritten artistic rules, portrait painters like Pickenoy and De Keyser regularly developed and adopted novelties, which make their sitters appear more spontaneous and natural. From 1632 onwards, Rembrandt would, working in the studio of Hendrick Uylenburgh, freely experiment with these challenges in his portraits as well. Pickenoy vividly contributed to these experiments, primarily in his many group portraits.
Yet, he also applied more natural poses in his individual portraits. This well-preserved portrait of an anonymous gentleman proves the artist was perfectly able to suggest subtle movement and action. Pickenoy gave his client the best of both worlds: a honourable and realistic likenesses, that put a premium on an accurate portrayal of his costly wardrobe, as well as his tranquillitas.