An Unknown Officer

Jan van Ravesteyn
circa 1572 – 1657

An Unknown Officer

Painted 1634

Oil on panel: 50 x 35 13/16 inches, 125 x 89.5 cm

Provenance

  • Private Collection, France;
  • Sold Briest, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 18th December 1991, lot 27;
  • Rob Smeets, Milan, Italy;
  • Private collection, USA.

Jan Anthonisz. van Ravesteyn (ca. 1572-1657) was one of the most important Northern Netherlandish portrait painters of the first half of the seventeenth century, and the leading portraitist of the government centre, The Hague. He was working there for the Stadhouder's Court, for local patricians and for the upper classes of other cities in the Southern part of Holland and in Zeeland. His earliest signed work is the well-known tondo portrait of the young Hugo Grotius, dated 1599 (Fondation Custodia, Paris). As early as 1604 Karel van Mander mentioned the artist as one of the most competent portraitists of his time. A large number of signed and dated works from the next decades - especially from the year 1611 - are known, including several group portraits of the Hague civic guard. The last dated portraits are from1641, leading to the conclusion that the painter produced little, if anything, in the last fifteen years of his life. The general style of his work is closely related to that of the Delft portraitist Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt (1567-1641), but is generally less dry and often more flattering than the latter’s.

This portrait of a gentleman of 1634 is a characteristic work of the painter from his later period. The same posture of a man, standing near a table with a hat or a helmet, was used by Van Ravesteyn during his whole career and is, for example, very close to some of the paintings from the series of twenty-five portraits of officers of the Dutch army, made by the artist between 1611 and 1624 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) 1. A nearly identical composition, showing the same pose of the arms and hands, is found in the portrait of an unknown officer, dated 1621 and belonging to that series (Mauritshuis inv. no. 414) 2. Though many bust and half-length portraits by Van Ravesteyn are known, it is clear that the three-quarter-length likeness was his favourite composition. The larger scale also gave him the opportunity to bring in some colour to his paintings thanks to the introduction of a table with a vibrant cover. All these aspects of the artist's style are visible in this 1634 portrait. Many of the portraits by Jan van Ravesteyn were painted as companions, but in this case there is no reason to suppose that the painting originally had a counterpart pendant. Unfortunately, we have no indication whatsoever about the identity of the young officer portrayed in this work. Still, the portrait shows clearly the sitter's fashionable vanity. His costume and head-dress are in accordance with the latest fashion, making clear that the man spent quite a lot of money to be up-to-date. This conclusion is confirmed by the very rich glove in his right hand. No wonder that the painting, then attributed to Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613-1670), was once believed to be a portrait of the Swedish king Gustav Adolf (1594-1632). Such identification is absurd – for one thing, the portrait was painted two years after the monarch’s death, not to mention the lack of resemblance – yet it may have been inspired by the sitter’s lavish dress and commanding pose. It is, however, more probable that the sitter belonged to the ranks of the very well-to-do military officers from the circles of the Stadhouder's court in The Hague.

We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Rudi Ekkart, Director of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague for this information.

1 On the series as a whole see Ben Broos and Ariane van Suchtelen, Portraits in the Mauritshuis, The Hague and Zwolle, 2004, no.45, pp. 194-9.

2 Ibid., p. 304, illustrated in black and white.