Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy
1588 – Amsterdam – 1650-56
Portrait of a Gentleman
Oil on oak panel 130 x 92 cm
Datable circa 1635
Private collection, Austria, by this owner acquired in Zürich
Sale Vienna (Dorotheum), 24 April 2018, lot 208
A gentleman in his 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 left arm akimbo with his hand on his hip. Without a doubt, the sitter is a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. 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 is not a household name nowadays, but in the first decades of the seventeenth century 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 (1613-1670).
Pickenoy was the son of Elias Claesz, an armorial mason and Heijltje Laurens s’Jonge, both from Antwerp. In 1621 Nicolaes Eliasz married Levina Bouwers. He regularly fulfilled important positions in the local guild.
Pickenoy’s production largely consists of portraits of individual sitters, of which the present work is powerful example. In our portrait the sitter is depicted to the knee, but Pickenoy also produced full-length portraits that exude a princely monumentality. In addition, he painted group portraits. He also painted Biblical and mythological scenes. We don’t know with whom Pickenoy trained. It was perhaps with Cornelis van der Voort (1576-1624), also a leading portraitist.
Typical for Pickenoy in this portrait 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.
Pickenoy is known as a highly skilled specialist of conventional portraits that occasionally make a somewhat stiff impression. In this painting, however, he adopted a few novelties, which make the sitter appear more spontaneous and natural. These characteristics were already introduced in the 1620s by Pickenoy’s Amsterdam colleague Thomas de Keijser (1596-1667), notably in his double portrait of Constantijn Huygens with his clerk of 1627 (London, National Gallery). From 1632 onwards, Rembrandt would, working in the studio of Hendrick Uylenburgh, freely experiment with these possibilities in his portraits, as well. Pickenoy will have witnessed these experiments from close range and in this portrait of an anonymous gentleman put them to good use by suggesting movement and action. By doing so, Pickenoy gives his client the best of both worlds; his clientele was accustomed to austere and realistic likenesses that put a premium on an accurate portrayal of the sitter’s costly wardrobe. Yet, Pickenoy added charm to his portraits by introducing a more natural pose, in the process making them more appealing. This portrait is a strong specimen of that new approach.