One of the most beloved paintings by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, The Polish Rider is also a trove of unanswered questions.
Completed in 1655 the painting depicts a young man, dressed in lavish costume with an unusually shaped head dress, mounted on a white horse and placed against a mountainous landscape with some architectural details. The man’s features are unique enough to be assigned to a specific personage, however over the years scholars have been unable to either confirm the identity of the man, or even come to a unanimous agreement whether this is indeed a portrait or a free-form depiction of a historical or a literary character.
Thus several possible portrait identifications have been offered, including an ancestor of the Polish Oginski family, which owned the painting in the eighteenth century, and the Polish Socinian theologian Jonasz Szlichtyng. But equestrian portraits are rare in the Dutch art of the 17th century and usually depict a well-dressed rider on top of a well-bred horse very much unlike this one. The man’s dress and weapons are consistent with the Polish traditions of the time, and his features are recognizably Slavic, but most historians still believe that rather than a portrait, Rembrandt painted a symbolic idealization of a mythical Polish cavalryman, whose exploits stirred Dutch imagination in the 1650’s.
Still some art historians remain unconvinced and instead suggest that the mysterious rider could be a portrayal of a wide range of historical and literary characters including the Prodigal Son to Gysbrech van Amstel, a hero of Dutch medieval history, and from the Old Testament David to the Mongolian warrior Tamerlane.*
But the bigger question is whether Rembrandt actually painted The Polish Rider? For many years this question remained at the center of attribution and authentication of The Polish Rider. Lately a decision has been made that Rembrandt conceived the composition and painted the face of the rider, the head and neck of the horse, the harness, and the overall outlines of the landscape. Then to make the painting sellable during the artist’s bankruptcy in 1656 it has been suggested that an unknown artist stepped in to finish the painting, most notably the horse’s legs and the rider’s right arm.*
While many in the art community still question the attribution, the beauty of the painting remains undisputed.
* The Frick Collection. Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: American, British, Dutch, Flemish and German. Volume I. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.
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