An Armenian sitter as a “philosopher” in a Dutch Golden Age painting
The official website of the Royal Collection Trust, which represents the British royal family’s collection, proudly showcases a Dutch Baroque School oil painting. Previously entitled “Astrologer” and misattributed to Rembrandt, the painting has been rightfully credited to the brush of Pieter Symonsz Potter (1597 in Enkhuizen – 1652 in Amsterdam), father of Paulus Potter. Potter worked in Leiden from 1628 to 1631, a period when Rembrandt and his student, Gerrit Dou, developed a unique painting style featuring exotic figures in atmospherically lit interiors.
Currently titled “The Philosopher,” the painting portrays a male figure dressed in the fanciful attire favored by Rembrandt. The figure, originally labeled as an “Armenian” on the reverse side of the panel, is depicted wearing a tunic resembling a “Dolman” of Hungarian origin. In the background, a vanitas still life is featured, which includes objects that represent wealth and learning, such as books and a globe. These objects are placed in contrast with an extinguished candle and a skull, which symbolize the transience of human life and the futility of human endeavors.
It remains unclear whether the human figure served as the commissioner of this portrait or merely acted as a model. Nevertheless, the painting’s depiction of an Armenian sitter reflects not only the Orientalist pursuits of the Dutch art market but also the increasing global influence of the Armenian mercantile class and their presence in the Netherlands. The painting serves as a testament to their active engagement in bridging the trade between Europe and Asia, particularly in this case, the Dutch growing commercial interest in Oriental countries and Asian goods.
It’s worth mentioning that, being established in 1993, the Royal Collection Trust, the royal art collection of the British royal family, is widely recognized as the largest private art collection in the world.