Exercise: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Portraits

I can write this one of two ways – very factual and critical or personally and I choose the second for a single reason: I am not a lover of portraits in art of virtually any kind as I find faces haunting so even doing a little research on this subject was one of a voyage of discovery.  I freely admit too I have been a horrendous procrastinator on this exercise and it has stopped me moving on to Part 4 as wanting to tie up these exercises first!

The voyage of discovery had to start with a book on Dutch portraits but then the realization that it started last year at Nottingham Castle Gallery with the Dutch portraits on display.  I find some Dutch artwork quite dark and almost foreboding when dealing with the human face – the face is often lit up against a darker background but on closer inspection and study I am also finding now it is what actually appeals to me as the artist is able to capture not just the body of the person but something more.

Perhaps one of the reasons I am now being drawn to portraits more is the fact that my elder brother is an award winning photographer and both in his commercial photography and his general portrait work he captures the personality of the sitter so when I take what draws me to his work and I apply it to historical portraits I come to see the same technique – one modern artist with the camera lens and one classical master with a paintbrush but both of whom capture the soul and essence of the human being sat before them.

The object of the exercise was to choose at least 2 portraits and recreate the portrait or try my own version of them – my worst nightmare of any sketching exercise!  I am not someone who enjoys sketching the human figure and the face has always eluded me on any skill level hence the other part of my procrastination!

rembrandt_aeltjeMy starting point was the library book and I looked for a face that appealed to me and a painting I felt had a character that was not haunting but rather benign and I found that in Rembrandt’s portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh of 1632.

This lady was painted within Rembrandt’s first year in Amsterdam and was the wife the minister who baptised several of his children and also was a cousin of a woman he later married and in addition a cousin of the the art dealer who was his landlord at the time of the portrait so very much in his inner circle of friends and acquaintances.

The work is oil on panel and what immediately appealed to me was the detail of the face with the lines of age and wisdom but in addition the way Rembrandt has highlighted her face with the framing of her white cap and collar.  Rembrandt painted her clothing in greys and blacks but also there seem hints of a dark maroon suggestive to me of a luxurious fabric.   The lady’s face is according to research done with layers of opaque and translucent pigments that add vitality and life and highlighted further by a touch of white under the right eye which is reminiscent of the way women use highlighting makeup in modern day life.  It appears that studies and X-rays have shown that Rembrandt had difficulty with the seating and positioning of the lady as previously he usually painted in chair backs if his subject was seated but did not do so here but did re-work the contours of her body twice as her left shoulder was initially higher.

IMG_3992My version could definitely not be classed my best work … I do not have oil paints so choose acrylic on acrylic paper and am not one for using flesh tones and have difficulty blending the colours to get the smoothness required.  I do not currently have a retarder medium that would enable smooth working or a medium that would enable a translucent or opaque layers.  The colours I choose are part of my very basic acrylic range but as close to those that existed at the same period – a red, burnt sienna, ultramarine, burnt umber, a white, yellow ochre and a grey (instead of black which I rarely have).

IMG_3994I started off both my chosen portraits at the same time so I could work on each as the paint dried and did not take many photos – an oversight caused by not being very well at the time. I sketched the portraits roughly and tried to paint the backgrounds first before starting to fill in the details.  I am not happy with either background as did not achieve the subtle variances of tone that highlight the sitter and reflect the light.

IMG_3997I found the colour mixing of the flesh tones very difficult to get even remotely correct and this was very much a first time of trying using the base colours of red, ultramarine and yellow with some added white.  However I did achieve some resemblance of flesh and this is then where the difficulty of paint drying too quickly without a retarding medium and the benefits of oil really started to show as I was unable to blend the different tones of the skin – this is no doubt inexperience with my chosen medium too.

IMG_4000I felt I wanted to concentrate on the overall feel of the portrait rather than the detail but do note the shadows of the face on the collar and on the cap as well as the details and contours of the clothing on the shoulder. The fabric seems to be striped and although the book in which I found this portrait states the colours used are greys and black my eyes perceive a maroon too but that may just be the photograph.  The textures of the collar and cap can also be seen and are suggestive of a stiff linen but the clothing seems to be more of a velvet or silk or combination.  The sitters eyes are ones of kindness and benevolence and her face speaks of the wisdom of age – the way Rembrandt captures this is far out of my artistic range.

I felt more confident of my sketch than I did of my overall painted version.  My version lacks the shape of the collar although the cap is a reasonable attempt and I have noted the shadows too.  I will repeat this is my worst nightmare of a drawing exercise but one that has lead me to want to read further on portraits and in particular Dutch art overall which is a major surprise.

two electors of saxonyMy second portrait is one by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Johann the Steadfast painted in 1509  with oil on wood.  This portrait is part of a Diptych with the other being a portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous who was his son  – both paintings are still in their original frames and on the back is the family coat of arms. It is believed this unusual pairing of father and son maybe because Johann Friedrich’s mother died giving birth to him.

Lucas Cranach was at the time the court painter of the Elector of Saxony who was in turn the patron of Luther and was also the major artist of the Reformation.

Johann the Steadfast was my chosen subject because of the contrast with my first study.  Even though I was drawn to the textiles and the detail on the clothing I did not feel confident in recreating them satisfactorily.  However I do note what seem to be embroidered fastenings of some nature which are echoed in the cap Johann wears with the feather as a finishing flourish – this speaks of someone of notable standing and wealth.  Further detail on the cap is the beaded trim and the jeweled broach which are indicative of pearls and other precious stones.

The background like the one of Aeltje above is plain and this is also the case for the companion portrait of his son but this time in a much brighter green – I question if this is again a way of displaying wealth or whether it is simply to provide a contrast with the clothing and also because the second work in the Diptych is that of green clothing set against a black background so the images contrast and complement each other.

I note the clothing of the son is that much more exuberant as would befit a young man but also speaks of wealth by the rich tones and flamboyant hat as well as what looks to be a gold chain around his neck. Johann is not looking directly towards the viewer but is seated slightly at an angle and like  Rembrandt’s work above there is no chair back or any background detail.

IMG_3998When it came to working on my version I found this simpler although it was no more successful in the portrayal of the face. I was a little more confident with the flesh tones in this instance although they are still not accurate and I have tried to recreate some of the shadows and contours of the face but like above struggled with details such as eyes, nose and mouth – as I am discovering there are such slight variations of tones that the artist has captured through the multi layering of his use of oils.

I decided to leave out much of the detail on the hat and clothing but tried to capture of the some of the colour and detail of what appears to be the undershirt or collar (very hard to tell from the photographs) and is either white linen of some nature or have white and gold detailing (could be embroidered or woven) – if gold thread was used and this is the intimation then this again points to the social standing of the sitter.  The man has a beard and hair style typical of the time period and I think I have portrayed the curls in a reasonable manner.

Further detail on the original portrait is the rings which Johann the Steadfast is wearing which are clearly gold with precious stones including possibly a sapphire or similar blue stone – there are indications of the wealth and standing of this Elector repeated throughout the work.

I do now realize that my proportions are totally wrong on the collar or undershirt as this is far too large.

To summarize what I have learnt is that acrylics at this stage in my artistic studies are certainly no match for oils and  this medium can be used with great mastery – acrylics are a relatively recent addition to the painters box and are still being developed.  The painters of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century developed the use of oils and were able to lay layer upon layer of translucent and opaque pigments to build up the images that gave depth to the works that they had not previously been able to do.  The portraits in particular have vitality and life that previously did not and could not exist – the tones and hues of the pigments were able to be blended and built up in new ways despite the limited range available.

Oils are a medium that also has an extended drying time which gives the artist the time to be able to blend his colours effectively and due to the layers involved the ability to re-work areas if necessary.  Often under-paintings were done and this is a practice that I need to take note of for future endeavours – the lessons of 500 years ago are still relevant today.

At the time of writing I feel happy to have tackled a subject that may be the one until I study modern art that is not my comfort zone but also one that I now know I can appreciate and want to read more about in the future.


Portrait of a Lady by Rembrandt sold for a record (at the time) of £19.8 million in December 2000 at Christie’s Auction House in London – this is the portrait I chose to study. It has been owned by the Rothschild banking family since the 19th Century and was part of a dozen old masters paintings up for sale from the family collection  and at the time was purchased by an art dealer from Maastrict who intended to sell it on. Subsequently it was purchased by an American private collector who immediately loaned it to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague for the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth in 2006.  It seems that the private collectors are of Dutch origin – Rose Marie and Eijk van Otterloo of Florida, USA and are collectors of Flemish and Dutch art.  Further investigation has revealed this particular work has also been on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts in the USA.


Bennett, W (2000). Rembrandt portrait goes for £19.8m [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016]. Available from: www. telegraph.co.uk/uknews/1378290/Rembrandt-portrait-goes-for-£19.8m.html

Bennett, W (2005). Rembrandt’s Portrait of  a Lady [online] [Date Accessed: 2 June 2016]. Available from:  www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3643997/Market-news-Rembrandts-Portrait-of-a-Lady.html

Ekkart, R and Buvelot, Q (2007). Dutch Portraits The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. The Hague. Waanders Publishers, Zwolle.

National Gallery (2016). Lucas Cranach the Elder Diptych Two Electors of Saxony [online] [Date Accessed: May 2016]. Available from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/lucas-cranach-the-elder-diptych-two-electors-of-saxony

theartwolf.com (date unknown). Superb Rembrandt painting makes its U.S. debut at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [online] [Date Accessed: 2 June 2016]. Available from:  http://www.theartwolf.com/news/rembrandt-mfa.htm






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