Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, Portrait of Jan Six, 1654,

Six Family Collection, Amsterdam, Holland



 This is one of the great portraits.   Jan Six, 1618-1700, stands in utter darkness, a glowing presence emerging from an enveloping umber-black background, his wide-brimmed, high-crowned, typically Dutch hat barely black enough to differentiate itself from his dark surroundings.  The cloak is red, the tunic an off-blue, the buttons, sleeves and gloves gold or golden-brown, the face warm, the collar of the cloak and frontal decorative striations golden-red, freely indicated by Rembrandt's deftly accurate brush.


 There has never been a better piece of painting in the history of the world than Rembrandt's bravura handling of the gloves, hands and cuffs of the sleeves of Jan Six, to say nothing of the rest of the painting.  Painterly looseness combines with careful attention to detail in the face to construct forms that are solid, structural, tangible; cursorily brilliant; real; magnificent statements of the significant use of paint.  This painting epitomizes the dual riches of great art: profound content and magnificent aesthetics.  


 Jan Six is depicted pulling on or pulling off a glove, as if he has just arrived at his friend Rembrandt's studio, or is just departing.  Surprisingly, as will be seen, the hands and gloves are the most important parts of the painting -- visually and expressively -- more so, even, than the head – which seems odd to say -- though the head is solidly painted, with more nuanced subtleties of modeling than the brash hands and gloves.  Our attention is drawn to the hands and gloves by their dramatic interaction and presentation in front of Six's body, their strong contrasts of light and dark, and freedom of paint application.   Six's face is less dominant because it is darker than the lighter bare hand and white cuffs, with much less contrast of tonal values.  The painting becomes, therefore – as unusual as it may sound – a portrait of hands and gloves, and all that the process of "putting on/taking off" implies...rather than strictly a portrait of Jan Six, though it is, indeed, a superb one.


 The character and feeling in the face of Jan Six is resonant and profound, sensitive and thoughtful; and, as in most of Rembrandt's portraits, he is seemingly very aware of life, its brevity, ambiguities, beauties, pains.  The profound thoughtfulness and insight expressed in Six's eyes, mouth and general feeling in his face, also reflect Six's awareness of the meanings Rembrandt has constructed in his hands and gloves, made vital and extraordinarily alive by the brilliance of flashing brushwork.


 The hands and gloves are an interlocking structure, a kind of squared circle, with the naked, pale-fleshed, right hand gripping a loose glove (and the top of the other) that flops down on either side to overlap, and be overlapped by, the gloved left hand.  The bare hand is directly over the gloved hand, creating a kind of pin-wheel movement, as of some cycle of mundane dress/undress that Rembrandt deepens and enlarges to a symbolic level of existential permanence/change.


 Has Six just arrived in Rembrandt's studio for the day's sitting, or is he preparing to leave?  Is he taking off his gloves, or putting them on?  Does his cloak casually hang from one shoulder preparatory to being taken completely off, or put completely on?


 Obviously, Rembrandt has, in part, draped the red cloak on Jan Six for the richness of the red, to create a harmony of red with the blue of the tunic, and to break up and vary, in a design sense, the expanse of blue.   But, continuing the "coming or going" theme, it would seem that Six has "parked" the cloak on his shoulder, preparatory to putting it fully on, after he's dealt with his gloves, and bid Rembrandt adieu.


 While the gloves can still be interpreted as being either pulled on or taken off, if they are read as the former, then the profundity and expressiveness in the painting and Rembrandt's depiction of Six deepen immeasurably, suggesting any and all of the profound meanings of the idea and act of "Departure."  Of course – after considering all of the many aspects of change, transition and evolution possible in the concept of departure -- the ultimate departure for human beings – any living thing – is death.  Six, symbolically and practically, is in a transitional stage, as if preparing himself not only for the ordinary travel from the studio to his home, but the extraordinary journey from life on earth to death, and either the blackness of extinction or an after-life.  Six's tunic is partially unbuttoned down the front and in one sleeve, adding further elements of change and transition to the evidence of the gloves and cloak.  The depth of feeling and possible meanings created by Rembrandt's genius give this painting its incredible resonance (many of the implications of "Departure" can also be applied to the "taking off" of gloves, cloak and tunic, but in a somewhat reverse way of "going naked and unarmed" -- "unclothed" by the pretenses and protection of societal convention.  This will be briefly repeated at the end of the essay).


 Six looks slightly downward, but not really "at" anything.  He stares thoughtfully into an indeterminate middle distance...and back within himself, into his own mind.  Six is like a philosopher, deeply introspective, contemplating the ebb and flow, the meaning of life and death.  He could be "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," in another of Rembrandt's great paintings that explores similar themes, except that Aristotle is profoundly sad while Six appears bemused.  There may be the hint of a slightest of incipient smiles that subtly contrasts with the seriousness of the eyes, though the overall mood of the painting remains unquestionably serious.


 In terms of design, the two groupings of head, hair, hat and hands, gloves, cuffs are linked by their similar, essentially wedge-like, triangular shapes.  In the hands, gloves, cuffs, the three angles of the equilateral triangle they form are the two white cuffs on left and right, and the fingers of the gloved hand meeting the hanging top of the other glove below.


 The two triangular wedges of head and hands present their bases to each other, rather than directly pointing at one another.  The broad base of bunched hair and jaw-line of Six's head echoes the broad base of cuffs, top of the bare hand and glove.  In between these two forms is the major trapezoidal wedge of Six's torso (triangular, if Six's head is included), the shoulders broadening to the wider base of the elbows bent in the process of putting on the gloves.


 The triangular hand, glove, cuff grouping is made more dynamic by the extension of an acute triangle of golden-brown undergarment sleeve revealed by the undone buttons of the blue tunic sleeve.  It points up in the direction of the head, adding a sense of subtly dramatic upward force (and a pin-wheel twist) to the hand/glove/cuff triangle that counters its downward-pointing thrust.


 The axes of the head and hands are slightly angled in opposite directions from one another – mirror images of positioning, like reality and its shadow -- complementing the tilt of each, and joined by the vertical line of tunic buttons.   Twin tassels break up the regularity of the buttons, the tassels serving also as a linking visual bridge between the shovel-like cloak collar angled on the right, and the apex of the triangle of undone buttons on the opposite sleeve.


 The hands/cuffs/gloves are essentially golden, suggesting a richness of poetic participation in life, as well as connotations of the spiritual destiny of man.  The flesh of the hand seems particularly naked, pale and vulnerable – emphasized by the surrounding fabric and the fact that the other hand is gloved.  Does the naked hand express the vulnerability of the flesh, the mortal limitations of human existence, and, therefore, the preciousness of life?  This idea would echo and support the painting's underlying theme represented by Six's essentially transitional state.


 The more darkly, warmly resonant face glows with recognition and acceptance, perhaps still somewhat cut off, design-wise and symbolically speaking, from any ultimate connection with, or "understanding" of, the "idea" of the hands, by the unusual emphasis on the paper-thin white collar, oddly detached as a form, and floating beneath the chin and hair, as if lifting away from Six's chest and the surface of the painting.  This cloth form is clearly related, in its effects, meaning and physical proximity, to the flaring, projecting collar of the richly red cloak thrown over Six's left shoulder, though the cloak collar, dramatic as it is, seems to adhere somewhat more to the shoulder, be embedded in the substance of the picture, perhaps because the neck collar is the lightest light in the painting, its contours sharply separated from Six's neck by darker shadow.   Ultimately, as strange as it may sound, this painting's composition and meaning may revolve around collars almost as much as it does hands, gloves and cuffs.


 The cloak collar is broad and angled upward like the bent blade of a snow shovel, its forceful form seeming almost to provide the energy that tilts Six's head away from it to his right.  The tented-angle of the collar, its size, and the shadow beneath it are assertive and appear somewhat intimidating.  If Six's transitional preparations are interpreted as a "shedding, a taking off" – rather than a "putting on" -- of clothing, idea, custom, convention, etc, is it possible that the red of the cloak may suggest the precious blood of life ever in danger of draining away, like the precariously hanging cloak slipping from Six's shoulder?  Is it possible that the awkwardly-nudging pressure the collar exerts on Six's head (his mind, awareness) is a reminder of his mortality?


 It is important to recognize that the profundity of character and meaning we observe in the person of Jan Six is largely that of Rembrandt himself, who like all great artists, projects his greatness upon those he paints.  The richness and depth of all of Rembrandt's paintings, regardless of subject, reflect the richness of artistic, philosophical and poetic greatness within the man.


 The portrait of "Jan Six"...and his at least as mysterious as Leonardo da Vinci's famously mysterious "Mona Lisa"...with her smile.



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Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms