Portrait of Jan Six by Rembrandt
Interpretation and Meaning of Dutch Baroque Oil Painting

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Portrait of Jan Six by Rembrandt
Portrait of Jan Six
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Portrait of Jan Six (1654)


Interpretation/Meaning of Jan Six
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Dutch Baroque
Location: The Six Collection, Amsterdam.

For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Close-up of Jan Six.

Interpretation of the Portrait of Jan Six

One of the greatest portraits of 17th century Dutch painting, the work reflected the close friendship between Rembrandt and his patron, the Huguenot merchant, magistrate, playwright and art collector Jan Six (1618-1700), whom he must have met in the mid-1640s. In 1647, Rembrandt produced an etching of his friend (1647, Rijksprentenkabinet); in 1648, he was responsible for the frontispiece for Six's play Medea, and in 1652 he executed two drawings for Six's Album Amicorum. In 1653, Jan Six bought three of Rembrandt's paintings from the 1630s, including Portrait of Saskia in a Rich Costume with a Large Flat Hat (1634, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel), while the following year he gave the artist an interest-free loan of 1,000 guilders. In 1654, Rembrandt painted the portrait (which, incidentally, remains in the hands of the Six family), but soon afterwards the pair fell out, and in 1656 Jan Six asked Govert Flinck, a former pupil of Rembrandt's, (1615-60) to paint the portrait of his fiancee.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
Dutch Realist painters
like Rembrandt, see
our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.



In this portrait of Jan Six, the subject wears a long buttoned coat of fashionable cut, with, over one shoulder, a heavy gold-braided red cloak. He is putting on his gloves while looking questioningly towards the observer, as though he has been accosted when on the point of leaving his house. The fact that the figure is placed a little to one side of the canvas enhances this effect, as it gives him room to move. Yet while there is a hint of impatience in the picture, the artist's interpretation is largely restrained and dignified.

The low viewpoint, permitting little space between the top of the hat and the frame, combined with the width of the clothes, produces an image of controlled power. Rembrandt combined broad, rapid strokes of paint with areas of meticulous detail, such as the face. Because of the precision of his facial features, Six seems to be looking at us with a piercing gaze. The shadow cast over the upper face by the hat is another effective pictorial device: by encouraging the observer to read more into the eyes than is actually defined by the paint, it makes the sitter's expression seem more alert while his personality remains inscrutable. A similar blend of power and mystery is created by the background shadows which cut repeatedly into the figure.

At the same time, Rembrandt was never more direct or more vigorous in his handling of paint. Within the outline of the form, the different parts of the clothing are defined by sharp, straight edges. In particular, the two collars, the braid, the tassels at the throat, and the open coat sleeve are treated in this way. The same is to some extent true of the hands and parts of the face. The braid on the cloak is simply suggested by repeated strokes of a broad brush half-charged with yellow paint applied on top of the red. The brushwork is at its most lively however, in the area of the hands and gloves, where the forms themselves are less regular and there is a suggestion of movement.


Other art critics detect a certain dynamic at play in this portrait. One art scholar, Svetlana Alpers, comments that the subject is turning slightly and is on the point of leaving. Perhaps he is not prepared to find the time to sit for his portraitist: indeed, the inclination of the head and the shadowed eyes can be interpreted as reticence if not withdrawal. However, since the location is Rembrandt's art studio, the pose is more likely to be that of a sitter who is resisting the role assigned to him and refusing to conform to the picture of him that Rembrandt was painting. Such stubborness by his customer merely underlines the genius of Rembrandt who simply adapted his painting to reflect Six's behaviour, a reaction which explains why Rembrandt is considered to be among the best portrait artists of his time.

Jan Six

Originally from St Omer in France, the Six family had fled to Amsterdam at the end of the 16th century, because of religious persecution. Jan Six combined involvement in the family business with a career as a magistrate and an avid patron of the arts. He was a member of the Muiderkring (Muiden circle) which formed around Pieter Cornelisz, and a keen collector of Baroque painting, antique sculpture, and precious stones. He was the younger brother of Pieter Six (1612-80) whom Rembrandt had painted earlier - see Portrait of Pieter Six (1650, The Faringdon Collection Trust). Jan Six later entered politics, becoming Burgomaster of Amsterdam in 1691.


Despite his reputation as one of the leading Dutch Realist artists of his day, it is worth pointing out that Rembrandt was notorious for his long sittings, unreliability regarding deadlines and irritability when changes were requested. He rarely negotiated when it came to his fees, favouring instead a take-it-or-leave-it approach. So Jan Six's impatience, described above, might not have been unreasonable.

Other outstanding Baroque portraits by Rembrandt, during the mid-1650s include: Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (c.1653-55, National Gallery, London); Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Portrait of a Bearded Man in Black Beret (1654, Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden); Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654, Louvre, Paris); A Woman Bathing (1654, National Gallery, London); Portrait of an Old Woman (1654, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow); Portrait of Floris Soop (1654, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and Hendrickje at an Open Door (1656, Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem). These masterpieces, along with others such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague) and The Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) help to explain why he is now regarded as one of the best artists of all time.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662) Rijksmuseum

The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666) The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Return of the Prodigal Son (1668) Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

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