On Father’s Day this week’s picture is Rembrandt’s portrait of his son, Titus, wearing a superb brick-red beret and with a look of unblinking self-possession on his youthful face. The painting is on permanent display at the Wallace Collection, in London. Of the twelve “Rembrandts” described in the catalogue of that collection when it was originally bequeathed to the nation in 1897, this is the only work to retain its full attribution unchallenged. Not even the scholarly Doubting Thomases of the Rembrandt Research Project, who made it their lives’ work to pare the artist’s oeuvre down to its authentic essence, ever thought to question the authenticity of Titus. It remains quintessential Rembrandt: a picture trembling with life, but also shadowed by intimations of mortality.
Titus van Rijn was the only one of Rembrandt’s four children by his first wife, Saskia van Uylenbergh, to survive infancy. The Wallace Collection portrait has been slightly cut down in size by one of its owners, resulting in the loss of most of Rembrandt’s signature (which survives only as a cursive “R” next to the slope of the sitter’s left shoulder) and all traces of a date. Comparison with another portrait, done in 1655 and now in the Boymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, of an evidently younger, dreamier and less guileful Titus, suggests that this picture must have been painted approximately two or three years later. The boy would have been about sixteen at the time: a significant age, or so it seemed to his father, who invested his portrait with an appropriate air of expectancy. Titus has not been merely depicted; he has been thrown into a dramatic situation where – every detail seems to proclaim it – Something Is About To Happen.
The lighting, as so often in Rembrandt’s work, is extremely theatrical. A hidden source of illumination spotlights the right side of Titus’s face, throwing the rest into shade. The picture is set in the open air, but quite where it is impossible to tell. A dull gleam on the far horizon suggests a distant bonfire or the first rays of the dawning sun. Perhaps the painter meant to draw a light comparison between his son’s young manhood, full of promise, and the breaking of a new day. The outdoor setting also contributes to the enigma and drama of the picture, enhancing the sense that Titus has been plunged into a mise-en-scene of his father’s devising. Seen as if by the glare of a torch, he cuts a dashing figure. The raking light picks out gold highlights in his hair and golden threads of embroidery on his blood-red hat - an object of haberdashery with a vibrant life of its own, its silhouette dancing a defiant arabesque against the background of darkness. The van Rijns were artists and art dealers, not aristocrats, but that is not easily apparent from this picture. The young man wears a gold chain around his neck, a dark jerkin and a large, heavy coat. There is something conspiratorial, and excited, about his expression. He might be a young Dutch nobleman about to leap on his horse and depart, under cover, on some mission of vital importance to the Republic.
The reality of Titus’s life was less glamorous. His mother, Saskia, had died of bubonic plague when he was just one year old. Despite Rembrandt’s considerable fame and success, the painter’s expensive tastes and the debts that he habitually incurred to satisfy them cast a financial shadow over the family during much of Titus’s youth. In 1656, a year or two before he painted this portrait of his son, Rembrandt declared bankruptcy and voluntarily surrendered his property to Amsterdam’s insolvency commissioners. The reasons cited were “losses at business” and “losses at sea” – a reference, presumably, to some failed speculative scheme or other. His possessions were inventoried, and auctioned. The many remarkable works of art that he had collected, and which Titus had known from a boy, went under the hammer. Works of antique sculpture, paintings by Italian Renaissance artists including Palma Vecchio, as well as pictures by many Dutch masters, drawings by Durer and Holbein, a “very precious” book of sketches by Mantegna, including studies for The Triumphs of Caesar and The Calumny of Apelles – all were sold. So too was the extraordinary collection of studio props, costumes and other curios, which the artist had used to furnish his imagination. Halberds and helmets, suits of armour, ermine-trimmed gowns, robes of silk, military costumes, turbans, nautilus shells, bird plumes – going, going, gone. The fashionable house on the Breestraat, where Titus had been brought up by Rembrandt and his second (common-law) wife, Hendrickje Stoffels, was sold and partially demolished. The family moved to a smaller and simpler dwelling in the less savoury quarter of the Rozengracht.
Rembrandt’s portrait of his sonas a dashing young nobleman may have been, in part, a show of bravado. As Leonardo da Vinci once remarked, the painter need not be confined by the world in which he finds himself, since he is at liberty to create his own. In art Rembrandt could make things out to be better – infinitely better – than they were in reality. He painted a splendidly defiant self-portrait at around the same time as creating the picture of his son shown here. Now in the Frick Collection, in New York, it shows the painter as a slightly crazed Eastern potentate, resplendent in yellow silks and furs and holding a silver-topped cane in his huge, gnarled hands: a Genghis Khan of a father to the daring young Titus.
The shadows with which the artist surrounded his son turned out to be portentous. In 1668, ten years after the picture was painted and just a few months after his marriage, to the daughter of an Amsterdam silversmith, Titus suddenly died, like his mother before him, of the plague. Some obscure foreknowledge of his fate can, in certain lights, seem to be written on his face. Is there a trace of sadness in the boy’s eyes, a note of resignation beneath the apparent self-confidence, suggesting his wry awareness that all this – the coat, the hat, the gold chain, the early morning excitement – is really just a charade? Is there something in his expression to suggest that he knew all along that life, real life, would not turn out to be like this? The vivid ghost in a red hat, caught forever on the point of utterance, is keeping his thoughts to himself.