Speculation over Rembrandt painting: is the old man Jan Amos Comenius?

Rembrandt's painting of an old man

Millions of people have admired it at the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence. Now, Rembrandt's painting of an old man has acquired a new significance for Czechs. According to Ernst van de Wetering, a Dutch art specialist, the anonymous old man in the painting is almost certainly one of the most prominent figures in Czech history - the teacher of nations Jan Amos Comenius.

Any Czech who remembers the picture of Jan Amos Comenius from history textbooks would have to notice the likeness. Vit Vlnas, the director of the Collection of Old Masters at the National Gallery in Prague, says that for Czech art specialists the idea is not new.

"The disputes over the identity of the man on this painting and whether it is or isn't Comenius have been ongoing for the past century in Czech literature."

Well, how plausible is this theory?

"What is most interesting for me is the personality of Mr. Wetering, who is a very serious scholar and one of the most renowned specialists on Rembrandt and his school and that is why his theory must be very seriously taken into account."

Although Czechs have been debating the idea for close to a century nobody has yet uncovered any tangible evidence to support the theory that the man who posed for Rembrandt in 1660 was Jan Amos Comenius. Ernst van de Wetering, from Holland where Comenius spent the last 14 years of his life, now says that he is 99% certain this was the case. He is preparing an article in support of this thesis for a German art catalogue due to come out in June in time for the German premiere of "The Quest of a Genius" exhibition which is now taking place in Holland marking the 400th anniversary of Rembrandts' birth.

Czech historians are not ruling out the possibility. In 1660 when the painting is believed to have been painted, Rembrandt and Comenius were practically neighbours in Amsterdam. Rembrandt associated with - and even painted - the Trip family who were Comenius' patrons in Holland. Comenius, known as the Father of Modern Education contributed greatly to the Enlightenment was profoundly respected in Europe as one of the great thinkers and philosophers of his day and like Rembrandt he would have been present at gatherings of intellectuals and artists. On the other hand in 1956 the same painting was presented in Amsterdam as the portrait of rabi Saul Levy. I asked prof. Vlnas whether there are any other -similar - portraits of Comenius which could support the theory that the old man was indeed the great Czech thinker.

"We have a couple of portraits of Comenius. One of them is by the celebrated Bohemian etcher Wenceslas Hollar which was made in England and there are also some others. The most renowned one is by one of Rembrandt's pupils. But to tell you the truth the personality, the features of the old man on Rembrandt's painting is very close to other types that he painted at the time. So it seems more like a typological study that the portrait of an individual."

That is your view on the matter then?

"Well, I remain a little bit sceptical until I get to read Mr. Wetering's theory."