The Polish Rider

The Polish Rider
Polish: Lisowczyk
Artist Rembrandt[1]
Year 1655
Location The Frick Collection, New York

The Polish Rider is a seventeenth-century painting, usually dated to the 1650s, of a young man traveling on horseback through a murky landscape, now in The Frick Collection in New York.[2] When the painting was sold by Zdzisław Tarnowski to Henry Frick in 1910, there was consensus that the work was by the Dutch painter Rembrandt. This attribution has since been contested, though this remains a minority view.

There has also been debate over whether the painting was intended as a portrait of a particular person, living or historical, and if so of whom, or if not, what it was intended to represent.[3] Both the quality of the painting and its slight air of mystery are commonly recognized,[1] though parts of the background are very sketchily painted or unfinished.

Attribution to Rembrandt

The first western scholar to discuss the painting was Wilhelm von Bode who in his History of Dutch Painting (1883) stated that it was a Rembrandt dating from his "late" period, that is, 1654. Somewhat later, Abraham Bredius examined the picture quite closely and had no doubts that its author was Rembrandt. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Alfred von Wurzbach suggested that Rembrandt's student Aert de Gelder might have been the author, but his opinion was generally disregarded. Throughout most of the twentieth century, there was general agreement that the painting was indeed by Rembrandt and even Julius S. Held, who at one time questioned its Polish connection, never doubted Rembrandt's authorship. However, in 1984, Josua Bruyn, then a member of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) tentatively suggested that certain characteristics of the work of Willem Drost, another student of Rembrandt, could be observed in the painting.[2] Though the mysterious and somewhat solemn expression on the Rider's brilliantly painted face point to Rembrandt,The Polish Rider is unlike Rembrandt's other work in certain other ways. In particular, Rembrandt rarely worked on equestrian paintings, the only other known equestrian portrait in Rembrandt's work being the Portrait of Frederick Rihel, 1663 (National Gallery, London).[1]

But Bruyn's remained a minority opinion, the suggestion of Drost's authorship is now generally rejected, and the Frick itself never changed its own attribution, the label still reading "Rembrandt" and not "attributed to" or "school of". More recent opinion has shifted even more decisively in favor of the Frick, with Simon Schama in his 1999 book Rembrandt's Eyes, and a Rembrandt Project scholar, Ernst van de Wetering (Melbourne Symposium, 1997) both arguing for attribution to the master. Those few scholars who still question Rembrandt's authorship feel that the execution is uneven, and favour different attributions for different parts of the work.[4] A 1998 study published by the RRP concluded that another artist's hand, besides that of Rembrandt, was involved in the work. Rembrandt may have started the painting in the 1650s, but perhaps he left it unfinished and it may have been completed by someone else.[3]


The idealised, inscrutable character has encouraged various theories about its subject, if the picture is a portrait. Candidates have included an ancestor of the Polish-Lithuanian Oginski family Marcjan Aleksander Ogiński, as asserted by the 18th-century owners of the painting and the Polish theologian, Jonasz Szlichtyng. Others believe that the outfit of the rider, the weapons and even the breed of horse are all Polish. Dutch equestrian portraits were infrequent in the 17th century and traditionally showed a fashionably dressed rider on a well-bred, spirited horse, as in Rembrandt's Frederick Rihel.

Historical characters have also been suggested, ranging Old Testament David to the Prodigal Son and the Mongolian warrior Tamerlane, or the Dutch medieval hero, Gijsbrecht IV of Amstel. A “soldier of Christ”, an idealistic representation of a mounted soldier defending Eastern Europe against the Turks, or simply a foreign soldier have been suggested. The young rider appears to many people to face nameless danger in a bare mountainous landscape that contains a mysterious building, dark water and in the distance evidence of a fire.[5]

In a 1793 letter to King Stanislaus Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the painting's owner Michał Kleofas Ogiński identified the rider as "a Cossack on horseback", and the king recognized the subject as a member of the irregular Polish military unit known as Lisowczyk.[3] In 1944, the American Rembrandt scholar Julius S. Held[6] contested the claim that the subject was Polish and suggested the rider's costume could be Hungarian. Two Polish scholars suggested in 1912 that the model for the portrait was Rembrandt's son Titus.[3]


In 1993 the artist Russell Connor painted a portrait in the style of Rembrandt showing the Dutch master, palette in hand, standing in front of the incomplete Polish Rider. With a twist of dry irony, Connor attributed the painting to Rembrandt's pupil Carel Fabritius and submitted it to The New Yorker with a joke note saying that the painting had been found in a basement in Pinsk, Poland. The magazine published a reproduction of Connor's painting with a slightly reworked version of his comments, obviously not intending to pass it off as genuine but as a comment on the zeal of the Rembrandt Commission, who at the time were questioning the authenticity of the Polish Rider and many other paintings formerly known as genuine Rembrandt canvases.[7][8]

See also


Thomas M. Prymak, "Rembrandt's 'Polish Rider' in its East European Context," The Polish Review, vol. 56, no. 3 (2011), 159-86.

  1. 1 2 3 Robert Hughes (11 February 2006). "The Enduring Genius of Rembrandt". The Guardian.
  2. 1 2 Carol Vogel (October 24, 1997). "Inside Art". The New York Times.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Żygulski, Zdzisław (2000). "Further Battles for the "Lisowczyk" (Polish Rider) by Rembrandt". Artibus et Historiae. IRSA. 21 (41): 197–205. JSTOR 1483642.
  4. See "Further Battles for the 'Lisowczyk' (Polish Rider) by Rembrandt" Zdzislaw Zygulski, Jr., Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 21, No. 41 (2000), pp. 197–205. Also New York Times story. There is a book on the subject:Responses to Rembrandt; Who painted the Polish Rider? by Anthony Bailey (New York, 1993)
  5. 1 2 "The Frick Collection". Retrieved June 11, 2010.
  6. Held, Julius (1969). "The "Polish" Rider". Rembrandt's Aristotle and Other Rembrandt Studies. Princeton University Press.
  7. Connor, Russell (February 22, 1993). "Back in the Saddle". The New Yorker. p. 147.
  8. "Hands off the Polish Rider". Retrieved April 19, 2014.

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