(1597/98 – Utrecht 1671)



Portrait of an unknown man, possibly a poet


signed upper left: J.v. Bijlert fe

oil on panel
28 ½ x 19 inches (72.5 x 48.3 cm.)




Sale, Sotheby’s, London, April 24, 2007, lot 290; Private Collection, Great Britain.


In the seventeenth century it was common for Dutch artists to journey to Italy upon the completion of their apprenticeship.  Karel van Mander’s treatise of 1604 encouraged young artists to travel to Rome, stating: “For Rome is the city, above all others, where painters want to travel.”[1]  A century later, the artists’ biographer, Arnold Houbraken, came to the conclusion that art lovers “had no regard for artists unless they had seen Rome.”[2]  When Jan van Bijlert and other Utrecht artists, such as Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Dirck van Baburen traveled to the city in the early 1600s, they brought back a style that significantly transformed the art of their native town.  These artists, known collectively as the Utrecht Caravaggisti, were greatly influenced by Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro which dominated Italian painting in the early seventeenth century and had an extensive impact throughout Europe.  


Jan van Bijlert was an important contributor to this defining movement in the Utrecht school.  According to the genealogical notes of Aernout van Buchell, the famous Utrecht lawyer and chronicler, there is little doubt that Jan van Bijlert initially studied under his father, Harman van Bijlert: “Harman Beernts. van Bijlert was a glass engraver,…Jan learned drawing, became a good painter and married in Amsterdam.”[3]  Following his father’s tutelage, van Bijlert was apprenticed to Abraham Bloemaert at the age of fifteen.  After completing his artistic training, the young artist left his native Utrecht and traveled to France and Italy, a journey that would significantly shape his career.  Little is known of the artist’s time in France; the earliest surviving documents record him in Rome in 1621 as a member of the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo.  Van Bijlert remained in Italy for three years, where he came in close contact with the influential works of Caravaggio and his many followers.


In 1624, van Bijlert brought his caravaggesque manner back to his native city of Utrecht.  This style, most evident in the artist’s early works from the second half of the 1620s, relied on a strong use of chiaroscuro, a more intimate picture plane so that the image is seen close-up, and a marked attention to realistic detail.  Most of van Bijlert’s works from this period, such as St. Sebastian Tended by Irene (Rohrau, Schloss) and The Matchmaker (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum), are life-size representations with darkened backgrounds.  By the 1630s, van Bijlert had abandoned his caravaggesque manner and adopted a more classicizing style, strongly influenced by his Dutch contemporary, Gerard van Honthorst, as well as Simon Vouet.


Dr. Paul Huys Janssen dates our painting to this later period of the artist’s career, between 1635 and 1645.[4]  The overall lighter color palette, the clarity of the work, and the powerful folds of drapery are all characteristics of the artist’s classical style.  The sitter, possibly a poet (suggested by the style of his garments), gazes directly at the viewer, clad in a purple doublet and a billowing black robe.  Van Bijlert painted at least 45 portraits throughout his career.  His patrons included wealthy burgomasters and nobles, particularly the members of the Strick van Linschoten family.


Although highly speculative, our painting might be a portrayal of the Dutch poet and physician, Jacob Westerbaen (1599-1670), as he is seen years later in a print by Cornelis Visscher (1629-1658).  In the print he appears to be a man in his fifties, while our painting seems to depict a more youthful individual, perhaps in his thirties or forties. 


[1] Karel van Mander, Het schilder-boeck, Haarlem, 1604, fol. 6v /Translated by Paul Huys Janssen, Jan van Bijlert: Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam, 1998, p. 12.

[2] Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, Amsterdam, 1718-21, p. 128/ Translated by Janssen op. cit. p. 13.  

[3] Aernout van Buchell, Genealogishe aantekeningen, manuscript, Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek m.s. 1780, vol. 1, fol. 37 verso/ Translated by Janssen op. cit. p. 37.

[4] Private Correspondence, February 1, 2009.