The Polish Rider
|Artist||Rembrandt(?), Willem Drost(?)|
|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. When the painting was bought by 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. The quality of the painting is generally admitted as is its slight air of mystery. 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, Aart 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. 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).
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. 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.
The idealised, inscrutable character has encouraged various theories about who is represented, if the picture is a portrait. Candidates have included an ancestor of the Polish Oginski family, 18th-century owners of the painting and the Polish theologian, Jonasz Szlichtyng. There are contested claims 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 through to The Prodigal Son and Mongolian warrior Tamerlane, to Dutch medieval hero, Gijsbrecht IV of Amstel. A “soldier of Christ”, an idealistic representation of mounted soldiers 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 with a mysterious building, dark water and in the distance evidence of a fire.
In a 1793 letter to King Stanislaus Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Michal Oginski, then owner of the work, identified the rider in the painting as "a Cossack on horseback", and the king himself recognized the subject as a Lisowczyk soldier. In 1944, the American Rembrandt scholar Julius Held contested the claim that the subject was Polish, stating that the rider's costume could be Hungarian. Two Polish scholars suggested in 1912 that the model for the portrait was in fact Rembrandt's son Titus.
- Michał Kazimierz Oginski, 1791.
- Stanislaus II Augustus of Poland, Warsaw, 1793.
- Estate of Stanislaus.
- Countess Teresa Tyszkiewicz, 1813.
- Prince Ksawery Drucki-Lubecki, 1814.
- Count Hieronim Stroynowski, 1815.
- Senator Walerian Stroynowski.
- Countess Waleria Stroynowska Tarnowska, of Dzików, Galicia, 1834.
- Henry Frick, 1910, bequeathed to the Frick Collection.
New Yorker Publication
In 1993 the artist Russell Connor painted a portrait in the style of Rembrandt showing the Master, palette in hand, standing in front of the incomplete Polish Rider. Connor attributed the painting to Rembrandt's pupil Carel Fabritius and indicated the canvas was found in a basement in Pinsk. The New Yorker published Connor's painting and the attribution to Fabritius in their anniversary issue, February 22, 1993, p 147. 
- A Polish Nobleman
Thomas M. Prymak, "Rembrandt's 'Polish Rider' in its East European Context," The Polish Review, vol. 56, no. 3 (2011), 159-86.