Yesterday, I articulated some of my reservations about the idea that the "Graat Spinoza" is really depicting, well, you know, the person Spinoza. Today I visited the art-dealer, Mr. Vecht, and had a chance to inspect the painting in person. I also spoke at length with Mr. Vecht and his research assistant about their detailed converging argument for their attribution. He has promised me to send me the dossier he has assembled about the painting and the idea that it is really a painting of Spinoza. As I noted yesterday, if it is, then it would be the only portrait of Spinoza that we have that was made while Spinoza was still alive.
For, in what follows, I am going to assume the painting really was by Graat, and was really made in 1666; I have no expertise in that area, although it would be nice to rule out a later date of composition. One general oddity about this particular painting is that it surfaces in France in 1982 without earlier traces in the historical records. (The painter is not obscure.) Thus far, no evidence of prior possession or re-sale has materialized. If the painting is authentic, this entails it probably was in the possession of a single family for a very long stretch.
In fact, in person, when you look at the 'Graat Spinoza' painting, it's difficult not to think, this is Spinoza.
So, my heart is fully convinced, but my head not.
Yesterday, I already noted several reasons for thinking that the iconography of the painting is un-Spinozistic, and I have not changed my mind about that. The Italianite background is quite clearly meant to portray the Pantheon in Rome. Its familiar dome and the fries are both clearly and separately visible. The somewhat clumsily drawn little village on the hill (in front of the mountain) also seems to be Rome--Egyptian style Roman obelisks are clearly visible. Now, while it's possible to associate Spinoza with ancient Republicanism (albeit not in 1666), the Pantheon is no such symbol. It is an imperial monument. And there is little reason to associate Spinoza with Rome or the idea of classical learning. Of course, Spinoza may not have controlled the painter's or the commissioning person's decisions about how to portray him.
Anyway, I owe you an evaluation of the positive evidence and argument in favor of the painting's attribution, and I look forward to sharing that with you. But here I want to offer one further reason why, if this is Spinoza, it is a departure from what one would have expected a painting of him to look like. To see why, let me remind you of an iconic painting, Hals's (1649) Descartes:
To the best of my knowledge there is no controversy that this is really Descartes. It is a sober painting, especially by Hals's standards. (Again, I am no art historian, but many of Hals's other portrait paintings make me think that he anticipates impressionism--and, on the whole, the accouterments of wealth and luxury are not disguised in them.) Now, this image of Descartes sets the tone for two other iconic images of early modern philosophers. Here's John Michael Wright’s portrait of Thomas Hobbes, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London:
There was, of course, little love lost between Descartes and Hobbes, but it is striking that their portraits share some characteristics: the dark background that allows the face to be illuminated, the sober style of dress, the uncovered head, and the visible, foregrounded hand. In fact, Wright's Hobbes (unlike Cooper's Hobbes in the Cleveland museum) is a fitting rival to Hals's Descartes. (There are more portraits of Hobbes, but most of them have a family resemblance to the Wright Hobbes in composition and temperament.) And, this is how I always understood the Wolfenbüttel-Spinoza:
The Wolfenbüttel-Spinoza, which is a bit idealized, is almost certainly intended to evoke and rival Hals's Descartes. (It lacks the visible hand.)
Obviously, there are problems with thinking of these three images as the way one ought to conceive a seventeenth century philosopher; it reinforces gender-stereotypes. So, here's Jan Lievens' Anna Maria van Schurman (ca 1649):
Here Van Schuurman's literacy and learning is emphasized in a way that is absent in the paintings above. In part, this also represents a feature of their celebrity--the novatores were not proud of their learning (although Hobbes certainly was an excellent classicist, and Descartes probably had undergone the best classical education available in his day). By contrast, Van Schuurman was noted for her learning, and her philosophical writings are expressed in the older, Scholastic idiom. (To be sure, I am not claiming there is any relationship between Lievens's Van Schuurman and Hals's Descartes from the same year.)
By contrast, while the Graat Spinoza (below) has an undeniable resemblance to the Wolfenbüttel-Spinoza, it evokes a very different atmosphere. We are, in fact, far removed from Descartes's Hals. To put it simply, while the portrait fits what we would expect Spinoza to look like, it does not fit what one would expect from a portrait of Spinoza the philosopher alongside Hobbes and Descartes.