In search of the original Spinoza

For many, Spinoza is iconic, a “secular saint,” combining his herculean efforts to understand the world by methodical reasoning with the humble life.

Kunstzalen A. Vecht’s ‘A Man before a Sculpture,’ Amsterdam (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kunstzalen A. Vecht’s ‘A Man before a Sculpture,’ Amsterdam
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Upon ending his ten-year tenure as a member of parliament of the Netherlands in 2012, Liberal Democrat Boris Van der Ham handed a gift to the Speaker of the House. It was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise) by 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). The author analyzes the Bible as being made by man and criticizes religious institutions for exerting undue influence on politics and civil liberties.
Shortly after its publication in 1670, Christian church authorities banned the “blasphemous” and “godless” treatise. Fourteen years earlier, in 1656, Spinoza, born and raised as a Jew, had been banned from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, for expressing heretical views. The Tractatus, although published anonymously, written in Latin and forbidden, found a wide public in the 17th century. And until today, interest in Spinoza is very much alive. Admirers can be found in academia and beyond. For many, Spinoza is iconic, a “secular saint,” combining his herculean efforts to understand the world by methodical reasoning with the humble life of an optical lense grinder. For people like Boris van der Ham, Spinoza’s ideas constitute the bedrock of modern thinking.
Sympathy for Spinoza is enhanced by his image. A delicate face framed by long dark hair, a pensive glance in his eyes. That captivating image is transmitted through the ages by one portrait in the Herzog (Duke) August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Dutch art historian Rudi Ekkart suggests that the Wolfenbüttel painting renders an idealized version of Spinoza. The image he judges to be more authentic, is an engraving in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which adorned some later editions of Spinoza’s Opera Posthuma. The posthumous works were edited by Spinoza’s friends and first published in 1677. Spinoza had died earlier that year at the age of 44 from a lung illness. Both engraving and portrait were made after Spinoza’s death, at the earliest in 1680. According to Ekkart in his study Spinoza in Portrait. The Unknown Face (1999), the Wolfenbüttel portrait could be based on the engraving. But, both painting and engraving could also spring from another painting, made during Spinoza’s lifetime, that got lost.
Portrait of a Man before a Sculpture
Since 2015 Spinoza experts, art historians and art restorers have been engaged in a debate around a painting that was bought in 2013 by Amsterdam Jewish art dealer Constant Vecht, third generation owner of the gallery, Kunstzalen A. Vecht. Leafing through the October 2013 catalog of the Parisian auction house Ader-Nordmann, his eyes fell on a painting titled “Portrait of a Man before a Sculpture,” attributed to Barend Graat, a 17th century Dutch second echelon painter. Vecht was struck by the resemblance of the man in the painting to the well-known image of Spinoza. He left for Paris and bought the painting.
Vecht started to research whether his purchase could be that lost painting Ekkart had envisaged: Was the attribution to 17th century painter Barend Graat correct, and was the portrayed man Spinoza? Among the experts he consulted were Ekkart and his team, who are researchers at the RKD-Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD-NIAH).
In 2015, Ekkart came forward with a negative opinion on the painter and expressed doubts that the portrayed man was Spinoza. This turned out to be the clarion call for a debate. In her December 2015 published biography of Barend Graat (1628-1709), with a catalog raisonné, art historian Margreet van der Hut makes no mention of Portrait of a Man before a Sculpture. By doing so, she deviated from established practice to list all monogrammed paintings, if need be with an add-on that authenticity is in doubt. She ignored Vecht’s request to explain herself. To outsiders it seemed as if she acted out of obedience to Ekkart, who is a power broker in the Dutch art world.
In April 2016, the RKD-NIAH published a negative judgment on Graat/Spinoza on its website, based on Ekkart’s research. Influential Dutch Spinoza blogger, Stan Verdult, copied that text to his own blog, which became the vehicle for the ensuing debate on the painting. Vecht used Verdult’s blog in April 2016 to confront Ekkart/RKD-NIAH’s criticisms with the interim outcome of his own research.
Signature and style
The attribution to Barend Graat in the Ader-Nordmann auction catalog was based on the signature on the bottom left side, “BGf 1666,” or in full, “Barend Graat fecit” (made by), in 1666. The monogram was encircled. Ekkart had rejected the monogram as being “less spontaneous, too carefully rendered and the encirclement as atypical for Graat.” Vecht countered that the signature was made with the same sure-handedness, continuous curve, type of lettering and positioning of the year as seen on other paintings by Graat.
The encirclement is not found on Graat’s other paintings, but Vecht asked: Why would a forger add an obvious deviant characteristic?
Ekkart’s criticism continued: “Various characteristics and elements in style and technique are atypical for the artist’s early artistic capabilities (such as the general static nature of the sitter and the background; the proportion of the figure within the composition; the slight lack of understanding of perspective and of architectural elements in the background; the treatment of the sculpture and other details).” Vecht confronted these criticisms one by one. He compared “A Man before a Sculpture” with undisputed paintings by Graat. Starting with “the general static nature of the sitter and the background,” Vecht pointed at two single portraits made by Graat in 1663 and 1666.
The 1663 portrait is the first Graat painting of a single person. Before that, Graat painted group portraits. “A Man before a Sculpture” therefore fits in Graat’s development. The more so, because the single portraits Graat painted at a later stage, are always “sitters in an interior,” while the men in the 1663 and 1666 portraits are outside, just like “A Man before a Sculpture.” As for the “general static nature,” the men in the paintings from 1663 and 1666 are standing, while the “Man before a Sculpture” sits. But in all three paintings, the body is turned somewhat and one hand rests on a table or pedestal. At the background are sculptures and Italian type landscapes, obelisks or pillars. In all three paintings, the sculptures in the background probably refer to a quality of the portrayed person.
The sculpture in “A Man before a Sculpture” is a nude woman, standing on a globe, holding a sun in her left hand and a palm-branch in her right hand. Vecht recognized it as the “Allegory of the Truth,” taken from the emblem collection of the Italian, Cesare Ripa (1560-1645), that was used by many artists, including Graat. The Allegory of the Truth indicates that the portrayed man was a philosopher. Ekkart had held the same view: “The sculpture depicting ‘The Truth’ suggests that it could possibly be a portrait of a philosopher.” Another criticism by Ekkart addressed “the proportion of the figure within the composition” as being atypical for Graat. Vecht objected by listing seven of Graat’s paintings, among them “Pandora” in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which features the upper half of a person on the foreground.
Vecht agreed with Ekkart that the painting showed “the slight lack of understanding of perspective and of architectural elements in the background; the treatment of the sculpture and other details”, but countered that perspective was often problematic for Graat, certainly in his early years, and pointed to a number of Graat’s paintings, which show similar problems in composition and perspective.
Baruch de Spinoza
Ekkart had dismissed the identification of the sitter in “A Man before a Sculpture” with Baruch de Spinoza “after sound research into diverse sources and upon close inspection of the original by him (Ekkart) and the RKD Portrait Iconography Department.” Vecht countered with the research he had commissioned to two forensic institutions. These determined that, although the portrayed man is a younger version of the Spinoza on the engraving and the Wolfenbüttel portrait, all other facial features are identical.
Vecht also referred to the research published by Spinoza blogger Verdult. He had produced a video in which the Wolfenbüttel portrait and the “Man before a Sculpture” were scaled to the same size and projected over each other. To allow for the projection, the head of the “Portrait of a Man before a Sculpture” was turned to a right angle, so the direction of the view was the same.
The stunning result was the complete overlap of the two faces. To Verdult it was obvious: the “Man before a Sculpture” was no less Spinoza than the Wolfenbüttel Spinoza. The paintings were either a copy of each other, or both were copied from a third painting.
In March 2016, Verdult had put the three pictures next to each other on his blog. Verdult, however, accepted the authority of art historian Van der Hut on the painter, Barend Graat. She had ignored Graat as the possible painter of “A Man before a Sculpture.” But, as she categorically refused to be interviewed, Verdult called her stand “puzzling,” – “the greatest riddle around the Graat-Spinoza portrait.” Vecht’s research survey
At the end of 2016, Vecht produced a survey of the research he had commissioned and done himself with his team. As to the originality of the painting, infrared scans had evinced a painting process of trial and error, the painter obviously searching for the appropriate composition. No add-ons of a later date were found. It points to an original work, not a copied one. The scans were made by Martin Bijl, a renowned specialist on 16th to 18th century paintings.
Research done with an electron microscope on the condition of the paint showed that the painting was old, most probably 17th century. These findings were confirmed by an analysis of the linen structure of the canvas, which had all the characteristics of a centuries-old fabric.
The “Man before a Sculpture” has a thin mustache. Until the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t known that the young Spinoza had one. In his Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge 1999), Prof. Steven Nadler mentions a letter that was discovered in the 1950s. It was written in 1658 by Spanish captain Miguel Perez de Maltranilla, who was under orders of the Spanish Inquisition to investigate the Dutch philosopher.
After an encounter in Amsterdam he described Spinoza to his principals: “Well-built, with long, black hair, a small mustache of the same color and a beautiful face.” The mustache was absent in the engraving and Wolfenbüttel portrait, which suggests that Spinoza didn’t have a moustache later in life. Vecht argued, a forger who wanted to portray Spinoza, couldn’t have painted the moustache if he made the portrait before 1950. And the linen and paint are too old for a painting made after 1950.
Barend Graat
To authenticate the authorship of Barend Graat, Vecht listed a series of arguments. The electron microscope had showed a red undercoating of the painting, which is typical for Graat, who used red undercoating on various paintings. Furthermore, the sleeve of ‘Spinoza’ is painted the same way as the sleeve on the portrait by Graat of 1666; the sculpture symbolizing Truth on the right side of the painting is akin to the statue of Demosthenes on the painting of 1666; pillars and a stone table are to be found on the other Graat’ portrait of 1666; the thread clouds and the Italian town on the hills are familiar sceneries on works by Graat. Then there is the consistency of the monogram with other signatures of Graat, apart from the encirclement.
And, as a proof from the absurd, there are no known forgeries of Graat’s paintings.
There is no documentary evidence of a personal contact, but Spinoza and Graat for sure frequented the same circles in Amsterdam. Amsterdam was booming economically and blooming culturally in its “Golden Age.” Regents and merchants had themselves portrayed and their houses decorated. Countless painters made a living. Graat painted merchants and their families and other works of art for their houses. One of his principals was businesswoman Petronella de la Court, whose sister as well as one of her daughters were married to close friends of Spinoza. She owned 150 paintings, six made by Graat.
A second circle of people connecting Graat with Spinoza, were involved with the New Theatre Hall in Amsterdam. Graat portrayed people in the theatre world and befriended some of them. At Spinoza’s side, some of his closest friends were intimately involved with the theater. Lodewijk Meijer was active as a playwright, translator of French comedy and a regent, as was Spinoza’s friend Jacob Vallan. Spinoza’s Latin teacher and friend Franciscus van den Enden wrote plays. Some experts believe, Spinoza played a role in Van den Enden’s adaption of Latin poet Terence’s “Eunuchus” in 1658.
Who would have given Graat the assignment to portray Spinoza? Those mentioned here and others in his circle of friends and admirers had enough money and could have done so.
Essential facial features
The Dutch National Forensic Researchbureau (NFO) compared “A Man before a Sculpture” biometrically with the engraving and the Wolfenbüttel portrait. The three were found identical on ten clearly visible facial features: cheekbone, nose shape, nostrils, nasion point, philtrum, lip chin fold, lower lip, corner of the mouth, eyebrow and hairline. The NFO concluded that ‘it is much more probable’ that the man on the three portraits is the same person, than not. That is the second highest classification used in the NFO’s qualification system. To meet the highest criterion, “highly probable,” it shouldn’t concern renderings by artists, but a photo, the age of the person on the three portraits should be the same, as well as the view direction and the position of the head. The findings of the NFO were confirmed by a second Dutch research company, VideoForensics.
For art historian and highly respected Dutch painting restorer, Ronald de Jager, the facial similarities between the two painted portraits are absolutely convincing. In Verdult’s Spinoza blog he summed up these similarities: “The slightly squinting eyes, the eye sockets, the long bended eye brows, the long nose with the little hump, the mouth, the hair cut, even the whole appearance with the soft, amiable glance, every one of them (in “A Man before a Sculpture”) (is) completely comparable to the Wolfenbüttel portrait.” In an August 2016 article on (“Is This a Portrait of One of the World’s Most Influential Philosophers?”), Menachem Wecker listed the views of some Spinoza experts on the identity of “A Man before a Sculpture.” American professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein held that Spinoza’s philosophy largely renounced being fixated on personal identities. Sitting for a portrait therefore would have been “extreme irony” for Spinoza. She felt that Spinoza would have disapproved of such vanity, even if the portrait was commissioned by one of his supporters. Nadler coincides: “I am doubtful that Spinoza would have commissioned, or even sat for, a portrait of himself. Call it just an intuition, but it doesn’t seem in keeping with his character or values.” Countering the intuitive opinions on Spinoza’s personality, Vecht introduced an activity of Spinoza which surprisingly was overlooked by the Spinoza experts. Quoting Spinoza’s first biographer, Johannes Colerus (1647-1707), in his Short, but Truthful Biography of Benedict de Spinosa, from Authentic Documents and Oral Testimonies by Living Persons, published in Amsterdam in 1705, and in English in 1706, who wrote: “After he (Spinoza) had perfected himself in that Art (making glasses for telescopes), he apyly’d himself to Drawing which he learn’d of himself, and he cou’d draw a Head very well with Ink, or with a Coal. I (Johannes Colerus) have in my Hands a whole Book of such Draughts, amongst which there are some Heads of several considerable Persons who were known to him, or who had occasion to visit him. Among those Draughts I find in the 4th sheet a Fisherman having only his Shirt on, with a Net on his Right Shoulder, whose Attitude is very much like that of Massanello the famous Head of the Rebels of Naples, as it appears by History, and by his Cuts. Which gives me occasion to add, that Mr. Van der Spyck, at whose House Spinosa lodged when he died, has assured me, that the Draught of that Fisherman did perfectly resemble Spinosa, and that he had certainly drawn himself.” As Colerus observed, Spinoza had no qualms about drawing his own portrait, and remarkably, in the role of revolutionary Massanello, also known as Mas Anjello, who revolted against the Spanish rulers of Naples in 1647. In 1668 a play on Anjello’s revolt was performed at the New Theatre Hall in Amsterdam. Obviously, Spinoza knew the play. Unfortunately, his drawing book is lost.
Besides old paintings restorer Ronald de Jager there are others who are convinced that the “Man before a Sculpture” is no less Spinoza than the Wolfenbüttel portrait and the engraving. To name a few: Curators at the Amsterdam Museum, Norbert Middelkoop and Tom van der Molen, both experts on 17th and 18th centuries art; Volker Manuth, professor at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, who specialized in paintings, drawings and prints from the 15th to 18th centuries; and American born art historian and renowned expert on Rembrandt, Gary D. Schwartz.
A very significant signal of acknowledgment is the print of “A Man before a Sculpture” on the cover of the 2017 prestigious Oxford Handbook of Spinoza. The editor, Spinoza expert Michael della Rocca (Yale University), and Oxford University Press, obviously give the portrait the benefit of the doubt.
The debate on the authenticity of the painting is ongoing. On the one side are the skeptics, on the other side there are those who, based on historical circumstantial evidence and positive results of scientific tests, say: this could very well be Spinoza at the age of 34. Will it ever be possible to reach a final conclusion? As the Oxford University Press has done in its own way, let’s join art restorer De Jager, who said: “The facts are that we see a portrait of a man who very closely resembles Spinoza, as we know him from the other two portraits; we see a signature BG and a date: 1666. Who would forge a portrait of a prominent person like Spinoza and then sign with the monogram of a second-class painter?”