In the season three premiere of Netflix’s The Crown, a familiar figure supervises the events of the episode. He appears at first over Queen Elizabeth II’s shoulder (as portrayed by Olivia Colman), then later in a poster in the window of an art gallery. He’s also behind the Queen as she delivers her climactic speech in an exhibition of her paintings, after which the camera cuts to a dramatic close up of the figure’s face, slowly moving in on the “enigmatic” eyes. Who is this looming, compelling, rising star of streaming television? Why, it’s Rembrandt’s Old Man in Military Costume, in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The titular Old Man in Military Costume is used as a device through which the Queen can reveal a secret she knows (no spoilers here). But did the Queen actually own this Rembrandt painting? And to what extent is the presentation of the piece in the semi-fictional world of The Crown accurate? We consulted Getty paintings curator Anne Woollett for answers.
Was Rembrandt’s painting in the Royal Collection in 1964?
The painting was in England in 1964, but it was not in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II. It was owned by Sir Brian Mountain, chairman of the Eaglestar Insurance Company, whose family had owned the painting since 1938. It was sold at auction and acquired by Edward Speelman, Ltd. in 1969.
Several of the other paintings in the episode, however, are in fact part of the Royal Collection, including Annibale Carracci’s An Allegory of Truth and Time and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, both of which you can find on the Royal Collection Trust website.
Was the existence of another figure under the old man known then?
Not in 1964, according to Getty paintings curator Anne Woollett. “In the late ‘60s, the painting was studied, and the underlying figure was revealed in an Xray. The discovery was in the news, as it was one of the first underlying compositions found with the use of modern technology, and so it was an exciting time in art history.”
Why would Rembrandt paint over the figure?
“We now know that it was not unusual for some artists, notably Rembrandt at the beginning of his career, to paint over a composition. The discovery of another head under An Old Man in Military Costume generated great interest and led to further technological studies, and so we now have multiple examples of such hidden paintings.”
In fact, in 2015, Woollett and several Getty colleagues used even more modern technology, a macro XRF scanner, to create a color reconstruction of the hidden portrait under An Old Man in Military Costume, the very painting discussed in the episode! You can read all about their process here.
Is the underlying figure the same person as the Old Man?
The 1960s Xray image made it clear that the underlying figure in the painting was a younger person, “but not necessarily the same person” says Woollett. It does make for a more compelling tête-à-tête between the Surveyor and the Queen in the climax of the episode if it is, of course.
One last question for curator Anne Woollett: did you enjoy seeing the painting on the small screen?
“It was a creative and fun use of research and media! Incorporating a painting that was in the public eye not long after the events depicted in the show, and using that information to inform the story is quite clever.”
Can you see Rembrandt’s painting in real life?
Yes! If you’d like to see the Old Man in Military Costume for yourself, you may do so in the East Pavilion of the Getty Center, on the second floor, where he is surrounded by fellow paintings by Rembrandt and contemporaries of Rembrandt.
Also, many of the paintings in the Getty Museum’s collection are available for download, without charge, under the Getty’s Open Content Program, so if you are an aspiring writer, perhaps you might explore and find inspiration for your next great television episode or movie!