(Smithsonian magazine) Is This a Portrait of One of the World’s Most Influential Philosophers?

One Dutch art dealer is convinced that he owns the only portrait that Baruch Spinoza sat for. My article appears in Smithsonian magazine. Here’s the lede:

Spinoza portrait

The portrait in question, by Dutch painter Barend Graat (Courtesy of Constant Vecht)

When Constant Vecht flipped through the October 2013 catalog from a Paris-based auction house, lot number three immediately leapt out. It was identified as a 1666 work by 17th century Dutch painter Barend Graat, and given the nondescript title of “a portrait of a man in front of a sculpture.” But Vecht immediately pegged the sitter as the famous Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

More than 350 years after his death, Spinoza’s work is still influential. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Of all the philosophers of the 17th-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza.” As an early figure of the Enlightenment, Spinoza rejected some of the predominant religious beliefs of his time, including the absolute veracity of the Bible as well as the immortality of the soul. For his perceived heresies, he was excommunicated by Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656. Today he is often hailed as an early proponent of atheism, although his writings were more pantheistic, and is also appreciated for his scientific work as a lens-maker.

Vecht, the director of the Amsterdam-based art dealership Kunstzalen A.Vecht, had grown up seeing Spinoza’s face on the Dutch 1,000 gulden note. (The Euro replaced that currency.) “In Holland, we are familiar with the face of Spinoza, but in France not. Nobody had the ID,” says Vecht.

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