'Attributed to' or 'Probably by'?

July 18 2013

Image of 'Attributed to' or 'Probably by'?

Picture: National Gallery

The Grumpy Art Historian has noticed that the above Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, on display at the National Gallery, London, is now labelled as 'Probably by Rembrandt', while it used to be called Rembrandt in full. The GAH observes:

I was surprised by the change, partly because I think it's by Rembrandt, and partly because the NG Director has said that he doesn't like using the term 'Attributed'.

[...] They [the NG] confirmed that it was previously given to Rembrandt, and they've now updated the label to 'Probably by Rembrandt'. I think the avoidance of the term 'attributed' is silly, and I think the portrait is by Rembrandt, but on this occasion I think the new label is spot on. The NG is right to reflect scholarly dissent about the attribution, but also the balance of probability towards Rembrandt. Certain technical aspects of the picture are atypical of Rembrandt, and it rather pales beside the awesome power of the finished portrait, usually shown in the same room. But no other artist has come so close to capturing Rembrandt's late manner, and this is a very accomplished picture.

Being a stick-in-the-mud, I prefer 'attributed to'. 

I always feel sad about Rembrandt's oeuvre, which has ballooned wildly in the last century. Once, over 600 paintings were accepted as being by Rembrandt, but only about 340 are today. Rigorous connoisseurship and attributions are to be applauded, but at the same time there's a tendency to be overly exclusionist for big name artists.

The more celebrated a painter, the more art historians he attracts, and, because there is a sort of academic glamour in being an exclusionist, a lowest common denominator effect comes into being where the probability of all scholars agreeing on an attribution is necessarily quite low. So the bar for a work to be accepted as a Rembrandt is placed much higher than many other artists, where perhaps the agreement of only two or three scholars is required. The result is that Rembrandt is rarely allowed to have had off days, studio help, or moments of experimentation (the picture above, for example, is questioned because the ground layer is different from that Rembrandt normally used).

Personally, I find it hard to accept that Rembrandt only produced some 340 pictures in his 63 year lifetime. Van Dyck made over 750 in his, and he died at the age of 42.

Update - a reader writes:

[...] the bust portrait of Margaretha de Geer has been labelled “attributed to” for nearly 20 years now, ever since scientific examination revealed the discrepancies with the artist’s usual techniques.  It was downgraded after the Gallery removed the Old Man in an Armchair from the canon and at about the same time as the Tobit was readmitted.  The only change since then has been the downgrading of the Adoration, though the current cleaning of the Rihel equestrian portrait may prove interesting in this respect.

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