Is this by Rembrandt?

May 26 2014

Image of Is this by Rembrandt?

Picture: National Gallery

The painting, Old Man in an Armchair (above), was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1957 as a Rembrandt, but was demoted shortly thereafter as being by 'a follower'. It last featured in their exhibition 'Fakes and Mistakes' in 2010. 

Now, however, the head of the Rembrandt Research Committee, Ernst Van der Wetering, says he thinks the picture (which is signed) is in fact by Rembrandt. The Guardian reports:

Professor Van de Wetering was the long-serving director of the Rembrandt Research Project, set up in the Netherlands to organise and catagorise research on the artist, and is in the process of writing the sixth and final volume overview of the painter which has meant travelling the world viewing works which have had the biggest question marks placed over them.

That includes London's Old Man in an Armchair which was purchased as a Rembrandt in 1957, but demoted in 1969 based on the views of then leading expert Horst Gerson.

Van de Wetering saw the work three years ago and will next week have his arguments published in the June edition of the Burlington Magazine. "I was amazed that the painting was rejected," he said. "Then I saw how it was and why it was rejected."

Van de Wetering said the demotion of the 1652 painting had been based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The judgment was based on connoisseurship – that if a painting did not look like Rembrandt it could not be Rembrandt. "That was a vast mistake and Gerson got many wrong."

Instead Old Man in an Armchair needs to be seen in terms of Rembrandt's experimentation, said van de Wetering. In 1651 the artist decided to start all over again, to reinvent how he painted – to both paint and draw with his brush, in what has become known as his late "rough manner".

The subject in the National Gallery painting is not a portrait, van de Wetering said. "This is a man posing to be studied ... it is a painting about painting."

Van de Wetering said it was one of a number of "paintings about painting" that Rembrandt made, but the National Gallery work was of huge importance because it was one of the earliest.

The National Gallery is, for the moment, sticking with 'Follower of Rembrandt'. 

Old Man in an Armchair has always struck me as a tricky one. I couldn't always see why it had been rejected. But then again there were reasons to doubt it, I thought. Perhaps the wider problem is that Rembrandt's oeuvre has been so picked upon, and so wittled down to a core of (what were hoped to be) indisputably 'right' pictures, that anything slightly off the beaten track was regarded with suspicion. Maybe Old Man in an Armchair falls into that group.

It's widely believed that the previous incarnation of the Rembrandt Research Project was far too exclusive, and rejected many pictures that were indeed by Rembrandt. The version of the RRP that Van der Wetering now heads (but which is soon to end its publications, in fact) has tended to be a little more inclusive. And I think that's a good thing, for I've always found it hard to believe that someone of Rembrandt's longevity (63 years) and talent could only paint some 340 or so paintings. Van Dyck, who died when he was 41, has over 700 to his name.

For what it's worth - and I claim no expertise at all on Rembrandt, - I've always thought The Auctioneer at the Met to be unfairly downgraded. Is this another late work (it's signed, and dated 1658) along the lines of Van der Wetering's experimental category?

Update - this site has a handy guide on how the number of Rembrandt attributions has varied over time, from 688 according to Valentiner's catalogue raisonne in 1921 to 265 according to Tumpel's in 1986. Therefore, 1987 would have been a good time to buy 'not Rembrandts'.

Update II - a reader has pointed out that Old Man in an Armchair was not bought by the National Gallery, but allocated to them under the Acceptance in Lieu programme. The picture had been in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth, and was one of three 'Rembrandts'  then in the collection. The Devonshires were pleased that they got to keep the two genuine Rembrandts, and paid off a load of tax with a picture that turned out to be worth somewhat less than the Treasury thought. But has the Treasury now had the last laugh?

Update III - a reader writes:

To me the colours, the light, the proportions and the handling of the paint seem spot on for Rembrandt.  I don't know of a forger who is that perfect and comes that close to him.

I had a quick look at the Met's picture The Auctioneer and I agree with you that the main painter is Rembrandt but it looks, from the photographs, as if another hand has touched-up parts of the hair, the shape of the hair on the shoulder looks mis-balanced, possibly causing the shape of the hat to change - the left-hand shadow on the face also seems too hard.  I can understand why it was downgraded.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.