Rembrandt takes a giant leap

October 10 2014

Image of Rembrandt takes a giant leap

Pictures: Metropolitan Museum New York, above, National Gallery, London, below. 

It's all kicking off for Rembrandt folks. First, we have the opening next week of the National Gallery's enticing-looking 'Late Rembrandt' show. And secondly, and perhaps most excitingly of all, on Wednesday we have the launch of Volume 6 of the Rembrandt Research Project's (RRP) catalogue raisonné, or 'Corpus', of his works.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing the final conclusions of Ernst van der Wetering (the great Rembrandt scholar de nos jours) in Volume 6, which will be the last publication from the RRP. News reports (see here in the Wall Street Journal) tell us he has re-attributed 70 works to Rembrandt, including the 'Auctioneer' (above) at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Regular readers may remember (*boast alert*) that I've been keen on this picture before (for example here). I've never understood why it was downgraded. It's a perfectly fine, signed late Rembrandt, the only 'weakness' of which is that it has some condition issues (such as an old, vicious re-lining, which, in flattening all the impasto, has robbed the paint surface of some of its Rembrandtian joie de vivre).

Bizarrely, the Auctioneer was downgraded in the 1980s on the basis of x-rays, which, said some Met curators, revealed un-Rembrandt-ian strokes beneath the paint layers. Of course, there weren't that many Rembrandt x-rays to compare it with in those days; it was a good example of how people like to over-interpret things like x-ray and Infra-red. 

Perhaps even more bizarrely, the Metropolitan Museum rejects van de Wetering's view, and maintains that the Auctioneer is not a Rembrandt. As regular readers will know, the National Gallery in London has also rejected van de Wetering's recent opinion that their 'Old Man in an Armchair' (below) is by Rembrandt (which, I believe, it is). So clearly these two major museums believe they know more about Rembrandt than van de Wetering. 

I'd say both pictures are a classic example of how Rembrandt scholarship has consumed itself with doubt over the last fifty years. Picture after picture has been wrongly rejected, until eventually nobody really knew what a Rembrandt looked like anymore. Since both the Auctioneer and Old Man in an Armchair will be entirely absent from the National Gallery's 'Late Rembrandt' exhibition - even, I presume, from the catalogue - we must wonder if we'll really be getting a complete view of Rembrandt's late career.

Anyway, if you want to know more about all this, I've written an article on the fluctuating number of Rembrandts for this weekend's Financial Times. You can read the piece online here (it's free, though you may need to register), or you can listen to my podcast here

In other Rembrandt news, the publishers of the RRP have, brilliantly, and with the help of the venerable RKD in Holland, put volumes 1 to 5 online - you can read them here. How amazing is that? Volumes 1-3 were written before Ernst's palace coup (in 1993), and although they contain much valuable information, be wary that many of the attributions are wildly wrong. Such is the state of Rembrandt connoisseurship.

All this Rembrandt excitement was too much for me yesterday. I'd already filed my FT piece on Tuesday, and so had to hastily redo parts in light of van de Wetering's announcement that he was adding 70 pictures to Rembrandt's oeuvre. Fortunately, we just managed to stop the page going to press, and I had 25 minutes to do a quick re-write. Art history news doesn't usually move this fast...

We must wait till next week for the full list of new attributions, however. I'm hoping that 'Man with a Golden Helmet' [Berlin Gemaldegalerie] gets upgraded.

By the way, Van de Wetering's latest publication brings the RRP's total number of Rembrandts to 340. This is a significant increase on the less than 250 pictures the RRP in its earlier incarnation (before van de Wetering took over) said Rembrandt painted. But I still think it's too low. 

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