Back and forth with Rembrandt

August 27 2015

Image of Back and forth with Rembrandt

Picture: Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University

[This isn't 'news' - but it's my blog, and I'll indulge myself with a rant about bad connoisseurship if I want to].

I was doing a little research into Rembrandt the other day, and came across an example of just how misguided the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project could be when deciding what is and is not 'a Rembrandt'.

The picture above belongs to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University in Canada. It was given to Queen's by Alfred Bader, the chemical magnate, art collector, philanthropist, and occasional art dealer (in which guise I got to know him quite well some years ago). It looks (for what it's worth) like a Rembrandt to me - a rather fine one - and has done to many others in the past. Much of the willingness to accept the picture as a Rembrandt arose out of the engraving of 1634, below, by J.G. Van der Vliet, which names Rembrandt as the author, and the fact that the picture is signed, 'RHL'.

But the early Rembrandt committee decided that:

Though having a thematic affinity with a number of Rembrandt works from around 1630 no. C 22 cannot be accepted as autograph, because of the poorly organized and (particularly in the lit areas) remarkably coarse manner of painting, of the muddy shadow areas and of the strange flesh tints that tend towards a yellow. It can however be assumed that an etching by J. G. van Vliet dated 1634, and naming Rembrandt as the inventor, reproduces this painting.

In other words, someone other than Rembrandt in the early 1630s, before Rembrandt was the internationally famous artist he later became, painted the picture Rembrandt's style, signed it as by Rembrandt, and, finally, persuaded a contemporary engraver to publish the picture as by Rembrandt.

Who was this villainous and talented fiend? And why, when they were evidently extremely talented, did they not paint under their own name? As with so many rejected Rembrandts that have similarly convincing evidence behind them, we are not told. Instead, the RRP rejected the picture because of such things as 'strange flesh tints that tend towards yellow' - as if Rembrandt, one of the strangest painters in art history, never used anything yellow in his flesh tones.

The later guise of the RRP, under Ernst van der Wetering, reversed the above opinion, and the picture is now accepted once again as a Rembrandt. Phew.

For more by me on the RRP and connoisseurship, see here and the podcast here.

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