152 Rehabilitating Rembrandt

A confidently negative judgment of the original Rembrandt Research Project concerning a painting in Kassel has been reversed by the new leader of the Project. However, the arguments advanced by the Project have not been answered.


The mystery of the young Rembrandt, the important new exhibition now in the Rembrandthuis, after having opened in the Staatliche Museen Kassel, has a story attached to it. In 1986 the Rembrandt Research Project disattributed one of the paintings in the Kassel Museum that was previously part of the Rembrandt corpus. Bust of an old man with golden chain, signed and dated RHL van Ryn 1632, documented as a Rembrandt since 1693, is called in the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings “totally un-Rembrandtlike,” “a well-preserved 17th-century imitation of Rembrandt, painted in a markedly individual style.”

This judgment did not sit well with the chief curator of the Kassel Museum, Bernhard Schnackenburg. He insisted that the painting was by Rembrandt and worked for 15 years for what he calls its rehabilitation. After the resignation in 1992 from the Rembrandt Project of four of its five members, Schnackenburg found it possible to convince the new project leader, Ernst van de Wetering, that the painting was good. This realization demanded a reconsideration of the early Rembrandt in general, a project that led to the present exhibition, a collaboration between the two.

This was a promising starting point for a new look not only at the early Rembrandt but at the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings as well. The Corpus was not shy or vague in its rejection of the painting. It found fault with the “oppressively insistent rendering of wrinkles and folds,” an “excess of curls in hair and beard,” “over-heavy numerous scratchmarks in the wet paint” and “over-heavy script in the (consequently scarcely legible) signature.” The Corpus states that Rembrandt’s work of this year “has no place for this extraordinary play of forms, this variegated use of colour and this impasto-ridden use of paint.” The clothing “obtrudes … too strongly with the highly emphatic rendering of the head and hair, so that there is a lack of unity. The basic tint of the chain (a greenish gray) is different from the ochre-yellow that Rembrandt invariably employed for such a motif. The outline of the body … does not have the characteristic intersections of billowing curves.” The underpainting, the RRP suspects, incorporates “large areas of grey – something unknown in Rembrandt.”

These are explicit statements, and one would expect, in a reassignment of the painting to the hand of Rembrandt himself, that they would be proven to be wrong. But in The mystery they are not dealt with, but simply ignored. Except for five words in a footnote concerning the depiction of the clothing, there is not a single direct quotation from the Corpus entry on the Old man. Instead, Schnackenburg says that the reason for the disattribution is that the RRP could not accept that Rembrandt painted in a rough style in 1632. This is however not at all what the RRP wrote. It declares itself unequivocally prepared to accept “free handling of paint” in and of itself. In a good Rembrandt, however, the RRP expects to find “a more discreet and infinitely more subtle rendering [of] the relationship between the brushwork and the plastic form” than in the Kassel Old man. The painting also misses a “use of colour … subservient to the discipline of the interplay between the opaque flesh colour passages and the translucent areas of shadow.”

Personally, I never agreed with this. In my own book on Rembrandt (1984) and afterward I accepted the authorship of the Old man as well as of five other paintings – Corpus nrs. B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 – concerning which the RRP now gets mileage out of reversing its former, arbitrary doubts. I find myself in complete agreement with what the authors of the impressive catalogue say – or rather, I find them in complete agreement with me. Nonetheless, I feel that one cannot simply walk away from such strong statements as if they had never been voiced. In a proper rebuttal, the opinions of the RRP should have been quoted and countered, one by one. If Schnackenburg and the latter-day van de Wetering are right, this has far graver consequences for the value of the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings than is admitted in The mystery of the young Rembrandt. While awaiting this development, a rehabilitation of the critics of the RRP might be in order.

© 2002 Gary Schwartz. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 2 March 2002. Published in English on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2019.

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Apologies for the lack of a p.s. this time around. Tomorrow is the start of the annual congress of the organization I lead (see http://www.codart.nl/c5/program.html), and I am putting the final touches to the program.

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