“The years have imposed heavy tribulations”: Rembrandt’s portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert

Working in 2021 on a book about a disputed Rembrandt self-portrait, I wished to refer to the article below, from July 1992, for its comments on the Rembrandt Research Project. The English text had not been published before. If I am not mistaken, this article has never been referred to in subsequent literature on the painting.

Rembrandt, Johannes Wtenbogaert, 1633
Oil on canvas, 130 x 103 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-4885)

Can you imagine a more attractive selling proposition for the art market than a large, handsome portrait by Rembrandt of one of the great spiritual leaders of his day, a painting of undisputed authenticity, signed and dated and documented by an entry in the diary of the sitter himself? The painting is moreover fresh to the market, having been in the same English family for over 130 years, and is priced not unreasonably. Despite having all of this going for it, however, some observers are unsure that the Portrait of the Remonstrant leader Johannes Wtenbogaert, coming up for auction on July 8 at Sotheby’s in London, will meet its reserve price. (Sotheby’s estimate is “over three million pounds,” implying that the reserve is three million or less.) The problem? The Rembrandt Research Project has expressed itself in very negative terms concerning the condition of the paint surface. If it isn’t one thing it’s another.

The painting is an historical document of the first order. Johannes Wtenbogaert (1557-1644) was 76 years old and a leading ”predikant” for fifty years when the 27-year-old Rembrandt painted him. The old man, whom Constantijn Huygens called a “model of absolutely consummate eloquence,” had come a cropper in the Calvinist doctrinary disputes of the early seventeenth century. In 1610, when he was preacher “for life” to the stadholder’s court and the States army, he penned the famous Remonstrance in favor of the Arminians in their conflict with the Gomarists. The disagreement climaxed in 1618-1619 with the discrediting of the Arminians at the Synod of Dordt and the execution of their political supporter Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Wtenbogaert fled the country. In 1619, in Antwerp, he founded the Remonstrants gereformeerde Broederschap, a marginal movement perennially at war with the established church of the Gomarists. Not until 1626 was he able to return to The Hague.

What brought the bright young star of Amsterdam portraiture to paint this living symbol of Calvinist dissidence? Did the artist take the initiative, out of sympathy with Wtenbogaert’s teachings or admiration for his courage? Or was it the old preacher, perhaps tipped off by Huygens, who sought out the brilliant painter? Fortunately, in this case we  an give our historical imaginations a rest. Wtenbogaert provided us with the reason in writing. “Wtgeschildert van Rembrandt, voor Abr. Anthonissen,” he confided to his diary on April 13, 1633, during a visit to Amsterdam. This tells us that the painting was commissioned by a third party (how often did that happen, without our knowing about it?): Abraham Anthonisz. Recht, a staunch Amsterdam Remonstrant whose daughter was to marry the son of Arminius a year later.

The importance of the painting is enhanced by the fact that Wtenbogaert did not have the Sitzfleisch or vanity of the portrait model. Few images of him are known. One of the most interesting is an etching by Rembrandt, dated 1635, showing the preacher, who was also a prolific writer, seated at a desk before
an open book. The plate is provided with a pugnacious Latin inscription by Hugo Grotius, a Remonstrant leader who never returned from exile: “The pious in the land and the army spoke well of this man,/ But what he preached was damned by the assembled clergy./ The years imposed heavy tribulations on him without breaking him./ Behold, The Hague, your Wtenbogaert comes home.”

The painting is a life-size three-quarter-length standing portrait of a type that Rembrandt had employed before, as in the portrait of Nicolaes Ruts in the Frick Collection, acquired from the estate of J. Pierpont Morgan, and in that of Marten Looten, which was donated by J. Paul Getty to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the eyes of these American billionaires, Rembrandt had elevated his Amsterdam merchant sitters to worthy peers of themselves. To 19th-century viewers, who did not know the identity of the sitter, the portrait of Wtenbogaert emanated a more political kind of power. In 1811 it was engraved by Giuseppe Longhi as a “Borgomastro Olandese” (”A Corpus of Rembrandt paintings,” vol. 2, nr. A80) and the first cataloguer of Rembrandt’s paintings, John Smith, wrote in 1836 that the sitter had “the appearance of being a councillor.”

Sometime before 1860 the painting was acquired by Baron Meyer de Rothschild of Mentmore, who had it catalogued as Rembrandt’s “Burgomaster. (Sotheby’s catalogue for auction of 8 July 1992, entry for lot 86.)

Despite the unmistakable resemblance of the sitter in the painting to the man in the inscribed etching and the publication in 1871 of the line from Wtenbogaert’s diary, the subject was not identified until 1903, when the church historian and Remonstrant minister Bruno Tideman put two and two together. (B. Tideman, “Portretten van Johannes Wtenbogaert,” Oud-Holland 21 [1903], pp. 125-28.) Once this discovery was made public, the scales fell from the art-historical eyes, and scholars realized that what they had been seeing all along was not the haughty gaze of power but “haast meditatieve, wijd geopende ogen [waarin] diepzinnigheid en de wijsheid van de ouderdom [lijken] te liggen.” (Christian Tümpel, Rembrandt, 1986, p. 127.)

What then is wrong with the painting, or more wrong than with any other 350-year-old piece of canvas able to command a price of ten million guilders or more because of our belief that it was painted by Rembrandt? The Rembrandt Research Project writes that it was “so badly flattened during lining that the weave of the canvas has been pressed through the paint over virtually the whole surface” and that “large areas of the black clothing have probably been overpainted, and the same may also be true of the shadowed part of the nose, areas of shadow in the left background, and in the tablecloth.” The hands make an “unsatisfactory appearance” and “one may wonder whether this would be a case of intervention by a studio hand in the execution of an otherwise autograph work.” (A Corpus of Rembrandt paintings, vol. II, nr. A80). Everyone I have spoken to who has seen the painting in fact agrees that there was “something wrong” with the hand on the preacher’s breast. Nearly all of them said they thought it was overpainted, which is different from what the Corpus says.

When opinions of this kind are aired concerning a work of art, it is extremely difficult to counter them. John Somerville of the Old Master Department of Sotheby’s commented to me at the Amsterdam viewing on March 25th: “The Rembrandt Research Project claims to have studied the painting in ‘excellent light.’ Well, in Mentmore it hung the way it would in any country house, which is far from ideal. I do not at all share their negative opinion on the condition of the Wtenbogaert. The paint surface may have been flattened in lining, as they say, but otherwise it is intact. All the paint is there.”

My own impression of the painting as well is more positive than that of the RRP. If the weave of the canvas has been pressed through the paint surface, I was unable to detect more than the slightest evidence of this with the naked eye at close range. The hand did disturb me when I saw it in Amsterdam, but within hours I changed my mind. By chance I flew to London that evening for the opening of the Rembrandt exhibition in the National Gallery, and the first painting I saw when I walked in was the Belshazzar of roughly the same period. That painting contains an outstretched hand extremely similar to that of Wtenbogaert, creating the same cut-out impression of flatness and more flaccid in structure. The entry on the Belshazzar in the Corpus does note the difference between the various painted hands as well as numerous other striking inconsistencies, but rejects the thought of workshop participation and ignores the overpaintings. To the Rembrandt of the Belshazzar the RRP grants much more artistic scope than to the Rembrandt of the Wtenbogaert, which they dissect with scalpel eyes along the bridge of a nose, the outline of a hand.

Saleability is not just a function of the absolute qualities of a work of art, but also of its rarity. If the Wtenbogaert were the last Rembrandt to come to the block in our day, people would put away their magnifying glasses and put on their rose-colored glasses. But there are still fifteen to twenty Rembrandt paintings that may come up for sale. And the recent record is not encouraging. On April 15, Rembrandt’s equally undisputed Daniel en Cyrus voor de afgod Bel failed to reach its (admittedly very high) reserve at Christie’s.

It would surprise me unpleasantly if the Wtenbogaert shared this fate. And it would surprise me with delight if it came back out of exile. Only the Rijksmuseum of all Dutch museums could give serious thought to its acquisition, and Wouter Kloek, curator of paintings, tells me that the price is just too high to raise in the normal way. If the Dutch public wants the painting, it will have to provide the wherewithal to buy it. (Holland being the country it is, even after ”ontzuiling,” the pressure and the cash will have to come in the first place from Remonstrants.) The task will not be made easier by the fact that eight years ago the Rijksmuseum moved heaven and earth to raise ten million guilders because it could not live another day without a Rembrandt portrait of the 1630s. It succeeded, and our national art holdings are therefore blessed with the “generally well preserved” Haesje Jacobsdr. van Cleyburg. Swap, anybody?

© Gary Schwartz 1992, 2021. Published in Dutch in the NRC Handelsblad of 3 July 1992, in Loekie Schwartz’s translation, “Zwaar door de tijd beproefd: Rembrandts portret van Johannes Wtenbogaert.”

26 May 2021: From the online entry on the painting on the Rijksmuseum website:

sale [section Neil Archibald Primrose, 7th Earl of Rosebery], London (Sotheby’s), 8 July 1992, no. 86, £ 4,180,000, to the dealers Otto Naumann and Dr Alfred Bader; from whom purchased by the museum, with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt, the Prins Bernhard Fonds, the Stichting VSB Fonds, the Rijksmuseum-Stichting, the State of the Netherlands, and numerous individuals and companies, December 1992

The price was $10 million, about 15% above the hammer price at auction plus miscellaneous costs. See the article by Henk van Os in Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 40/4 (1992), pp. 343-45. Part of the difference was due to currency fluctuation. That the markup remained relatively low was due to the good will of Alfred Bader and, especially, Otto Naumann. The initiative to go for broke was credited to the director of the Rijksmuseum Foundation, who was a Remonstrant.

In vol. VI of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings (W90) Ernst van de Wetering gives the lace collar to Rembrandt and the hands, because of their “apparent weakness,” to an unnamed assistant. He has nothing to say about the condition of the painting, which was found to be much better than stated in vol. II.

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