Rembrandt’s oeuvre is a fascinating case study in how paintings are evaluated differently by succeeding generations.
When the above portrait of Rembrandt was donated to Buckland Abbey in 2010 it was catalogued as ‘studio of’ rather than as by the artist himself. It had been described like this since 1968 when Rembrandt scholar Horst Gerson suggested that it was painted by one of the artist’s pupils. This judgement was then confirmed by the Rembrandt Research Project, a committee dedicated to tracking down and authenticating the artist’s oeuvre.
Prior to that it had been considered a work by the artist himself. It had previously been in the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein and in the 1960s it was acquired by Harold Samuel, Lord Samuel of Wych Cross, from the London dealer Edward Speelman.
Lord Samuel was a property developer (who founded and built up Land Securities) and philanthropist who assembled an important collection of Netherlandish old master paintings, many of which were bequeathed to the City of London and are now on display at Mansion House.
In 2010 two paintings from the estate of Lord Samuel’s wife, Edna, Lady Samuel, were accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Buckland. At the same time the estate donated three more paintings directly to Buckland, including the Rembrandt self portrait – then still described as ‘studio of’.
But now Ernst van de Wetering, the chair of the Rembrandt Research Project, has reversed his assessment of the picture, in view of subsequent research into the artist’s work. He has noted that the same relatively crude brushwork can also be seen in other Rembrandt pictures of the 1630s, such as Belshazzar’s Feast in the National Gallery, London, and the Rabbi in the Royal Collection.
The picture will soon undergo further technical analysis funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery, to try to firm up this re-attribution. The research will include dendrochronology, study of the pigments and the paint layers, infrared reflectography and ex-ray photography.
Regardless of the ultimate verdict, however, one undoubted benefit of this ongoing process of attribution (and reattribution, and re-reattribution) has been to make us all look more closely at this beautiful and intriguing portrait.