When is a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?

Attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, self-portrait wearing a white feathered bonnet, at Buckland Abbey. NT810136 ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

Attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, self-portrait wearing a white feathered bonnet, at Buckland Abbey. NT810136 ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

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.

David Taylor, the National Trust's curator of pictures, scrutinising the self portrait. ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

David Taylor, the National Trust’s curator of pictures, scrutinising the self portrait. ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

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.

©National Trust/Steve Haywood

©National Trust/Steve Haywood

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’.

The self portrait being rehung after inspection ©National Trust/Steve Haywood-

The self portrait being rehung after inspection ©National Trust/Steve Haywood-

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 frame being given a once-over by Patricia Burtnyk, house steward at Buckland. ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

The frame being given a once-over by Patricia Burtnyk, house steward at Buckland. ©National Trust/Steve Haywood

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.

40 Responses to “When is a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?”

  1. Andrew Says:

    “Rabbi with a cap” is listed at the link you provide as “c.1700, Imitator of Rembrandt”. Is that incorrect? The searchable database –
    http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405519/a-rabbi-with-a-cap -attributes it to Rembrandt, 1635.

    They also have a few “style of” and “school of” paintings.

    Attribution is a tricky business, absent a secure provenence. At one level, you have to ask whether it really matters – the work is the important thing, not who made it – but Marcel Duchamp and his followers might disagree!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, how interesting (and characteristic) that you immediately spotted that discrepancy :) It is probably to do with the fact that that painting, like the Buckland/Samuel one, has been repeatedly reattributed.

    The extended caption in the link you provide again mentions that the ‘Rabbi’, like ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, demonstrates Rembrandt’s tendency at that stage in his career to paint with ‘expressive energy rather than laborious finishing’, the same ‘painterly’ style that Ernst van de Wetering also detected in the Buckland/Samuel self-portrait.

    The National Trust, too, has quite a few ‘style of’, ‘school of’, ‘imitator of’ or ‘after’ Rembrandts in various places, testament to the artist’s iconic status. There is one other securely attributed Rembrandt that we look after, at Penrhyn Castle (http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1420340), but that one is on loan from the Douglas-Pennant family.

    Yes Duchamp would no doubt have appreciated the paradoxical correlation/disjunction between quality and authenticity in Rembrandt’s oeuvre :)

  3. suesconsideredtrifles Says:

    Have you thought of adding a search widget to your blog? I’d find it useful. (On my blog I may even be the only person to make use of the one I added!) Sue

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sue, thanks for the suggestion, I find those widgets useful too. In fact I do have one on this blog, but perhaps it is not very conspicuous: it sits just under the ‘About’ link in the top right hand corner of the main page (but it isn’t visible once you are ‘inside’ an individual post).

  5. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    The Buckland Abbey self-portrait is gorgeous. And I have no reason to argue with the findings of the Rembrandt Research Project, since they have no vested financial interest in a painting either way.

    But as students and apprentices worked SO closely with Rembrandt in his studio, most paintings coming out of that studio would have many elements in common. Even more so if Rembrandt himself played some (even small) part in the paintings.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, yes indeed and that is where a lot of the confusion and controversy about Rembrandt attributions originates: in the fact that it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between the work of master and pupil.

  7. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    If the painting is reattributed to Rembrandt, would it be fair for the doners to receive some form of financial credit? Say, against future taxation?

  8. columnist Says:

    I saw this in the UK press. The question of attribution is always an interesting (and frustrating) one with unsigned, (and even “signed” work). I have three in this category in my own collection, which if proven to be by rather than school of, would make me a very rich man. The press article also suggested that if it was confirmed to be an original Rembrandt, it would be valued at around GBP20m.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, that is an interesting question, but as it would be subject to taxpayer confidentiality legislation I do not know the answer and cannot comment. We did notify the executors of the estate about this development prior to sending out the press release.

    Columnist, yes that figure has been mentioned, and in some ways that kind of estimate is fascinating as an indication of how the market values the works of certain artists.

    But on the other hand that figure is entirely hypothetical as we do not intend to sell the painting. From our perspective the picture is simply a beautiful work of art in its own right (regardless of whether or not the tests confirm Ernst van de Wetering’s opinion), a splendid ornament to Buckland Abbey and a jewel in the crown of the National Trust’s collections.

  10. Andrew Says:

    Well, the situation is not all that confidential! The painting was donated from the estate of Edna, Lady Samuel in lieu of inheritance tax in 2010.

    As I understand it, there is an agreement of the value of a work between HMRC and the taxpayer at that time when it is offered and accepted “in lieu” – or rather an agreement of the “special price” of tax foregone – and that is that. HMRC does not “give change” if the work is worth more than the tax, and as far as I am aware there is no ability to reopen the agreement, whether the work is reattributed and so revalued upwards or, as sometimes happens, downwards.

    Perhaps the executors should be having a conversation with their advisers?

    On another tack, you may have noticed the recent news story about a legal case in which the executors of the Earl of Carlisle established that a portrait of Omai by Reynolds was “plant” (being used in the “trade” of opening Castle Howard to visitors) and so exempt from capital gains tax! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-21845639

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, the Government did allocate two other paintings to Buckland, by Willem van de Velde the Younger, which had been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax on the estate of the late Lady Samuel of Wych Cross (as reported here: http://bit.ly/Tvcyxj).

    This particular Rembrandt, however, was donated to Buckland directly by the estate along with two further paintings. So although these five paintings all came to Buckland from the estate of Lady Samuel, they came via two different routes.

    Those facts are indeed in the public domain, but the National Trust has quite rightly not been privy to any discussions between the estate, the AIL Panel and HMRC about tax, so I cannot comment on that.

    Yes that ruling about the Castle Howard Reynolds is very interesting. I suppose it reflects the fact that in some cases privately owned works of art are primarily ‘used’ for public display rather than for private enjoyment.

  12. Andrew Says:

    Oh, sorry, Emile, I misinterpreted your blog post. Thank you for correcting my error. And of course you cannot and should not comment.

    I will not speculate further on the tax position, save to note that gifts to charities are generally exempt from inheritance tax, and gains on gifts of assets to charities are exempt from capital gains tax, so it does not really matter what the value is (in a sense, the tax credit adjusts itself automatically). There are income tax reliefs too, but only for donations of cash, land or shares, not paintings.

    No doubt security would be a problem for a private owner of a work that was reattributed “upwards”, as it were, and I am sure security is a significant issue for the Trust too.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for mentioning those other aspects, Andrew, illustrating that it can be financially advantageous to give or leave things to charities like the National Trust.

    And very recently the Cultural Gifts Scheme has been established as well, enabling UK taxpayers to donate important works of art and other heritage objects to be held for the benefit of the public, and in return to receive a tax reduction based on a set percentage of the value of the donation – a ‘lifetime giving’ counterpart to the Acceptance in Lieu of inheritance tax scheme. More about the Cultural Gifts Scheme can be found here: http://bit.ly/WLBseC

  14. suesconsideredtrifles Says:

    Thanks for your reply. I’ve been and looked at your home page and found lots of useful information. I don’t usually see the home page – as a follower, I get the individual posts in my Reader,

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Oh I see – great to hear you like the blog enough to follow it:)

    Interestingly, colleague Ben Harwood in our media section saw your comment and suggested another blog template that would include a search function even within individual posts, and I may switch to that in the near future. So thanks for that feedback!

  16. Andrew Says:

    Good point about the new cultural gifts scheme, Emile – introduced just last April, I believe. You could have linked to http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1356395451578/ or the DCMS guidance here: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/…/DCMS_Guidance_15_March.pdf

    As I understand it, much like acceptance in lieu, a value is agreed upon which tax relief is granted, and then there is no mechanism to reopen the valuation.

  17. Andrew Says:

    Sorry, that second link was a bit garbled: should have been http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/pdf/DCMS_Guidance_15_March.pdf

  18. mizzoulagriz Says:

    Hello, after reading this blog and seeing this picture I noticed that this is the same painting I grew up looking at. Back in the early 60’s my mother did some legal work for a friend whom paid her with this portrait. She stated she purchased it from an auction of a museum that was closing. The painting “or rather print” is tagged in the lower corner with a metal tab and a number (i think 60). Looking around online I don’t see any other prints of this painting. Do you know anything about these? Thank you

  19. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mizzoulagriz, how interesting. I seem to remember hearing there were other versions of this portrait or similar portraits elsewhere, but I will ask my colleagues for more details.

  20. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mizzoulagriz, further to this, a colleague reminded me that there are three known copies of this portrait (and possibly more): one in Wiesbaden, one in the Galleria Nazionale, Rome, and one formerly in the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond (as mentioned on our database: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/810136).

  21. mizzoulagriz Says:

    Emile de Bruijn I sent a photo of my mothers print, picture?? to comment-reply@wordpress please let me know if you got it. And if it helps with identifying it. TX

  22. Hendrik Woldering Says:

    When I read my book Meesters der Schilderkunst Rembrandt on page 100 number 164 the statement
    reads that the whereabouts of this painting is unknown and that a copy from 1638 exists. It looks like the copy from 1638 is now suddenly become an original or not? If the whereabouts were unknown in that time you can ask yourself where did it suddenly show up… and where is the copy of 1638………???????

  23. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hendrik, I don’t have a copy of that book to hand, but our current thinking about this self-portrait (as can be found on our collections database: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/810136) is: ‘Given that it does not reproduce any genuine self portrait and that there are at least three copies (in Wiesbaden; in the Galleria Nazionale, Rome; and formerly in the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond) it may reflect a lost original in view of its high quality.’ Does that answer your question?

  24. Hendrik Woldering Says:

    Dear Emile , thank you for your reply and this answers my question.. However as you may know the problem with Rembrandt
    paintings is that his pupils worked in the same atelier and they all used the same materials. Regarding for example the Rembrandt Self Portrait in the Mauritshuis den Haag and the other one in the Germanische Museum in Nurnberg these both paintings are registred by Hofstede de Groot no. 544 and although his description says that the original painting is in the Collection of Capt. Robert Orme in London in 1775 and that there exist two old copies one in den Haag and one in Nurnberg…….both copies have been both declared authentic! Most probably because the experts did not know the whereabouts of the real authentic painting of Captain Robert Orme.
    This shows how imortant a Provenance is and how Rembrandt Specialists just ignore these kind of informations and even refer with both paintings to Hofstede de Groot…….in order to become a copy into an Original Self Portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn.
    I am sorry but it looks to me they prefer to fool the world. than telling the truth.

  25. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hendrik, nobody is trying to fool anyone here, and nobody is denying or ignoring the importance of provenance. As you say, the available evidence when looking at old master paintings – visual, documentary and scientific – is often confusing and contradictory and complicated. That is exactly why we are interested in working with Professor van de Wetering to try to take the research a bit further. For the same reason the painting will shortly undergo various scientific tests (as we mentioned in the press release), which will hopefully also shed more light.

  26. Hendrik Woldering Says:

    Dear Emile
    Very interesting and impressive pictures specific those of the backside from the Rembrandt panel ..

  27. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hendrik, I am glad you find it interesting. This has been a fascinating project.

  28. Hendrik Woldering Says:

    Emile, did you compare the photographs of the backside with each other? Is not it so that the large poplar wooden panel has very unregular deep carvings and on the two smaller pictures you clearly see a flat panel without any curvings…..In my opinion it means that the smaller pictures are taken from the Liechtenstein Archive and dont belong to the Abbey painting at all!

    The pictures are from two different paintings

    Many people I showed it here in the Netherlands are shocked and now wonder where the labels on the Abbey painting came from?

  29. Hendrik Woldering Says:

    Emile ,
    I forgot now we know when a Rembrandt is a Rembrandt:)

  30. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hendrik, the photograph of the back of the panel as taken in raking light, to make it easier to see how it was carved, and that exaggerates the relief of the wooden surface, which under normal lighting conditions looks much flatter.

  31. hendrik Says:

    Thank you for your explanation and lets hope this answer is correct.
    However I am not convinced as I said before the Liechtenstein painting was painted on an oak wooden panel and not on poplar wood!

    Furthermore no picture is shown of the laquer seal from the Royal Liechtenstein collection from 1733 why dont they show it?

  32. hendrik woldering Says:

    Hi Emile,

    Why did not you answer my last question and removed it from your forum?
    I thought you were a honost guy

  33. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sorry, I didn’t manage to answer it before I went on holiday.

    In answer to your first question, I am not sure. Perhaps the wood was misidentified when it was in the Liechtenstein collection – it can be difficult when judging this sort of thing simply by eye. Rembrandt did sometimes use poplar/willow (Salicaceae) wood for his paintings.

    As for your second question, only a round trace of something was found in a corner of the picture, of something that had been fixed there but had been removed before the painting came into our possession. The paintings in the Liechtenstein collection tended to have round seals affixed on those places, so that trace seems to confirm the provenance of this painting from that collection.

    As we have said before, we are not 100% certain, but the balance of the evidence does seem to indicate to us that the picture is by Rembrandt and was in the Liechtenstein collection.

  34. hendrik woldering Says:

    Emile, thank you for your answer and informations.
    Strange subject furthermore is that Prof. van de Wetering declares with the portrait of Saskia that it is painted on Poplar wood too Rembrandt only used this material ( Poplar wood ) exclusively in the year 1640…….and your painting dates from 1635
    In my opinion there are so many points that indicates that this painting is not from the former Liechtenstein Collection that it can never be by Rembrandt.Concerning the laquer Seal it seems very strange that somebody would remove this Seal as it confirms the Provenance from the Liechtenstein painting! Nobody would do that

    Maybe you can inform me if the Curators from The Liechtensein Museum have officially confirmed to the National Trust that this is their lost former painting indeed? If they did not I will never believe that your painting is from their former Collection I am terribly sorry.

  35. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed there are a number of unexplained factors, but that is not unusual with seventeenth-century paintings. I think we will just have to agree to differ.

  36. hendrik woldering Says:

    Thats allright with me however without an official statement of confirmation from the Liechtenstein Museum the National Trust may understand that I will ask the Liechtenstein Curators to investigate your Rembrandt painting
    with kindest regards from Amsterdam

  37. Andrew Says:

    No doubt further work has been undertaken on the attribution in the two years since this post was first put up in March 2013. Any update, Emile?

    Presumably someone has already been in contact with the Liechtenstein Museum? Do we know how this work came to leave their collection? I assume it was not actually “lost”, but might the collection’s lacquer seal have been removed if it was quietly de-accessioned (on the basis that it was only “school of”) and sold?

  38. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I did two subsequent posts on this: http://bit.ly/1UAq0NR (1 April 2014) and http://bit.ly/1DFEU1f (10 June 2014).

    Yes it seems to have been sold by the Liechtenstein family and acquired by the London dealer Edward Speelman. There were a number of sales from the Liechtenstein collection in the postwar years. I attended a conference at Waddesdon Manor last year about the history of the Colnaghi firm of art dealers, and one of the lectures was about them handling sales of the Liechtenstein print collection in that same postwar period.

    I made enquiries as to whether Colnaghi might also have been involved with the sale of this Rembrandt, but there are no records of it in the Colnaghi archive. Perhaps it was handled by Speelman, or by another dealer and then sold to Speelman.

    We did ask the current staff of the Liechtenstein collection, but they didn’t have any specific documentation about the sale of this picture. We have to keep in mind that the Liechtenstein collection was private property (which I think is still the case today), so this should not so much be seen as a museum deaccession but rather as a family reorganising its assets.

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