The Dutch artist Rembrandt was the most celebrated painter of the 17th century. His technical skills were surpassed only by his vivid and dramatic way of telling stories through history paintings that were developed around the most climactic moments from biblical and classical tales. Human action rendered on a grand scale for a Protestant Dutch culture who saw his works as studies in morality, exemplifying the tragedy and the ideals of the human condition.
Being a history painter had high prestige in 17th century Dutch society. Rembrandt’s paintings – especially his history paintings – were prized amongst an ever expanding Dutch merchant class whose newly found affluence resulted from the enormous profits they made in international trade. Their support brought Rembrandt incredible financial success and afforded him the luxury of maintaining a studio of many artists, to help him meet the demand for his work.
During the contemporary restoration of Rembrandt’s studio art historians began to understand how students were obliged to copy his paintings and replicate his style. The mystery of deciding what is an authentic Rembrandt and what is not, has been confounded by the fact that not all paintings by Rembrandt were signed. Conversely it was a Rembrandt studio practice to have students sign paintings with his signature. Rembrandt encouraged liberties to be taken with his own work. But the changes between a student’s copy and the original masterwork were often so subtle that it has confounded scholars for centuries as to the authenticity of certain works. Sometimes students might copy a particular scene by painting it as a reverse image, keeping the main dramatic elements intact, but trying to match Rembrandt’s delicate play of light and characterization, in their continuous effort to contribute to the vast output of the Rembrandt studio
As a result the confusion as to what makes a Rembrandt painting authentic has plagued art historians for over a hundred years. This has been further complicated by Rembrandt’s constantly changing style and experimentation particulalry in his early career as an artist.
Because of all the controversy and uncertainty surrounding so many paintings, the Dutch government set up a committee at the University of Amsterdam during the 1960’s. It was called The Rembrandt Research Project and its mandate was to try to validate the over one thousand works that a variety of scholars believed to have been painted by Rembrandt.
The team developed their own aesthetic criteria and reduced the number of paintings to about 300 that they classified as Rembrandts. They relegated the other works. Classifying them as either student paintings or just plain fakes, and de-attributing many of the paintings held in museums, such as “The Falconer” In the National Gallery of Copenhagen, the “Philosopher Reading” in the Louvre and The Polish Rider in the Frick Collection in New York. Both the Polish Rider and The Falconer have now been reattributed. Designated as being authentic by Rembrandt Research project director, Ernst van der Wetering.
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