Rembrandt in London: Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries at the National Gallery

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Rembrandt in London
This article refers to Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries
National Gallery, London
June 30-Sept. 12

Fortune and men’s eyes. Rembrandt, like Beethoven, has had the good fortune of familiarity breeding deeper admiration. Contempt was never a possibility. The same can’t be said for Raphael and Rubens, who have suffered scorn — and still do — interspersed with worship. But there has never been a masterpiece by Beethoven that was later attributed to a much lesser composer like Czerny or Spohr, while this happens regularly to Rembrandt. London is one of the great storehouses of Rembrandt paintings, along with New York and Amsterdam, and one can find works here that were lauded in the past but now are relegated to Gerard Dou (who?) or Jan Lievens (never heard of him). Among art experts both are respectable craftsmen, perhaps far better than that, but footnotes to a footnote when it comes to a titan like Rembrandt.

Follower of Rembrandt (1606 - 1669), The Centurion Cornelius (The Unmerciful Servant), c. 1660, Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 216.2 cm. The Wallace Collection.

Follower of Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), The Centurion Cornelius (The Unmerciful Servant), c. 1660, Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 216.2 cm. The Wallace Collection.

Off leafy Manchester Square, in the imposing mansion that houses the Wallace collection, there is a painting hung high on the wall over a seascape (the museum equivalent of being hanged on the gallows), so high that you have to squint to see past the glare off the varnish. The title is Cornelius the Centurion (or The Unmerciful Servant), and among the eleven Rembrandts that were acquired by four fabulously rich Marquesses of Hertford, Cornelius was perhaps the most admired by the Victorians. It’s large and biblical. Oddly, nobody knows what the painting really depicts. A white-bearded old man stands to the left in a red turban and heavy robes. Facing him on the right are three figures quietly listening as he issues orders to them. Two look raggedly nondescript, like servants, the third is dressed in soldier’s armor, with an impressively shiny helmet. Who these people are isn’t obvious. The fourth Marquess bough the painting under the impression that it depicted Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35), even though the master doesn’t look angry with his servant and a soldier plays no part in the story. The revised guess is also from the New Testament (Acts 10-11) but far more obscure. I won’t relate Cornelius‘s story since, just as oddly, there is no Roman centurion in this picture; we are also lacking the other important character, which is the archangel Gabriel.

But the crucial question isn’t “what are we looking at?” but “is it real or fake”? If fake is too harsh, substitute copy, studio of, follower of, or school of. On the old television quiz show, if you could name that tune you took home a nice prize, like a Maytag washer. In the art world, the game is “name that name,” and thumbs up or down means millions of dollars lost or gained. The once esoteric field of art authentication now earns screaming headlines — I remember one of the first, in 1961, when the Metropolitan Museum declared that its Greek bronze horse, long a symbol of the museum and a high point in ancient art, was a forgery. More recently, a dealer of Jewish antiquities in Israel was discovered to be a forger, and his fakes are so widely collected that without them, there are practically no authentic relics from long eras of the Old Testament.

The topic is hot, and the National Gallery has taken astute advantage by mounting a show, “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries,” which updates the layman on how to scientifically sleuth out the forgers and frauds who merrily feast at the banquet of art without being invited. It’s a fascinating education, and naturally we see a dicey Rembrandt front and center, as there must be. More than six hundred supposed Rembrandt paintings exist in the world, yet in his working lifetime, from a teenage prodigy in Leiden around 1624 to his crumpled old age in Amsterdam where he died in 1669, Rembrandt produced perhaps half that many paintings or less.

Cornelius doesn’t have any aura in my eyes, no spark of Rembrandt’s mystery or bravado. There’s a blank space dividing the picture in half, with little rhythm to weave the four figures together. Their skin doesn’t glow with life; they could be wearing cosmetic blush and concealer. Until forty years ago, such aesthetic judgments — on a more rarefied plane — held sway. The connoisseur’s eye ruled. Now authenticity is a matter of lab tests. In that change much is implied about art, taste, and where our culture is headed.

Strolling through the Wallace Collection, one sees other Rembrandts just as striking and just as dubious as Cornelius, including a rather slapdash self-portrait (mostly thumbs up because x-rays have shown that it is mounted on the same board whose other half contains a certified Rembrandt), an even sloppier portrait of the artist‘s beloved son Titus staring at us with glowing but sad eyes — Titus was barely out of his teens when he had to take over his father’s debts as a bankrupt — under a shapeless red cap (thumbs up because the image exudes love; oops, I mean because chromospectography has verified that the pigments are correct), and a jaunty, rosy-cheeked boy wearing a much more detailed red cap with a dashing feather plume (thumbs down because nobody gives it thumbs up–and anyway, cute was never a mode of Rembrandt’s) . In toto, the eleven Rembrandts that once crowned the Wallace Collection were demoted to three by the authoritative Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, only to be given two back.  I doubt that anyone is pining over the demotion of Cornelius the Centurion, but far more famous works, such as The Polish Rider in the Frick Collection, which has starred in innumerable slide shows in Fine Arts 101, have earned the skepticism of science’s glassy scrutiny.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 - 1669), 
The Polish Rider, c. 1655, 
oil on canvas
. 46 x 53 1/8 in, 116.84 cm x 134.94 cm), Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1910.1.98

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 – 1669), 
The Polish Rider, c. 1655, 
oil on canvas
. 46 x 53 1/8 in, 116.84 cm x 134.94 cm), Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1910.1.98

When it loses the name, does a painting lose the love? Obviously yes. We feel cheated and betrayed. But why? The image itself hasn’t changed. Sometimes the reason has to do with being made a fool of.

Bronze statuette of a horse, Greek, Late Hellenistic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23.69.

Consider the Met’s Greek bronze horse. Not a single expert had doubted it since its acquisition in 1923. Then one day the museum’s curator, the celebrated and celebrity-seeking Thomas Hoving [In fact it was Joseph V. Noble, Vice Director for Administration of the Museum, as noted in the article cited in the second comment below. —Ed.], was walking past it when he noticed a ridge running from the horse’s forelock across the back and down the haunches — an obvious mark left behind by casting the statue in a two-piece mold. Only the ancient Greeks never used such molds. With a shock Hoving realized not just that their prized horse was a fake; it was so obviously a fake that a bright high school student could have spotted it. [As noted in the first comment by Phoebe Dent Weil, a subsequent technical study rehabilitated the horse. See also the Met’s online catalogue entry.

Follower of Rembrandt (1606–1669), An Old Man in an Armchair, 1650s, 
oil on canvas, 111 x 88 cm, National Gallery of Art, London.

Follower of Rembrandt (1606–1669), An Old Man in an Armchair, 1650s, 
oil on canvas, 111 x 88 cm, National Gallery of Art, London.

That was the opening edge of the wedge. Connoisseurship was about to topple off its pedestal. The eye would no longer rule. In the National Gallery show, the presumed Rembrandt is called An Old Man in an Armchair,and no less than Sir Kenneth Clark, the most renowned of British art writers, loved it. A bearded patriarch sits musing with his bald pate resting on one hand. He’s as reflective as many another Rembrandt patriarch (this sends up a red flag already), and the vague, broad brushstrokes that render his fur-trimmed robes remind us of the artist’s celebrated late period, beginning in the 1650s, when financial ruin, the death of a beloved wife and only son, and other cruel blows of fortune turned his self-portraits into studies of weary wisdom that one can contemplate forever.

Who wouldn’t want more in this style? Who indeed? The inexhaustible popularity of Rembrandt’s major themes eggs on the forgers; it also garnered him a prosperous workshop for a while, out of which most of the iffy-but-impressive paintings derive. The master worked in and among his pupils, so there is always the hopeful “by Rembrandt’s hand” that appears when a picture is too good not to contain some of him yet not enough to rank as a complete Rembrandt. Do we smell hedged bets and shilly-shallying? Once the lab tests are in, doesn’t someone have to say whether a painting actually looks real or not?

Clark has an eloquent little book, An Introduction to Rembrandt, that lovingly depicts his favorites and why they won his love. Would he shrug to know that at least a dozen have been denied authenticity through scientific scrutiny? In the case of An Old Man in an Armchair, Clark made erudite connections to Tintoretto besides offering his personal appreciation of the painting’s moving subject, old age lost in reveries. But the skeptical eye finds that the two hands are painted in drastically different ways, the left one obviously too crude (or is it the right?); the patriarch’s beard looks like tangled sheep’s wool; the use of pure red and yellow doesn’t fit with Rembrandt’s usual practice of mixing complex tints. Delving deeper with x-rays, one finds a double foundation that is typical of Rembrandt (score one for authentic) but also of his studio (score nil). The catalog details minutiae of glazing and brush strokes, along with chemical analysis of the paints — since those are right, An Old Man in an Armchair at least isn’t a late forgery, although the signature and date in the corner are (even the most credible Rembrandts often have fake signatures added, to reassure buyers in case the painting itself didn‘t).

Connoisseurs are proud of their eye — it earns them their living — but they are rational, too. If science can provide undeniable evidence, it must prevail. Besides, who doesn’t love it when a con man’s flimflam is exposed? Yet science has only prevailed definitively in cases where a forger may have badly stumbled. He lived a century too late; he used the wrong paint or mounting board, mistakes that the eye also sees, because the subjective aspect of Rembrandt’s art has gone glaringly wrong. Once you winnow out the out-and-out duds, arguments continue to rage over the iffy-but-impressive paintings for which every expert has the same lab results.

Thus science has acquired an undeserved reputation for having the final say in aesthetic arguments. The catalog for the “Close Examination“ show speaks as if we are heading for the day when the very molecules of a Rembrandt will tell its whole story — and that day cannot come soon enough. The premise itself is spurious, however. The show includes An Old Man in an Armchair among its “studio of Rembrandts,” as if science actually decided the matter. But when you read the catalog closely, the evidence comes down to perhaps and maybe. If Rembrandt were in the mood to paint sloppily, to do one hand better than the other, to reach for a dab of pure red and yellow because he was tired of mixing tints, this painting could be entirely real.

Unfortunately for science, not only does genius have the prerogative to do unusual things, that happens to be the very hallmark of Rembrandt. Upstairs at the National Gallery is an undoubted self-portrait with two mismatched, barely detailed hands, a muddy costume that could almost have been wiped on with a rag, and yet these flaws mean less than nothing. The aging vagabond who peers forlornly out at us could be no one but the artist as seen, with ruthless honesty, by h himself, his putty nose and sagging chins the emblem of a soul too noble to care a whit about appearances. By tossing out subjective judgments, science has tossed out the very thing we value paintings for.  Wordsworth’s warning that we murder to dissect isn’t a truism; it’s the truth.

I speak with some heat not because I have much to invest in my eye. It sees nothing to love in Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Bryce Marden, and almost every French painter before Manet. I wasn’t hit hard enough over the head. My term paper in Fine Arts 101 would be held up for ridicule before the class.  Yet the difference between my eye and the eye of someone who loves Pollock, Marden, and the others isn’t something to be erased through logic, reason, and science. It’s to be treasured, because the eye reflects consciousness. We want beauty in our lives as a primary need; it’s part of being aware. Beauty is inexplicable, and at the beginning of the twentieth century the irrationality of aesthetics doomed it. Philosophy banned aesthetics as illogical and therefore unreal. Insofar as we find our children beautiful, we are either indulging in an illusion or responding to a hidden brain process that will one day be understood through FMRIs, functional magnetic brain imaging. Because beauty is inexplicable doesn’t mean it can be explained away. Most of what makes life worth living inhabits the domain of the irrational: truth, faith, honor, loyalty, love, trust, compassion, self-consciousness, morality, and art. The last is most treasurable because it expresses all the others. Yet each of these aspects of human existence is spurned by modern philosophy on the whole and treated by science as interesting only insofar as data can be mined from it. This is folly to me.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Anna and the Blind Tobit, about 1630, oil on oak, 63.8 x 47.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, London.

In London there are three Rembrandts, none among the most celebrated, that move me beyond words. Two are in the National Gallery: a small oil entitled Anna and the Blind Tobit, depicting an obscure Old Testament episode, and a sketch for an etching ofThe Lamentation over the Dead Christin moody sepia tones.


Rembrandt van Rijn, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, oil on paper and pieces of canvas, mounted onto oak, about 1635, 31.9 x 26.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, London.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, oil on paper and pieces of canvas, mounted onto oak, about 1635, 31.9 x 26.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, London.

The other is in the Royal Collection: a small portrait in oil entitled An Old Woman (“The Artist’s Mother”). At present, the two oils are considered inauthentic by many experts.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), An old woman: "The Artist’s Mother,"  c.1629, oil on panel, 61.3 x 47.3, The Royal Collection. cm

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), An old woman: “The Artist’s Mother,” c.1629, oil on panel, 61.3 x 47.3, The Royal Collection. cm

Don’t view any of these three images on the Internet. When you can, visit them in person. You will see poured into them is the essence of Rembrandt’s soul, which means the essence of our civilization. That his eye could make his hand paint these images is proof of the existence of miracles. They give us a way to see eternity through the created world, so they are proof of transcendence, too. We must continue to talk about Rembrandt this way. Otherwise, the miracle blows to dust and the window to the transcendent slams shut. Both calamities are happening with frightening frequency, and the cruelest irony is that science celebrates the loss as it contributes to it.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Note on the Greek bronze horse declared a forgery by Joseph Noble: It was later reinstated as an original ancient bronze with technical studies undertaken by David Zimmerman of Washington University in St Louis using thermoluminescence dating. The casting “seams” turned out to be impressions in the waxed bronze surface left when the museum undertook making replicas using a piece mold. The “seams” could be dissolved in a mild solvent. The bronze was cast in one piece and typical of ancient casting techniques with an intact core.

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