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Style and Science: Assessing a Rembrandt, Part 1

Today's blogger is Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

Figure 1:  Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

Figure 1: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

A portrait (Fig. 1) hanging in the Clowes Library has charmed visitors for decades with its vivid lifelikeness. The energetic curls, the fleshy and youthful cheeks, the breath that hovers upon the parted lips all evoke the presence of a living man before our eyes. It has long been called an early self-portrait by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), which is substantiated by a monogram (Fig. 2) – “RHL”, for “Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden” – in the lower right corner. But scholars have cast doubts upon the identification of the sitter and the attribution to Rembrandt, calling it a workshop copy after an original by Rembrandt, a portrait of Rembrandt by a fellow painter, and even a self-portrait by one of Rembrandt’s students 30 years after his apprenticeship with the master. Factor in the existence of six painted variations of this work, and the possibilities are dizzying! How has the IMA determined that the Clowes painting is authentic?

Comparison with other paintings from the same period is the first step. Connoisseurs have observed similarities in physiognomy to other self-portraits from Rembrandt’s Leiden period (c. 1625-1631) in works found in Amsterdam, Munich, Boston, and Liverpool. Features like the bulbous nose, penetrating eyes, and slightly cleft chin point clearly to Rembrandt as the sitter.

In the early 1980s, IMA curator Anthony F. Janson saw a resemblance in execution between the Clowes panel and the self-portraits in Boston and Liverpool. He observed the use of scoring with the butt end of the paintbrush in the curls of the hair, the short hairs of the beard, and even in the lower lip to articulate volume and texture, a technique visible in the Amsterdam, Munich, and Boston self-portraits. Janson also drew comparisons between the flesh tones in the Boston painting and our panel, as well as in the execution of the scarf.

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Further confirmation was offered by the leader of the Rembrandt Research Project, Ernst van de Wetering, in 2007. Having studied the monograms on Rembrandt’s early paintings, Van de Wetering observed that the monogram on the Clowes panel corresponds to those found on the artist’s works dating to a very short period, between late 1627 and 1629.

But is this enough information to say with confidence that our panel was executed by Rembrandt? Could it have been done by a very talented student, or perhaps a 19th-century copyist? Stay tuned for Part 2, in which scientific evidence is marshaled in support of the attribution to Rembrandt.

Filed under: Art, Guest Bloggers, History, Technology, The Collection

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