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Rembrandt the Prolific?                   international foundation for art research


This melancholy Militiaman with swollen wart-spotted hands gives cause for reflection upon the importance of ones own purpose. The diseased old soldier blends into a lonely netherworld as he makes do with his addictive crutches. 
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A Cataloguing Conundrum

In recent years there has been a conflict heating up between the scientific-camp and the connoisseurship-camp. In 2001 the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) sponsored a talk by Ernst van de Wetering, the long-term chairman of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). The talk was titled, The Tension Between Science and Connoisseurship in Authenticating Art. ifar

At times, could such a conflict in and of itself cloud the judgment of an expert who is trying to hang onto his or her preeminent position? Could a bad call, a wrong opinion about a paintings authenticity be occasionally spawned by acrimony rather than from innocent error? Regardless, the mindset of the expert community is apt not to favor the logic of science in most situations as much as the traditional primacy of their own authority in judging right from wrong—genuine from fake. In turn they might be less willing than they should be to accept the statistical probability that science provides, and opt in favour of disregarding science altogether. international foundation for art research

 A formula may eventually be accepted, whereby; hard-won laboratory results are given their due regard. Presently, even scientists are self-deprecating; particularly in cases where they know that the ‘absolute’ answer to a problem is most often unattainable. They are unwilling to prop-up overwhelming evidence to support the ‘probability’ that a work is clearly attributable. In light of the huge art production over the centuries, where on close  scrutiny of the physical evidence, very few of the painters have much in common, it is only logical to assume that if there are many positive characteristics supporting authorship and only the odd anomaly the chances of the artwork being right is extremely likely.[1]  ifar

The results of the IFAR Rembrandt conference, The Tension Between Science and Connoisseurship in Authenticating Art might be considered as somewhat of a blow to scientific involvement in the art-world. The gist of the text suggests that the credibility of science was buried by its own efficiency. The closer science was able to bring a work of art toward Rembrandt as creator, the more desperate, or so it seemed, was the fight by the “community of Rembrandt specialists”[2] to condemn it as a studio copy.

Because the efforts of the scientific camp proved contrary to established curatorial opinion, science was automatically targeted as a faulty adversary. Rather than accepting at face value the logical conclusion that: ‘Rembrandt painted all of the self-portraits that emanated from his own studio’—or at least weighing the new scientific data accordingly; efforts were made to co-opt scientific opinion, and it apparently worked. Subsequent to the swirl of debate over who was in reality painting those same self-portraits, Gertrude Wilmers wrote, “Rembrandt scholar Ernst van de Wetering demonstrated at an IFAR Evening how certain pictures submitted to scientific procedures such as x-radiograph and pigment analysis revealed a much more active role for Rembrandt’s assistants in the production of his workshop [and self-portraits] than had previously been proposed.” [v] This certainly argues against Occam's Razor, the philosophical rule that the simplest of competing theories is preferred to the more complex!

The experts had already wrongly denied the early vintage of certain Rembrandt self-portraits years earlier, while using nothing but their intuitions. These errors science was able to prove conclusively. Apparently no further concessions were to be won. Ultimately, so it seems, contemporary scientific empiricism was brushed aside until the scientists were willing to concur with the functionaries of the art establishment and agree that a batch of enthusiastic students of the great master painted those controversial Rembrandt “self-portraits.”  Both scientific and connoisseurship camps now seemed happy; claiming unanimity in what seemed to be an attack of poor logic.

Rather than inventing such a complicated scenario, the art historians should be the ones to recognize the weakness of such an argument in the first place. Would Rembrandt have encouraged students to paint self-portraits of him as opposed to self-portraits of themselves? It is unlikely. Their Master was not an icon of his day from which the multitudes were demanding his visage for their home cabinet. As well, for himself Rembrandt was merely a malleable and inexpensive model. H. Perry Chapman gives us a clue to how this sort of narcissistic mentoring would have gone against the artist’s own ideal. The final testimonial in Rembrandt’s Self-portraits—A Study in Seventeenth Century Identity: “According to both de Piles and Houbraken, Rembrandt is suppose to have said: ‘If I want to give my mind diversion, then it is not honor I seek, but freedom.’ He had indeed found freedom. In his quest for autonomy he had invented a new idea of artist as an independent, self-governing individual.” [vi]

 Because of its importance as an aesthetic tool and the foundation on which true art passions owe homage, one hates to appear hostile towards connoisseurship, (even connoisseurship with a small c); but in order to get at the truth and away from the politics, this derision is necessary in the short term in hopes of encouraging science to take a more confident role. international foundation for art research

According to Ernst van de Wetering, and other experts close to the RRP, there was a rejection of one self-portrait located at Staatsgalerie, Stuttgard based on a substantial number of what are certainly elusive reasons. In their words: “The approach to compositional problems in the painting, the peinture, the handling of form, light, atmosphere, and color, and the processing of the anatomical details, did not fit our image of the late Rembrandt…the most aberrant feature in our eyes was the extremely rough and undifferentiated paint handling of the face.” [vii] They flooded the arena with so many intangibles purporting not to fit ‘their image’ of a Rembrandt, that the owner of said picture might justly have fled in terror. But if one stayed long enough at the scene of such a disaster to try and remove a bit of rubble it becomes apparent that at least some of the criticism can be countered.

In 1936 the most eminent Rembrandt experts and connoisseurs of the day had already condemned the Staatsgalerie example as a 19th century copy. Decades later science inarguably proved that it had come from the artist’s own 17th century studio. How could such a vast miscalculation in dating have been accepted in the first place? It certainly casts doubt on the overall dependability of  non-pragmatic expertise. What about the loose brushwork the RRP was concerned about, 'the extremely rough paint handling?' This was characteristic of Rembrandt's work and what subsequent dealers tried to hide with dark varnishes! This was truly Rembrandt's own personal nemesis, and paradoxically, one that eventually helped to make him famous.

Although the Melbourne replica is also de-attributed for similar vague reasons: the sallow complexion that is criticized most of all, is in fact more suitable to the dismal expression on the face of the subject than the rosy cheeks of its designated progenitor, Self-portrait at an easel in the Louvre. This challenge to the RRP is in all due respect presented merely to encourage the use of concrete evidence as opposed to the intangible. Apparently the people at IFAR are now grappling with rudimentary concerns over definitive catalogue raisonnés: who are the effective authorities; what are their credentials, and what might be their motives.

It is a serious matter though. To exemplify the profound affect a small group, or for that matter, an individual can have on the world of art we need look no further than the renowned Wildenstein dynasty. Established in the 1870s it has grown more influential over the ensuing three generations by virtue of erudition, stealth, accumulation of wealth, gathering of influence - and above all - the production of catalogues. “Being the publishers of such books confers enormous power – [and among other things] the ability to authenticate paintings…as a publisher of catalogue raisonnés , the Wildensteins virtually control the scholarship on many artists from Boucher to Monet.” [viii] This frustrated one art historian with regard to the Wildenstein Gauguin catalogue, rightly or wrongly, he criticized: “Pedigrees and quotations have been juggled to suit private needs; and Gauguin’s oeuvre has been shorn of some authentic works and adulterated with others that do not belong.” [ix] Oh yes, that brings us back to Rembrandt, and those pundits who have been charged since 1968 to “write a comprehensive catalogue of Rembrandt’s paintings and especially to free his oeuvre of the accretions that were thought to have disfigured the image of Rembrandt the painter.” [x] Those responsible for writing this catalogue raisonné and freeing his oeuvre of the accretions is the RRP. One must contemplate whether implicit in this manifesto is the need to preserve only what they consider to be Rembrandt’s better works?

In her role as an analytical statistician, Geraldine Keen gives pause for thought over what it means to control any market:

"At any one time there is usually one particular scholar whose opinion is considered the most authoritative about the work of a particular artist, though sometimes several scholars may contend for this distinction. In expressing their opinions they may wield tremendous financial power. For instance, no definitive catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings existed until the 1950s when Otto Benesch published the results of his long years of research. Around 1950 three drawings catalogued as 'school of Rembrandt' were sold at Christie's for about $280; another, attributed by Sotheby's to one of Rembrandt's contemporaries, fetched only $25. By the time Benesch's catalogue was published, its inclusion of these drawings had raised their value to something 28,000 - 42,000 each." (Money and Art, G. P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1971)

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[1] As will be discussed later the model of Bayesian Analysis becomes invaluable in examining near infinite probabilities.

[2] This expression used by Ernst van de Wetering is telling. As we find out later: insular, self-supporting, and self-protecting groups orbit around the oeuvre of many great artists, including Turner.

 


[v] IFAR Journal; volume 4 number 4 / volume 5 number 1 2001/02, 56.

[vi] H. Perry Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self-portraits—A Study in Seventeenth Century Identity, (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990), 137.

[vii] Ernst van de Wetering, Thirty Years of the Rembrandt Research Project: The Tension Between Science and Connoisseurship in Authenticating Art, (IFAR Journal, Vol. 4, no 2 2001), 19.

[viii] George Rush, Bitter Spoils, (Vanity Fair magazine March 1998), p 252.

[ix] Ibid. 251.

[x] Ernst van de Wetering, Thirty Years of the Rembrandt Research Project: The Tension Between Science and Connoisseurship in Authenticating Art, (IFAR Journal, Vol. 4, no 2 2001), 14.