Rembrandt Research Project

Rembrandt Research Project
▪ 2007
by Ernst van de Wetering     The year 2006 marked the 400th year since the birth of the renowned Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt van Rijn. The yearlong celebration of “Rembrandt 400” featured exhibitions and events in The Netherlands. From January 2 to December 31, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam presented some of its most prized Rembrandt masterpieces, and a number of other museums in The Netherlands as well as those in other countries organized a variety of exhibitions showing Rembrandt's life and work in a new light. Over the years, art experts have sought to ascertain the authenticity of works attributed to Rembrandt, and the Rembrandt Research Project took a leading role in this regard.

      The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) is an interdisciplinary collaboration by a group of Dutch art historians to produce a comprehensive catalog of Rembrandt's paintings. Its initial aim was to free Rembrandt's oeuvre of the attributions that were thought to have distorted the image of Rembrandt as a painter. Over time, the project's aims broadened as it became clear that much fundamental research was needed to tackle problems of authenticity.

      The process of reducing the presumed oeuvre had begun already in early surveys. In his survey of 1921, Wilhelm Valentiner had considered the total number of paintings to be 711; in 1935 Abraham Bredius reduced that number to 630; in 1966 Kurt Bauch reduced it further to 562; and in 1968 Horst Gerson scaled it back to 420.

      These and other catalogs of Rembrandt's paintings were considered unsatisfactory by the founders of the RRP because, as a rule, the arguments for attributing or not attributing Rembrandtesque paintings to Rembrandt either were entirely lacking or were summary in the extreme. These books had been compiled by individual connoisseurs, the value of whose judgment rested solely on the authority attributed to them by the art world of their time. To allow for a broader range of insights, the original founders of the RRP, Bob Haak and Josua Bruyn, established a team of six (later five) art historians who held posts in museums, universities, and other institutions. By working as a team, it was hoped, they could arrive at explicitly argued common judgments.

      Financial aid from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek; NWO) enabled the team to begin the first phase of the work in 1968. This included an extensive program of travel, during which the team members visited museums and other collections to gather material on works attributed to Rembrandt. The project's budget included secretarial support, costs of scientific investigations, travel expenses, and the acquisition of photographic and other materials, such as X-rays. NWO also financed the translation and the greater part of the costs of publication. The University of Amsterdam provided the infrastructure and covered additional expenses. On average, the annual costs for the project amounted to the equivalent of a professor's salary.

      The first phase of the project, during which varying pairs of team members examined almost all the relevant paintings, lasted some five years, from 1968 to 1973. Naturally, the paintings could not be studied in chronological order, and, moreover, no single member of the team saw all of them. However, in practice, each member saw more paintings than had been examined by previous generations of Rembrandt experts. Yet, like those earlier experts, members of the team had to rely mainly on notes made in situ and on photographs and, later, slides and other colour transparencies when it came time to write an overview of relevant groups of Rembrandtesque paintings and their interrelationships.

      From the outset, project members hoped that the use of scientific methods would provide objective criteria for the attribution or disattribution of the paintings. That hope was justified as long as the working hypothesis prevailed that the doubtful paintings included many later imitations or faked paintings. For this reason, they sought the cooperation of specialists in other disciplines, such as dendrochronology (which determines the age and felling date of a tree [from which a painter's panel derives] on the basis of the measurement of growth rings); textile research; analysis of paint samples, X-ray images, and other radiographic research; forensic analysis of handwriting; archival research; and more. The international press suggested that, thanks to the application of these methods, the RRP was about to eliminate once and for all any doubts regarding authenticity. (The popular belief that scientific research can generate truth undoubtedly played a part in fostering this mistaken idea.)

      Dendrochronological investigations of a large number of oak panels generated the first important outcome of the scientific research. (The wood used for the vast majority of Rembrandtesque paintings is oak.) This analysis demonstrated that doubtful paintings on oak panels were from Rembrandt's time and most probably from his workshop. This highly significant result also was later confirmed, in the case of paintings on canvas, by the study of canvases and grounds (the monochrome layers applied on the support before painting). Instead of spotting fakes or pastiches (both of which turned out to be extremely rare), these methods forced attention instead on the activity in Rembrandt's workshop as the main source of inauthentic “Rembrandts.”

      This insight contributed to a growing sense among members of the RRP that the methodological emphasis inevitably had to shift back toward traditional connoisseurship. At this stage of the project, scientific methods were incapable of helping to distinguish Rembrandt's own works from those of other painters in his workshop, since Rembrandt and the members of his workshop could be expected to have used the same materials and basically the same working procedures. It now was hoped that it might be possible to develop and apply a system of stylistic and microstylistic criteria of authenticity.

      In the first decades of Rembrandt's career (between 1625 and 1642), he and other painters (whether assistants or pupils) produced a great many history pieces, portraits, and tronies (single heads or busts that are not considered to be portraits but have other meanings and functions). Among these were a limited number of more or less safely documented works, which were used as touchstones in the sifting of the oeuvre—which proceeded on the a priori assumption that there would be a strong stylistic coherence in Rembrandt's autograph works and significant differences between works by other hands in his studio. The collecting of scientific data also would continue, primarily through the large-scale application of X-ray radiography, dendrochronology, canvas research (with the help of X-rays), and the investigation of grounds.

      In 1982, 1986, and 1989, respectively, three volumes of the projected five-volume publication A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings were published, dealing respectively with the paintings from 1625–31, 1631–34, and 1635–42. The number of paintings being accepted as authentic works by Rembrandt was far smaller than what Gerson had presumed in 1968 (seen over the whole oeuvre as approximately 300 rather than 420), although the RRP team accepted some of the paintings Gerson had rejected.

      From the outset, the RRP encountered criticism. Doubt was cast on the idea that team or group connoisseurship was possible at all—justifiably, as it later turned out. It was feared that the team would necessarily be reductionist in its approach, as a result of an overly strict use of stylistic criteria of authenticity. Within the team itself, some wondered whether consensus of opinion over a painting would bring truth. There were also worries within the team that, in the adoption of strictly applied stylistic criteria, a role was played by certain a priori assumptions about the (possibly too narrow) limits of variability within Rembrandt's style and the possibly too gradual nature and regularity of Rembrandt's development. On the basis of the steadily growing reservoir of scientific data, it subsequently became clear that overreliance on these assumptions had indeed led to several demonstrably mistaken disattributions. The fact is that, in the 17th century, an artist chose his stylistic mode, rather than—as 20th-century literary theory would have it—being bound to “express himself” in “his own style.”

      Despite the sometimes-justified criticism, the efforts of the RRP project were regarded with respect, and indeed they inspired others to undertake similar projects with regard to other painters. The group's work also contributed to a development in art-historical research, whereby technical and scientific investigation of artworks became more the rule than the exception.

      In the mid-1980s, the RRP team members began to realize that the working method adopted for the first three volumes of the Corpus could not be employed for Rembrandt's painted oeuvre from the 1640s and early 1650s, because Rembrandt's putative oeuvre from this period—and, in particular, its coherence—seemed to be surprisingly limited. A reassessment of the methodology and perhaps a radical revision of the working method were called for. This and other factors led to the decision to terminate the project with the appearance of volume 3. In April 1993 the four oldest members of the RRP—Josua Bruyn, Bob Haak, Simon Levie, and Pieter van Thiel—announced in a letter to the editor of The Burlington Magazine that they had withdrawn from the project.

      Ernst van de Wetering, by far the youngest member of the team [and the author of this piece], decided to continue the enterprise with a multidisciplinary group of scientists and scholars. A revision of the project's methods and its core aims was begun on various fronts. It had become clear that research on more general aspects of the production of paintings in the 17th century would be required to answer the many questions raised by the material that had been investigated. In the earlier phase of the project, such “supplementary” work was thought to detract from the “real” work, because it rarely seemed to contribute directly to the central issue of authenticity. After 1990, the project expanded its research to accommodate a wider focus.

      Separate studies, whose scope often extended beyond Rembrandt, were devoted to different aspects of 17th-century workshop practices and to associated theoretical conceptions of the time. A number of these studies were brought together in separate publications, such as van de Wetering's Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (1997) and Marieke de Winkel's Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt's Paintings (2006).

      It became increasingly evident that this information did in fact contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to arguments bearing on the question of authenticity. For instance, by combining data concerning the preparation layers on canvas, the fabric structures of canvases, and the teaching procedures in 17th-century painters' studios with detailed analyses of the style and quality of certain—long-doubted—self-portraits formerly attributed to Rembrandt, strong evidence could be presented in volume 4 of the Corpus that a number of Rembrandt “self-portraits” were, in fact, produced by his pupils. The knowledge thus gained indirectly placed the quest for authenticity in a wider context and contributed to the development of more-objective criteria for or against the attribution of a painting to Rembrandt.

      This fresh approach also led the RRP to abandon the strictly chronological organization that had been followed in the first three volumes. Instead, catalog texts were organized according to subject matter: self-portraits; small-scale history paintings and landscapes; life-size figure history paintings; and portraits and tronies. Within these categories, the paintings would be dealt with chronologically. The model that took shape in the team's thinking about attribution was that of a (more or less marked) convergence of evidence from various different areas. In 2005 volume 4 (dealing with the self-portraits) was published. The small-scale history paintings and landscapes were the next groups under consideration. A large number of related publications also appeared, frequently in the context of exhibitions.

      It is unlikely that further volumes of the Corpus will appear after volumes 4 and 5. The primary aim in these was to address explicitly the methodological questions raised by the work in volumes 1 to 3 and to address broader art-historical and technical questions that would help to determine the authenticity of other works. It is anticipated that insights about authenticity accrued through the work of the RRP that were not included in the Corpus will be published in an appendix to volume 5.

Ernst van de Wetering is Director of the Rembrandt Research Project and former Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (1997).

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Universalium. 2010.

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