Monday, 2 December 2013

Cheap Rembrandt?

Man with a Sword
Picture: Christie's
This picture was celebrated as a great masterpiece by Rembrandt, fell from grace, and has now been rehabilitated. It's being sold at Christie's tomorrow night as 'Rembrandt and Studio' with an estimate of £2m - £3m. The excellent catalogue entry sets out the picture's history and makes a compelling case that it began as a portrait by Rembrandt, and was then turned into a tronie (a character portrait valued for artistic or decorative purposes rather than as a likeness of a specific person or scene). Having seen the original, I'm convinced by the new attribution but concerned by its condition.

In 1928 it sold for a very high price as an authentic Rembrandt of the highest quality. It fits well the early twentieth century view of Rembrandt; a broadly painted tronie with exotic props emerging from darkness. But the overall articulation of the figure falls well below the best Rembrandts, which are brilliantly articulated to present a different perspective depending on your viewing position. This one sits more awkwardly. The one part where quality really shines through is in the face.

It was last sold in 1996 as a Govaert Flinck. The main reason for the re-attribution has been the partial cleaning of the painting, removing severely discoloured varnish. The varnish still remains in places, looking almost like repaint because it has become so opaque. It can be seen particularly in the cloak and on the sitter's right hand where it covers the craquelure. Assessment of condition is an art rather than a science, and there's a degree of subjectivity. But I formed a rather different view from that expressed in the conservation report that's available on request from Christie's. I saw it under ultraviolet light and examined it closely twice using a good torch (including the back), and I also draw on the condition report in these comments.

The old stretcher is in good condition. The picture has been re-lined, which involves sticking a new backing to stabilise the canvas. Relining often involved heating the glue with hot irons, which can crush the impasto of a picture. Rembrandt's Juno in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is a tragic example of how this can kill a picture; that one seems to have been re-lined by steamroller. In this picture areas of impasto remain, including the sword and chain, and in the nose. But it has still been flattened. The impasto is less pronounced than in other pictures, and most of the picture is flat and smooth including areas of the face that are more animated in other Rembrandts. 

The picture has been harshly cleaned in the past. The background is severely abraded, the column at the right has lost definition, the hands are strikingly worn. The hair is well-painted but has lost definition, particularly on the right. The lighter ground shows through in many areas, and is particularly distorting in darker parts of the picture such as the cloak. Numerous pentimenti are readily visible to the naked eye, and with the aid of a torch the exact contours of the plume in the hat can be seen clearly. Obviously pentimenti don't prove that this is by Rembrandt; a pupil is perhaps more likely to have made changes to an early independent effort. Evidence of authorship is found elsewhere, but the changes are an interesting record of the picture's evolution.

There are extensive areas of repaint, particularly in the cloak and background. The face is better preserved, with the exception of some repaint on the sitter's right cheek and on the mouth, a grey tone lower left that indicates some over-cleaning, and a few knocks (e.g. minor scratch in left pupil). We need to be careful about judging condition too harshly on the basis of visible wear, because lots of superficially better preserved pictures are just as worn, but have been restored and overpainted. There's a fascinating example in the Rembrandt Corpus volume on the self-portraits, where the Self Portrait in the Norton Simon museum is re-assigned from a well-preserved but not autograph picture, to a badly preserved and overpainted original. But even by the standards of a painting that's over 350 years old, I consider this picture's condition to be mediocre, saved only by the good fortune that has spared the face from the scouring that affected the rest of the picture.

So there are condition issues and studio participation; this doesn't show Rembrandt at his best. But it's still a striking image incorporating a superbly painted portrait by one of the world's greatest artists. It will look superficially much more impressive when fully restored and carefully inpainted and my hunch is that it will do well.

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