'Self-portrait as a young man', Rembrandt

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Curator of Continental European Art Xanthe Brooke's picture of the month talk at the Walker Art Gallery for September was on Rembrandt van Rijn's 'Portrait of the artist as a young man'. A transcript of the talk is available below.

I'm going to be talking about this painting here which we entitle Rembrandt's 'Portrait of the artist as a young man'. 

Now, why am I talking about it this year in particular? 

2006 is the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth in 1606 in Leiden. Why am I talking about this particular painting? 

This self-portrait has recently become a very controversial self-portrait. Last year in the latest volume published by the Rembrandt Research Project, they announced that they no longer believed it to be by Rembrandt and instead they suggested that it was by a studio assistant of Rembrandt's in the period of 1629-31, a chap called Isack Jouderville. 

I should explain a bit about, a bit of back history, about who and what the Rembrandt Research Project is. They were established in The Netherlands in 1968 to research and catalogue all the known Rembrandts and they were intending to do that chronologically and in about five volumes. So, they started that project in the late sixties and they did in fact, because our self-portrait is believed to have been painted some time between 1629 and 1631, they visited our painting fairly early on. In fact they actually produced an entry, a report on our painting in the first volume that they published in 1982. 

Now, in 1982 they considered that it was an authentic self-portrait by Rembrandt of about 1630-1. They judged that on stylistic terms. They considered it authentic despite what they called its imperfect state. Due to a very heavy yellowing varnish on it which hid a lot of the surface underneath and also because the artist painted it on a panel on which he had already painted another subject. I shall come back to that later on because it's quite crucial to why the later reversion of judgement came about. 

Recently they decided to produce a volume not chronologically, but that was going to be simply about self-portraits and they were going to do a lot of investigation on the self-portraits that Rembrandt produced in 1642 right through to his death in 1669.  
Because it was a thematic volume on the self-portraits, they of course had to revisit what they had already said about earlier self-portraits. It was in that revisiting process that the Director of the project came to a different opinion on it. In particular he based his different opinion on a painting, another self-portrait, painted and dated 1630. This is the self-portrait that he used to compare with our self-portrait of roughly the same date. This self-portrait is in Stockholm. 

There are various crucial things that you should know about this painting. For a start it is smaller than the paper on which I have photocopied the image. The painting is in fact from this mark, it is that sort of shape and size. In other words much smaller than this painting which is about 60cm high as opposed to 15cm high. 

In addition this painting is painted on a copper panel. Our painting is painted on a wood panel. That creates a lot of interesting differences because there is a totally different technique of painting that you use when you're painting on a copper panel than when you are painting on a wood panel. 

Essentially it boils down to the fact that a copper panel has been beaten to a very smooth surface and so, if you're an artist you have to create on the surface what's called a tooth so that the pigment, the oil pigment that you apply to it actually catches on to something and doesn't just separate. When you're painting on a wood panel, most wood panels have a grain of sorts and quite often you're actually trying to smooth away the grain so that it doesn't interfere with what you're painting on top of it. 

One of the ways that you end up with a copper panel is that you create a tooth by rubbing the panel with a grainy sticky substance like garlic. So you have a totally different technique as well as a totally different size. In addition this copper painting by Rembrandt is one of three that he did very very experimentally in 1629-30, in which the three different panels have been painted with a different brush technique. Almost certainly quite deliberately. 

One of which is of an old woman, is painted with a very detailed technique. Another, a laughing man, is a much broader brush technique and this one is a slightly more delicate technique. 

This panel which is specifically the painting used to compare with our painting, there are a very substantial number of reasons why it's very difficult to use this as a very good comparison with our painting. There's one particular element that the head of the project, Ernst van de Wetering, actually compares with ours, to the detriment of ours. That is the way the mouth has been painted. That’s quite significant because when we've looked at our painting under very powerful lights and also under UV lights (UV lights actually show up disturbances in the paint surface and disturbances in varnish surfaces, so you can see if something has been added later) and in the case of our self-portrait what UV light shows on the mouth is that over on effectively the portrait's left-hand side over here on his mouth, that area has definitely been overpainted or retouched at some point. Quite early probably because it hasn't been done in the last century. 

But it has been retouched and it gives it (if you stare solidly at this side), you'll see what I call a sneer, the end of his mouth seems to go up in a slight sneer and that is almost certainly retouched paint, not anything to do with Rembrandt or whoever the artist was who painted it. It's quite significant that he uses that particular element of the face to make a comparison and in fact he wouldn't have known necessarily about our discovery of that overpainting because he would have been using all the technical material that we took for when the Rembrandt Research Project first came. All that was taken and analysis was done in the early and mid 1970s. 

One of the other things that the Rembrandt Research Project has, from 1982 onwards, commented on is the signature. You may notice on this painting there is a date and there is an 'R' of Rembrandt but the rest of it is actually damaged. We do have a signature on it, it's almost hidden in this lighting but it is actually up in the corner there in red and it says Rembrant f for 'fagit'. Now Rembrandt actually did go through different ways of signing his paintings. When he was in Leiden, up until Winter 1631, he seems to have signed his paintings, those he signed, with a monogram RHL which stood for Rembrandt Harmenszoon Leidenensis - from Leiden. 

Then, once he moved to Amsterdam, certainly from 1632, he signs himself only with his first name - Rembrandt. He's no longer in Leiden and he doesn't particularly want to refer to the fact he's from Leiden because he's made it and got to Amsterdam. So he signs himself his first name. 

The unusual thing about our signature is it lacks the 'd'. It's Rembrant. I suspect for a long time that that meant that a lot of people thought 'that must have been added later by someone who didn't know Rembrandt's name'. There's been increasing evidence over the last two or three decades of research on Rembrandt that he did actually sign himself without a 'd' for what appears to be a very short period of time between late 1632 and 1633. 

This is because that form of signature is found on paintings that are definitely attributed by Rembrandt. They are signed in that way. 

The Rembrandt Research Project have always said that signature has definitely been added later. The only time that signature in modern times has been subjected to a cleaning test and close visual analysis was shortly after we acquired it. There was a cleaning test done on it in 1956 and the conservator's report in 1956 says that in his opinion he can see no significant difference between when the pigment of the signature was applied and the rest of the surrounding paint. 

Nothing has been done to analyse that signature since 1956. 

If it's an original signature that was applied shortly after the painting was done, then it is highly unlikely that the painting could have been done by Isack Jouderville who the Rembrandt Research Project presently claim as the likely artist. Isack Jouderville left Rembrandt's studio before the winter of 1631. So he wouldn't have been around in 1632-3. Nevertheless I shall show you the only known portrait by Jouderville which is in Dublin. 

If you look at it closely there are quite a lot of differences in the way that the paint has been applied and also this sort of colour. Although the overall composition is very much like that, what I call the way that the scarf has been painted is much slicker. It has a slicker, more oily feel to it than the way that the scarf has been painted in our portrait. It's also got a much higher toned colouring to both the scarf and the way the flesh has been painted. 

There is much greater contrast between the white skin and pink cheeks than you have here where you have the marvellous merging of the creamier skin colour with the slight pink of the cheeks and the lips. 

That's their stated position. The problems of comparing this painting with other Rembrandt paintings of the period are compounded by what the Rembrandt Research Project called in 1982 its 'imperfect state'. Let me show you. This is an x-ray taking in the mid-1970s with the latest NHS technology of this painting. 

I shall go through it with you so you can understand what you're looking at because x-rays usually need a little help in deciphering. This grid pattern that you can see is what is called a cradle. That was applied to the back of the painting, probably some time in the 1930s. What we have in this painting is the wood panel that Rembrandt painted on - that in turn has been thinned at some point so it's much thinner than the panel he painted on would have been. 

That thinned panel has then been attached and applied to another wood panel and then on to that wood panel you've had the cradling put on and originally these various strips of wood going down and up and vertically and horizontally were flexible. So, as the wood of the panel flexed with humidity, so the cradle would flex. Unfortunately at some point or other the cradle has jammed. 

In the process of thinning and then applying the panel to another panel, a lot of flattening of the pigment surface has taken place and very fine cracks all over the panel, but particularly all down this side of his face. Once that has happened you can't do anything to recover it. It's like that permanently. You will never be able to recover the original surface texture when it was painted because that's gone. 

In addition, what you can see on this as well as all this cradling, you can see his face in the centre. There's his nose and eye up there and some of his hair, but down here you can see some legs, which are sort of about here. Up here, there's a sort of pointed armour or turban or something sticking up about here. That is the previous painting that he painted over. 

This was quite a common practise of Rembrandt's, especially on self-portraits, he quite often painted self-portraits on works. He'd have had a panel around and partly scraped it away. These figures have been partly scraped away but not comprehensively. One of the reasons he did this, particularly early on in his career, is that fine wood panels were expensive objects to get so you re-used them wherever possible. The sort of painting that might have been on underneath is the painting I'm showing here. 

That is a painting that was painted in 1631. That's the sort of figure that might originally have been painted underneath. This practise of overpainting on another panel also appears in the other painting. This painting was presented, we know, by Sir Robert Kerr to Charles I. He didn't just present this painting, he also presented this painting. This is now known as 'An old woman 'the artist's mother''. This is still in the Royal Collection and this painting also has underneath it a standing figure that has been scraped away and then painted over. 

Interestingly enough, whereas the Rembrandt Research Project say that our painting is by Isack Jouderville, they say this painting is also not by Rembrandt but is by Jan Lievens. Now Lievens was a close friend and rival of Rembrandt's. For a period roundabout 1628 or so, they probably shared a studio in Leiden and they painted very similar subjects. The friendship / rivalry extended to 'let's see who can do the best self-portraits, the best genre paintings' and so on. 

They were both equally ambitious and, if anything, Lievens was at the time in the mid 1620s was considered to be the one with the greatest star potential. Lievens, unlike Rembrandt, did actually make it to Charles I's court. He was in the Charles I's court between 1632 and 1635. I personall find it very unlikely that Lievens, ambitious as he was, would have allowed, if this was by him and was already in Charles I's collection when Lievens was there. The King's surveyor of pictures, who was effectively the curator of the art collection for Charles I, was himself Dutch, he was a gentleman called Abraham Van der Dort. I find it very unlikely that Lievens would have allowed Abraham Van der Dort to put in the inventory that this was by Rembrandt if it wasn't by Rembrandt. 

That is where we're left so far with the Rembrandt Research Project. I think I should just speak a short while as to what happened to this painting after it had been in Charles I's collection and how did it come here. 

After Charles I's death there was a huge sale of what was referred to as the King's goods and they were sold in various blocks. The self-portrait was sold in December 1651 and it was purchased by a Major Edward Bask. Most of the purchases at these sales were actually creditors who were simply buying up anything they could get hold of in order that they would then sell them on to the real collectors. That's how a lot of works that were sold from Charles I's collection ended up in the royal collections in France and the royal collections in Spain. Those weren't directly bought by the Kings and their ambassadors, they were usually bought from people who had been creditors. 

From December 1651 until 1948, we can't precisely say where a self-portrait by Rembrandt was. I should explain that. In 1948 Lord de Lisle and Dudley who owned Penshurst Place in Kent sold Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait' at auction. If you like in the inventories of Penshurst Place into the 19th and late 18th century you don't find anything that says Rembrandt 'Self-portrait'. That's probably because self-portrait as a term didn't really come in use until the later 19th century. 

What you tended to have is, as referred to in the leaflet, when Van der Dort described the painting when it was in Charles I's collection, he says a painting of Rembrandt by his own hand. You don't use the term self-portrait. What you do have in Penshurst Place’s inventories as early as 1786 is a reference to a man's head by Rembrandt. That could be this painting. Penshurst Place in the 18th and 17th century was one of the houses which was owned by the Earl of Leicester. If you look in the Earl of Leicester's inventories, in 1737 you have 'A man's head' by Rembrandt. 

That's the 6th Earl of Leicester, in 1737, the 3rd Earl of Leicester was a very important person at the sales of Charles I's collection. The 3rd Earl of Leicester, Philip Lord Lisle, was one of the major purchasers from the sale. By 1650 he had got 30 paintings and 4 sculptures from this sale of Charles I's goods. Although he was an aristocrat, he was a leading member of Cromwell's republican government. 

We know that he was buying at those sales. When Charles II came back on the throne in 1660 there was of course a great effort made by Charles II to recover the goods that had been sold in 1650. The 3rd Earl of Leicester claimed that he had given back everything that he had bought. He did give a lot back but only after a very lengthy, a 6 month campaign in the House of Lords where he and his uncle, the Earl of Northumberland, campaigned vigorously against handing these works back to the Royal Collection. By the end of 1660, he claimed that he had given everything that he had bought back but it is known now that some works that had been in the Royal Collection that he bought after 1650 didn't make it back to the Royal Collection. 

That is the story of how the painting that was in the Royal Collection has ended up here. What happened in 1948 was somebody purchased it and then it was purchased on our behalf by the Ocean Steam and Shipping Company. They were using our funds to purchase it. 

I'll just come now to a conclusion about what we're hoping do as a result of this re-attribution or de-attribution. Ernst van de Wetering, the Director of the project, did actually say when he wrote to us about what they were intending to do, he did say that of course it was only an opinion. An opinion that he admits is based entirely on stylistic analysis and nothing else. What we're doing right at this minute is that we're trying to raise funds to support one of our conservators to devote six to twelve months to doing a proper technical analysis and research on the portrait and that would include pigment analysis, it would include dendrochronology, as well as some surface cleaning of the painting. 

At the minute we're halfway through that fundraising position. That's what we're hoping and intending to do and only once you've analysed this painting properly, which has never been done, can you really make a firm decision as to its status. 

If anybody has any questions I'm quite happy to answer them. 

- Why did he paint so many self-portraits? 

There are lots of reasons why he painted so many self-portraits. His early ones, a lot of the early ones are in etched form, they are small prints and small paintings like the Stockholm one. There's a lot of evidence that he was effectively using himself as the cheapest model because a lot of his early paintings are narrative paintings where you've got a lot of people expressing, having quite exaggerated reactions to what is going on. You need to be able to practise creating that on your own and the easiest way to do it is on your own face. 

Then he practises, and this to some extent is the case with this painting, where he's practising and more interested in what different light effects do to a mood. Whether it's a mood of a portrait or a mood of a major figure subject. He has various self-portraits with different lighting effects. Sometimes you have more of a halo behind and more of the face is lit and less in shadow. 

Then, certainly by the 1640s, there is a market for images of Rembrandt because he is by then a famous Dutch artist and both collectors in the Netherlands and outside are interested in having a portrait of the artist. Right at the end of his career, he goes back to painting quite a succession of self-portraits and those are the ones that are most likely to have some sort of personal significance to him. These are the ones that are painted after he goes bankrupt. There is a bankruptcy case in 1656 and for the last decade of his life the self-portraits that he produces quite often have either unusual symbolic elements or they're self-portraits as an unusual characters. There's a self-portrait of him as St Paul and that sort of thing. 

- Do you think the people in his studio painted portraits of him? 

Yes, I could have brought up with me, there's a portrait in 1629 by Lievens of Rembrandt. I wish I'd brought that up because it's actually quite interesting to compare the Lievens image of Rembrandt 1629 with this image, it's a much pudgier face in the Lievens and younger-looking than this image. 

- At the time this was made, was Lievens more successful than Rembrandt? 

Well, he was considered to have slightly more potential but that was perhaps to do with the analysis of one person, namely Constantijn Huygens and he may have been showing his particular preference for Lievens. 

- So there's no point in putting Rembrandt on a painting to get a greater value at that time. 

No, exactly, no. Also, as far as I know the signature, the fact that he did paint without a 'd', that fact wasn't particularly known at the time and I haven't actually researched this but I think it was first started to be known about in the 1980s so you wouldn't have been able to use that as a way of faking something. 

- The way that you tell this really fascinating story, it sounds like a detective story doesn't it? Is there anything to be said from the fact that I've been coming to see this painting since I was a small child and the fact that, to me at any rate and to a lot of people that I know, of all the paintings in this gallery that is deeply moving and so very wonderful, does that speak in any way that it is more probably a Rembrandt than by a lesser painter? 

If I was to take devil's advocate and believe that it isn't by Rembrandt, whoever it is by it's somebody who is the equivalent of Rembrandt in quality. There wasn't anybody around other than effectively Lievens and Lievens didn't paint in this way. Although the Rembrandt Research Project say that the Royal Collection's painting is Lievens, the British Rembrandt scholars and the Royal Collection's conservators say it's not by Lievens because they also own Lievens’ work and they say that technical analysis show that it's not the same way of handling paint.