Mystery solved: A Rembrandt after all

Mystery solved: A Rembrandt after all

It’s an artistic triumph — Saul and David is the Dutch master’s work, not a studio imitation

By Sarah Kaplan

Published: Fri 19 Jun 2015, 4:28 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 2:50 PM

For hundreds of years, it was a masterful Rembrandt painting. Then it was split in half in the 19th century and became two Rembrandt paintings. Then its origin was disputed in the 1960s and it was considered not a Rembrandt painting at all — just a studio imitation of the master’s style.

Now, thanks to diligent sleuthing and painstaking restoration by a team of art historians at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the shadowy, richly-coloured Saul and David is considered a Rembrandt masterpiece once more. It went on display at the museum last week, the star of a special exhibition entirely devoted to the painting and its tumultuous past.

“Hectic history”

Saul and David was painted by Dutch master Rembrandt sometime between 1646 and 1652 — which was considered the “middle period” of his career.

In 1830, it was sold to a Parisian duke. Sometime after that, it was split down the middle — possibly by an unscrupulous dealer who thought he’d have a better time selling two paintings — then eventually stitched back together.

The triumphant announcement comes after researchers carefully examined the image using advanced X-ray techniques, the museum said. They tested paint samples, peered through coats of paint to view the canvas beneath, debated whether the iconography matched Rembrandt’s style. It was an investigation worthy of a television procedural, one they’ve been working on since 2007.

But the real mystery of Saul and David goes back much further than that. The detailed examination of the work revealed just how much the poor painting endured before winding up on the operating table at The Hague.

Researchers believe that the work was painted sometime between 1646 and 1652, during the “middle period” of the Dutch artist’s career. In thick strokes of red, gold and dark brown paint, rich with shadows, it depicts a young David plucking at a harp while King Saul, moved to tears by the music, wipes his eye with a curtain.

The painting’s story is murky until 1830, when it was sold to a Parisian duke. Sometime after that it was split down the middle — possibly by an unscrupulous dealer who thought he’d have a better time selling two paintings — then eventually stitched back together. In 1898, it was bought by Abraham Bredius, director of the Mauritshuis and a passionate music lover who fell hard for the depiction of King Saul being touched by David’s playing. Bredius purchased the painting with his own money — claiming to have sold his own coach to finance the acquisition — and launched a massive public relations campaign to drum up interest in the piece.

But the turn-of the century techniques used to get the painting ready for public display left a lot to be desired. According to the Mauritshuis site, the German restorer overpainted large swaths of the image, flattening Rembrandt’s usually textured surface and loading up the canvas with new paint without doing anything about the cracked and yellow varnish beneath. Meanwhile, the sutures that reconnected the sorely mishandled pieces of the work were still visible. By 1969, though still proudly on display at the Mauritshuis, Saul and David was definitely worse for all the wear it had endured.

“It’s been treated brutally, this painting, in multiple past restoration campaigns,” Joris Dik of Delft Technical University, who provided high-tech scans of the painting to the restoration effort.

Then came Horst Gerson, a famous Rembrandt scholar working on a survey of the Dutch artist’s works. He issued a withering de-attribution of the painting in 1969, arguing that “the painterly execution is superficial and inconsistent” and he didn’t “recognise Rembrandt’s touch in it,” according to The New York Times. The image’s attribution was downgraded to “Rembrandt and/or Studio,” a serious blow to its dignity.

Not everyone agreed with Gerson’s assessment, but they didn’t have the evidence to prove him wrong. The truth was buried somewhere beneath several layers of paint and hundreds of years of hectic history.

But modern techniques — particularly an X-ray analysis that isolates individual elements in pigments to allow researchers to identify their precise colour — finally let the Mauritshuis investigators see what had been hidden for so long. They found that the painting actually comprised 15 pieces of canvas and beneath the layers of gunky paint and grime it had delicate notes of light and colour characteristic of Rembrandt’s work during the time it’s thought to have been created.

The final assessment of the work’s origin was made by curators, restorers and members of the international advisory board of Rembrandt scholars. The director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker, made the final call.

But Gordenker said that the museum would have moved forward with its exhibit on the piece even if Rembrandt was found not to be its painter.

Luckily for Gordenker — and for Saul and David — this mystery has a happy ending.

— IBTimes




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