The National Gallery of Canada had received its first unwelcome warning more than a year ago: a team of Dutch art historians sent word that one of Ottawa’s two Rembrandts was actually painted by someone else. It was small comfort, when the group’s findings spilled into print last week, that some of the greatest galleries in the world are also among the owners of 44 works whose pedigrees have been impugned.
After a painstaking 14-year study, almost half of the 93 paintings commonly ascribed to Rembrandt’s early period (1625-’31) suddenly seemed about to be demoted to the “artist-unknown” columns of the catalogues. They have not, certainly, been written off as fakes—a vulgarism that drives a shudder through any curator. Rather, in the fastidious idiom of the profession, the group concluded merely that the 44 “cannot be accepted” as the original work of Rembrandt van Rijn.
The historical experts had visited Ottawa during a worldwide inspection of Rembrandt’s works, undertaken to compile a mammoth catalogue of the immensely prolific artist’s oeuvre. (Rembrandt, who lived 63 years, is cred-
ited with more than 600 paintings, about 300 etchings and almost 2,000 drawings.) On Feb. 1, 1981, the team informed the National Gallery in writing that The Tribute Money was not by Rembrandt. The letter offered no supporting evidence for the claim, and the gallery heard no more about it until excerpts of the first volume of the study were leaked to the press in The Hague.
In the absence of contrary evidence, the gallery remains certain that both its Rem> brandts are real.* “All ï the physical proofs are ^ present,” says acting z gallery director Joseph 5 Martin of the work. Inf fra-red scans, X-rays I and dendrochronologio cal analysis, dating the u wood panel on which the artist worked, all support the belief that Rembrandt himself painted the small (42 cm by 33 cm) depiction of Jesus addressing the Pharisees. Near the upper right corner it bears the date 1629 and the letters RHL—the monogram Rembrandt used at the time, standing for his own name, his father’s name, Harmensz, and Leiden, the Dutch city where he lived until 1632.
The Dutch group’s doubts apparently arise for stylistic reasons. But Jean Sutherland Boggs, gallery director when The Tribute Money was bought from a London dealer in 1967 (for a reported $364,000), says the piece passed intense stylistic and scientific examinations and was vetted by three outside experts at the time. It had previously hung in the collection of Sir Otto Beit, a South African diamond tycoon.
The mystery raised by the Dutch study is who—if not Rembrandt—had both the genius to paint such a marvellous picture and the motive to apply Rembrandt’s monogram. In 1629, after all, the master was only 23—and surely not yet successful enough to give a forgery much value. The Dutch group suggests that the painting may be the work of Willem de Pooster, who studied with Rembrandt but never achieved significant renown. In all, art buffs and historians faced a juicy intrigue. For curators around the world there was deep embarrassment: their employers expect them to know what they are buying.
*The other painting, The Toilet of Esther, is from a later period.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.