[imagesource: Ashmolean Museum]
When you’re hailed as the last word on whether a painting is or isn’t the work of Rembrandt, the last thing you want is to find out that you were horribly wrong about one of his paintings.
It’s not a good look.
In 1951, a painting of an old man, said to be painted by the artist, was donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (above) – the world’s leading authority on his work.
In 1981, it was declared a fake and banished to the museum basement, where it became the secret shame of the museum curators for 39 years.
Over to The Guardian for the story, as told by Ashmolean’s curator of northern European art, An Van Camp:
“They saw it in the flesh and decided it wasn’t a Rembrandt painting…They said it might be an imitator painting in the style of Rembrandt and is possibly made before the end of the 17th century, so not even in Rembrandt’s lifetime.”
When Van Camp joined the museum’s team in 2015, and was made aware of the postcard-sized painting that “no one wanted to talk about because it was this fake Rembrandt”, she decided to take a second look.
“It is what Rembrandt does. He does these tiny head studies of old men with forlorn, melancholic, pensive looks. It is very typical of what Rembrandt does in Leiden around 1630.”
The panel was removed from its basement home and analysed by Peter Klein, one of the world’s leading dendrochronologists.
He declared that the wood panel came from the same tree used for Rembrandt’s Andromeda Chained to the Rocks.
Klein said the wood panel came from an oak tree felled in the Baltic region between 1618-28.
“Allowing a minimum of two years for the seasoning of the wood, we can firmly date the portrait to 1620-30,” he said.
In other words, it was painted in Rembrandt’s lifetime. The chances of a copycat artist using the exact same tree as Rembrandt to construct a canvas and paint an old man in his style, in the late 17th century, seems absurd.
At the same time, I can get behind the idea that curators would rather hide something away if they’re unsure than risk the awkwardness that Prince Charles likely felt when it was discovered that he had been showing off a fake Picasso for years.
The tiny painting, titled Head of a Bearded Man (c 1630), has now been liberated from the basement and is on show at the museum in the Young Rembrandt exhibition which reopened on August 10, following lockdown in England.
A final word from Van Camp, who said, “It is very exciting. It is bringing the painting back in the fold.”
If it’s possible to feel bad for a painting, this is one of those times.
I’m glad it’s free.
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