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Introduction III

Problems of authenticity (about 1850–2009)

Rembrandt’s variety as a draughtsman, coupled with the dearth of well-documented sheets among the many attributed to him, poses considerable problems for modern cataloguers of his work. Judgments often have to be based on drawings ascribed to him only by tradition and confirmed by no more certain authority than modern opinion. Section 1 of this Introduction outlines the early creation of a false Rembrandt oeuvre, which sprang from the more-or-less unquenchable desire of collectors to own examples of his work. The false accretions exacerbate the problem of reconstructing not only Rembrandt’s oeuvre, but also those of his followers. The early art market almost obliterated all trace of many of Rembrandt’s pupils by ascribing their works wholesale to their master.

By the mid-19th century, some 200 years after the artist’s death, when the first attempts to list Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings systematically were made, the fog of misattributions had become extremely dense. No individual cataloguer’s visual memory could conceivably have restored to Rembrandt, without error, what he alone had painted and drawn. Nor was sufficient evidence available to reconstitute the separate artistic personalities of those pupils whose works had been wrongly ‘upgraded’ into Rembrandt’s oeuvre. Connoisseurs had to rely on their notes, their memories and on a modest number of engraved reproductions.

Since the 1850s gradual progress has been achieved towards identifying those works that have been wrongly attributed Rembrandt, but considerable difficulties remain. Clearly, the few documented works have to form the starting point for the reconstruction of the oeuvre as a whole. Scholars have too often put their trust in dubious paintings and drawings, but still more damagingly, they have resorted to them as points of departure for further attributions to the master. Examples will follow, but a brief history of the scholarly attempts that have been made to define the corpus of Rembrandt’s works will set the current problems in context.

The most recent complete catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings was compiled by the late Otto Benesch and first published in the 1950s. It accepted 1,450 works as by Rembrandt, including a few by his pupils that he was believed to have retouched or corrected himself. A second edition, with some additions, was brought out by Benesch’s widow, Eva Benesch, in 1973. The catalogue is fully illustrated and runs to six volumes, but soon after its publication, in reviews of the late 1950s and early 1960s, critics gave it a mixed reception. They agreed that Benesch had accepted too many drawings as autograph, and one commentator, Jacob Rosenberg, went so far as to register his ‘shock’ at the appearance in the catalogue of some of the most spurious sketches from the Munich print room (mentioned in Section 1 above). Since its publication, some 30% of the drawings that Benesch accepted have been described as workshop productions by other scholars, and many other drawings still await a more recent verdict, but Benesch’s six volumes remain both the standard work of reference and the basis for further enquiry.

The yet stronger misgivings about Rembrandt attributions voiced by Daniel Daulby in 1796, quoted in the first section, were echoed by the earliest cataloguers of Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings. As we have seen, they included E.J.T. Thoré-Bürger, who published lists of the Rembrandts conserved in several collections in the 1850s and 1860s, including some of the drawings in the British Museum. Carel Vosmaer brought out monographs with lists in 1868 and 1877, Eugène Dutuit wrote another in the 1880s and Émile Michel published a lengthy book on the master in 1893. [1] These authorities all doubted the authenticity of many works they had studied but lacked the tools necessary to undertake a fundamental revision. Their difficulties were aggravated not only by vested interests but also by the sheer scale of the corpus that, though never small, had been artificially expanded to massive proportions. Nevertheless, their efforts laid the basis for the catalogues produced by all later scholars who, however, have had to contend with jealous guardians of the attributions that had been promulgated or supported by these eminent authorities before them.

Reservations continued to be expressed by subsequent writers, chiefly Wilhelm von Bode (catalogue of paintings, 1897–1905), Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (paintings with Bode, a second paintings’ catalogue of 1915 and a drawings catalogue of 1906), W.R. Valentiner (paintings in 1908 with a controversial supplement in 1921, and a never-completed drawings catalogue, two volumes of which appeared in 1925 and 1934) and Abraham Bredius (paintings catalogue of 1935). They all re-examined Rembrandt’s oeuvre, often with the sharp critical comments of Woldemar von Seidlitz snapping at their heels. Only Valentiner appears to have defended the scale of the corpus of paintings that he had inherited, although his comments on the drawings were somewhat more critical. For later scholars, the impact of Bredius’s 1935 catalogue of the paintings was considerable, yet it was one of the last publications by a scholar whose views were formed in the late 19th century. In 1969 it was revised by Horst Gerson, who had provided the captions for the 1935 edition, but as all more recent researchers agree, Gerson remained faithful to too many of Bredius’s views and his analysis of individual works was often superficial.

The American writer, John C. Van Dyke, forms something of a maverick figure in the story. In the 1920s he published two books on Rembrandt in which he cast doubt for the first time on many works that have since been ascribed to the school. But he doubted almost everything. The story is told that he was asked how Rembrandt ever became a proficient, let alone famous painter, if he had produced so little. Nevertheless Van Dyke should be given credit for having challenged scholars to explain the inconsistencies in their image of Rembrandt’s output, but his pronouncements were often so wild that the challenge was ignored.

All these commentators benefited from or assisted in the publication, between 1895 and 1912, of photographic reproductions of most of the paintings and drawings then known, a fundamental prerequisite of progress. Rembrandt’s etchings, which had been catalogued by Gersaint, Daulby and Bartsch in the 18th century, posed less of a problem at least partly because of their ready availability on the market. The cataloguers could themselves own or at least work among the original prints in large numbers, allowing for an intensive scrutiny of this section of Rembrandt’s oeuvre that was unthinkable for the paintings and drawings. As noted in Section 1 above, many of the prints bear signatures and dates, an additional aid to their study.

  • ^ [1] - The monographs discussed here are those that contributed most to the definition of the corpus, especially of the drawings.