Master Over the Centuries The Anniversary of a Great Dutchman
“Rembrandt, His Predecessors and Followers”
at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
For well over three centuries, Rembrandt van Rijn has continued to inspire and enthral viewers with his remarkably astute, wise and philosophical portrayal of mankind and its surrounding world. Each successive generation has developed its own unique understanding of the great artist’s style and imagery, based on its own cultural and spiritual experience. Re-discovering and re-interpreting his work afresh, every generation has, in a sense, created “its own” Rembrandt. In the Soviet Union, a number of exhibitions were held to mark anniversaries of the Dutch genius: 1936, 1956 and 1969 saw such events open in Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Since the last of these, however, almost 40 years have passed, and the wealth of new material published by specialists during this period clearly requires us to take a fresh look at the immortal works of the master and his pupils. The time has come to re-examine the legacy lovingly preserved in a number of countries, and to re-assess with greater objectivity the place it occupies in the history of world artistic culture.
Rembrandt, His Predecessors and Followers” marks the 400th anniversary of the painter's birth. The main aim of this exhibition is, using a number of Rembrandt's masterpieces, to illustrate the distinct nature and evolution of his art, as well as his artistic relationships with his predecessors, older contemporaries, and numerous pupils and followers. The main body of the exhibition consists of over 30 paintings belonging to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Among these are works by Rembrandt himself and by his predecessors and followers, including Pieter Lastman, Nicolaus Knupfer, Jacob Backer, Philips Koninck, Jan Lievens, Carel Fabritius, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Ferdinand Bol and Bernhard Keil. Created at different times and in different styles, these bear testimony to the strong links between Rembrandt and his contemporaries. The exhibition also includes five of the artist's masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as Rembrandt's self-portrait from the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence, works by painters of the Rembrandt school from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and eight canvases from Russian regional museums in Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Voronezh and Serpukhov; rarely reproduced, these are little known to the public. Alongside this wonderful collection of paintings, viewers can also enjoy drawings and etchings by Rembrandt and his school from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
The exhibition also provides an interesting opportunity to assess the qualitative evolution of the study of art, its achievements and limitations, as well as the development of stylistic criticism and technical and technological research methods in art. It is well known that a large number of famous works purchased by collectors as Rembrandt originals have subsequently been judged by experts as belonging to the great master's pupils and followers. Naturally, the works themselves have remained the same, and our appreciation of them has not dwindled. What has changed is our idea of the talent and breadth of interests of their creators. To carry out a detailed analysis of the style and "language” of painting and drawing, modern experts first examine a huge number of distinct and subjective elements: the way in which an artist constructs human figures and space, how he deals with motion, the texture and direction of his brushstrokes, his feeling for colour and, of course, his unique overall manner of execution. Together with meticulous research into a work's origin and the technical and technological features of the board, canvas, primer and paints used, these allow specialists to draw a number of objective conclusions.
Not all works previously attributed to Rembrandt and now thought to belong to his pupils or followers have been ascribed to specific painters. Some form independent, "anonymous” categories, to which it may prove possible to attach names at some point in the future. Thus, Rembrandt's oeuvre is becoming clearer to us, as the drawings and paintings belonging to others are gradually separated out from those created by the great master. At the same time, our knowledge of the painters
of Rembrandt's school is continuing to grow, both in breadth and depth.
Rembrandt can truly be called a genius in painting, drawing and printmaking. His innovative contribution to the development of several fields of Dutch and, indeed, Western European art is impossible to overestimate. At the same time, painting is undoubtably the area to which he devoted the larger part of his efforts, and in which his legacy is particularly impressive. Rembrandt's exceptional mastery of the brush allowed him to portray his observations of life and human nature with amazing subtlety: the nuances, the different styles, the complexity of composition we encounter in his paintings are breathtaking. His understanding of the aesthetic and functional value of the manner of execution of a work was far ahead of his time. Daring to challenge the traditional system of artists' guilds, Rembrandt also strove for reform of young painters' education.
His remarkable achievements did not, however, come out of nowhere. The master for whom art was a daily and spiritual necessity, had scrupulously studied and reassessed the legacy of several generations of Dutch, German and Italian artists. Directly connected to the European artistic tradition through his teachers and their contemporaries, the so-called Pre-Rembrandtists, the young painter would himself go on to influence a great number of pupils and followers in Holland and neighbouring countries. Like no other of his colleagues, Rembrandt played an out standing role in the development of contemporary Dutch art.
Any researcher studying his artistic legacy must examine three interconnected fields: Rembrandt's work in the context of its stylistic and chronological evolution (and the criteria for defining the boundaries of his oeuvre); the artistic relationship between Rembrandt and his predecessors and older contemporaries; and, finally, Rembrandt the teacher - the artist's teaching system and ensuing problem of imitation in the works of his pupils and followers. The resulting place and role attributed to the master in the history of Dutch and, indeed, Western European art will depend on analysis of these three areas. Meticulous research carried out by specialists over the last two decades has brought about a new approach to many notions and beliefs that had always appeared indisputable. It should here be noted that it is far more common for works to be "deleted” from Rembrandt's oeuvre, than to be added to it: the majority of paintings which are discovered to be by the master are early works which are not typical.
Let us take, for example, the history of the study of two works by Rembrandt shown at the exhibition. "Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple”, now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, was created in 1626, when the artist was only 20 years old. At the beginning of the last century, the painting belonged to the well- known Moscow collector Henri Brocard and his son-in-law Paul Girault. In spite of Rembrandt's monogram and date, discovered on the painting during its restoration in 1930-31, for many years the work was considered by most specialists to belong to another artist: Igor Grabar, academician and eminent art specialist under Stalin, thought "Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple” to be an excellent fake. Today, Rembrandt experts are convinced that it is by no other than the great Dutchman himself, and hardly one of the many publications on the young Rembrandt fails to mention the work from Moscow.
There is an interesting story connected to the small and unfinished "Self-portrait with Beret” currently in the Musee Granet, Aix-en-Provence. The thick, open brushstrokes applied with vigorous brio accentuate the outlines of the face and clothing, simultaneously rendering their structure and colouring. If in the past, however, specialists had marvelled at this technique and attributed the work to Rembrandt, following World War II it was considered "indistinct” and unworthy of the great master: certain experts even considered the self-portrait a late imitation. The removal of later layers of paint and comprehensive analysis of the technical, technological and stylistic features of the selfportrait undertaken over the last ten years, however, convinced members of the international "Rembrandt Research Project” that the work is, indeed, an original: the style is indisputably Rembrandt's, and the oak board, paint pigments and primer filler all date from a time around 1659.
Notwithstanding that, a number of paintings previously thought to be inspired revelations by Rembrandt himself have recently been attributed to his pupils and followers. Naturally, this says a lot about Rembrandt's skill as a teacher. The talented artists he trained created outstanding paintings and drawings that, even today, experts struggle to distinguish from those of the master himself. The task of attributing a painting can be incredibly complex, yet significant advances continue to be made in this area. Let us look at the history attached to two other paintings from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts - works traditionally associated with Carel Fabritius, the most original and gifted of Rembrandt's pupils. The wonderful "Hera in Hiding with Oceanus and Tethys” has, at different times and with varying degrees of certainty, been ascribed to Govert Flinck and Salomon de Bray. Some 20 years ago, however, "Mercury and Argus”, a painting signed by Carel Fabritius, appeared on the antiques market and was eventually purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Created shortly after Fabritius left Rembrandt's studio, where he had trained as a pupil, this work not only confirmed the attribution of "Mercury and Aglauros” (a painting of similar type and execution housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), but also raised new questions concerning "Hera in Hiding”. At the Carel Fabritius exhibition held in 2004-2005 in the Hague and Schwerin, the three paintings were shown side by side. Specialists agreed that the style of all three was remarkably similar, and the painting from Moscow was finally attributed to the young Carel Fabritius. If, however, the paintings from Los Angeles and Boston are considered to have been created at the outset of Fabritius's independent career as an artist (in 1645-47), Frits Duparc, director of the Hague's Maurit- shuis and organiser of the 2004 exhibition, sees "Hera in Hiding” as dating from Fabritius's years in Rembrandt's studio: this painting, as he justly notes, bears the most obvious resemblance to the work of Rembrandt and Govert Flinck.
In the first half of the 20th century, "The Beheading of John the Baptist”, another painting from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, was attributed to an "unknown master of Rembrandt's school”. After World War II, however, Boris Vipper, the unquestionable authority on Rembrandt, ascribed the painting to the young Carel Fabritius: research for his major work on 17th-century Dutch painting had led Vipper to see a resemblance in manner of execution between the Moscow painting and a work of the same name in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Vipper's hypothesis was not supported by foreign specialists. Furthermore, the new generation of experts refused to see Fabritius as the creator of the Amsterdam painting. Today, "The Beheading of John the Baptist” is once more cautiously labelled as "School of Rembrandt”: an interesting stage in the ongoing process of critical reassessment of the body of knowledge surrounding the legacy of Rembrandt's pupils and followers. Of these, the most prominent are reasonably well known to us; some we know only by a handful of indisputably attributed paintings, whilst others are but names in various sources. Works by these unknown artists may well be familiar to us, ascribed to others; their true origin will, perhaps, one day be uncovered by specialists. Research in this field is progressing: one of the canvases in the Moscow exhibition, "Croesus and Solon” from the Nizhny Novgorod Museum of Art, for instance, was recently attributed to the young Pieter Verelst. Verelst's early works are few and atypical: following his apprenticeship, the artist rapidly departed from the traditions of Rembrandt and his school.
The classical methodology used for attributing paintings in the last century was based on analysis of the formal "language” used, comparison with similar drawings and etchings and research into the origin of the work. Thus, a necessary precondition for any leading expert in this field was a thorough knowledge of a large body of material which, given the shortage of publications, was attained only by very few. Contemporary specialists are far more fortunate. With access to a vast number of works of art as well as technical and technological research, in their practical studies they give preference to detailed specialised catalogues of large collections and articles on particular aspects of Rembrandt's work. Lately, a number of exceptional paintings firmly considered to belong to Rembrandt himself have been attributed to his pupils as a result of marked resemblances in style and type. Older generations of art specialists believed in the consistent superiority of Rembrandt's genius. An exceptional work of art, they claimed, could only have been created by a very exceptional master. Today, researchers have produced impressive evidence to the contrary. According to contemporary studies, many of Rembrandt's masterpieces, such as the "Man with the Golden Helmet” in Berlin's Gemaldegalerie, or the "Polish Rider” from the Frick collection in New York - works previously considered as key manifestations of the particular nature of Rembrandt's genius - were in fact created by another hand. To whom these wonderful works in fact belong, we do not yet know: their creator's remarkable gift, however, has clearly outlived the ages.
Oil on wood. 30.7 by 24.3 cm. Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence
Oil on canvas. 73 by 94 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on wood. 53 by 92.5 cm. The Pozhalostin Ryazan Regional Art Museum
Oil on canvas. 98 by 76 cm. Serpukhov Museum of History and Art
Oil on canvas. 59 by 54 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 105 by 138 cm. Nizhny Novgorod Museum of Art
Oil on wood (grooved board). 53.1 by 50.5 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on wood. 43 by 32 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 100 by 91.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum, New York
Oil on canvas. 160 by 133 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 77 by 67 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Oil on canvas. 78.4 by 68.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum, New York