The news that a painting by Rembrandt (1606-69) has been identified in the collection at Buckland Abbey (National Trust) has been this week’s media focus.
Bequeathed to the National Trust in 2010, the picture was at that time believed to be a work from Rembrandt’s studio or a later copy of a lost original. Recently, however, Ernst van de Wetering, chair of the Rembrandt Research Project, has reattributed it as an authentic work by Rembrandt. David Taylor, the National Trust’s curator of paintings and sculpture was quoted in the Guardian (18 March 2013): ‘The portrait is now one of our most important works of art.’
It is a half-length portrait of a man, wearing expensive clothes, a metal collar and a plumed hat. The identity of the sitter is clear, for the features are unmistakably those of Rembrandt himself. The signature and date of 1635, if now to be relied on, point to Rembrandt painting it when he was 29. These were propitious years for the young artist, who had arrived in Amsterdam from Leiden in 1631 and in 1634 made a good marriage to Saskia van Uylenburghe. At the time of this portrait’s production the couple had recently moved to Nieuwe Doelenstraat, a relatively upmarket address in Amsterdam. Rembrandt’s star was on the rise and he would soon be hailed as the most prominent Dutch artist of his time, attracting wealthy clients from Amsterdam and further afield.
So far, so clear. But the painting’s identification and authentication raise many issues of identity. To begin with, until further laboratory tests have been carried out it is not absolutely certain that this attribution will be sustained. And that, in turn, reminds us of the difficulties the Rembrandt Research Project has had to grapple with since its inception in 1968. Although most scholars accept its verdicts, the work of clarifying what is and isn’t by Rembrandt has seen many works, once thought to be by Rembrandt, ascribed instead to pupils or followers. Significantly, in relation to the Buckland Abbey painting, the number of self-portraits by Rembrandt now accepted as genuine is approximately half of the number that were once believed to be authentic. As with all enquiries into authorship, in many cases the best that can be hoped for is a balance of probabilities rather than a definitive conclusion.
Then there is the issue of self-portraiture as Rembrandt practised it. There are just over 40 authentic self-portraits in existence, the earliest of them dated to the late 1620s and the last to the year of his death. Nearly half of them were produced c. 1628-35, so adding this painting to the tally is not unexpected. Rembrandt’s motives for making self-portraits were mixed. Some, especially those he made as etchings, were probably experiment s in facial expressions. Then there were self-portraits that were straightforward representations of his features. As Rembrandt’s fame grew, so collectors were eager to purchase self-portraits by him. The English monarch Charles I was one of them, acquiring a Rembrandt self-portrait in the early 1630s from Sir Robert Kerr, Earl of Ancrum, who had been on a diplomatic mission to The Hague in 1629 (the picture is now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
But what complicates any approach to Rembrandt’s self-portraiture is his sophisticated understanding of how he used this multiplication of his own image to influence the market. It wasn’t a case of simple self-promotion by dissemination of his own portrait; it was that his self-presentation in these pictures maintained the qualities seen in other aspects of his production, asserting something about the dignity of his profession, its traditions, its intellectual sophistication and its ability to contribute to philosophical and ethical reflection. The National Gallery’s Self-Portrait of 1640, for example, allowed Rembrandt to position himself as the inheritor of the achievement of the old masters by riffing on portraits by Raphael (one of which he had seen at an auction in 1639) and Titian that had recently been on view in Amsterdam.
Other self-portraits, as we call them, were in fact projections of the artist into historical or mythological situations, taking on personifications in much the same way as an actor would. Pictures like these had a distinctive name in Dutch art theory of the time – ‘tronies’. The sitter in such a picture was not meant to be identified. A tronie works through allusion and symbolism to reveal not the individual whose features are recorded but the historical character s/he stands for or the symbolic message the overall subject is meant to communicate. In the case of the Buckland Abbey painting, we know from other pictures of the time, that costly vestments, armour and especially feathers could be used to signify the transience of earthly riches, the fickleness of fate and the vanity of human wishes. If the Buckland Abbey picture is read in this way, it reveals a certain knowing response on Rembrandt’s part to his own growing celebrity as his career took off.