Rembrandt at Buckland Abbey

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.

Warriors of the Plains: 200 years of Native North American honour and ritual

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter (22 September 2012 to 13 January 2013)

Curated by the anthropologist Max Carocci (Birkbeck College) this wonderful exhibition looks at the warfare and ritual of Native North American Plains culture. Using a variety of ceremonial objects and costumes it shows the importance of warrior society to the men and women of these communities, from 1800 to  the present. Each of these warrior societies was a social, political and ritual group that engaged in warfare and organised ceremonial life and the exhibition includes feather headdresses, shields, moccasins, painted hides, scalps, pipes, tomahawks, and traditional and contemporary dress. Exeter has one of the best collections of this material in the U.K. (examples are on permanent display in the ‘World Cultures’ galleries) and it was very appropriate that the British Museum chose to work in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and bring this exhibition to a West Country audience.

Inter-tribal conflict was suppressed by the U.S. government which, of course, fought its own wars against Native peoples west of the Mississippi throughout the 19th century. One might have presumed that the warrior societies and the ceremonial activity they supported would die away once the west was ‘won’ and along with them the ritual and deep spirituality that had sustained them. But in fact they have endured into modern times and now support those who have served with U.S. forces in the world wars and more recent conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This continuation of a long-standing tradition is a very good example of what the Native American (Anishinaabe) scholar and activist Gerald Vizenor has termed survivance – the word is a combination of ‘survival’ and ‘resistance’- by which he means not merely the retention of Native American culture against the odds but also, and just as importantly, a means of escaping the stereotypical understanding of the American Indian as a victim of colonial oppression, whose culture is marked today only by absence, powerlessness and historical tragedy. Survivance, instead, highlights the Indian’s contemporary presence, the articulation of indigenous character and culture in new contexts and, insofar as current social and political contexts permit it, a readiness to assert tribal values in the contemporary world.

A section of the displays, Once a Warrior, added specially by RAMM, was produced by servicemen and women based in this region. Their recorded voices and artwork reflect on the parallels between Native American Warrior Societies and their own military experience.

In Pursuit of Art: Charles Eastlake’s Journey from Plymouth to the National Gallery

(Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, 22 September – 15 December, 2012)

Three years ago Plymouth celebrated the career of its most famous artistic son, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder and first President of the Royal Academy, in a major exhibition (Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius). The life and career of another artist associated with the city, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), is less well known, but Eastlake, too, was historically important, rising in his turn to become President of the Royal Academy and also Director of the National GalleryThe exhibition was curated by Susanna Avery-Quash, Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, who has recently published The Travel Diaries of Sir Charles Eastlake (National Gallery/Walpole Society, 2011), as well Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World, (National Gallery, 2011; co-authored with  Julie Sheldon ) and curated a small exhibition,  Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery (National Gallery, 27 July – 30 October 2011).

Gerolamo dai Libri, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, 1510 to 1518 © The National Gallery, London

The Plymouth exhibition showed a select collection of exhibits and was designed to review Eastlake’s career and highlight his local connections in his early years, especially his Plymouth patrons and his art training there and  in London from two Plymouth-born painters, Samuel Prout and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Eastlake’s activities as a painter of landscapes and subject pictures in Italy in the 1820s and, more extensively, his work for the National Gallery made up the rest of the exhibition. Eastlake was responsible for building up the National Gallery collection and a great many of the masterpieces permanently on display there today were acquired by him in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of his contemporaries he championed the idea of building up a collection that was not merely strong aesthetically but also historically, including examples of so-called ’primitive’ painting from the early Renaissance, for example.  With an annual purchase grant from the government of £10,000 he travelled across continental Europe, primarily but not exclusively in Italy, ferreting out pictures from owners who often had little affection for their ancestral collections. At Plymouth, five examples of these works were on display: Jacopo Bassano’s Good Samaritan, Gerolamo dai  Libri’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s L’Avvocato ,  Jacob van Ruisdael’s Waterfall in a Rocky Landscape and Gerard ter Borch’s Portrait of a Young Man. In addition, JMW Turner’s Margate (?) from the Sea, acted as a reminder of Eastlake’s 40-year friendship with the artist and the arrangements made by the National Gallery for the Turner Bequest after his death in 1851.

The general public is rarely given the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which major collections, such as the National Gallery’s have come into existence.  This exhibition revealed Eastlake’s connoisseurial strengths when seeking out works by the old masters but more importantly it stimulated visitors to think of the National Gallery in future as a collection whose history is fascinating in its own right, both in and of itself and as a reflection of 19th-century debates about the value of art and the social and educational functions of a major art collection.