Rembrandt in America: A Supreme Court for Rembrandt

Rembrandt Research Project: A Supreme Court for Rembrandt

Rembrandts are among the most misidentified paintings in the art world. To help address this problem, the Rembrandt Research Project was formed in 1968 to make definitive rulings on the authenticity of each painting. At one point there were thought to be over 700 paintings that were attributed to Rembrandt. That number has now dropped to a little over 300.

A Corpus of Rembrandt PaintingsDennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
The Dutch government started the Rembrandt Research Project. And they put together a group of scholars, not just art historians, but scientists, to look at all the so-called Rembrandts in the world, and like a Supreme Court, they would come down with a decision: "Is it Rembrandt or not Rembrandt?"

And they would have Category A, "Absolute Rembrandt," Category B, they're on the fence, Category C, "Not Rembrandt." But not only did they have a majority opinion, but occasionally there would be a minority opinion, where they would argue, "No, that's not right." So think of a Supreme Court for Rembrandt.

KeyesGeorge Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
They would go off in pairs or triplets and they would visit various museums and do very thorough assessments of the paintings, and they tried to put all of this on a scientific footing, as well. So they looked at a number of issues including the nature of the support; they looked at X-rays; they looked at infrared reflectography; they looked at ultraviolet photography of these paintings. And in doing so, they discovered an enormous amount about the way these pictures were put together.

But it did also demonstrate that a number of paintings which had traditionally been accepted as by Rembrandt simply couldn't have been because the pigments used were not pigments you associated with the 17th century practice. These were pigments that evolved later on.

WellerDennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
So you get to, "Okay, all these materials are seventeenth century," but "What about his pupils?" He had a huge workshop and that's the problem. He had all these major artists in his workshop, some that became more famous than Rembrandt in his lifetime, like Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol, and others. So all these pupils, they used the same materials. So it's not a material thing, it really boils down to quality and certain techniques that Rembrandt would have used and his students may not have, and that's the whole question of connoisseurship: "to know." [The discerning eye.]

It really is the same question that they've been dealing with for years and years. There's going to be work for art historians forever, because there is never going to be a definitive Rembrandt.