Rembrandt Research Project

Self-portrait in a Flat Cap

Self-portrait in a Flat Cap; In 1982, this painting was dismissed by Christopher White (Royal Collection curator) as a fake. However, Van de Wetering listed it as authentic in Volume V of the Corpus.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is known as one of the greatest artists in European history, with his contributions heralding in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century, but the Dutch painter and etcher is also known for being the subject of great contention. He was so popular during his lifetime in the 1600s that many of his apprentices and followers imitated and copied his work, as did admirers after his death. As a result, art experts have found it difficult to agree upon which of his works should be attributed to Rembrandt and which should not.

When distinguishing between his work and that of others, Rembrandt’s extremely valuable paintings that sell in the multi-millions were rejected as imitations, copies or fakes and accepted as authentic like a see-saw, making their value difficult to distinguish. Those who rely upon his work for income–art dealers, collectors, museum and institution workers, etc–have had their lives impacted. Adding to the confusion, the groups created to authenticate his work have also fallen under scrutiny. Their attempt to examine his works and create a catalog of art attributed to Rembrandt has failed, leaving the determination of his artwork where it began–on a piece by piece basis.

The RRP Early On

Rembrandt was famous for his great talent early on in his life, from July 15, 1606, to October 4, 1669. Beginning in his early 20s, he had become such a popular painter that he already had apprentices. His popularity grew steadily over his lifetime, and not long after his death there were books already published about him and his paintings were being inventoried.

This is where the confusion began. In inventorying his works, there were so many imitations of Rembrandt around, it became difficult to develop a clear number of works actually created by the artist. Going back decades, there have been issues concerning this. For instance, in the late 1800s, his paintings were numbered at more than 1,000. In the 1930s, that number dropped to around 700, and in the 1960s, it again changed to close to 400.

The many copied and faked paintings were made during and after his lifetime. Rembrandt’s work was in high demand, and he managed to keep productivity up while keeping his prices high by having strict quality-control on the work done at his studio. To help accomplish this, it is said the artist sometimes collaborated with his apprentices by sketching the basis of art pieces and having the pupils paint them in.

As well, his apprentices that worked under him at his studio often modeled their work after him. In addition, he had many followers and admirers who liked to imitate him, including other artists of the time. One such artist was another well-known Dutch painter named Gerrit Dou (April 7, 1613, to February 9, 1675) who was a pupil of Rembrandt’s and many of his works were attributed to him.

In an effort to sort this out and get a more precise number of authenticated artworks, the Dutch who view Rembrandt as their most important artist in the nation’s history, thought it necessary to hire people to review and catalog his works at the public’s expense. In 1968, they established the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) with the initial aim to review all of his paintings and separate Rembrandt’s own works from the large collection of “Rembrandt-type paintings” made at his studio by his apprentices and elsewhere by his many followers.

The ultimate objective of the RRP was the compilation of an oeuvre catalog, which the RRP states “is not in the first place a matter of getting to know Rembrandt as man and artist, but rather of ordering and describing his painted oeuvre.” In this fashion, their goal was to avoid confusing Rembrandt’s works with those of his pupils or other associates involved in the production of portraits, or with later fakes or imitations. The RRP set this as its priority.

The Amsterdam-based project was slated to take a decade to complete, and its mission started out simple. As stated: “a small group of the greatest Dutch specialists would undertake a detailed examination of the paintings then attributed to Rembrandt, using the latest scientific techniques. Having assembled the data, the team would analyze the results, sifting through the authentic works from those by Rembrandt’s studio and later followers.”

A team of seven expert scholars joined the RRP, including Ernst van de Wetering, Josua Bruyn, Bob Haak, Simon Levie and Pieter van Thiel. For 42 years, they set out to catalog Rembrandt’s paintings and etchings and make a determination of those that are authentic and those that are not, releasing their findings in a series of highly-detailed books called A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. The RRP was quickly on the road to becoming the most respected among groups created to review Rembrandt’s works.

Troubles Abound

While the RRP began with good intentions and with well-respected experts on staff, nevertheless there were troubles from the start. The volumes that list different findings in regard to works accepted and rejected in attribution to Rembrandt is a testament to this. In the earlier volumes, some paintings that were listed as not being true Rembrandt works were in the later volumes re-examined and their findings revised and overturned. An example of this was The Self Portrait, which was dismissed in the RRP’s first book in 1982 and later reinstated.

Four full-length volumes of the Corpus were published, followed by a smaller fifth volume. In all, the RRP initially accepted a total of 250 paintings as being works by Rembrandt, doubted or rejected 162 as not being his, and, in later volumes, overturned 70 re-examined works. A remaining 80 paintings were not cataloged, which is a quarter of the collection. Those are to be included in a summary volume.

Reasons for the RRP’s troubles and why the books differ, vary. One of the biggest was the tension among its members and their difficulty early on to establish agreeable research methods for authenticating Rembrandt paintings, calling it their “authenticity problem.”

For example, they could not agree upon whether to use scientific methods. They stated, “using x-ray and other radiographic methods, experts on the analysis of grounds and other paint samples, and the analysis of wood supports and canvas [had] demonstrated that, so far, the results of these research methods applied to Rembrandt had yielded little of significance for the determination of authenticity.”

In a cited example, the RRP stated they long considered The Hague Bust of an old man in a cap to be a later imitation. Its wood panel, however, turned out to have come from the same plank as the panels of the Hamburg Simeon in the Temple and the Berlin Minerva, creating a high degree of probability that the works were painted in the same workshop because they came from the same tree-trunk. And with the Braunschweig Portrait of a man and Portrait of a woman, they were also initially considered as later imitations, but the panel of the woman proved to have come from the same tree as the center plank of the Chicago Man in a gorget and black cap.

The RRP also discussed whether it was even possible to view paintings as a group: “At an early stage, the question was raised by the RRP’s critics whether a ‘collective expertise’ was in fact possible. However, the late 1960s and 70s was a time of great belief in teamwork generally, although it gradually became clear that actual sharing of visual experiences–let alone communicating them–is virtually impossible.”

The RRP’s investigation practices were an issue as well. In their final full-sized book, volume IV, the RRP argued that while “in theory it may sometimes be possible to prove that a painting is not by Rembrandt by means of technical investigation, the converse–using the same methods to prove conclusively that a painting is certainly by Rembrandt–is never possible. It may be redundant to labor the point that, on the one hand, historical works of art are complex man-made objects whose materials, manufacture, as well as style and quality can vary even when made by the same person, while on the other hand works that are closely related in just these respects could have been done by different painters, e.g. in Rembrandt’s immediate circle.”

The RRP even debated the order in which the book was to be laid out, chronologically or thematic, in which the last volumes were dramatically changed . “Having opted for a chronological approach to the cataloging of Rembrandt’s paintings in the first three volumes, it was decided in 1993 to adopt a thematic approach for further volumes. This was largely to facilitate the recognition of different hands. The new approach yielded much more information not only about Rembrandt’s working methods, but also about the function and meaning of his works.”

The Corpus

In more than 40 years of its existence, the RRP released a total of five books of their findings, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, with the last two versions written in a different format. In 1982, the first book was released, and soon after it became a shock to people in the art world that a large number of Rembrandt’s works that were valued by so many were no longer considered to be by Rembrandt.

The RRP was thought to have taken too tough of an approach in accepting Rembrandt works, with experts suggesting they should have agreed to fewer than 250. This was in relation to a 1935 figure by Abraham Bredius, considered one of the greatest early 20th Century Rembrandt scholars, who accepted 613 paintings. Experts then suggested this number was way too high and should be cut in half.

When the second volume of the Corpus came out in 1986, there was near social unrest, with demonstrations on some European streets in protest of the book’s findings. People were angry with the RRP for having said many of the paintings that were thought to be real, were not. Art dealers, collectors and institutions that housed Rembrandt artworks were now being told by the RRP that some of them were not his, which meant the loss of millions of dollars. Many aristocratic families who had paintings by him that have hung in their homes for hundreds of years were told they were not authentic.

As a result, there was much criticism of the RRP, including by the press. Other groups were formed to compete with the RRP and to contradict their work. Some of the paintings like the hotly debated New York’s The Polish Rider, were rejected by the project, but then later reinstated and considered real again. These were completely unexpected findings with many people believing they were incorrect.

When the third volume was released in 1989, museums and private collectors found that over 100 works had been rejected, leading to a perceived failure of the RRP to make accurate determinations. The works that were re-examined and reversed show a discrepancy with authentication practices of the RRP. In addition, there is disagreement about 80 paintings that have not yet been catalogued.

By the time the fourth volume was published in 2005, the entire order of the book had been changed. It went from being in chronological order for the first three volumes, covering his works painted from 1625 to 1642, to a thematic order, dealing with the authenticity of the 30 or so painted self-portraits from the period of 1642 to 1669. The RRP stated they changed this in hopes to develop a “solid foundation from which to explore further the phenomenon of Rembrandt’s art.”

The RRP produced volume IV with an aim to “place those works that have usually been referred to as Rembrandt’s self-portraits in a new and coherent context.” In this book, members of the RRP set out to revise the “limits of Rembrandt’s autograph oeuvre, and attempt to “situate those works whose attribution to Rembrandt we can no longer accept.” They acknowledge that while some “readers may be shocked by several unexpected dis-attributions, some may well find that we have been considerably more restrained in our exclusion of certain works from Rembrandt’s oeuvre than our more recent predecessors.”

The fifth volume released in 2010 lists the research results conducted by the RRP. This version is a catalog and analysis, offering an illustrated survey of 90 small-scale history and genre paintings from 1625 to 1669, as well as 80 etchings and 50 drawings. It lists works by Rembrandt as well as those by his pupils and followers that were sometimes made in collaboration. A new approach in this book covers Rembrandt as an artist, namely his thought processes when painting. The Berlin Susanna and the Elders is one of the paintings reviewed.

Reform Of The RRP

Before the books were complete and the subsequent themes of the Corpus published, there were major reforms made to the RRP due to its criticism, inside tension and loss of credibility, starting in the early 1990s. The listings of those paintings the RRP found that are authentic and those they found that are not had come under great controversy, with many people shocked at their findings. Scholars within the RRP had trouble in fulfilling their work, and there were reversals of their findings.

Four members resigned out of the original seven after Ernst van de Wetering complained they were too tough in rejecting paintings. Those members, Josua Bruyn, Bob Haak, Simon Levie and Pieter van Thiel, claimed they were correct in doing so and didn’t agree with Wetering’s findings. Wetering accepted around 320 paintings, while the other members only accepted 250.

Wetering spent most of his working life on the Corpus. When the four members in disagreement resigned, he became the head of the project in 1993 and remained so for nearly 20 years. Including new chairman Wetering, the RRP’s final members were Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann of the New York Uni­versity, Taco Dibbits of the Rijks­museum, Peter van de Ploeg of Waanders publishing and Rudi Ekkart of The Netherlands Institute for Art History.

Under Wetering, everything changed. Now instead off reducing the number of Rembrandt paintings, he took paintings that were rejected in the first three volumes, and reintroduced them as authentic in those that followed. New additions were also included to the Corpus. The value of Rembrandt art was going up and down. This subject of great controversy has not been settled, with some saying it odd that it went from being overly exclusive to overly inclusive.

In addition to accepting more paintings, Wetering introduced other reforms to the RRP, including the change in the format of the Corpus from chronological order in the first three volumes to thematic in the fourth and fifth. The proposed book to follow, Volume VI, was to cover the remaining works apart from his portraits and small-scale history paintings.

But the Corpus was never completed, even though it was very near the fulfillment of its mission. In 2011, the RRP board voted to terminate the project even though 80 paintings of the oeuvre had not yet been investigated. They claimed a lack of scholar availability to take over responsibilities from the 72-year-old RRP Chairman Wetering who had decided to retire.

Wetering, who had spent his life working on the project and had become one of the world’s leading experts on Rembrandt as a result, said he did not have another decade of energy to research and write 800 more pages of a detailed catalog for the last 80 works. Additonally, funding had become difficult to receive with most of its money coming from the Netherlands’ Organization for Scientific Research that was cut off in 1998.

Instead, a smaller version will cover the 80 works that have not yet been cataloged, and will contain a summary of 320 paintings Wetering believes are true Rembrandts. That number is broken down into 240 works that have already been cataloged, which have brief entries and references to their earlier volumes, and the 80 uncatalogued paintings that have more in-depth entries.

Aftermath: There Is Hope

With all the contention and confusion surrounding the Rembrandt Research Project, in the end, all has not been lost. Many of its findings have led to reversals and the re-authentication of Rembrandt paintings. And for more than 40 years, its members have worked tirelessly to catalog Rembrandt artworks and publish their findings in the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, creating highly-detailed books that are valued for the quantity of data in the 4,000 pages produced.

In 2009, The Netherlands formed a new group to redo the RRP’s work. Called the Rembrandt Database, this new group’s goal is to re-examine earlier volumes of the Corpus, and once again determine which paintings by Rembrandt were created by him and which were not. In its early stages, information on 19 Rembrandt paintings located in The Hague, New York, London, Paris and Dresden is being reviewed. The RRP’s archives were transferred to this joint organization by the Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague’s Mauritshuis and New York’s Mellon Foundation. It’s aim is to build off of and supplement research done by the RRP.

If you or someone you know has had a work by Rembrandt rejected by the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), we are ready and able to re-authenticate it for you. We have the resources, the knowledge and the experience on the international level in multiple countries simultaneously to perform these authentications. Our experts and specialists are readily available, and we have more than 11 years of experience working on very complex projects successfully, including on works by Rembrandt.


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