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    Rembrandt: Myth, Legend, Truth

    Some have called him vulgar, ignorant, and greedy. To others he has been the ultimate misunderstood genius. He has represented the bohemian, the liberal, the Romantic, and the revolutionary. Beginning in his lifetime and ongoing as we celebrate his 400th birthday, opinions and beliefs about Rembrandt have changed with the centuries.

    The great self-portraitist, 34 years old in 1640, dresses up as an Oriental potentate in 1658.

    The great self-portraitist, 34 years old in 1640, dresses up as an Oriental potentate in 1658.

    ©THE FRICK COLLECTION, NEW YORK

    In January 1670 the artist Abraham Breughel wrote a letter to the Sicilian collector Antonio Ruffo. Breughel acted as Ruffo’s agent in Rome and had been urging his patron to buy Italian pictures, but Ruffo had other ideas. He complained to Breughel that the greatest painters in Italy couldn’t provide him with a half-length portrait equal to those of Rembrandt, who had died a few months earlier.

    Breughel answered with barely suppressed contempt. The great Italian masters would hardly condescend to paint such trifles as a draped figure lost in shadow save for a point of light at the tip of the nose. “The great painters are interested in showing a beautiful nude figure, from which one can see that they know how to draw,” he wrote, clearly implying that Rembrandt did not. “Only an uneducated person tries to clothe his figure with a clumsy dark garment, and these artists compose the surroundings in such a way that we cannot make head nor tail of them.”

    Among the trifles Breughel dismissed so disdainfully—Ruffo had purchased it years earlier from Rembrandt himself—was Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653), today considered one of the greatest treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    As Rembrandt’s 400th birthday is celebrated this year with blockbuster exhibitions, symposia, festivals, tours, and performances, and as museums the world over lucky enough to own his works set them forth with pride, it seems unthinkable that the man we consider one of the supreme geniuses of world art was dismissed so contemptuously in his own time. But Breughel was only repeating what critics and theorists had been saying about Rembrandt’s art for years.

    Rembrandt was “one of the great controversial figures,” Julius Held wrote in ARTnews in 1950. Academic critics were both attracted to and repelled by the Dutch master. He was a superb colorist who couldn’t draw, a realist who ignored the classical canon. Biographers branded him a lowborn, illiterate, vulgar slob. But Rembrandt’s reputation changed with the times. By the middle of the 18th century, the ultimate outsider was becoming the ultimate misunderstood genius. To 19th-century artists and critics, Rembrandt was a bohemian, a liberal, a national hero, a Romantic, and a revolutionary. In the 20th century, he became one of the most scrutinized artists of all time, thanks to a series of catalogues raisonnés, culminating in the Rembrandt Research Project’s ongoing Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings.

    Rembrandt attracted notice at an early age. He was famous during his lifetime and after his death. He always had admirers—his prints and drawings were eagerly collected—but he also had powerful detractors. Reliable information about him was scarce, and in its absence legends proliferated. Within a decade of his death, a remarkable number of untruths were circulating about him, and they continued to multiply, at least in popular media, through the 20th century.

    One of the most persistent myths is that all of Rembrandt’s troubles came about because of the Night Watch. This canvas, it was said, outraged the members of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’s militia because they couldn’t see their faces clearly, and was jeered by the public. Angered by Rembrandt’s refusal to alter the painting, the militiamen refused to pay for it, and it was hung in an out-of-the-way place to avoid embarrassment to the city of Amsterdam. The scandal, in 1642, was the beginning of the end for poor Rembrandt, who was only 36 at the time. The stubborn genius who “refused to prostitute his art by catering to the tastes of the stupid, backward public” descended into old age “without a friend or a guilder, or even a good piece of herring.”

    Thus Seymour Slive summed up the artist’s imagined fate in his brilliant, entertaining book Rembrandt and His Critics. Twentieth-century biographers elaborated on the description of Rembrandt’s debt-ridden, drunken old age—the famous man brought low by his own extravagance and intransigence. The truth, however, is quite different, Slive writes. Captain Banning Cocq’s men were pleased with their unconventional group portrait, and the public admired it. It brought the artist enormous fame and was considered one of the great attractions in art-filled Amsterdam. If Rembrandt was solitary in his last years, it was because he chose to withdraw from the world.

    Discerning critics admired Rembrandt from his earliest days. Even before he went to Amsterdam, while he was sharing a studio with Jan Lievens in his native Leiden in 1628, the two young artists were singled out by the connoisseur Constantin Huygens, who remarked that they were already the equals of the most famous painters and would soon surpass them.

    But the idea that Rembrandt was somehow “different”—in a class by himself as a painter and a social outsider—developed when he was still a very young man. Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern Baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., says that this persona was in large part Rembrandt’s own invention. Wheelock points to Rembrandt’s earliest self-portraits, in which he presents himself to the world with wild hair and very strong chiaroscuro effects. “These are radically different from any that had been done before,” Wheelock says. “Most self-portraits were made with an eye toward elevating the status of the artist, presenting him as more than a mere craftsman, so they show the artist well dressed, dignified, often with an easel.”

    But in these self-portraits, Wheelock says, “Rembrandt is thumbing his nose at all that. He’s saying, ‘Look at me. I’m totally different. I don’t come out of a well-established tradition.’” And that, says Wheelock, is how he was seen by Huygens, who was “amazed by this beardless miller’s son, amazed that he could create what none of the ancients ever thought of, even though he never had a master worthy of the name.” (In fact, Rembrandt had studied with Pieter Lastman, the greatest history painter of the day.) Rembrandt wasn’t yet 25 years old when Huygens predicted a great future for him.

    Less than 20 years later, in 1648, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was established in Paris to train art students. Henceforth, artists were to be learned enough in history and mythology to paint noble and heroic subjects that would instruct and elevate; they would imitate the ancients; they would study nature but know how to improve on it; they would have “knowledge of anatomy, proportion, perspective, drapery and expression.” Rembrandt would be severely criticized by successive generations of art theorists in the next 150 years because he didn’t follow the rules of the Academy.

    Biographers traced the defects in Rembrandt’s art to his deficiencies of class and character. Joachim von Sandrart, the German gentleman-painter who published a biography of the artist in 1675, implied that Rembrandt was not only ignorant of the classical canon but was virtually illiterate. He could have learned from the ancients to paint Greek goddesses, but he preferred lumpy females with sagging breasts, clumsy hands, and garter dents in their thighs. He was indecent, placing copulating dogs in The Preaching of Saint John and a defecating dog smack in the center foreground of The Good Samaritan. More shocking, Rembrandt associated with lowborn people. It was Sandrart who originated the legend of “Rembrandt the Slob,” in Slive’s phrase.

    The legend was embroidered by the Florentine Filippo Baldinucci, who included Rembrandt in a book of artist’s biographies he published in 1686. Baldinucci had never met Rembrandt and knew only two of his paintings, but he confidently described the artist’s ugly, plebeian face and his clothes that were always messy and dirty because he wiped his brushes on them as he worked and did “other things of a similar nature” (not specified). He bought picturesque old clothes at auction and hung these filthy rags on his studio walls among objects of beauty and value. He disdained everybody and wouldn’t allow the greatest monarch in the world to interrupt him when he was working. Rembrandt was hardly an example for those who believed that painting was a noble profession.

    This unappealing character was also whimsical and capricious. An example of Rembrandt’s bad behavior, according to the Dutch writer and painter Arnold Houbraken: while he was working on a family group portrait, his beloved pet monkey died, and because he had no other canvas available, he painted the dead animal into the portrait. His clients naturally objected, but Rembrandt refused to paint out the monkey and lost the commission.

    None of Rembrandt’s extant pictures support stories like this, Slive comments, but Houbraken’s three-volume account of 17th-century Dutch painters (published in 1718–21; republished in 1753) disseminated such tales and became a major source for students of Dutch art.

    It was Houbraken who wrote that Rembrandt was so greedy that his students would paint gold and silver coins on the floor just to see him try to pick them up. In the last years of his life, according to Houbraken, the painter accepted so many commissions and worked so fast that his pictures looked as if the paint had been smeared on with a trowel; he wouldn’t allow people to look at them too closely because he didn’t want them to see his bad technique. One portrait, Houbraken said, was so heavily impastoed that you could lift it from the floor by its nose.

    Nevertheless, most of Rembrandt’s critics admitted that this coarse eccentric had a kind of genius. He couldn’t draw like the divine Raphael or improve on nature according to the rules of the Academy, but his expressive powers were undeniable, especially in his history paintings and his religious pictures. His biblical characters weren’t distant or abstract; they were real human beings feeling genuine emotions, whose intensity they communicated powerfully to the viewer.

    Even Sandrart called him a great colorist and a master of chiaroscuro, a view shared by Roger de Piles, the influential French artist, writer, and diplomat. De Piles, a classicist, thought that Rembrandt broke every rule, but he admired the Dutch painter’s marvelous ability to imitate the natural world. In his biography of Rembrandt, first published in 1699, de Piles lamented that the painter, who was born with genius, fine and original thoughts, and a lively imagination, “sucked in the taste of his country” with his milk and “was brought up in constant sight of sluggish nature, and only knew too late of a more perfect truth than that which he always practiced.” In other words, as Slive puts it, Rembrandt didn’t have the good luck to be born in France, where his innate talents might have been cultivated.

    But de Piles, like earlier writers, considered Rembrandt “a master of his colors.” In 1708 he published a treatise on the art of painting, dividing it into four elements—color, composition, expression, and drawing—and grading 57 well-known artists on a scale from 0 to 20 in each category. De Piles admired Rubens and Raphael most, awarding them 65 points each. Rembrandt and Titian were tied for the tenth-highest score, a total of 50, which broke down, in Rembrandt’s case, to 17 for color (the same grade as Rubens and Van Dyck and far above the pathetic 4 given to Leonardo and Michelangelo); 15 for composition (compared with Caravaggio’s 6); 12 for expression (Caravaggio, 0); and 6 for drawing. Despite Rembrandt’s deficiencies in the last category, de Piles had great respect for him: he was the only 17th-century Dutch painter included on the list.

    Outside the Netherlands, Dutch painting wasn’t as highly regarded at this time as Italian, French, or English painting. Gérard de Lairesse, the subject of one of Rembrandt’s most sublime portraits, wrote in 1707 that he had thought highly of the painter until he learned the Academy’s “infallible rules of art.” They taught Lairesse to despise Dutch genre paintings as “pictures of beggars, bordellos, taverns, tobacco smokers, musicians, dirty children on their pots, and other things more filthy and worse.” How could one entertain persons of repute, Lairesse asked, in an apartment full of such works?

    But there were always contrary opinions about Rembrandt. With very few exceptions, Slive says, “critics of the 17th and 18th centuries accepted him as a serious history painter and applauded his portraits, etchings and drawings.” Even the Academic critics who deplored his style appreciated aspects of his work. By 1721 Antoine Coypel, director of the French Academy, was complaining that the “Rembrandts have been the only models which one has endeavored to imitate. Everything has been reversed.” This was a great exaggeration, but it was true that a number of French artists had begun to copy Rembrandt’s works or adopt aspects of his style. The Paris art market, according to the Dutch scholar Christian Tí¼mpel, “valued the Dutch realists and Rembrandt so highly that it was worthwhile to produce fakes purporting to be their works.” In Germany and in England, too, Rembrandt’s paintings, prints, and drawings were eagerly collected, copied, and imitated.

    Rembrandt’s rise to the heights he occupies today came about with changes in taste. The authority of the Academy declined; interest in naturalism, and in human personality and psychological subtlety, grew. The age that admired Watteau and Chardin, Held wrote, admired not only Rembrandt’s spontaneous technique but also the “sublimity” he achieved in the treatment of simple subjects. It was Watteau’s dealer, Gersaint, who compiled the first catalogue raisonné in Western art history—a list of Rembrandt’s etchings, published posthumously in 1751.

    Five years later, an aristocratic painter who had been rejected by the Academy, the Chevalier Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy, rhapsodized: “No one has the right to consider himself a connoisseur who does not like Rembrandt with all his faults. What a touch, what a harmony, what resplendent effects!”

    The beginnings of the Rembrandt cult were emerging. To the young Goethe, Rembrandt was a great poet comparable to Shakespeare and a painter equal to Rubens and Raphael. Delacroix risked what he called blasphemy to proclaim that “people will perhaps discover one day that Rembrandt was as great a painter as Raphael.” Writers had begun to mirror themselves and their times in their interpretations of the man and his art. To Romantics, he was a Romantic—a “somber, strange, bold, bizarre, romantic poet,” in the words of the French novelist and poet Arsí¨ne Houssaye. To republicans, he was a man of the people. The image of the artist as nonconformist was grafted onto the image of the revolutionary.

    Even the repulsive, vulgar subjects deplored by Lairesse were judged differently. To the critic and historian Hippolyte Taine, the ill-visaged Jews and usurers, the beggars and bandy-legged cripples, the gross slatterns, the “Hebrew incidents which seem copied in a Rotterdam hovel” were acceptable because Rembrandt had given these humble subjects transcendent meaning. The “chief interest of the picture is not man, but the tragedy of expiring, diffused, palpitating light incessantly competing with invading shadow.” In his native land, Rembrandt accumulated glory. By the middle of the 19th century, he had become the icon of the Dutch Golden Age “at a time when the Dutch were taking new pride in their national identity,” wrote Jeroen Boomgaard and Robert W. Scheller in their 1991 essay on Rembrandt criticism (in Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop, edited by Christopher Brown). “Like Dí¼rer in Germany and Rubens in Belgium earlier in the century, he became all that a nation felt it should take pride in.” In 1852 a monument was erected to the artist in what is now the Rembrandtplatz in Amsterdam.

    Rembrandt’s new status required some image polishing, because his somewhat unsavory reputation didn’t fit the part of national standard-bearer, Boomgaard and Scheller w
    ite. But Rembrandt was becoming more than the symbol of Dutch national pride. His star was rising to unprecedented heights internationally: he was coming to be regarded as the archetype of the artist who “transcended space and time in his universality.” He was, according to the Dutch writer Carel Vosmaer in 1868, simply “the painter of life and the human soul.”

    French artists in the 19th century constructed a somewhat different persona for Rembrandt, according to Alison McQueen of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, author of The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt (2003). McQueen says that the Dutch painter “offered something new to artists: a historical model who was not associated with Academic art. Specifically, he was a model for printmakers, particularly those who wanted to revive etching, which wasn’t in favor in France in the 19th century because the Academy and the Salon supported engraving.” The French printmakers preferred Rembrandt to their own Jacques Callot as a model, McQueen says, “because Callot had been associated with royalty, while Rembrandt was a man of the people.”

    To French artists in this revolutionary century, Rembrandt embodied democracy and republican sentiment—the opposite of Rubens, the leader of the Flemish school, who had worked for royalty and aristocracy. This Rembrandt persona, McQueen says, conflated his biography and his art. He had lived for many years in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam; he had depicted beggars and the urban poor, which was seen as evidence of his sympathy for different social groups. His bankruptcy led many people to feel empathy for him as an outsider. The critics “made more of Rembrandt as a social outcast, misunderstood in his own time. They held him up as an example to the French realists and said, ‘You will be understood in a couple of hundred years, just as Rembrandt is by us, even though he wasn’t in his own time.’

    “The artists, on the other hand, wanted to cast him as far more successful,” McQueen continues. “He was a man of humble origins who rose through his art. The myth of the bohemian artist had started to emerge, and the idea that Rembrandt was socially progressive and didn’t associate with royalty or the aristocracy, showed that it was possible for artists to challenge the social order, to live outside the confines of academic or conservative values, and still be successful—in the future if not in their own time.”

    To the Dutch archivists who discovered that Rembrandt had had many teachers, the French artists replied, ‘Yes, but he didn’t learn anything from them.’”

    By the end of the 19th century, Rembrandt had become a cult figure in France. His name and his images, McQueen says, were “endowed with meaning that encompassed anti-authoritarian conduct, personal and political liberalism, republicanism, originality, and innovative creative powers.” A play dramatizing his life, presented in Paris in 1898 and overlapping with the first retrospective of his paintings in Amsterdam, presented him as a tormented genius, a completely original figure, misunderstood and unappreciated by his contemporaries. The playwrights couldn’t resist exaggeration, making the artist blind at the end of his life, as well as ignored and poverty-stricken.

    In the last quarter of the 19th century, Boomgaard and Scheller write, Rembrandt underwent another radical transformation. If earlier scholars had reconstructed his biography and character on the basis of his art or their ideologies, now the amassing of facts about his life and the study and attribution of his paintings became paramount concerns. Connoisseurship came into its own. “To see with one’s own eyes, to know and recognize the master’s hand, increasingly became the basis of the discipline of art history.”

    The canon of Rembrandt’s etchings, E. H. Gombrich wrote in 1970, was the first battleground. Around 1800 there were thought to be about 376; by the end of the 19th century, the list had been pruned to 71. In 1952 the German scholar Ludwig Menz acknowledged 279. In his recent catalogue, Gary D. Schwartz listed 374.

    With painting, too, history shows the canon expanding and contracting. In 1880 there were estimated to be about 350 extant paintings by Rembrandt. The sumptuous eight-volume catalogue produced between 1897 and 1905 by Wilhelm von Bode and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot validated 595 works. Wilhelm Valentiner was more generous, bringing his total, in 1921, to 711 paintings. Abraham Bredius reduced it to 630 paintings in 1935, and in 1968 Horst Gerson, who as a young man had worked with Bredius at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, brought out a revised version of the Bredius catalogue that accepted only 420 works. Ernst van de Wetering, the head of the Rembrandt Research Project, estimates that it will reduce the number of Rembrandt’s paintings to about 350—the same figure put forth in 1880.

    The complex relations of Bode and Hofstede de Groot, Valentiner, and Bredius with others in the art world—and with one another—are described by Catherine B. Scallen of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in her 2004 book Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship. Scallen’s fascinating account of how they acquired and maintained their authority, how they clashed with one another over attributions or united against outsiders, how they used “power and influence in the overlapping worlds of scholarship, art dealing, and public and private collecting to support their hegemony in the realm of Rembrandt connoisseurship” offers rare insight into the history of art history.

    The catalogues raisonnés these men produced were extremely influential until well into the 20th century. But by 1969, when the tricentennial of Rembrandt’s death was celebrated as enthusiastically as this year’s quadricentennial birthday, scholars complained that confusion reigned. There still existed no carefully argued catalogues raisonnés of the master’s works, and pictures of dubious attribution still hung on the walls of the world’s great museums. “Only a small group of pictures are historically sound,” Gerson told an audience of Rembrandt scholars at a symposium in Chicago that year. “All the rest are attributions or not Rembrandts at all. Art history is concerned to a great extent with interpretations, not with facts. What we need most is information.”

    The Rembrandt Research Project was formed in the late 1960s by a group of Dutch scholars who agreed with Gerson. Their aim was to start “from nil,” in the words of Ernst van de Wetering, the youngest member of the group—to separate Rembrandt from the Rembrandt mystique, the “extravagant mythologization” that resulted from his great fame on one hand and the lack of precise information about him on the other. Their Rembrandt was not the stubborn nonconformist or the master of a unique and mysterious technique but the head of a large workshop of students and assistants to whom he transmitted a “rational painting technique and pictorial and stylistic ‘recipes.’” At the same time, his hand could almost always be distinguished from those of his students and assistants. The first three volumes of the RRP’s Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, published between 1982 and 1989, covered the period of Rembrandt’s life from 1625 through 1642 and listed 280 paintings, all ranked A (authentic), B (doubtful), or C (rejected). The group members achieved a remarkable degree of unanimity in reaching these decisions; in seven cases only van de Wetering expressed dissent.

    Volume IV of the Corpus, published last year, is very different from the first three volumes. It has dropped chronology—it deals only with self-portraits—and abandoned the ABC system. Between the third and fourth volumes, the RRP experienced an upheaval as older members died or retired, and the younger generation, in the person of van de Wetering, took over. Volume IV reflects his evolved conception of Rembrandt as an atelier master who worked much more collaboratively with his students and assistants. As van de Wetering told ARTnews in 2004, “‘Is it a Rembrandt or not’ no longer seemed the vital question.” In this he expresses the attitude of many scholars today who regard the traditional end of connoisseurship—the granting or withholding of attributions—as only one of many concerns.

    At the same time, van de Wetering has been making new Rembrandt attributions and reconsidering old ones. He now believes that Rembrandt painted what he calls oil studies, heads or half-figures that “may well have served as preliminary exercises for figures in a larger composition.” There has been a tendency, he adds, “to reject these oil studies as partial copies by students.” His reattributions have aroused the expected controversy. Of the Weeping Woman in the Detroit Institute of Arts, van de Wetering says, “My conviction is that it is by Rembrandt, but that is up for discussion.” Told that another eminent scholar strongly disagrees with him, van de Wetering laughs and says cheerfully, “I don’t care if he doesn’t agree. It’s not a matter of life or death.”

    Van de Wetering expects the final volume of the Corpus, which is dedicated to small-scale history paintings, to be completed within two years. “For me,” he says, “that is the end.” He intends to retire and return to his first love, painting.

    Whenever the group rejected a well-known painting, it found itself in the spotlight. This occurred most notably in 1984, when committee head Josua Bruyn expressed his conviction that The Polish Rider, one of the Frick Collection’s most beloved paintings, was not by Rembrandt and suggested that Willem Drost, a painter about whom almost nothing was known at the time, might be its author. That attribution wouldn’t be possible today, says Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because recently discovered documents reveal that Drost was in Italy by 1665, at the age of 22, and that he never returned to Holland before his death in 1659.

    Rembrandt scholarship today has expanded to include the master’s followers, says Liedtke. He cites Werner Sumowski’s six-volume Gemí¤lde der Rembrandt-Schí¼ler (Paintings of the Rembrandt School), published between 1983 and 1994, with its approximately 3,000 photographs of Rembrandt-style pictures. “In the ’60s, if you said a picture might be by Drost, you might be able to conjure a mental image of one in your brain, and you would have trouble getting a reproduction. Now you have 30 illustrations you can put your hand on immediately. For Govert Flinck, you would have 200 or 300. That has changed our understanding of Rembrandt.”

    We also know much more about the social and political context in which Rembrandt worked, thanks in large part to Schwartz, whose 1985 book, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings, presents an enormous amount of information about his patrons. “In my view,” Schwartz writes, “it is of much greater historical importance to know whether—and for whom—Rembrandt painted or inspired the painting of a particular composition at a particular moment in his career, than to know whether this or that existing canvas is by the master’s own hand.” To Schwartz, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656), whose subject is the rightful inheritance by a younger son over an older one, is not a transcendent vision—Schwartz doesn’t use such words—but a calculated attempt to flatter and justify a powerful patron who was involved in a messy family clash over a will.

    An irony is that through the 19th century, people were looking at a different Rembrandt from the one we see today. The appealing golden glow of his pictures—the patina of age and dirty varnish—was considered the very mark of the masterpiece, and thousands of paintings were slathered with dark varnish in an attempt to imitate it. In recent years, a number of Rembrandt’s works have been cleaned, in some cases with surprising results—as when the Night Watch was revealed as a daylight scene.

    “Scholars today work much more closely with conservators than in the past in order to know what pictures have condition problems, are overpainted, need cleaning, and so on,” says Liedtke. “And there’s a much greater interest in the technical means by which Rembrandt described naturalistic effects, as opposed to simply judging his style.”

    “We’re looking at a different Rembrandt,” says Wheelock. Almost all of the Rembrandts in the National Gallery of Art have been cleaned since Wheelock arrived there in 1973. “You see very different colors and a different sense of space. The chiaroscuro effects and the palette are very different. As a consequence, you find new ways of thinking about the way Rembrandt thought about his images, and also connections to other artists you might not have thought about without knowing that palette.”

    Wheelock remembers the great controversy surrounding the cleaning of The Mill in 1977. “It was a dark, brooding painting that was thought to reflect Rembrandt’s depression at the time of his bankruptcy. Then, with conservation, it was revealed that this deep, brooding tonality was in large part dirty varnish. It’s got a wonderful blue sky and clouds, which had not been seen since the beginning of the 19th century. It was hugely shocking.”

    In connection with the Rembrandt Research Project, van de Wetering has recently studied The Mill, which is featured in the exhibition “Rembrandt’s Landscapes” in Kassel and Leiden. He took it out of its frame and discovered that the canvas was tilted, so that the mill, the little boat, and the walking woman were all off-kilter. He also discovered that the picture had been cut to make it “more squarish.” It was originally rectangular, van de Wetering says, and the loss of a significant part of the canvas has disrupted Rembrandt’s usual relation of dark to light.

    Other discoveries remain to be made. What else lies ahead for Rembrandt studies? Liedtke says that a great deal of archival research is still unpublished. “Forty or 50 years from now,” he believes, “we’ll have a much more nuanced and subtle idea of Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings. A lot will emerge, particularly about Rembrandt’s pupils, and this will affect our view of Rembrandt.”

    Will we know more about the man? “We’ll know more about his house, his business, his family, his daily life,” Liedtke says.

    But to know his character, we will have to do what people have always done: we will have to look at his paintings.

    Sylvia Hochfield is editor-at-large of ARTnews.

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