Since the 1970s, the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania has displayed Portrait of a Young Woman, a 1632 portrait long attributed to studio assistants in Rembrandt’s workshop. Around two years ago the painting was sent for a routine cleaning to New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where conservationists discovered, hidden beneath layers of overpainting and thick varnish, traces of the Dutch master’s vivid brushwork. X-ray, infrared, and electron microscopy confirmed their speculations: the small Pennsylvania museum owns an authentic Rembrandt van Rijn piece.
“We’re very thrilled and excited,” Elaine Mehalakes, vice president of curatorial affairs at the Allentown Art Museum, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, which first reported the news. “The painting has this incredible glow to it now that it just didn’t have before. You can really connect with the portrait in the way I think the artist meant you to.”
The oil-on-wood painting was bequeathed by the Samuel H. Kress Collection to the museum in 1961. At the time, it was attributed to Rembrandt, and exhibited as such until 1970, when the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of Dutch art historians dedicated to investigating any pieces said to be by the Dutch master, judged it to be the work of assistants, citing the murky lighting and lack of texture.
Shan Kuang, a conservator at NYU who helped restore Portrait of a Young Woman, explained that the thick varnish was a common addition during early 20th-century restorations. “We call it a ‘mirrored surface’—people wanted to see their reflection, which is really counter to what a Rembrandt should look like,” she told CNN. After removing the varnish, “it became very apparent very quickly that the painting was of a very high quality,” she added.
For now, the Allentown Museum has no intentions of selling its prized holding, which is currently in the museum’s vault. It will return to the gallery wall on June 7, when it will become the subject of the exhibition called “Rembrandt Revealed.” According the museum’s site, the exhibition will “explore the complexities and uncertainties of the attribution process.”