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Rembrandt Self-Portrait Recovered
Rembrandt, selfportrait, 12 x 15.5 cm. Copyright Nationalmuseum.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN.-The most valuable of the three paintings that were stolen at an armed robbery at Nationalmuseum 22 December 2000 has been recovered in Copenhagen, one week before the opening of Nationalmuseum’s exhibition The Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt, Frans Hals and their contemporaries.

On Rembrandt and the stolen Rembrandt painting (excerpt from the catalogue raisonné Dutch and Flemish paintings II, Nationalmuseum 2005).

TECHNICAL NOTES: Cleaning of the painting in 1991 revealed significant damage in the upper left and lower right corners. The signature is in the damaged upper left corner and is therefore difficult to read. It is possible to make out the letter R and the figures 163, possibly followed by a zero. The support is a copper plate covered with a layer of white lead, subsequently entirely overlaid with gold leaf.

EXHIBITIONS: The Hague 1903, no. 112; Paris 1911, no. 122; Stock­holm 1956, no. 5; Stockholm 1967, no. 128; Stockholm 1992, no. 51; London–The Hague 1999–2000, no. 18.

This portrait, purchased for the Nationalmuseum in conjunction with the Rembrandt exhibition of 1956, can be traced back to a number of auctions in Holland and to private collections in Paris. When it was first sold in Rotterdam, it changed hands for thirty-five florins. It was later acquired by the wealthy art collector Count Duchatel of Paris and by the painter, art writer and Ingres pupil Henri Delaborde, who became director of the Cabinet des Estampes at the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was in the home of Delaborde’s widow that Abraham Bredius saw the painting, which he subsequently borrowed for an exhibition in The Hague in 1903.

The portrait depicts the artist as a serious, rather gloomy young man. He is portrayed against a greyish brown background, wearing a dark brown coat, under which we glimpse a dark red jacket, with a pleated white, Renaissance-style collar round his neck. On his head he wears a black beret. His face is modelled with fine, careful brush strokes. The young man’s gaze is searching and concentrated.

Five paintings on copper by Rembrandt are known, and three of them have a gold-leaf ground: apart from the Stockholm painting, they are an Old Woman at Prayer in Salzburg and The Laughing Soldier in The Hague.1 These works are similar in size and are dated to the same period. According to Froentjes, they are probably by one and the same hand.

In earlier literature (Bode, Hofstede de Groot, Bredius, Gerson and others), this portrait was described as a work of Rembrandt. The RRP, however, catalogued it in group B (i.e. works that cannot be regarded with certainty as executed by the master), on the basis that the technique of careful, precise brushwork was untypical of Rembrandt and the gold ground was so unusual. In addition, the extensive retouching was seen as an obstacle to a confident assessment of the work.

After the painting had been cleaned in the Nationalmuseum’s conservation studio in readiness for the 1992 exhibition, it was easy to see the considerable similarities in terms of lighting, expression and character between this work and other early self-portraits, such as the one in Leipzig from 1630–31.2 In conjunction with the exhibition, moreover, the portrait was accepted as authentic by Ernst van de Weteringen and the RRP group.

The upshot of our joint discussion was that the Stockholm portrait, with its small format and special ground, required more detailed brushwork than the larger portraits on panel and canvas. Rembrandt was presumably not averse at this time to experimenting with different techniques. Some scholars have pointed out that the execution of this small portrait is reminiscent of an etching or copperplate engraving.3 During this period, Rembrandt was working on a number of self-portraits in these techniques, and therefore quite naturally had copper plate to hand. His reason for using a gold leaf overlay could have been to give greater radiance to the colours.

The catalogue for the exhibition of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in London and The Hague in 1999 observes that the marked difference in style between the three small paintings on copper plate may perhaps have been intentional on the part of the artist. In his didactic poem Den grondt der edel vry schilder-const (1604), the art theorist Karel van Mander (1548–1606) distinguished between “smooth” and “coarse” painting as two different techniques. The three paintings demonstrate not only that Rembrandt had mastered both methods, but also that he was able to combine the two. It is entirely possible, say the catalogue’s authors, that the three pieces were used in the workshop as examples for his pupils, who were thus able to acquaint themselves not only with three different techniques, but also with three different types of tronie: the old woman, the soldier and the youth.

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