On the History of Connoisseurship
Controversy of Rembrandt’s The Self-Portrait, C 56
Figure 1. Rembrandt, Self-Portarat. c.1633,
oil on oak panel, 56 x 47cm, Gemaldegalerie Berlin, Cat. No.808, RRP No.C 56
“C 56” is the catalog number under which the Rembrandt Research Project lists the Self-Portrait,
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, in the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings [Fig.1]. The absolute authentic paintings
of Rembrandt received the “A” numbers; questionable works are listed as “B”, and the “C”
numbers mean that the artworks are not painted by Rembrandt at all. Despite “C”, Rembrandt Research Project certifies now, that the C 56 is a “brilliant”
painting by the master himself. This paradox not just indicates the controversy surrounding Rembrandt’s
oeuvre, but also illustrates the competition of different art historical approaches. The story of C 56 is not just dramatic,
it also helps to understand the problems facing the art historical methodology, as well as showing the way art history as
a discipline may develop.
C 56 is a relatively small panel. Though often underestimated or questioned as authentic,
it is one of Rembrandt’s most interesting and unusual self-portraits of 1630s. Arthur Wheelock noted that in 1630s,
Rembrandt painted two completely different types of self presentation, “as an accepted member of society; elegantly
dressed and honored with gold chains, and as an outsider, whose character, and hence genius, can not be identified with the
Dutch middle class.” The Self-Portrait, C 56 includes both characteristics: it shows
Rembrandt as the honored member of the society with the “gold chain”, and as an outsider, the cavalier with an
extravagant cap and gorget. It is painted in an experimental bravura-rough manner which was a contrast to the middle class
taste of the seventeenth century Holland. Therefore it is a programmatic artwork in which young Rembrandt indicates in which
direction he will go as an artist developing his style during the life span: pastose paint layers, bravura execution, relief-like
modeling with the flat brush; thus, the painting technique which we understand as one of Rembrandt’s hallmarks.
According to the curator
of Gemäldegalerie Berlin, Jan Kelch, this self-portrait has relatively good provenance. The first known owner of this artwork was probably Comte de Wassenaar d’Obdam.
This assumption is based on the sale’s document describing this picture “The Hague, 19 August 1750, No.2: ‘Rembrandt:
Portrait van hem zelve, met een gouden Ketting om ’h. 21d., b. 18 ½ “ The measurement in Rhenish feet is
equivalent to 56 x 47cm, which is the size of the Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, “C 56”. Later, in the eighteenth century, this artwork was acquired by Brower for Avet for
202 guilders. The original eighteenth century sale’s label with the “Nr.19” is still attached on the back
of the panel. However, there is no documentation how and when this picture was acquired by the Prussian royal family. In 1830,
it was transferred from the Royal collection in Potsdam to the Royal Art Gallery in Berlin, which was founded in the same
year. Since then, this painting belongs to the Prussian State Art Collections. It was exhibited
in Kaiser Friedrich Museum until WW II; after the war it was moved from the bomb shelter to the Dahlem Museum in West Berlin.
In 1998, the Prussian State painting collections were relocated to the new-built Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum,
The connoisseurs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who created the Rembrandt standard
catalogues and dominated the art historical field, Wilhelm von Bode, Wilhelm Valentiner, Abraham Bredius, and Cornelis de
Groot, listed this self-portrait in their catalogues as the authentic painting by Rembrandt. Bode considered it as “less
appealing” and that “an unpleasant gray-greenish tone dominates the subdued coloring.” Others did not provide comments. The connoisseurship method of this generation of Rembrandt
experts was based on their experience and overall knowledge, as there were no objective criteria they presented as foundation
of their opinion. Their method, which they understood as “scientific” was based on the comparison of paintings,
“supplemented by knowledge of the facts of Rembrandt’s life.”
In 1916, George Simmel provided his philosophical criteria of Rembrandt’s portrait-art as a representation
of life experience with all its contradictions. Rembrandt’s “Gestalten” show the life-process itself by
rendering Individuality in its non-comparative meaning. Therefore, Rembrandt’s portrait-art unites the subjectivity
of artist’s personality with the Absolute of Life. This results in the experience of “Totaleexistenz”, when the dualism of
body and soul disappears, resolving inner psychological conflicts.
Klessmann pointed out that C 56, was painted in the first years of Rembrandt’s success in Amsterdam; therefore it exposes
and exhibits the self-confidence of a young artist, “confronting us with a scrutinizing glaze.” The symmetrical
composition reflects the feeling of calm and stability. Overall, the warm, ocher hues dominate the painting surface. Horst Gerson regards this artwork as “charming” and points out that its
“rough” and “vigorous technique” can be traced to the self-portraits created in 1629 in Leiden. Gerson also suggests that this self-portrait is a pendant
to the Portrait of Saskia.van Uylenburgh. This proposal is based on the biographical and stylistic arguments. Saskia’s
portrait of 1633 is her first portrait as Rembrandt’s bride: they married in June 1634. Saskia belonged to the rich
and respected Friesian family. With this marriage, Rembrandt, the son of a provincial miller, was elevated into the upper
class of the society. Gerson’s proposal, that after the marriage, Saskia’s portrait needed a pendant representing
her husband, appears logical. Both pictures have similar size; both figures have similar pose, both have similar wide soft
caps with the feather. Originally, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait was painted without a cap. It was added later,
which can be seen as an additional argument that this self-portrait was adjusted to fit to the Saskia portrait. However, there
are no contemporary evidences or documents which would confirm the theory that these two pictures belong together.
the middle of 1980s, C 56 was x-rayed. One of the leading experts of the Rembrandt Research Project - RRP, Ernst van de Wetering,
was invited to investigate the results. The x-ray has clearly shown that the painting has some similarities to another self-portrait
in the Louvre, Paris which was painted in 1633. The x-ray also shows that the soft cap with a feather and gorget were added
later. This finding motivated the curator of the European Paintings of the Prussian Collections in Berlin, Jan Kelch, to suggest
that this artwork is a copy of the Louvre self-portrait. The attribution was given to Govert Flinck, who by entering Rembrandt’s
studio in 1633 was nineteen years old. He stayed in Rembrandt’s studio for one year. Prior to the training by Rembrandt,
Flinck received training by Lambert Jacobsz and had three years of apprenticeship.
Arguing for the re-attribution of Rembrandt’s picture to Flinck, Jan Kelch cites the eighteenth
century Dutch art historian Houbracken that Flinck was so good in copying Rembrandt’s pictures that “several of
his pieces were taken for true paintings of Rembrandt and were sold as such.” Jan Kelch does not mention that Houbracken
noticed that this story was told by Flinck’s son many years later. There are no other sources to confirm this statement. As the main reason of re-attribution,
Jan Kelch argues that Rembrandt Self-Portrait, C 56, exhibits stylistic similarities to the two
first documented artworks by Govert Flinck painted in 1636, Rembrandt (?) as Shepherd and A young Man with a
feathered cap and a garget [Fig.2 and 3]. Jan Kelch argues that the Rembrandt’s C 56 is poorly
painted, “the soft cap appears flat and broad, in spite of the vigorous application of paint with impastoed highlights.
More over, it also does not seem to follow the axis of the head…” He also criticizes the modeling of the shadow
in the face; that it is “without any notable nuances.” Regarding the painting technique, Kelch argues that “the
image as a whole remains undifferentiated, lacking a focal point; and besides having additional faults.” Therefore,
he concludes that it is a copy of Rembrandt’s painting created by his student- Flinck. He compares this painting with
A young Man with a feathered cap and a gorget, arguing that both paintings were created by the same artist. As result, in the late 1980s, C 56 was officially re-attributed by the
Rembrandt Research Project, Amsterdam and Gemäldegalerie Berlin, receiving its “C” and a new title, “Govert
Flinck, Bust of Rembrandt.”
In criticizing this Self-Portrait,
RRP went much further then Kelch. In their opinion, the figure displays “clumsy heaviness”; it is compositionally
“cramped”; the cap with feather is poorly painted; the shadow in the face is “flat and patchy”; they
criticizes the way the gold chain is painted as a patchy student-work. Overall, the bravura brushstroke is “primitive”;
and the colors do not resemble other Rembrandt paintings. They conclude that this can not be the work of Rembrandt. This re-attribution to Flinck was widely accepted by many art historians, changing
their perception. Perry Chapman, in his extensive study of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, mentions C 56, explaining, “The
image of the artist in martial guise that originated in Rembrandt’s studio immediately inspired numerous imitations…previously
called self-portraits…come from his circle.”
This artwork was presented as “Govert Flinck, Bust of Rembrandt” in the 1991-92 exhibition
Rembrandt. The Master and his Workshop, which was shown in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. In the “Director’s
Foreword” to the catalog of this exhibition it was mentioned that the main goals of this show are to demonstrate a “new
Rembrandt”, discovered in the last twenty years of research as well as to “show to public how decisions about
attribution are made.” Flinck’s paintings of 1636 and several rarely seen Rembrandt paintings from private
collections were also exhibited. This possibility of the direct observation of the original paintings gave ample opportunity
to ‘rediscover Rembrandt’. The curator of the European painting of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, Walter Liedtke,
describes the effect of this exhibition, “The conjunctive that the panel was painted by Flinck around 1633…was
conveniently disproved by the two Flinck tronies of 1636 in the exhibition.” He also points that the similarities of
C 56 with the rarely seen Rotchild’s Standard-Bearer, which is another Rembrandt self- portrait of 1630s, is
so strong, that there can be no doubt that C 56 was painted by Rembrandt. He also points that “the reassignment of Rembrandt’s
Self-Portrait in Berlin (C 56, Slatkes no. 248) and of his Self-Portrait in Pasadena (C 97; Slatkes no. 255) to two teenagers
Flinck and Fabritious, respectively, the RRP has hitched its wagon load of hypothesis to horses we know something about.” Several leading art-historians shared this opinion. Unexpectedly to organizers, the
exhibition brought Rembrandt Research Project and the Gemäldergalerie Berlin into troubles to question their credibility.
Figure 2. Govert Flinck. Rembrandt (?) as a Shepherd. 1636, Oil on Canvas, 74.5 x 64 cm, Rijksmuseum,
Figure 3. Govert Flinck. A young Man with a feathered cap and a gorget. c.1636, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 53
cm, private collection, Lausanne
During the XXVIII International Congress of History of Art in Berlin,
1992, one of the leaders of RRP, van de Wetering questioned the theory that Rembrandt and his students never collaborated
on the same paintings. In 1960s – 1980s, this theory, the guideline for the RRP for almost twenty years,
resulted in re-attribution of many artworks. Thus, for the first time, the credibility of the RRP attribution praxis was questioned
by one of its leading members. During the same session, Claus Grimm presented the results of his research and the evidence
that the students indeed contributed to the Rembrandt’s paintings, cooperating with their master. Grimm suggested keeping
attribution to Rembrandt in such cases. In his book, published in 1991, Grimm also argues that the Self-Portrait,
C 56, is surely painted by Rembrandt’s hand. He points, that the face “mit einem pastigen Pinselstrich in grosser
Formsicherheit gemalt [the pastose brushstrokes confidently model the shape]; “Der freundlich-kritische Blick...mit
wenigen Pinselzügen eingefangen.” [the effect of friendly-scrutinizing eyes …is achieved with a few brushstrokes.]
This picture is painted with “solche Ausdrucksicherheit und Formklarheit, dass jede Schülerhand ausscheidet.”
[such confidence in achieving the maximum of expression and form that the execution by any student-hand
is out of question.] The big format high quality photographs allow the readers of this book to follow
After the XXVIII International Congress, the Gemäldegalerie Berlin changed the attribution of this
self-portrait classifying it as “Rembrandt, Circle. The Bust of Rembrandt.” In traditional
art historical designation praxis, “circle” means that the artwork was eventually created by an unknown Rembrandt
follower outside of the workshop. Such designation in regards of this painting appears questionable because, despite all the
controversies, it was a consensus that C 56 was created in Rembrandt’s studio.
In 2005, the Rembrandt
Research Project also corrected Govert Flinck attribution ‘returning’ this artwork to Rembrandt. In “Corrigenda”
of the volume IV of Corpus, the RRP lists this self-portrait as “C 56/ Br.23. Rembrandt and Studio. Self-Portrait
overpainted in a tronie. c.1633 partly overpainted 1637. Formerly, Bust of Rembrandt,
Berlin.” The argument, that the over-painting took place in the particular year, 1637 is not based on any new scientific evidence
or documentation; but represents the new theory that Rembrandt over-painted several self-portraits in late 1630s- early 1640s. The Standard-Bearer, 1636, which also was exhibited in 1991, and C 56 show some similarities in the way how face
and attributes are painted. Therefore, it is possible to suggest that C 56 over-painting can be seen as a preparation
for larger and more elaborate The Standard-Bearer, and therefore created before 1636.
RRP certifies that the “first state” of 1633 is Rembrandt’s “brilliant broadly painted self-portrait.”
Regarding the second state: the additions of cap, gorget, and the shadow in the face, whether “was effected by Rembrandt
himself or by a member of the workshop is not entirely clear in this case.” This basically means that the later over-painting is done with such confidence
that the Rembrandt experts of RRP are not able to re-attribute it to Rembrandt’s students. It raises the next question,
why “Rembrandt and Studio” in the first place? The RRP decided to dissolve itself in 2011; therefore many questions
will probably remain unanswered.
RRP also insists that the second version, the
added attributes- the cap and gorget have the function to transform the self-portrait in a “tronie of a German landsknecht.” In Rembrandt’s time, the landsknechts did not exist anymore. Their organizations
were abolished by 1570s. In 1572, the Dutch military leader of the revolt against Spain, Prince William of Orange, issued
articles of war which started the transformation of landsknechts into soldiers. Maurice of Nassau completed the transformation
in 1590, thus creating the regular army of the Dutch Republic. The dashing wide landsknecht caps with colorful feathers disappeared already in 1560s,
giving the way to cabacete and cabasset helmets instead. In 1630s, when Rembrandt created his self-portrait, C 56, the majority
of people were already not able to associate the wide cap with the landsknechts. The soldiers and mercenaries were associated
with the helmets.
The RRP’s “German landsknecht” suggestion is probably based on the flat wide cap and
the gorget. However, the “landsknecht” in The Standard-Bearer, is identified by the old fashioned hat-trim
and especially by the sixteenth century attributes: dress and sword. The gorget looks like those used in Rembrandt-times.
Perry Chapman explains, that “To contemporary Dutchmen this costume signified not merely soldiers, but the ancient Batavians.” The attributes in C 56 do not indicate such ancient figure; therefore, there are no
convincing reasons to suggest the “German landsknecht”.
The particular Rembrandt’s
cap in C 56 has an extremely wide trim, resembling the trim of the cavalier hats. While the cavalier hats were very popular
by the respectable gentlemen, Rembrandt’s headwear represented an extravaganza outside of the mainstream, demonstrating
his boldness. Such male portraits, including self-portraits, with feathered ‘extravagant’ cap and gorget can be
often found in works of Rembrandt and the artists of his circle. Stephanie Dickey noted that despite a “military flavor”
they represent a “cavalier type”.
In the Seventeenth Century, the gorget, as an attribute was largely used in portraits of nobles and royals.
The gorgets were normally not carried by common soldiers: it was often the part of the officer’s uniform. In Rembrandt’s
Night Watch, the gorget is the only part of the officer’s costume indicating his elevated position [Fig.4].
Therefore, gorget indicated high ranking military status and nobility or eventually noble spirit like in “cavalier type”
pictures. The gold chain was a recognizable indication of the high social status and financial prosperity. In 1634, Rembrandt
wrote in one private guestbook his motto, “Een vroom gemoet acht eer voor goet.” [a brave temper prefers honor
over possessions.] The attributes in C 56 metaphorically represent all three elements of this motto. The
cap stands for boldness, the gorget for honor and the chain means financial prosperity. This self-portrait was painted in
the time, when Rembrandt, a young provincial artist, was suddenly raised into the top echelon of the society. All the ways
and possibilities opened up to him: he had to decide, which way to go. Therefore, it is convincing to suggest that the attributes
were painted in the first half of 1630s.
The corrections and re-evaluation of research results is
a normal part of the scientific process, despite this, the case of C 56 is extreme. Gary Schwartz suggests that we should
investigate for the learning purpose, how “detailed, highly negative judgment from 1986 relates to the lyrical one of
2005.” He concludes that “not only the credibility of the Corpus but of connoisseurship itself is at
stake here.” Cathrine Scallen points out, that RRP starting with the intentions to provide more
objective opinions then the older generation of Rembrandt connoisseurs, did not escape their own bias and subjectivity, and
despite “sometimes prolix verbiage”, their “argumentation has proven no more inherently convincing…” However, the connoisseurship method developed by Ernst van de Wetering immensely
contributed to the understanding of Rembrandt’s style, but produced several errors in the attribution to the concrete
painters working in Rembrandt’s studio. Wetering is specialized in the genesis of Rembrandt artworks: how they are built
from the primer surface, what materials where used, what devises where implemented in achieving form and expression. He also
investigates how Rembrandt’s technique developed and changed during the years. Wetering also integrates the results
of the chemical and physical tests on the paintings. This method can successfully identify works created in Rembrandt’s
studio, but can barely differentiate the individual ‘signature’ brushstrokes of the individual artists using these
techniques. Therefore, at the end, his analysis of the authenticity is based on the ‘traditional’ connoisseur’s
The connoisseurship method demonstrated by Claus Grimm proved to be more successful
in individual identification. His method is based not on the traditional ‘overall impression’, but on the concrete
brushstroke, how confidently it is used to achieve form and expression and the level of its precision. He was able to differentiate
several brushstroke techniques indicating the brushstroke of Rembrandt and the students. In support of Grimm, the art historical research confirms that the painting technique
was immensely important in Seventeenth Century art. Presenting the contemporary documents, Anna Tummers convincingly demonstrates
that the authentic brushstroke by a master was searched for and valued by Seventeenth Century art-lovers, collectors and dealers.
Therefore, several master-painters, including Rembrandt, developed their precise ‘signature’ brushstroke, which
made it difficult to imitate their techniques. Rembrandt students, working with him in his workshop, were able to imitate his working
methods and overall style, but not his brushstroke manner. Such new research results and discoveries leave plenty of opportunities
in the further development of the connoisseurship methods.
Figure 4. Rembrandt. The Night Watch.
1642, Oil on Canvas, 363 x 437, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Detail, Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch.
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