Rembrandt Research Project ended
“Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings” will have a much-reduced final volume
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 221, February 2011
Published online: 24 February 2011
AMSTERDAM. The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) is to be closed down, although it is tantalisingly near to finishing its full catalogue. After 42 years of work, five volumes of the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings have been published, the most recent last October (Springer publishing, €1,200). There was to have been one more detailed volume, but this has been dropped.
In meticulous detail, the Corpus provides entries on 240 paintings which have been accepted as works by Rembrandt, along with 162 doubted or rejected works. This leaves 80 works which have not yet been catalogued, a quarter of the oeuvre. These will be included in a shorter summary volume.
Last month the RRP board decided to wind down the project by the end of this year. Chaired by Ernst van de Wetering, its members are Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (New York University), Taco Dibbits (Rijksmuseum), Peter van de Ploeg (Waanders publishing) and Rudi Ekkart (Netherlands Institute for Art History).
Although the Amsterdam-based project was originally envisaged as taking a decade, it ended up dominating the working life of Van de Wetering, now the doyen of Rembrandt studies. After joining as a young researcher in 1968, he has been the RRP chairman since 1993. Now 72, he does not have another decade of energy to research and write an 800-page detailed catalogue for the last 80 pictures. There seem to be no younger scholars with the experience or desire to take over the leadership.
Funding is also difficult. Most of the RRP’s money came from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, but this was cut off in 1998.
To round off the Corpus, Van de Wetering now plans to publish a final, summary volume reproducing all the 320 paintings that he believes are by the master’s hand. For the 240 already catalogued, there will be brief entries and references to the earlier volumes. For the 80 uncatalogued paintings, there will be slightly longer entries.
Much of the RRP’s archive was transferred in 2009 to the Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague. Although technically open to scholars, the institute’s website states that they are closed and their availability remains unpublicised. Gary Schwartz, an independent specialist and author of Rembrandt’s Universe (2006), is critical of the arrangements. “I find it incomprehensible that an archive assembled at considerable public cost since the 1960s has been kept beyond the reach of researchers for so long,” he said.
Meanwhile, another Rembrandt project is about to be launched. Jointly organised by the Mauritshuis and the Netherlands Institute for Art History, the Rembrandt Database is being funded by the New York-based Mellon Foundation. Although still at an early stage, it is assembling technical data on 19 Rembrandt paintings in The Hague, New York, London, Paris and Dresden. Information on further paintings will be added and this data will be supplemented with material from the RRP and made available on the web (www.rembrandtdatabase.org).
When the RRP was established, its aim was simple: 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 analyse the results, sifting the authentic works from those by Rembrandt’s studio and later followers.
Abraham Bredius, the greatest Rembrandt scholar of the first half of the 20th century, had accepted 613 paintings in his 1935 catalogue. By the 1960s, this number seemed high, and most specialists would have halved the figure.
Initially the RRP took an even tougher approach, and it was predicted that they would eventually accept fewer than 250 paintings, slashing the Bredius figure by almost two-thirds. With the publication of the first three volumes of the Corpus (1982, 1986 and 1989), museums and private collectors found that over a 100 works had been rejected, leading to a crisis in Rembrandt scholarship.
By the early 1990s there were severe tensions within the RRP, with the youngest member, Van de Wetering, complaining that the four others were rejecting too many works. In a 1993 letter to Burlington magazine, Josua Bruyn, Bob Haak, Simon Levie and Pieter van Thiel stood firm on their tough approach to authentication, announcing their resignation. Van de Wetering was left in sole charge.
Since then there has been a fundamental change in the approach of the RRP, and rather than headlines about rejected Rembrandts, the news has been about additions to the oeuvre. Recently these have included the newly discovered 1628 self-portrait sold at a Cirencester auction house in 2008 and Tobias and his Wife, 1659 (Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam), which in the latest volume of the Corpus is attributed to Rembrandt, rather than a pupil.
Van de Wetering told The Art Newspaper that he accepts around 320 paintings, compared with the 250 that had been expected under the old RRP. Some scholars, such as Christopher Brown, the director of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, believe that the RRP has veered from being “unduly restrictive” to “an excessive inclusiveness”.
The other main reform introduced by Van de Wetering was to change the format of the Corpus, from being presented on a chronological basis (the first three volumes covered 1625-42) to one that is thematic. Volume IV (2005) is on self-portraits and Volume V (2010) on small-scale history paintings. With this approach, there should have been a Volume VI on the remaining works—post-1642 portraits, tronies (character heads), large-scale history paintings and landscapes.
Publication of the Corpus has been welcomed by scholars, primarily for the sheer quantity of data in its 4,000 pages, but it is unwieldy and difficult to use. The price tag, over £5,000 for the set, also makes it too expensive for most art historians and specialist libraries.
Ins and outs
Man with a Golden Helmet, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Long regarded as one of Rembrandt’s finest works (around 1650), it was then downgraded by the RRP in Vol. II of the Corpus. The painting remains on show, as “Circle of Rembrandt”.
The Polish Rider, Frick Collection, New York
Leading RRP scholar Josua Bruyn rejected the painting but the Frick continued to maintain it was authentic. In the latest RRP Corpus, Van de Wetering catalogues it as “Rembrandt (with later additions)” and dates it to around 1655.
Self-portrait in a Flat Cap, Royal Collection
The self-portrait was dismissed in 1982 by Royal Collection curator Christopher White as an 18th-century imitation. In Vol. V of the Corpus, Van de Wetering catalogued it as authentic, 1642.
Laughing Man, Mauritshuis, The Hague
Rejected in Vol. II of the Corpus, in Vol. IV Van de Wetering catalogued it as the real thing. The Mauritshuis displays it as a Rembrandt, 1629-30.
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