“We’re all going to heaven,” Thomas Gainsborough said cheerily on his deathbed, “and Van Dyck is of the company.” I thought of this when I heard that Ernst van der Wetering, the great Rembrandt scholar, had died in August. Any art historian who has devoted so much of their life to a single artist must wonder about the prospect of a celestial meeting with their hero, an opportunity to finally solve all those art historical mysteries. Van der Wetering was also a painter, and we might even imagine Rembrandt offering some tuition.
I hope he does, for Rembrandt has much to thank van der Wetering for. When the Rembrandt Research Project was established in 1968, the noble intention was to set out definitively what Rembrandt did and did not paint. Van der Wetering was a junior research member. But something went badly wrong—by the 1980s, an oeuvre that had once stood at 650 now only numbered about 250. Casualties included self-portraits in the Royal and Wallace collections, and doubts were even raised about the Frick’s Polish Rider. Had that number stood, it would mean that Rembrandt, one of the most gifted painters who ever lived, produced little more than six paintings a year, creating a limited body of work that developed in a fixed, linear way.
Van der Wetering saw this had to change. “The project had failed,” he said. “It was no good.” Over the next 30 years he recreated the project, reaccepting over 70 paintings and publishing the most authoritative catalogues and analysis of what, and how, Rembrandt painted. (His Rembrandt: The Painter at Work is one of the best art history books ever written). Crucially, he made extensive use of scientific analysis, eschewing the traditional “first blink” model of connoisseurship. “I am almost an enemy of traditional connoisseurship,” he once told me. For him, the defining motivation to catalogue Rembrandt’s work was “to do justice” to the artist, and this involved carefully assessing all the evidence, not just relying on gut instinct. I’m sure Rembrandt would have approved. A drawing of his in the Metropolitan Museum mocks a connoisseur passing judgement, giving him donkey ears.
Many in the art world will be wondering who now becomes Rembrandt’s appointed representative on earth. In its obituary for van der Wetering, The Times suggested he was “so convinced there were no remaining Rembrandts to be attributed, reattributed or deattributed that he refused to give any thought to naming a successor as the leading expert in the field”. And yet, as another Rembrandt scholar, Gary Schwartz, points out, our understanding of what Rembrandt painted is still significantly incomplete. Of 62 works attributed to Rembrandt from his bankruptcy inventory in 1656, only nine can be certainly identified today. Somewhere out there are Rembrandts of horses, greyhounds, hares, lions fighting and even still lifes.
We might be more likely to find these pictures, however, if we move away from the single-figure authority model embodied by the Rembrandt Research Project, and even van der Wetering himself. It may be that Rembrandt scholarship can only grow if a greater plurality of views are sought. If that means we are ultimately less certain about attributions then so be it. “Perhaps by Rembrandt” might have to do. Despite all the science and even a lifetime of looking, we rarely know for sure what an Old Master artist did or did not paint. Until, of course, we meet Rembrandt—and van der Wetering—in art history heaven.