Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Case of the Fur-Collared Servant

The NYTimes (yes, I started buying it again, after I heard they are so strapped for cash they're laying off 500 workers, I can't really begrudge them for charging for their columnists...I still think it's a mistake, but ...) offers a delightful mystery about a painting. Here's what the painting looked like when it came to the attention of the story's detectives:

"Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet"

The owners of the painting had been told it was by Rembrandt, but even though it had been included in earlier versions, authors of the master's catalogues raisonné had excluded it after the 1939 printing. Why exclude it? That's where the fun begins. Look at the painting again. There are tell-tale signs that something is amiss (not being an expert in the time-period, I'm relying on the article for the following "facts").

First and foremost is the fur collar. The face of this woman reportedly bears the hallmarks of a servant. Her white bonnet is another indication of her class. So why does a servant have a luxury item like a fur collar? Moreover, why was a woman of her class painted at all in such a manner?

But wait, there's more. Look at the light reflected off the collar onto her face. It's bright, even though the light hitting the dark collar should have been absorbed.

The owners of the painting, anxious to know exactly what they had, sent it to experts in Amsterdam. During their studies of it, they discovered that the wood panel the painting was on came from the same tree three other known paintings' panels come from: "the same tree as Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait With a Hat" (1633), which is in the Louvre, as well as "Portrait of Willem Burggraaff," also for 1633, in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, Germany , which has been attributed to the artist's workshop, and a landscape in the Wallace Collection in London that is thought to be from 1640 and was painted by a student of Rembrandt."

So that was inconclusive. Our fur-wearing servant may have been painted by anyone in that workshop. The detectives looked more closely.

By examining the work carefully, Mr. [Ernst] van der Wetering [head of the Rembrandt Research Project] said he and Mr. [Martin]Bijl [a former head of conservation for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam] could see seams where wood panel had been added to the original painting. The dark background had been painted over so old and new would look as one.

X-rays and pigment tests confirmed their suspicions that in an attempt to make it more salable, someone had transformed the painting into a formal portrait, changing its shape from arched to rectangular and adding a fur collar to make the sitter look more like a lady. [...]

X-rays showed many layers to the painting. Around the woman's neck was the fur collar, but under it there was a black layer of paint, and under that what Rembrandt had originally intended: a whitish collar. That explained the reflections, since light could well reflect off a white collar, but not off dark, fur.

After two years of debate, they decided to remove the fur collar (rather risky indeed), and discovered a whitish-yellow collar painted underneath. The original painting looks like this:

"The collar, unlike the whiter bonnet, has a yellowish cast because, a textile expert confirmed, that "poorer people used a kind of starch for their collars that had a tendency to turn yellow, but they used a better type of starch for their caps," Mr. van der Wetering said. "And Rembrandt was very aware of the difference of these tones." [...]

Only after the fur collar was removed, he said, could he see the reflections of light on the jaw, the cheek and the chin. Another Rembrandt touch: a small spot on the woman's cheek. In a number of self-portraits the artist added a blemish to his own skin.

In the end, they concluded it was indeed a work by Rembrandt, making the owners very happy indeed, I'm sure. The piece is headed for Sotheby's auction block this January, where, even unsigned and apparently a study, it's estimated to sell for $3 million to $4 million.


Anonymous E. Tage Larsen said...


Thanks for running this and saving me from having to give the Times my money. Had seen an image of this on NY1 this morning (under their JetBlue mishap coverage) and was curious.

9/22/2005 10:50:00 AM  
Anonymous crionna said...

agreed. I appreciate this type of post a lot.

9/22/2005 06:00:00 PM  

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