Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

When a Rembrandt Becomes a Rembrandt Again

A buried treasure found in a building that houses nothing but treasures? It happens.

An original painting by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn is worth tens of millions of dollars. The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha has one of those little diamonds in the rough. They kind of didn’t know it for a while. The painting in question has been owned by the Joslyn for 72 years. It was displayed as a Rembrandt for over 40 years. Then the work was re-classified as a “school of Rembrandt;” in other words, a painting done by a pupil of Rembrandt’s in his style and not by Rembrandt himself. In 1999, the Joslyn took the “school of Rembrandt” painting, Portrait of Dirck van Os, down from the wall and placed it in storage. There it sat for over a decade. Now we have come full circle after Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering did a new study on the work and told them they were right the first time, this is a true Rembrandt. Van de Wetering and his colleagues restored the painting and removed certain embellishments they determined were added later on, such as a chain around the figure’s neck from which a cross hung as well as lace around the collar.

Image taken from Omaha World Herald. Click to enlarge. Rembrandt van Rijn, called Rembrandt (Dutch), Portrait of Dirck van Os, c. 1662, oil on canvas, 103.505 x 87.63 cm, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.

Image from the Omaha World Herald. Click to enlarge. Rembrandt van Rijn, called Rembrandt (Dutch), Portrait of Dirck van Os, c. 1662, oil on canvas, 103.505 x 87.63 cm, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.

Click here for the official press release from the Omaha World Herald.
Click here for the featured spread in the Omaha World Herald.

On Monday, May 5, 2014, the Joslyn Art Museum will re-reveal the Rembrandt to the public in its fully conserved form, just as Rembrandt himself painted it. The painting itself is not particularly grand. Its subject is just some Dutch dude standing it a room. If you look up Dirck van Os on the internet, you won’t find much. He was a successful businessman and merchant, a prominent citizen of Amsterdam. All that really means to us is that the guy had a lot of cash, which was why he was worthy of a portrait by Rembrandt. And that’s about it.

So why does this story matter? It matters because, as the Joslyn’s Executive Director pointed out, it usually goes the other way around. More often an institution will own what they think is a work by a great master only to have it re-attributed later on as a copycat. That very thing happened to this very painting, but has now been reversed. It’s a new cause for celebration not only for the institution that houses this treasure, but also for the surrounding area. As the World Herald mentioned, it is a new source of pride for the city.

We don’t really care much about the subject of the painting, what matters more is the man who painted it. Dutch art is known for portraiture, genre and landscape. In a Protestant nation, religious subject matter in art was not common because it was frowned upon as idolatry. Thus, Dutch artists were compelled to depict what they saw around them. Rembrandt revolutionized his culture’s artistic character with a unique style incorporating loose brushstrokes and dramatically contrasting light. Coincidentally, I’m currently reading a book about another missing Rembrandt called The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva. I’ll be sure to post something on the Book Club page about it when I’m done, but there was an important point made in the story that I think relates perfectly with this one. Rembrandt was an Impressionist before there were Impressionists. He understood the effects of light in game-changing ways, just as the Impressionists did in the nineteenth century.

Image from Omaha World Herald. Click to enlarge. Rembrandt, Portriat of Dirck van Os, detail.

Image from Omaha World Herald. Click to enlarge. Rembrandt, Portriat of Dirck van Os, detail.

In the whole slew of great Rembrandts, Portrait of Dirck van Os is not one of his masterpieces but just another excellent portrait. So why all the fuss? Because the man who painted this Dirck dude is one of the all time greats. Because we can stand in front of this Dirck dude and get a real life example of revolutionary artistic style. When I look a work by a great master, I like to approach it and get as close as I can to see the brushstrokes (seriously, you have to try this). It’s exhilarating to see the their imprint, to see the grooves and motion of the tiny hairs of the paintbrush, and imagine the artist’s hand at work. Then you can think to yourself:

“Wow, Goya took a fat brush and made that blob of dark paint.”

“Wow, Monet dipped his brush in that crazy palette and went to town.”

“Wow, Da Vinci’s brushstrokes are so fine they are practically invisible.”

It’s the same reason people can sell Justin Timberlake’s half eaten sandwich for hundreds of dollars on eBay. It’s not the sandwich they want, it’s the knowledge that a special person made that imprint upon the sandwich. Visitors to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha can now feel that exhilaration once again.

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