A letter to the Guardian in response to their article “Call to bring Old Man out of the Shadows” 24 May ‘14 THE GREATER REMBRANDT
Oct 022014

Prof. Van der Wetering, recently leader of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) enthusiastically told The Guardian (May 24th’14) that the deattribution of “Old Man sitting in an armchair in the National Gallery was “a vast mistake…it is of wonderful quality and revolutionary in a sense…a very important painting”. As one who had written to the RRP in 1988 about this very painting asking if I could come to Amsterdam or preferably invite them to my collection of Rembrandt maquettes with mirrors in Tuscany to dissuade them from this sacrilege, I was all agog. In 1988 they had refused my offer twice; Prof. Van der Wetering was a member then.

What had produced this Pauline conversion? I have just read his article in the June Burlington and have to admit myself somewhat disappointed. The same pointless and misleading art historical nonsense about style, fitting this painting neatly into a pigeonhole for 1652. If you can believe it, one of the reasons for the deattribution in the first place was that the hands of the Old Man do not match.

While the Old Man’s right hand on which he leans is fairly standard, his left hand rests on the arm of a chair, and is painted with a first-time breadth and accuracy that takes ones breath away. I and many painters of my generation regarded it as the holy grail of painting along with “The Wading Woman” (Hendrickje in1654) also in the National Gallery. That hand was so felt, it had  that loss of muscle-tone, the bones fell about the chair arm as only such an old hand could do. It could not have been further from an idealized hand by Van Dyck for example. No wonder he was criticized “ it is rare to find in Rembrandt a beautifully painted hand” (Houbraken). This is a masterpiece of observation and empathy.

The X ray (seen in the Burlington) shows that the initial sketch needed but the slightest touches to adjust the top of the hand to balance it perfectly on the knob of the chair. (If Auerbach had achieved such fluency he would be dancing on cloud 9.)

Well, Van der Wetering uses the unmatched hands of the Old Man to compare with the unmatched hands of “The Girl Sitting in a Window” in Stockholm, which happens to have been painted in 1651. Such bathos! Of course her hands do not match. One is tucked so deep under her chin that what we see is her wrist not her hand. The other under her elbow, could well be sited as a badly painted hand by Rembrandt.

I no longer look forward to Van der Wetering’s completion of the RRP’s promised 6 volumes. Nonetheless I salute his courage in changing his mind, thereby undermining confidence in his and the RRP’s work. In fact many years after my initial invitation he came to me with a group of students for a whole day of instruction on the art of drawing and Rembrandt. At the time (perhaps 2008) I thought nothing had penetrated.

Nigel Konstam 24 8 14

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