Rembrandt’s Saul and David confirmed as his masterpiece

Eight years later and we have, once again, another Rembrandt classic. From absolute certainty to doubt to cast-iron authenticity, the painter’s Saul and David masterpiece has been officially declared an original. In celebration, the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, has launched a new exhibition of one of its favourite works.
Under the guidance of the museum, an expansive team of art experts have worked hard to verify the painting, after which it was restored to all its former glory. It will be on show in the hall until September 13th. The effort, while exhausting, has been worth it. The uncertainty over whether it was real or not has left many feeling uneasy.
“A wide range of trusted and innovative research techniques have been employed [to verify the painting],” explained Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis and curator of the exhibition Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David.
“The result is significant: the Mauritshuis has one of its most famous Rembrandts back. At the same time, we have created an exciting exhibition in which we share our findings using interactive methods and techniques. We hope that our visitors will not only come for the newly attributed painting, but also to follow the fascinating story of this painting along with us.”
The painting first came to public light in 1830 when it turned up at an auction in Paris. It became a market staple for many, many years, when finally, in 1898, the then director of the Mauritshuis, Abraham Bredius, snapped it up and decided to give it a more permanent, albeit private home.
When he passed away in 1946, he decided to give it to the museum as a gift and there it has remained ever since. However, in the sixties and seventies, when there was a renewed academic interest in Rembrandt’s oeuvre, the legitimacy of Saul and David was questioned. In particular, the German-Dutch art historian Horst Gerson’s assertion that it was likely done by one of Rembrandt’s pupils planted the seed of mistrust. No-one could be sure anymore because Gerson was extremely reputable at the time.
Ever since then, as to whether it is or isn’t a real Rembrandt has been up in the air, with opinions on the matter very much divided. After a while this has become somewhat untenable and in 2007, the Mauritshuis finally decided to get to the bottom of this question.
“In 1969, when Horst Gerson de-attributed the work to Rembrandt, his assessment must at least have partly been due to the condition of the painting,” the museum stated in an official press release.
“Although the lining was robust, the paint layer was worse for wear. The question of the attribution of the painting remained unresolved until the end of the project. It became clear fairly early on that the painting was made in Rembrandt’s atelier.”
After carrying out painstaking examination and analysis into the work – “the research on the painting resembled a crime scene investigation in many ways” – they found out that it had been painted in the phases, adding further complexity to an already challenging project.
The first phase was thought to be by Rembrandt but, at first, there was some hesitation as to whether the second phase was executed by the seminal artist. They noted, for example, that approaches to certain sections seemed uncharacteristic of the artist. However, after further study, they confidently reconciled themselves to the fact that both phases were done by the hand of Rembrandt.
And so it is that this nearly half century mystery has been resolved. That it has been so patiently delivered, with contributions from a wide-ranging pool of experts from all over the world, is testament to the seriousness of the museum in properly determining the authenticity of the painting. Matters as serious as this requires patience, however arduous. In the context of this work, we’re in a much better, calmer position than ever before.
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