A Web Catalogue of Rembrandt Paintings: Disclaimer

Disclaimer, part 1


Imagine for a moment a person who goes by the name of 'Harry'. When on holidays, Harry likes to visit a museum every now and then. Could be any kind of museum, but he specifically likes the ones that have paintings in them - lots of paintings. Harry is not an art expert at all - but of course he is familiar with some of the more famous artists the world has seen. For some of these (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso) he even could mention a few specific paintings for you. Oh yes, Harry likes paintings very much...

One day Harry finds himself in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia - and somehow, mysteriously, he is drawn towards the famous 'Rembrandt room'. Harry finds out that there are even 22 "real Rembrandts" in the room. Wow, so many marvelous works of art by one and the same painter...! Harry doesn't really know why he likes the paintings so much, but he is deeply impressed. And despite the beauty of works like "Abraham's Sacrifice" and "Danae", there is one particular painting he likes most of all. The little sign next to the painting states in Russian:

"Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn - The Descent from the Cross - 1634"

Harry never was what you could call 'religious'; he just likes the light-effects in the painting very much, and also the expressions on the many people's faces. Yes, this is what Harry would call 'beauty' in its purest form.

Several days later Harry is in Amsterdam where he comes across a little book market on the 'Spui'. He browses through the books without specific intensions, and then suddenly he finds a small book about Rembrandt. It is written in Italian, so Harry can not really read it, but it has many paintings in it. Oh, but wait a minute... The book is called "Catalogo completo", so it must have all paintings by Rembrandt in it! Ah, this is interesting - and its only 8.50 Euros. Let's buy it!

Back home Harry sits down comfortably in his favorite chair and starts to browse through the catalogue. Of course, the first thing he would like to find is his favorite painting from the Hermitage: "The Descent"! Harry flips and flips and flips the pages, but... Oh no...! It is not in the book! There is another "Descent" on page 45, but it is not the same. What the hell...? Harry checks the "indice topografico" in the back of the book, only to find out that his eyes had not fooled him. The index does not mention his favorite Rembrandt painting at all. But, hey... what... what...? Something must be very wrong here: the index for "San Pietroburgo, Ermitage" mentions only 16 paintings. And Harry was sure that he had seen 22 "real Rembrandts" when he was in the Hermitage himself. Harry, confused, and very disappointed, throws the book in the corner and decides to forget about it all...

Harry likes to travel, so a few weeks later he is in Berlin. Apart from the nice Kneipen, where they serve his favorite Weizenbier, what better place to go than the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin? Harry likes paintings, and the Gemäldegalerie is world famous for exactly that. So, Harry happily strolls the many spacious rooms of the museum until - suddenly - he feels as if struck by lightning. Right there, still far away but straight in front of him there is a painting he has seen before! It is a portret of a man wearing quite a large flat feathered cap. For all Harry knows, it is the image of Rembrandt - the master himself. And he knows where he has seen it before: it was on the cover of the little book he bought on the market - the catalogo completo!

Harry slowly steps closer to the painting, ignoring all the other marvelous works in the room. At least here is a painting that is indeed mentioned in his book - so this must be a real Rembrandt! When Harry gets right in front of the painting, one of the guards warns him not to get too close with a loud "Bitte!". Doesn't really matter - Harry has seen enough. This is the real deal - and what a great painting it is. The flat cap may be a bit strange, but the eyes are so powerful! Harry is stunned for a second time; this is Harry's idea of beauty (even though he prefers women instead of men in the real world). Harry moves his eyes to the little sign underneath the painting, just to find out when Rembrandt would have painted this great work of art. The words are there, but Harry's brain suddenly is incapable of a correct interpretation. This is what he sees:

"Govert Flinck (?) - Portrait of Rembrandt - 1633"

Govert who? Govert what? This is the real thing! It is even on the cover of my book, so it must be by Rembrandt! It can not be by this Govert; no-one has ever heard of that one before! Harry quickly, angrily, walks away from the room, again ignoring all the other marvelous paintings by Ferdinand Bol, Aert de Gelder, and Rembrandt himself...

Later that day Harry realizes that he probably likes Vermeer and Rubens paintings much more anyways. And surely, there can not be so much confusion around those painters, can it...?

Disclaimer, part 2


The little story above is not so far away from my own experience: I have seen paintings in museums that were put on display as "Rembrandt", but that were never ever mentioned in the general books about Rembrandt that I owned. Also, I have seen paintings in museums that were indicated as coming from the "Rembrandt workshop" (or even from a named painter in Rembrandt's circle), while the books said "Rembrandt". Worse even, in many museums I have searched in vain for paintings that were previously attributed to Rembrandt, only to find out that they have been put away in the museum depot forever. While all of this very much annoyed our Harry above, it did intrigue me even more; I simply wanted to know how this situation could exist at all.

In the year after my first visit to the exhibition "Rembrandt - Quest of a Genius" in the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, I have tried to gather the attributions and rejections as published by some of the most authoritive Rembrandt experts. It is intriguing to see the differences in opinion regarding specific paintings. Even more intriguing is the extent of disagreement; the Web Catalogue indicates 118 paintings as being disputed, but the fact is that there is hardly any painting in the Web Catalogue that has not been disputed by serious researchers at a certain moment in time.

Because of the disagreement I wanted to organize the opinions in one way or another. What I wanted to have was an overview of Rembrandt paintings that did not reflect the personal opinion of any individual (certainly not my own), but somehow presented an 'averaged view' of the most authoritive researchers in the field. A categorization based on such an 'averaged view' would quickly give me - as an interested layman - an indication of the current apparent status among Rembrandt experts. It would take away the confusion that I certainly felt in the beginning (just like Harry), and it would allow me to understand much quicker the manner (or 'tone', if you will) in which experts talk about a certain specific painting.

The 'averaged view' of each painting in the Web Catalogue is simply expressed as a number that - in turn - decides the paintings' Category - without any further reasoning or interpretation. It should be noted that this approach to categorization does not give the Web Catalogue any authority at all. This can not be: averaging out the judgements expressed by experts over a period of time inherently causes the Web Catalogue to be somewhat lagging behind. Also, simply adjusting the 'weight' of a single expert's judgements in the formulas that I use for categorization already may change the resulting Category for many works. Therefore, it is important to understand that the Web Catalogue should be seen more as a 'categorization of opinions' (no matter how imperfect) rather than as a 'categorization of paintings'.

This latter point indeed is important. In contrast to all other catalogues that exist, the Web Catalogue does not present any judgement on the quality or authentication of any painting (except, I admit, for the two paintings that I have added personally, see Introduction). Any comparison with, for example, the categorization as applied by the Rembrandt Research Project, or even the procedures of "computerized connoisseurship" being applied by the Rembrandt Research Committee is therefore unjustified. The Web Catalogue does not deal with attribution or rejection itself. On the contrary: where other 'complete' catalogues have become substantially smaller over time, the Web Catalogue has a tendency of becoming larger and larger. Paintings that were once considered a "real Rembrandt" (whatever that means) are not simply thrown out. As such, even though it was never my intention, the Web Catalogue may be closer to the desired aid for connoisseurs in the Rembrandt arena as expressed by Gary Schwartz in [24] (page 15, in Dutch):
    "Een gedeeltelijke oplossing [...] zou kunnen zijn om alle schilderijen die ooit door serieuze wetenschappers als het werk van Rembrandt zijn gepubliceerd in een groep te plaatsen. Een onvooringenomen bestudering van de verbanden tussen deze werken en hun plaats in de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse kunst, zonder de dwang een oordeel te vellen of ze nu met zekerheid wel of met zekerheid niet van de Meester zijn, zou misschien duidelijkheid kunnen verschaffen in dit troebele gebied".
I would wholeheartedly support such an approach (especially if it would also include drawings and etchings) as it would be beneficial for experts and laymen (such as Harry and myself) alike.

FJS.