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Museum's Rembrandts May Not Be Authentic, Report Says

November 17, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

A published report has dredged up longstanding questions about the authenticity of five Rembrandt paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but officials at the gallery deny that a decision has been made about who actually created the artworks--the Dutch master himself, other artists who worked in his studio or some combination of the two.

The report, published on Monday in the Legal Times, a weekly Washington journal, quoted Arthur Wheelock, the gallery's curator of Northern Baroque paintings, as saying that two paintings long labeled Rembrandts--"Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife" and "A Woman Holding a Pink"--are the work of his students. The Dutch master had student help with a third painting, "An Old Lady With a Book," Wheelock reportedly said.

An earlier article, published on March 1 in the Legal Times, quoted Wheelock as suggesting that another Rembrandt--"A Turk"--was partly painted by a student and that a work long known as "A Polish Nobleman" is actually a Rembrandt self-portrait.

But the gallery insists that the evaluation is still in process. "Changes of attribution are the result of scholarly research using the latest art historical investigations and scientific examinations by National Gallery curators, conservators and other experts in the field," press officer Ruth Kaplan said. According to gallery policy, such changes must be approved by the board of trustees, she said. Scholarly studies of the Rembrandts will be presented to the board sometime next year and any changes will be published in the gallery's annual report. A book on the gallery's Dutch paintings also will be published next year.

The National Gallery has 17 works credited to Rembrandt and an additional seven works attributed to the school of Rembrandt. As part of its ongoing evaluation, the gallery last year changed the attribution of "A Girl With a Broom" from Rembrandt to Carel Fabritius, a follower of Rembrandt.

Wheelock refused to comment on the reports, but Kaplan characterized the quotes in this week's article as "old information," apparently taken from an informal conversation. Quotes from the earlier report were largely taken from a lecture Wheelock delivered in February on "Rembrandt in the National Gallery: It's Not as Simple as A, B, C." Kaplan said that although Wheelock is participating in the gallery's Rembrandt evaluation, comments he may have made during the course of the ongoing study should not be interpreted as final judgment.

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The question of exactly who painted works that have been labeled Rembrandts is complicated, according to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, a leading Rembrandt scholar who teaches at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. The recent articles may alarm laymen--and cast doubts on the entire field of Old Master attributions--but Rembrandt is a special case, Begemann said. "He was very successful, he maintained a large studio with many assistants and he attracted many imitators," Begemann said. Therefore his hand is difficult to identify. The reassessment of Rembrandt works at many institutions around the world is long overdue, he said.

The most exhaustive--and controversial--effort to re-evaluate Rembrandt is being conducted by the Rembrandt Research Project, a group of Dutch scholars established 23 years ago by the Dutch government. Although other scholars have disagreed with their findings, the group has downgraded about half of the 700 paintings formerly ascribed to Rembrandt. Among them are three at the National Gallery--"Saskia," "Descent From the Cross" and "The Mill." However, the group has pronounced "A Polish Nobleman" genuine, and is undecided about "A Turk."

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