It’s down to the wood for National Gallery’s Rembrandt

Detail from The Tribute Money. The National Gallery of Canada says it has new information that confirms the painting is by the Dutch master Rembrandt.

Newly revealed research by the National Gallery of Canada strengthens the claim that its painting, The Tribute Money, is a genuine Rembrandt. This confronts a contrary view reached in 1982 by a panel of experts in The Netherlands collectively known as the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP).

The latest research, however, does not mean the curator of a Rembrandt exhibition currently on view in Kingston is 100-per cent convinced the Dutch master painted The Tribute Money. 

The painting on a wood panel is dated 1629 but the RRP cast doubt on that date because dendrochronology, the science of tree ring dating, indicated the panel was created only after that date.

The National Gallery now says advances in dendrochronology prove the wood panel could, indeed, have existed in 1629. Other, more subjective tests by the National Gallery also indicated the painting was done by Rembrandt.

The Tribute Money is a scene from the Bible in which Pharisees and Herodians, presumably standing in a temple, ask Jesus whether they should pay tribute to the Roman emperor, whose face adorned coins circulated then in the Holy Land.

Jesus responds with the now familiar: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The gallery, according to news reports, purchased the painting in 1967 for $364,000 through a London art dealer and has always maintained it was a genuine Rembrandt.

But in 1982, the RRP unleashed a major controversy by declaring The Tribute Money was among four dozen works held around the globe that were not genuine Rembrandts and, in some cases, were likely done by artists from the “school” of Rembrandt.

The RRP concluded the wood used on The Tribute Money might have come from a tree cut in 1625 but, according to published reports, it was more likely to have come from one cut in 1630 and the painting could not have been done before 1631. As well, there were also some stylistic elements of the painting that were declared different from Rembrandt’s normal approach.

In 2015, the gallery did a restoration of The Tribute Money and began further scientific investigation. The findings, including the new dendrochronological tests, were shared with scholars at a Rembrandt symposium in 2016 at the Agnes Etherington Gallery in Kingston but were not released to the general public despite the controversy that continues to surround the painting. Look up The Tribute Money on the Internet and you will find many references to that painting not being a Rembrandt.

The Tribute Money is currently part of an exhibition at Agnes Etherington titled Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges. The exhibition, which focuses on Rembrandt’s early days as an artist in the Dutch city of Leiden, opened Aug. 24, closes Dec. 1 and then travels to Edmonton, Regina and Hamilton. The Tribute Money will not travel to those other cities because of the painting’s fragility and the National Gallery’s reluctance to remove the work from public view in Ottawa for a long time.

The gallery’s comprehensive scientific findings have not been published although some details were contained in the catalogue for the Rembrandt exhibition in Kingston. A statement from the National Gallery to ARTSFILE says more complete findings will be published either in a catalogue planned for a Rembrandt exhibition in Ottawa in 2021 or in a forthcoming National Gallery of Canada Review, an annual scholarly publication.

“As part of the examination, digital X-radiography was conducted, which shows Rembrandt’s very distinctive painterly touch,” says the statement. “Infrared reflectography, conducted with a camera that offers deeper penetration than previously possible, was particularly revelatory, and showed Rembrandt working out the architectural space in a way that is seen in other early works. Additionally, since the RRP considered the painting, changes to the methodology of dendrochronology easily allow the panel to bear the date it does.”

The Kingston exhibition catalogue discusses the pros and cons of The Tribute Money being a genuine Rembrandt.

“The attribution of the painting has long been doubted, but a recent review of the dendrochronological investigation has reopened the issue of Rembrandt’s authorship,” says the catalogue authored by Jacquelyn N. Coutré, a Kingston curator who has since moved to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Coutré notes similarities between The Tribute Money and some of Rembrandt’s other paintings, notably Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver and Simeon’s Son of Praise.

“The hunched, turbaned figures are certainly in keeping with the interpretation of Old Testament types by Rembrandt and those in his circle around 1630, but the lack of variety in their pose and gesture argues against an attribution to the master. Similarly, the unemotional face, outstretched hand and flat robes of Christ suggest an understanding of the master’s manner but an inability to fully mimic it. While the French artist Jacques des Rousseaux (circa 1600-1638) is not known to have made history paintings in this format, there are some similarities between a painting of an apostle attributed to him and the unusually obtuse angle through which Christ’s head is rendered.”

So, does Coutré believe The Tribute Money is a true Rembrandt? The latest National Gallery research “situates the painting closer to Rembrandt than had been thought in recent years,” Coutré said in an email interview. “From a stylistic point of view, however, elements like the outstretched hand of Christ and the oversized coin continue to raise questions about the attribution.”

The Agnes Etherington Gallery raises the questionable attribution in a wall panel in the exhibition. “The object label refers to the question of attribution, but it is not the focus of the discussion,” says Coutré. “It highlights what the painting contributes to the story of Rembrandt’s evolving style in the late 1620s, which is one of the major themes of the show: his interest in soaring spaces, his arrangement of secondary figures around a central one in a multi-figure composition, and his ongoing fascination with the acts of speaking and listening.”

A footnote in the catalogue provides some more details on the scientific examination of The Tribute Money, noting advances in dendrochronology since 1982 allow for a refinement of setting the felling date, sapwood statistics and seasoning time.

“In addition, several panels from this period in Rembrandt’s production have similar dendrochronological profiles. Recent x-radiography and, more importantly, infrared reflectography show that the painting’s genesis is also characteristic of the artist. The

architecture has been modified during painting — in line with Rembrandt’s practice in executing Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver. Additionally, drawings and prints from the time show him struggling with architecture and space, and the resulting unbalanced composition is found in other works from this period.”

Coutré quotes the National Gallery’s Christopher Etheridge, a curator, and Stephen Gritt, a conservator, as saying “the overall nature of the surface and the paint, as well as the sense of touch, is entirely characteristic of Rembrandt’s early work, both when
viewed under magnification and in x-radiography.”

As well, during the 1990s, “the Canadian Conservation Institute analyzed the paint and found it to be entirely consistent with Rembrandt’s use.”

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