No one knows for sure the name or the story of the plump young woman at the National Gallery of Canada but for the first time in 67 years this summer she will be reunited with about 100 old friends from her former home in the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein.
For three months this summer, Rembrandt’s portrait of the nameless woman will be the belle of the ball when current and former artworks owned by the princely family of Liechtenstein assemble in Ottawa for an unprecedented exhibition of European Old Masters. The exhibition is called The Princely Collections, Liechtenstein: Five Centuries of European Painting and Sculpture.
The traveling exhibition will unite, for the first time, 25 artworks formerly owned by the princely family, with works still owned by the family. The exhibition opens in Ottawa June 5 and runs until Sept. 7. Then it’s off to the Seattle Museum of Art, Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Tex and lastly, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Rembrandt’s mysterious lady was painted in 1632 or 1633 (the inscription is hard to read). The National Gallery now titles the painting Heroine from the Old Testament, although a gallery publication from 2016 called her A Woman at Her Toilet – the name also used in a Kingston exhibition about Rembrandt this past summer. Over the years, the painting has had a number of other titles, including Saskia (Rembrandt’s wife), Lisbeth (his sister), The Jewish Bride, Esther and Bathsheba.
More definitive than the title is the painting’s provenance. The National Gallery purchased the work from the princely family of Liechtenstein in 1953. Following the Second World War, the rulers of Liechtenstein were strapped for cash. Valuable paintings were put on the market. Canada bought 12 of them, including Rembrandt’s pudgy friend and other works by Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Filippino Lippi, Simone Martini, Hans Memling and Barthel Beham. All 12 will be in the 2020 exhibition but the Rembrandt and another by Hans Memling, The Virgin and Child with St. Anthony Abbot and a Donor, will not travel to other venues.
Canada could have bought more Liechtenstein paintings in the mid-1950s and beyond. Alan Jarvis, then the National Gallery director, had a shopping list for Liechtenstein that also included a prized painting owned by a German baron, Landscape with Christ Appearing to the Apostles by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government, amid considerable turmoil, nixed the shopping list and the Bruegel and forced Jarvis’s resignation in 1959.
Along with Rembrandt’s lady, another headliner of the coming exhibition is a Leonardo da Vinci painting that, in Ottawa, might be called The One that Got Away. The real title is Ginevra de’ Benci, showing a young Florentine woman. It will only be seen at the Washington venue. That’s a pity.
Back in the 1960s the National Gallery in Ottawa could have bought the Leonardo from Liechtenstein for a fraction of what it is worth today. Jarvis had had his eye on the masterpiece before his hurried departure. Various published reports have put the pricetag back then as low as $2.5 million and as high as $6 million. The deal was almost done until the Liberal government of Lester Pearson got cold feet. The U.S. bought the painting soon afterward for more than $5 million. It remains the sole da Vinci painting in the Americas. It could be worth 100 times as much now. Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million (U.S.) last year to a Saudi prince.
“The exhibition features masterworks by some of the most prominent figures in Western art, and presents the evolution of the Princely Collections against the backdrop of five centuries of European history,” says the American Federation of Arts, one of the exhibition’s organizers. “Spanning from the reign of the first Prince of Liechtenstein, Karl I von Liechtenstein (1569-1627), through the current reigning prince, (HSH) Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein (born 1945), the collection was shaped over successive generations to include world-renowned holdings of European art.”
Artists in the exhibition include Renaissance painters and sculptors Antico, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Sandro Botticelli, Fra Filippo and Filippino Lippi, Andrea Mantegna, Simone Martini, and Leonardo da Vinci; masters of the Baroque period, including Anthony van Dyck, Orazio Gentileschi, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Peter Paul Rubens; and, from the 18th century, Canaletto, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Hyacinthe Rigaud, The 19th century is represented by German and Austrian artists such as Friedrich von Amerling and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
Note the inclusion of Rubens. He has been a particular favourite of the Liechtenstein rulers over the centuries. Expect about a dozen Rubens in the touring show, including Agrippina and Germanicus, a painting once owned by the prince and now held by the U.S. National Gallery of Art.
The exhibition is curated by representatives of Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections, the U.S. National Gallery of Art, the American Federation of Arts and, from Ottawa, the National Gallery’s acting senior curator of European and American art, Anabelle Kienle Ponka
The National Gallery has confirmed two other exhibitions for 2020 in Ottawa besides the Liechtenstein works.
One is a solo show called Moyra Davey: The Faithful, running from April 24 to Sept. 27. Davey is a New York-based Canadian photographer.
The other one is Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, a collection of Impressionism paintings by Canadians artists from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The exhibition is touring Europe, amid glowing reviews, and will be seen in Ottawa from this Oct. 30 to March 21, 2021.
Still to be decided is a date for the Canadian Biennial, the exhibition that is supposed to be held every two years to reveal new contemporary art purchases by the gallery. The show should have been held in 2019 but was tentatively postponed until this year. Now the gallery is saying no decision on dates will be taken until after the gallery’s new chief curator, Kitty Scott, arrives later this month.
As for Rembrandt’s mysterious woman: The National Gallery says the confusion over both name and subject matter dates back to the 18th century, when the painting was known as The Jewish Wife or The Jewish Bride.
“The central figure’s rich jewellery and clothing imply a historical theme, and thus a biblical character, rather than one of Rembrandt’s contemporaries,” says a National Gallery Magazine article of 2016. “But which one? Was she meant to be Bathsheba dressing for her first tryst with King David? Or was she Esther, putting on her finery to beg King Ahasuerus for the lives of her people? Or Judith, preparing to seduce and kill Holofernes, the enemy’s general? Still other names have been proposed, and the character’s identity remains a matter of speculation.”
Maybe when her friends come to visit from Liechtenstein this summer, some new clues will be dropped.