Mauritshuis attributes Saul and David painting to Rembrandt

Thursday, June 11, 2015
Mauritshuis attributes Saul and David painting to Rembrandt

The Mauritshuis has one of its most famous Rembrandts back. The (full) attribution of the painting Saul and David to Rembrandt is the exciting conclusion of eight years of research by a large team of international experts under the leadership of the Mauritshuis. The painting has been carefully restored and is the centrepiece of the exhibition Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David, which is presented in the exhibition hall of the Mauritshuis from 11 June to 13 September 2015.

Mauritshuis attributes Saul and David painting to Rembrandt

The Mauritshuis has one of its most famous Rembrandts back. The (full) attribution of the painting Saul and David to Rembrandt is the exciting conclusion of eight years of research by a large team of international experts under the leadership of the Mauritshuis. The painting has been carefully restored and is the centrepiece of the exhibition Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David, which is presented in the exhibition hall of the Mauritshuis from 11 June to 13 September 2015.

The painting Saul and David first emerged in 1830 at an auction in Paris. It then remained on the market for years until its purchase by Mauritshuis director Abraham Bredius in 1898. There was no doubt in his mind that this was one of Rembrandt's most important paintings. After his death in 1946, he left the painting to the museum. Saul and David was considered one of the most beautiful works by Rembrandt, and was a favourite of the visitors of the Mauritshuis.

In the sixties and seventies, Rembrandt's oeuvre was examined in a new light. Horst Gerson (a Rembrandt expert and authority in his time) wrote off many of Rembrandt's paintings, including Saul and David. Opinions about the attribution have varied widely ever since: is it really by Rembrandt? By a pupil? Or perhaps both? To solve the mystery once and for all, the Mauritshuis decided to research and restore the painting again in 2007. 

Before embarking on the conservation of Saul and David, the team at the Mauritshuis studied the painting thoroughly. To this end, the Mauritshuis composed an international committee of advisers and set out to find answers to key questions such as the original dimensions, the curtain, and the attribution. 

The research on the painting had many similarities with a crime scene investigation. Indeed, the masterpiece was likely cut into two pieces between 1830 and 1869, and later reassembled. Using the latest equipment and research methods clearly showed that the current painting consists of no fewer than fifteen different pieces of canvas: two large pieces from the original canvas (one with Saul and one with David), complemented by an old canvas (a copy of a portrait of Anthony van Dyck) and other strips on the edges of the painting. In addition, the research shows that the original painting was larger.

The curtain on which Saul is drying his tears play an important role in the exhibition. It is a striking detail in the painting and has a prominent place on the canvas, but it was heavily overpainted and it was unclear whether it was part of the original composition. Two research techniques proved extremely useful when studying this issue. First, paint samples showed that the primer was typical for paintings from Rembrandt's atelier in the late 1650s and 1660s, and that the composition of the paint, with pigments such as smalt, red lake and earth pigments, was the same throughout the area of the curtain. A new technique, known as MA-XRF (macro X-ray fluorescence analysis), was also used. A mobile device, developed by the universities of Antwerp and Delft, was used to map out which chemical elements are present in the area of the curtain, making it possible literally to see under the overpainted layer of paint. The results exceeded all expectations. They clearly showed that the curtain was part of the original subject and, despite the discolouration, was largely intact.

During restoration of the painting Saul and David in the conservation studio of the Mauritshuis. Photo: Ivo Hoekstra

Attribution 

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. 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. This is suggested by the similarities with other paintings by him in the 1650s and 1660s, both in terms of primer and paint composition. An earlier suggestion, raised in a publication about Rembrandt in the Mauritshuis (1978), was that the painting was created in two phases.

When the painting surfaced from beneath the dark and matt varnish layer, it became quite clear that the painting had indeed been painted in two phases. The Mauritshuis dates the first phase of painting to the early 1650s. The large format of the historical piece and the colourful and sensitive modelling of some aspects of the painting correspond well with other works of Rembrandt from that period.

The research team was more hesitant about the second phase. The loose brushstrokes that make up the mantle at lower left look uncharacteristically wild. The daubs of paint on Saul's hand and nose, and especially around the eye, seem unnecessary and even ham-fisted. But it is important to realise that the appearance of the painting has changed greatly over time. Not only was it cut apart and put back together, but paint layers were removed in old restoration treatments and some pigments have discoloured. However, rejecting Rembrandt as the author of the second phase would force us to acknowledge that he allowed a pupil to 'finish' some of the more crucial parts of the painting, specifically Saul's face and hands - a quite improbable scenario. Another possibility is that the painting remained unfinished at the time of Rembrandt's death and was subsequently completed by another artist – but we have no evidence for this. The Mauritshuis has therefore concluded that the second phase was also painted by Rembrandt, in the mid-1650s. The rough appearance of parts of the second painting phase can be explained by the fact that the picture’s appearance has altered dramatically over time. Bredius, therefore, bought a genuine Rembrandt for the Mauritshuis in 1898.

Exhibition

Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David is an exhibition about scientific research and restoration techniques. The masterpiece is shown to the public for the first time since 2007. An interactive presentation guides Visitors through the different questions that restorers and experts faced while working on Saul and David. The restored painting is presented together with six loans (three paintings, two drawings and a print) and a 3D reconstruction of the original format of the painting. This reconstruction was made possible by advanced 3D scan technology from Delft University of Technology and the innovative, high-quality elevated printing technology of Océ.

Rembrandt? The case of Saul and David 
From 11 June to 13 September 2015 

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