Experts Peeled The Varnish Off This Knockoff Painting – And Found A Stunning Secret Underneath

Expert art conservators cautiously peel away layers of varnish from a 17th-century Dutch old master. The artwork – Portrait of a Young Woman – is attractive enough in its own right. But it’s not considered an especially important piece of work, as it was painted by a mere assistant in the studio of Rembrandt. However, as the conservators clean off the old varnish, they discover something that completely astonishes them.

Portrait of a Young Woman dates from 1632; it’s painted in oils on an oak panel and measures around 25 by 20 inches. It had languished largely unremarked in the collection of the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania for nearly 60 years. But in 2018 the painting was sent to New York University for a clean-up.

The Allentown Art Museum was established during the 1930s Great Depression. Local people – led by the artist and critic Walter Emerson Baum – worked to get the institution of the ground. In its early decades, the museum exhibited works by mostly local artists in a modest building owned by the city of Allentown. But a dramatic upswing in the museum’s fortunes came in the 1960s.

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That was when the Kress Foundation – founded by American businessman and philanthropist Samuel Kress – made a stunning donation to the museum’s collections. The organization donated no fewer than 53 paintings from the Renaissance era to the museum, which was a massive upgrade of the art the gallery held. This donation subsequently motivated the good folk of Allentown to move the institution to a much grander home in the city, and this building still houses the museum today.

One of the paintings that the Kress Foundation passed on to the Allentown Art Museum was Portrait of a Young Woman, which was at the time attributed to Rembrandt. Unfortunately, in 1970 art experts in the Netherlands re-examined the work and came up with a devastating conclusion. They informed the museum that the work was in fact by a mere assistant of Rembrandt.

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And so the painting remained on display in Allentown as a little-considered work by a Rembrandt understudy until 2018, when it was sent to New York University for cleaning. There, it was subjected to a battery of tests including electron microscopy, infrared scanning and X-ray procedures. And those tests showed evidence that intrigued the conservators. Indeed, there was something about this painting that seemed strangely mysterious.

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Presumably, the Allentown Art Museum’s staff and trustees must have been deeply disappointed when those Dutch art historians declared that Rembrandt had not painted Portrait of a Young Woman. For any institution that has an original work by Rembrandt has cause to be extremely proud.

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The Dutch master is one of the most renowned artists in the history of human creativity. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden, Holland. It’s an attractive city set at the junction of the Old Rhine and the New Rhine some five miles from the Dutch coastline that borders the North Sea.

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Rembrandt entered the world into a fairly prosperous family and was probably the eighth of nine children. His father worked as a miller and his mother was the daughter of a baker. He spent some years at Leiden’s Latin School, which still stands in the city today. And in 1620 Rembrandt was accepted by the University of Leiden at the age of 14.

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But the young Rembrandt was apparently more interested in his art than studies. After just months at the university, he took on an apprenticeship with the artist Jacob van Swanenburgh, who had studied in Italy and was known as a history painter. Meanwhile, this spell as an understudy to van Swanenburgh lasted for around three years.

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In 1624 Rembrandt then moved from Leiden to the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. There, he joined the studio of Pieter Lastman for six months. The latter was an artist whose paintings displayed a strong sense of narrative – a feature which was to figure large in many of Rembrandt’s own works.

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After six months with Lastman, Rembrandt returned to Leiden where he opened a studio with his friend and fellow-artist Jan Lievens. Then in 1629 the multi-talented Dutch diplomat and scholar Constantijn Huygens recognized Rembrandt’s remarkable artistic craft. Through him, the artist now had a connection with the Dutch royal court in The Hague. And this was to prove a lucrative source of commissions from the likes of the powerful statesman Prince Frederik Hendrik.

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In 1631 Rembrandt moved back to Amsterdam and pursued a successful career as a portraitist. It’s worth noting that Portrait of a Young Woman was painted in 1632. Also, around this time the artist began to take on apprentices who worked in his studio. In the years ahead, Rembrandt cemented his reputation as an artist of great skill and quality. He subsequently died in Amsterdam in 1669 at the age of 63.

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Many connoisseurs recognized Rembrandt’s genius during his lifetime, although he did have his critics. There were those who accused him of portraying ugliness due to the stark realism of some of his pieces. But today, Rembrandt’s work is accepted as some of the greatest art that the world has ever seen, and the extraordinary prices they can command at auction attest to this.

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In 2009 one of Rembrandt’s paintings from 1658 – Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo – sold for over $33 million at Christie’s auction house in London. At the time, this was the fourth highest price ever achieved by a Renaissance work. It also broke the previous record for a Rembrandt – the $29 million paid for Portrait of a lady aged 62 in 2000.

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And Rembrandt’s work has rocketed in price over the years. In 2016 the governments of France and the Netherlands joined together to buy a pair of works by the Renaissance master in a private sale conducted by Christie’s. Furthermore, the value of these two pieces was quite astonishing.

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The two works were portraits of a wife and her husband called Oopjen Coppit and Maerten Soolmans. Rembrandt painted the two pictures in 1634 – just a year after the couple had wed. Each canvas measured around 83 by 53 inches and went for a staggering $95 million each.

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Unsurprisingly, these enormous amounts of money make Rembrandt’s work a target for thieves. In 1972 three masked and armed desperadoes clambered through a skylight on the roof of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the dark of night. They overpowered and bound three guards and made off with jewelry and paintings which included the Rembrandt work Landscape with Cottages. And the latter piece has never been recovered.

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One man – investigator Alain Lacoursière – had a theory about the theft which he recounted to Radio-Canada. He said, “There were rumors at the time that members of the Mafia here were trying to construct a ship and that the canvases would be rolled up and put in the hold during construction. They are probably decorating the home or palace of a Russian, Italian or French Mafia member who may have exchanged them for drugs, weapons.”

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Meanwhile, not one but two Rembrandts disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990. One – Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee – was the only seascape that the great artist ever turned his hand to. The other was titled A Lady and Gentleman in Black. Both painted in 1633, they were stolen along with 11 other artworks in what was the world’s highest-value unsold art theft ever perpetrated, according to the museum.

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On the night of the robbery, two men in police uniform arrived at the museum and were allowed to enter. They then handcuffed two guards and after an uninterrupted 81 minutes left the museum with their haul, which was worth around half-a-billion dollars. Apparently, a $10 million reward put up by the museum for information still stands, so be sure to contact the institution directly if you know anything about the theft.

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Fortunately, the Allentown Art Museum has escaped the attentions of art thieves, even although it owned what was believed to be an original Rembrandt. It was the Kress Foundation which had donated Portrait of a Young Woman to the museum in 1961. For reference, Samuel H. Kress was the man behind this foundation. The philanthropist was born near Allentown in Cherryville, Pennsylvania, in 1863 and he died in 1955.

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The patron had made his fortune by founding the extensive chain of S.H. Kress stores, which the Kress Foundation website notes sold “affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise.” At its height, there were around 200 Kress stores across the U.S. But the philanthropist had much wider interests; he spent much of his life assembling an outstanding collection of Renaissance art.

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The Kress Foundation distributed artworks from its founder’s collection to public museums and galleries around the U.S. One of those paintings was the supposed Rembrandt one which landed in Allentown in 1961. And when the Kress Foundation donated the piece, it was genuinely believed to have been painted by the venerable Dutch master.

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But in 1970 the painting was reassessed by experts from the Rembrandt Research Project, which is based in the artist’s native country of Holland. This organization assesses paintings said to be by the great man to establish whether they are genuine. Sadly for the Allentown Art Museum and the good folk of the city, the Dutch specialists were clear. The painting was not by Rembrandt.

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The Dutch experts judged that this work had indeed been painted in Rembrandt’s studio, but it was done by an assistant and not the great man himself. The Dutch art historians said the quality of the light in the painting as well as the coarse texture indicated strongly that this work was not painted by Rembrandt.

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The experts also questioned the way the woman’s clothing was rendered in the portrait and said that it lacked clarity. Rembrandt’s signature also raised concerns as it appeared to be at variance with other examples of the artist’s name which appeared on his paintings. This evidence was also supported by previous X-rays which had raised queries about the painting’s brushwork.

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We can imagine that this new attribution must have been a severe disappointment to the museum authorities. If the Dutch experts concluded that the Allentown Art Museum’s painting had indeed been a work from Rembrandt’s own hand, then the work would have been extremely valuable and a highly prestigious element of the museum’s collection. The painting was duly exhibited as a work by an understudy of Rembrandt’s.

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The piece that the museum had proudly displayed as a Rembrandt wasn’t exactly a fake, it was from the hand of a student of his rather than from the artist himself. However, in 2018 it was time to send Portrait of a Young Woman to New York for conservation. And what would the experts there make of the painting?

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The painting went to the New York University Institute of Fine Arts in Manhattan. The organization works with the Kress Foundation to conserve the art donated to galleries around the country – including the Allentown Art Museum. According to the institute’s website, it provides “new information about the authorship, function, authenticity and original context to which these paintings belonged.” And that was how the experts there approached Portrait of a Young Woman.

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Various types of technology were used scrutinize it in minute detail once the Allentown painting was in the hands of the New York University conservators. It was examined using a technique called infrared reflectography, along with being X-rayed and scanned with electron microscopy. And this meticulous analysis began to reveal some unexpected secrets about this painting that had once been attributed to Rembrandt.

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In particular, the high-tech scrutiny suggested something surprising about the quality of the brushwork in the painting. The truth was, it was remarkably similar to the brush strokes in other works that were definitely painted by Rembrandt. One of the New York conservators called Shan Kuang spoke to the New York Post in February 2020 about her work on Portrait of a Young Woman.

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Kuang told the newspaper that close examination of Portrait of a Young Woman “showed brushwork, and a liveliness to that brushwork, that is quite consistent with other works by Rembrandt.” But there was still another important stage of work to be done on the painting – removing the coats of varnish that had been applied to the work over the years.

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Elaine Mehalakes, the Allentown Art Museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, explained to the New York Post that, “Our painting had numerous layers of varnish and that really obscured what you could see of the original brushwork, as well as the original color.” The question was, what would be revealed once the conservators had peeled away those layers?

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Speaking to CNN about the varnish that had been added to Portrait of a Young Woman, Kuang pointed out, “It was the fashion in the 1920s to not see any texture. We call it a ‘mirrored surface’ – people wanted to see their reflection, which is really counter to what a Rembrandt should look like.”

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Kuang continued, “The restorer was so frustrated building up the layers of varnish to make the texture disappear, that he actually poured it on. It was the consistency of molasses, and you could actually see the drip marks.” But she added that as the layers were removed, “it became very apparent very quickly that the painting was of a very high quality.” Expert art historians then came up with a unanimous conclusion: the painting was by Rembrandt.

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As Kuang put it, “A number of scholars and curators have now looked at it, supported the attribution and said that if this was in their museums, they’d label it as a Rembrandt. And I think that gave Allentown [Art Museum] the confidence to go ahead – and rightfully so.” After decades of misattribution, the museum could now declare with pride that it owned a bona fide Rembrandt.

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Unsurprisingly, Mehalakes was jubilant about the conclusions of the experts. She told The Philadelphia Enquirer in February 2020, “We’re very thrilled and excited. The painting has this incredible glow to it now that it just didn’t have before. You can really connect with the portrait in the way I think the artist meant you to.”

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Rembrandt was not just an outstandingly talented artist but also a prolific one, so attribution controversies are no rarity when it comes to his works. Writing in the Financial Times in 2014, art historian Bendor Grosvenor pointed out that, “In the first half of the 20th century, Rembrandt was believed to have painted some 600 [to] 650 works. But from the 1970s onwards that number shrank rapidly to around 250.”

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So, this is a tale with a happy ending. For nearly a decade from 1961, the Allentown Art Museum’s staff, trustees and visitors believed the institution was the honored owner of a Rembrandt. Then this belief was shattered by experts in 1970. But almost 50 years later, another team of expert restorers were able to show beyond reasonable doubt that Portrait of a Young Woman was indeed the work of the great Dutch master.

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