Rembrandt's Genius Lies In the Brand, not the Hand

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

AMSTERDAM -- Amsterdam is Rembrandtland. It's hard to go two steps without finding a home Rembrandt once slept in, or the place his bankruptcy auction was held or the well-marked tomb of some relation.

Right now, Rembrandt worship is especially intense. It's the 400th anniversary of the painter's birth. Rembrandt pilgrims are pouring in from all around the world to be a part of it, and to get closer to the master in any of some 20 shows.

We revere any picture we think Saint Rembrandt touched, and root out fakes the way a Grand Inquisitor might pursue false shrouds and counterfeit crowns of thorns. There's no other artist where we care so much about what may have come directly from him, and about telling it from what is by some less exalted soul.

The problem is, the difference may often be unknowable.

A show called "Really Rembrandt?," assembled by Amsterdam's great Rijksmuseum (rhymes with "Bikes Museum") -- like decades' worth of similar shows that have filled the world's museums with debates about the painter's authorship -- leaves its visitors with as many doubts as certainties.

Anyway, doesn't all this search for the "authentic" Rembrandt make us guilty of idolatry, when we should be worshiping the spirit of the art instead, whoever turned it out?

That, I believe, is what Rembrandt would have wanted -- not because he was some kind of humanistic altruist, but because he had a decent business sense.

Is It Real? Who Decides?

The "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" debate spawns more headlines than nearly any other issue in art history; its coverage certainly dwarfs pious meditations on the greatness of the master's art -- on how perfectly it crafts a sense of human personality, on the way its brush strokes conjure light and shade, on how it lets humble figures off the street act out the most elevated story lines.

No, it is authorship that matters most to us: The press watched for years as the attribution of the much-loved "Polish Rider," in the Frick Collection in New York, bounced back and forth between Rembrandt and some unnamed imitator. (Right now it's back in Rembrandt's camp.) There was always a sense that the picture's merit was somehow in question, too, and was dependent on the object's close connection to the man.

Berlin's "Man With a Golden Helmet," once held to be one of Rembrandt's signature masterpieces, has also been at the center of some very public battles. It's on loan to "Rembrandt: The Quest of a Genius," the 400th-birthday show at the Rembrandt House Museum, but gets labeled as some unnamed follower's work.

The authorship of Washington's world-famous Rembrandts, such as "A Girl With a Broom," "Saskia van Uylenburgh, the Wife of the Artist," "The Mill" and other treasures of the National Gallery, have also been fought over, and may be for years to come.

Back in 1968, the Dutch government started to lavish funds on something called the Rembrandt Research Project, whose only job was to establish the Rembrandt corpus, once and for all. Almost four decades on, the project's "final" decisions aren't -- at least for many of the curators and museum-goers who have seen their favorite Rembrandts become the work of unknowns such as Govert Flinck or Ferdinand Bol, and most often of "anon."

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