Museums: When Dutchmen Disagree

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When the Metropolitan Museum's Thomas P. F. Hoving dropped the word recently that the Met was planning to "reattribute" several of its Rembrandts, there was a gasp from museumgoers. Fake Rembrandts at the Metropolitan, of all places? It seemed altogether too shocking to be believed. But art scholars in Rembrandt's own Amsterdam, London and Paris scarcely blinked at the news. Like every other great museum, the Met is constantly in the process of re-evaluating and recataloguing the entire collection of paintings, and in fact the current examination of its 31 Rembrandt oils, one of the world's three largest collections (together with those in the Hermitage and the Louvre), is if anything somewhat overdue.

Three of the Met's Rembrandts have been labeled with a question mark since 1954. As many as three more are now getting close inspection, including such works as Man with a Steel Gorget and Old Woman Cutting Her Nails. Nor is the Met alone in giving fresh attention to Rembrandt's paintings. The National Gallery of London in 1960 demoted three of its then 21 Rembrandts to the status of "attributed to" or "school of." The National Gallery of Washington, which currently has 24 Rembrandts, two years ago relabeled its Old Woman Plucking a Fowl as "Rembrandt—Upper part of figure repainted by a later hand."

Some time ago, experts at the Louvre scrutinized a pair of Rembrandt canvases, each of which depicted a philosopher, subsequently decided that one had been done by the master, another by one of his pupils. In the past six months, Chicago's Art Institute has taken a deep breath and concluded that one of its three Rembrandts, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples, is in fact the work of Jan Lievens, a follower of Rembrandt.

Shrinking Output. Internationally, the wide-ranging reassessment of Rembrandt's prodigious output has resulted in a marked contraction of the number of oil paintings unquestionably attributed to the Leiden miller's gifted son. In 1923, the German art historian W. R. Valentiner listed some 700 genuine Rembrandts. In 1942, the Dutch scholar Abraham Bredius pared the total to about 620, and last year the German Kurt Bauch brought the number to 550. The end is not in sight. To be published in the U.S. in October is an other, still more definitive catalogue by The Netherlands' Horst Karel Gerson. At most it accepts, without reservations, 450 Rembrandts.* Many scholars feel that de-attribution has gone too far. In his 1964 study, Harvard's Jakob Rosenberg, considered to be ultraconservative in his choices, relisted 33 Rembrandts that Bredius had disqualified. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently looked at a discredited St. John the Evangelist, concluded that only the saint's beard had been added by a later hand, erased the beard and reinstated the painting as a veritable Rembrandt.

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