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PAUL SOLMAN: Now playing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an exhibition that looks at one of the raging controversies in art, what is or isn’t a real Rembrandt? We’d invited historian Simon Schama here to help make the distinction.
Over the decades, the Met has acquired 42 supposedly real Rembrandts. But in recent years, their authenticity has come into question. The museum is now down to 18 authenticated Rembrandts, and the official world count, 700 or so around the turn of the century, is down to 300.
Now, to put you in the picture and on the hot seat, we’re going to start with a Rembrandt/not-Rembrandt take-home quiz. Ready? Okay. Starting with Pair No. 1, which is the real Rembrandt, (a) or (b)? Pair No. 2, again, (a) or (b).
You make the call. Pair three, for the last time, which is Rembrandt, which is not? The answers in just a few minutes, but first a really real Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer,” as seen by real Rembrandt expert Simon Schama.
SIMON SCHAMA, Columbia University: This is real Rembrandt. Now, a real Rembrandt takes a kind of standard issue project, and first, it re-thinks it in a way no one else could have imagined, and then it re-works it, the actual painting is the kind of painting that nobody else would have dared.
The center of this painting is a chain, and people think, well, you know, the guy in Italy who wanted this painting said, give me a philosopher, Rembrandt gives him the gold chain as the kind of narrative, story-telling part of the painting. In a complete, astonishing theatrical coup, is what a real Rembrandt is.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, I look at it, and I think, oh, the thoughtful, penetrating gaze.
SIMON SCHAMA: Well, you know, everyone says, oh, he looks kind of sad and wistful. This is a man under pressure, and one thing that makes a real Rembrandt is that whatever time you live in, whatever society you live in–it can be Amsterdam or Italy, this was meant for an Italian collector in the 1650′s or New York or America in the 1990′s, some element will connect with our own kind of human condition.
This is a story of a man who’s under pressure, it’s Aristotle, a philosopher. Why is he under pressure? Because he owes his job to the state, to the king, in particular to Alexander the Great, who’s shown hanging from that chain.
What do you think about chains? Chains are both things, if it’s kind of heavy gold jewelry, you’re wanting to put on yourself, but a chain is also a chain, something that binds you to somebody else. So everybody, every man is going to see that chain. And I think Rembrandt’s brilliance is that he kind of infiltrates himself into the kind of public imagination, into the way you and I would look at a painting.
You start by looking at the sadness of the gaze. You notice what the hands are doing. You say, mm, chains. Now, you know, there’s something sad and heavy and God is that chain heavy, heavy about that chain, so you don’t have to be, you know, a scholar about Aristotle to have the feeling that there’s something melancholy and sorrowful and heavily chained about this painting.
PAUL SOLMAN: Hanging next to the philosopher a not Rembrandt, though it even passed muster with Holland’s supposedly definitive Rembrandt research project in 1976. But to the Met, itself, X-rays and autoradiographs suggested not Rembrandt techniques. The image, itself, came under attack. In 1982, the museum demoted the auctioneer.
PAUL SOLMAN: And I remember as a young person coming to the Met and this was a Rembrandt.
SIMON SCHAMA: Me too.
PAUL SOLMAN: What’s not Rembrandt about this?
SIMON SCHAMA: When you start to look at it closely, the sleeve there is a mess. It’s not defined with anything like the precision that Rembrandt would give it. It’s a kind of wild piece of painting, but it’s not exactly describing something.
There’s a strange face of a head back there in the darkness. Rembrandt would always have as in the Aristotle, a bust that meant something, that did something, that spoke a particular way. It’s a kind of smushed out face. Then the face of the figure, itself, has very, very strong light and dark patches.
One thing Rembrandt would do would have a wonderful journey from the dark to the light, very carefully done. This is someone who said, ah, the Rembrandt way to do it is brilliant light, deep, deep dark, and there’s a very sharp frontier between the two.
PAUL SOLMAN: But this painting was accepted by virtually every expert in the world until 1982 as a Rembrandt.
SIMON SCHAMA: That’s right.
PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s a rather beautiful painting.
SIMON SCHAMA: It’s a lovely painting, yes.
PAUL SOLMAN: So show us a truly egregious non-Rembrandt.
SIMON SCHAMA: One right over here. Yeah. This is a painting that really flunks even the wanna-be-Rembrandt test, because it’s by someone who’s been looking at Rembrandt, who’s got an idea, gold color, and it’s a dramatic idea, it’s Pontius Pilate, supposed to be washing the hands.
But the painting stops at the idea and a vague sense of color. You look at the detail, look at the face and the hair that the kid who’s holding out the jug, and it’s the most kind of elementary sketchy rendering.
The figures of the kind of cast of spectators, the window there, are done so crudely and so sketchily, none of it adds up as a kind of dramatic moment at all. And take a look at that chain. The chain that Rembrandt in the Aristotle was able to do with weight and texture and glitter is there, just a kind of wild attempt to suggest a kind of material.
PAUL SOLMAN: Okay. So then how did the Metropolitan Museum of Art accept this as a Rembrandt in 1913 from Benjamin Altman?
SIMON SCHAMA: At that time, earlier in the century, anything really that looked brownish, goldish, had a kind of fuzz around the edge was sort of emotional painting because people thought Rembrandt worked alone. He was the solitary artist, so it must be him, must be him, maybe him on a bad Wednesday morning, but it’s got to be him, and an awful lot of stuff even worse than this got taken under that rubric.
PAUL SOLMAN: Any element of economics here in the sense that he was must have gotten a heck of a tax write-off for giving this to the Met?
SIMON SCHAMA: Yeah. No, I think actually like all collectors, you’re the economics correspondent, I know, but you have a soft heart too. He truly felt like all sorts of other people that this was the real thing, that dreamy look which we now look as though it’s someone who is, you know, thinking of Christmas or something, for someone like Mr. Altman would have been the Rembrandt gaze, mysterious, off there, soulful.
PAUL SOLMAN: So a clear not-Rembrandt, as with so many, likely painted by a member of his workshop. But these Rembrandts are beyond dispute. The syphilis-deformed “Gerard Delaresse,” the Amsterdam Woodworker, “Herman Dumer,” and “Woman with a Pink.”
SIMON SCHAMA: This is the real thing about as good as it can get, Rembrandt in the 1660′s. It’s about–it’s a mood piece. This is a painting about the sweetness of married love, and she’s carrying a pink in her hand, because that was the symbol of married affection.
So what has Rembrandt done? He’s lit the flower which in some sense is, you know, echoes this beautiful kind of red color of the cloak too, so the flower becomes, becomes the outward version of the love she’s feeling inside her. Rembrandt, you know, moves you. You feel kind of overwhelmed.
This is thought by art historians, a very old-fashioned idea, but it’s a deep truth. Beyond all the bits and bobs, beyond all the pieces of nice finicky painting, there is a central emotional power–that face, those eyes. The painting builds this like a song. And if you hear this, if you see it, you’ve got the real Rembrandt.
PAUL SOLMAN: People like myself, who have over the years gone to museums, seen it say Rembrandt, and, therefore, been validated in their emotional response to the painting because it’s a Rembrandt. I mean, have we been duped when the–it turns out that the painting that was de-attributed?
SIMON SCHAMA: No, absolutely not. I mean, there are many so-called experts, art historians, scholars, who also were persuaded by those paintings and many of them, many of the not-Rembrandts are very beautiful, fine paintings. They are just not quite this fine.
PAUL SOLMAN: And now finally time for the answers to our quiz. Pair One: On the left, the real Rembrandt, the brutally candid self-portrait in which light moves to dark with subtle drama.
By contrast, the drama on the right is considered theatrical, the woman almost a prop. On to Pair Two, and again on the left, the real Rembrandt, with personality and brush work, especially in the lace and head, that you just don’t see with anyone else, whereas, the fellow on the right is a type with armor that’s well-painted but not amazing.
Finally, Pair Three, and, again, it’s Rembrandt’s “Flora” on the left, her flowers gathered in her skirt, the “Sibyl” on the right is by comparison, a bit muddy. For those of you who passed the test, congratulations. For those of you who failed, though, this consultation: Some of the world’s greatest experts once thought all six were Rembrandts. A
nd speaking of art expertise, let’s give the final word or image to Rembrandt, himself, and his drawing of a 17th century art connoisseur, the guy with the donkey ears on the left. Rembrandt, the man some think of as the world’s greatest artist, apparently had the world’s greatest contempt for so-called “art experts.”
JIM LEHRER: The special exhibition is over, but the Rembrandts, real and unreal, are still hanging throughout the Metropolitan Museum in New York.