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New Rembrandt in Oxford

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David Dallas, Old Master Specialist

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There is great excitement at my local museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, as some of you may have read in the Guardian on Sunday 30th August. An van Camp, curator of Northern Europe Art at the museum has made a great discovery in the museum’s basement. She was concerned that a small oak panel of the head of a melancholic old man, bequeathed to the museum in 1951 as a Rembrandt, but subsequently rejected by the Rembrandt Research Project, as an old fake merited re-examination. She was quite right! She said “It is what Rembrandt does. He does these tiny head studies of old men with forlorn, melancholic, pensive looks. It is very typical of what Rembrandt does in Leiden around 1630”.

In 1630 Rembrandt shared a studio in Leiden with his childhood friend Jan Lievens and visitors to the studio said their work was interchangeable it was so similar.

Head_of_a_Bearded_Man_Rembrandt

Head of a Bearded Man Rembrandt

The painting was examined by Peter Klein, a leading dendrochronologist and he established that it was painted on a panel of Baltic oak from the same tree as the panel used by Rembrandt for his ‘Andromeda chained to the Rocks’ in the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague and the panel used by Lievens for his ‘Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother’ in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. Both paintings were executed around 1630, just as An van Camp had surmised about the Ashmolean panel. Rembrandt did not have pupils at this stage of his career, so it seems almost certain it is by him.

Dendrochronology has become a very exact science and works best on oak panels from Northern Europe. In Italy they painted on Poplar, Walnut and Lime and these soft woods are very hard to analyse. Dendrochronology works by taking a cross section of the growth rings of a tree. In wet years they are wide and in dry ones black and narrow. Each panel reads like a bar code and there are enough securely dated altarpieces and panel paintings that a huge database has arisen going back from the present day to almost the last ice age. This last bit did not involve altarpieces! I once had a painting by Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh, which had a remnant of bark attached. Usually panel makers cut off the soft green outer wood as it is so prone to woodworm or beetle attack. Dr Ian Tyres, who is an English Dendrochronologist could date the tree to within 6 months of its felling!

I saw the ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition at the Ashmolean before lockdown and it is a ‘must-see show’; it reveals so much about the prodigious talents of this young miller’s son.

It re-opened on August 10th and now runs until November 1st. I urge you to go and see it, but remember these days you have to book a timed ticket in advance, to conform with social distancing regulations.