Rembrandt Self-Portrait Sells for $11.3 Million

Sotheby’s auctioned a Rembrandt self-portrait for $11.3 million, a record auction price for a self-study by the Dutch master. The work was acquired by American casino magnate Stephen Wynn by a telephone bid. He stated he intends to display the work in Las Vegas.

This newly discovered Rembrandt self-portrait is dated 1634. Hidden for over 300 years behind layers of overpaint, the striking image of one of the world’s most celebrated masters has recently emerged after years of painstaking cleaning. This important discovery is the first Rembrandt self-portrait to appear at auction in the last 30 years.

(The last one sold at Sotheby’s in 1973.) It is also one of only three known Rembrandt self-portraits still in private hands.

For some 300 years, Rembrandt’s intimate self-portrait lay concealed beneath the reworking of one of his pupils who, shortly after the painting was executed in 1634, transformed the portrait into a fanciful study of a flamboyantly dressed Russian aristocrat. Sporting a tall red hat, long hair, earrings, and a dashing moustache, this composite figure of a type very popular in the 17th century remained unremarked as a Rembrandt until well into the 20th century. A photograph from 1935 (left) shows the painting as it was then.

The unravelling of the mystery behind the portrait began tentatively in the mid-20th century when a curious owner arranged for various elements of the Russian’s attire to be removed. When the painting was acquired by the current owner’s father in the 1960s, the tall hat had already disappeared (left). The owner then removed the earrings and the extensions of the hair and moustache (below). But his investigations stopped there, and the painting was left in a hybrid state – without the characteristic elements of the Russian’s hair and clothing, but with large amounts of overpaint still concealing the highly accomplished self-portrait that lay beneath.

It is only recently, in the last few years, that scholars and specialists have come together to study the painting in depth. In 1995 Professor Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project, was invited by the current owner to examine it and was keen to investigate it further. Four years later, the owner contacted Nicolas Joly, Head of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department in Paris. He saw the painting with Alex Bell of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings in London, and they advised the owner to have it sent to London for further examination. Their colleague, George Gordon, said: “What struck us all when we examined it together was the quality of the painting in the area of the sitter’s lower face, from the tip of his nose downwards. These parts stood out against the rest of the picture in a way that strongly suggested that they were the work of a different, and superior, hand.”

Later that year, after examination in London, Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department sent the picture to Martin Bijl, formerly head of conservation at the Rijksmuseum. The picture was examined with X-rays and infra-red photography and the pigments were analysed in conjunction with the Rembrandt Research Project. And so began the complicated process of peeling back the layers of overpaint and trying to understand the process of the painting’s transformation. From the moment the painting arrived in Amsterdam, Martin Bijl and Ernst van de Wetering worked closely and tirelessly to uncover what they suspected, and found, to be a highly accomplished self-portrait of Rembrandt as a 28 year-old artist. The original paint, so long hidden by layers of overpaint, is remarkably well preserved. The signature and date 1634 are painted “wet in wet”, that is to say into the underlying paint layer while it was still wet.

Their work has not only brought to light an unknown and important portrait, it has also cast new light on working practices in Rembrandt’s studio. Overpainting is generally considered an irreverent practice, usually applied to outdated works in order to make them conform with the latest fashions. However, in this case the overpainting was applied very soon after the original painting was executed – in the same workshop and most probably at Rembrandt’s instigation. Art historians have always been puzzled by the vast quantity of self-portraits that Rembrandt produced (there are around 80 in all), assuming they must have been personal, introspective studies – part of a search for some psychological truth. However, it now seems that, as Ernst van de Wetering has shown, Rembrandt may well have produced them as commodities – both to order and for stock. If they failed to sell, Rembrandt would either paint over them himself to produce a more commercial subject, or would allow his students to do the same. In the process of researching the present painting, it was found that there were three other early self-portraits that had been either wholly or partially overpainted in this way (one re-painted by Rembrandt himself, the other two transformed by his pupils). In this instance, the self-portrait was worked into an image of a fashionable Russian by one of Rembrandt’s pupils.

Although Rembrandt treated a wide range of subjects in his lifetime, it is perhaps his self-portraits that most readily capture the imagination. The subject of recent major exhibitions at the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, they have proved a source of constant fascination to students of Dutch art, not only because Rembrandt produced so many of them, but also because of their extraordinary range and variety. This 1634 self-portrait bears all the characteristics that make Rembrandt’s work so intriguing and immediate – the young artist stares out at us from beneath the shadow of his beret, a subtle play of light bringing his features to life in a way that fully displays his painterly skill.

The emergence of this previously unknown work is not only a major discovery in its own right, it also marks a turning-point in the way Rembrandt’s self-portraits are perceived and understood.

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Published in: on July 13, 2003 at 1:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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