Real Deal Rembrandt

At the beginning of this century, Rembrandt had painted close to 1,000 pictures. By the end of it, he'll have painted about 250. The drop is partly the work of the Rembrandt Research Project, which has been downlabeling paintings since its founding in Holland in 1967. This deattribution movement, and not the customary whole or half centennial (like 1956, the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth, or 1969, the 300th of his death) is what propels "Rembrandt, the Master & His Workshop." The exhibition runs through Nov. 10 at Berlin's Altes Museum before traveling to Amsterdam and London.

"The Master & His Workshop" is a moderate-size exhibition by blockbuster standards: upstairs 46 genuine Rembrandt paintings and a separate section of 32 pictures by pupils and followers, and downstairs 85 of the master's drawings and prints contrasted with 11 drawings by lesser artists. The paintings are set out chronologically on calm, gray-green walls, with the biggest famous picture being the 1662 group portrait of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild. Among the textbook-familiar smaller ones are "A Woman Bathing" (1654) and "A Young Woman in Bed" (1640s). No real surprises occur in the followers' gallery, where the sudden drop in quality is as noticeable as sin air-conditioning failure. Jan Lievens's "The Feast of Esther," for instance, more resembles a dogs-playing-poker print than an early Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden, July 15, 1606. He apprenticed to the painters Jacob van Swanenburgh and Pieter Lastman and was good enough to strike out on his own at 19 and acquire his own apprentice three years later. By the time he met Saskia, the comely cousin of his first dealer, he was considered a pretty good catch. They married, were happy, but doomed: of the four children to whom Saskia gave birth, only a son, Titus, survived; Saskia died the year Rembrandt finished his giant masterpiece "The Nightwatch" (1642), leaving him with a year-old child. He brought in Geertje Dircks as a nurse, began a long affair with her, then ultimately dumped her for the younger Hendrickje Stoffels. Geertje sued for breach of promise and won. Rembrandt countered by conspiring to have her committed for "moral delinquency." That was the beginning of his ruin.

Rembrandt is the great object lesson of the artist as homo economus. Described in a deed of the time as a "merchant," he made a lot of money: the equivalent of $30,000 a year in fees from his students, and another $30,000 from sales of their work. Rembrandt was paid more per portrait head for "The Nightwatch" than was Frans Hals for "Meagre Company," and his etchings sold well all his life. But he overspent on a big house, invested badly, had to pay for Geertje's incarceration and eventually had to apply for a 17th-century version of bankruptcy. The man who was still Amsterdam's most well-known painter when he died in 1669 was lowered into an unmarked rented grave.

In that era any work that left the workshop (Rembrandt had 20 or so students helping him paint in his) was considered an original. Signature? Samuel van Hoogstraten used Rembrandt's on his "Young Woman at an Open Half-Door" with no apparent disapproval from the master. So what's the big deal about genuine Rembrandts? Well, real Rembrandts, with all their deep psychology and somber magic in the craft, beg to be authenticated. To mix them in cavalierly with workshop production is like crediting Emily Dickinson's poems to a committee. However insular and aloof the all-Dutch RRP may be, it applies a lot of money and a lot of science to its work. The RRP uses dendrochronology--counting age rings in wooden panels-in order to pair separated portraits. And autoradiography-an advanced form of X-rays-to reveal the sequence and chemical composition of paint layers. Although "The Master & His Workshop" is by no means a report from the RRP, the exhibition leans heavily on it. As Harvard's Seymour Slive remarks, "No one would dare attribute anything to Rembrandt these days without looking carefully at their stuff."

Inevitably, the RRP steps on the toes of other experts. A press release for the Berlin show, referring to the Metropolitan Museum's famous Beresteyn portraits, says the RRP "did not recognize Rembrandt's 'handwriting' in the brushstrokes while the museum staff clearly did." Met vested interest is implied. But what about the RRP's own? If they end up with close to the 430 Rembrandts art historian Horst Gerson conjectured as authentic in 1969, the project will seem a waste. So it behooves the RRP to vote "no" more often than not. Perhaps next on the hit list is the Frick Collection's beloved "The Polish Rider." Berlin's catalog reproduces it with an ominous "(?)" after Rembrandt's name and notes that the painting "may perhaps not display the masterly hand that was once detected in it."

Many scholars find the hand of the RRP a bit heavy. Disagreeing with one RRP portrait deattribution in which strong forensic evidence was overruled by a finding of "'lack of formal clarity', in the illuminated eye," revisionist Rembrandt biographer Gary Schwartz labels it "a case of what can happen to you if you stare too long at the same thing." The National Gallery's Arthur Wheelock worries that with all the emphasis on autography, "We're in danger of losing the 17th-century Rembrandt." They can take some comfort in the project's glacial pace; by the time it's done, further leaps in technology and taste may well dictate starting all over again.

We've come to expect perfection every time we look at a Rembrandt that we know is a Rembrandt. It's precisely the imperfection of his paintings, however, that make them wonderful. The perspective is usually indifferent, the anatomy a little off, and the color like a display of gourmet coffee beans with melting butter. The human face (Rembrandt's reputed strong suit) is often a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and a white raisin. Moreover, you can see plainly how Rembrandt gets his effects: an impasto gob of gold here, a skein of smokey brown there, and poked-out, snowman's eyes scumbled in moist black. There's none of that Muscle Beach bravado you get in Michelangelo, none of the smoothed-over Technicolor symmetry of Raphael, or Titian's exquisite rounding of the human form. Compared to them, Rembrandt looks alternately crude and overworked. You have to look longer at Rembrandt. The paradox is we can hardly see Rembrandt anymore, through all the layers of purple prose, apocryphal stories and debunking. In his 1984 book Schwartz gaveled, "To sum it up bluntly: Rembrandt had a nasty disposition and an untrustworthy character."

You'd hardly think that from his open, embracing drawings, which are actually the clearest manifestations of Rembrandt's quick, confident visual intelligence. Mostly intimate pen and ink, but with some exceptions like the silverpoint "Saskia in a Straw Hat" (1633), they're as timeless and lyrical as a Raphael study and as up to date as, a fashion-designer sketch. They remind us that great art is a volatile mix of skill and soul. And never have those disparate entities been so transcendently entwined as in Rembrandt. In spite of all the detective work, scientific and otherwise, the all too human painter from Amsterdam remains as elusive as ever.