Rembrandt’s Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of A Young Man As Christ in Prayer led Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening sale on Wednesday night, selling for £9,480,800 and providing drama in the saleroom as this historic work came to auction for the first time in sixty years.
The rare oil sketch, which until recently hung in the artist’s house in Amsterdam, soared above the pre-sale estimate of £6,000,000, after a lively bidding battle that saw collectors competing to secure an extraordinary piece of art history.
It was an impressive night for Dutch And Flemish masters, with other highlights by Sir Anthony van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael achieving strong results, in a sale which totalled £30,209,550.
After detailed analysis and cleaning of the Rembrandt work ahead of an exhibition in 2011, conservators uncovered two remarkably preserved fingerprints, adding a level of intimacy to the painting, widely considered to be one of his great religious works, and a subject to which the artist returned again and again. “As the foremost master of the Western artistic tradition, Rembrandt is an artist who draws great interest from collectors around the world, so for a rare sketch such as this to be personalised in such a way, makes the painting all the more interesting.” explains George Gordon, Co-Chairman of the Old Master Paintings Department.
Dating from around 1650, Study of the Head of a Young Man is one of a small series of informal but intensely moving oil sketches painted by Rembrandt of the same young man, from the neighbourhood in Amsterdam where the artist lived. As in others from the series, Rembrandt envisions his model as Jesus Christ, seen here with his hands clasped in prayer.
Imparting the basic kindness and refined human nature of Christ, not as a deity but as a man, this powerful and touching portrait was one of seven oil sketches of the Head of Christ featured in the seminal exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus at the Louvre, Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2011-2012. More recently, it hung on loan in the Museum het Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam – Rembrandt’s home – in the room near his studio where he slept, where in his inventory drawn up a few years later in 1656 are recorded two “tronies” (studies) of Christ by Rembrandt, one of which is most likely this oil sketch.
Seen with head inclined upward and hands clasped, it is likely that Rembrandt intended this depiction of the youthful Jesus as a study for a Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene, a subject he treated in several intensely moving drawings and an etching, but in no surviving painting. Regardless of the ultimate intention, this work stands today as a testament to Rembrandt’s mastery of handling paint on a reduced scale, and his ability to render human emotions.
Of this particular sketch, the great art historian Jacob Rosenberg wrote that it “moves a step further from reality toward a more idealised expression of mildness and humility. But Rembrandt’s transition from the realistic to the imaginary is so subtle, that it is almost impossible to draw a borderline between the two.”
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