T here are few Old Masters more revered or highly valued in the modern age than Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps even fewer whose work is more fiercely contested. Despite the desire for certainty about what precisely he did and did not paint, even the five-scholar-strong Rembrandt Research Project did not produce a definitive catalogue, making any new consensus around an individual work a historic moment for our understanding of the artist.
Rembrandt was not only prolific but also attracted numerous students, some traditional apprentices, others talented young professionals whose studio paintings he may have signed. Inevitably, there were similarities of style, materials and technique. Anyone attempting to identify the artist’s oeuvre must also consider the pictorial intelligence of an image attributed to this most profound, complex and innovative master.
This has been the challenge of experts confronted with Adoration of the Kings, circa 1628, painted in brunaille and grisaille, that is, in tones of sepia and grey respectively. This small oak panel painting had long been considered an autograph or authentic work: 18th- and 19th-century inventories and auction catalogues suggest this was the case. By the time it reached an Amsterdam auction in 1985, however, it was sold as Circle of Rembrandt and was again when it was resold in 2021. The painting changed hands for €850,000 against an estimate of €10,000–€15,000.
It now arrives for auction at Sotheby’s London, following a three-year programme of scientific examination and first-hand inspections by leading Rembrandt scholars, re-established as a work by the Master.
“The painting is in equal measure a product of Rembrandt’s brush and his intellect.”
George Gordon, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings and drawings, who led the endeavour, describes the painting as “in equal measure a product of Rembrandt’s brush and his intellect. All the hallmarks of his style while in Leiden, before he left for Amsterdam in 1631, are revealed both in the visible painted surface and in the underlying layers revealed by science.”
The first thing to say about this visible surface is that it was conceived as a nocturne, which is very unusual for an Adoration rather than a Nativity scene. It is painted without colour but with tone, most likely because the artist was working up an idea for an etching, his preferred medium for history painting at the time. He was to do this with the near- monochromatic The Good Samaritan, 1630 in the Wallace Collection and used monochrome extensively during that decade in developing etchings. Those sufficiently versed in Rembrandt’s work will recognise various details of compositional groups, costume or figures here – some too good not to be reused in subsequent works.
Why did the artist choose to set this key biblical scene on the darkest of nights, in the ruins of a stable? It is hard to imagine the answer as anything other than a desire to explore the effects of two distinct light sources. One is coolly natural, provided by the Star of Bethlehem above, the other warmer, from some unseen interior source. The artist pursues this exploration with relentless logic.
No highlight or reflected light is arbitrary but used to convey both the bulk of the main protagonists and the existence of the minor ones (eight figures cluster behind the heads of Joseph and two of the kings or Magi). Light suggests the nature of materials, from the gleam of a helmet to dots on Melchior’s robes, lending compositional depth and drama.
Both X-rays and infrared imaging were undertaken, the latter proving particularly useful in revealing numerous changes in the composition. The most significant is a repositioning of the helmeted head of the figure to Caspar’s left, who now gazes down to focus attention on the foreground group. The psychological interrelationships of these central figures are carefully considered.
“Adoration of the Kings is a highly significant example of Rembrandt's impressive and startling stylistic diversity towards the end of his Leiden period.”
No less telling is the artist’s use of a sharp point, possibly an etcher’s burin, to develop the background scene through the archway. These rapidly executed lines were added over the still-wet ground – as a printmaker, Rembrandt constantly worked out and reworked ideas directly on the copper plate. He made changes with a stylus in the wet ground of at least one other painting: The Supper at Emmaus, circa 1628. These pentimenti reveal a creative mind ceaselessly at work. The sophistication of this painting points to no ordinary talent.
“Adoration of the Kings is a highly significant example of Rembrandt’s impressive and startling stylistic diversity towards the end of his Leiden period,” says Professor Volker Manuth, whose 2019 catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s paintings is widely regarded as the most rigorous and up-to-date. Manuth is one of a group of leading Rembrandt scholars who have studied the painting since it was consigned to Sotheby’s and who have endorsed Rembrandt’s authorship of it.
“The only point of contention is the dating of the painting,” says Gordon. Most believe it to be around 1628. As to the significance to Rembrandt’s oeuvre: “Every time you add a significant painting, or take one way, the picture of an artist’s personality shifts.”