Lot 18
  • 18

REMBRANDT HARMENSZ. VAN RIJN | Study of the head and clasped hands of a young man as Christ in prayer

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Study of the head and clasped hands of a young man as Christ in prayer 
  • oil on oak panel
  • 25.5 x 20.1 cm.; 10 1/6  x 7 7/8  in.


With H.M. Clark, London (presumably in or before 1930); With Leger Galleries, London, 1934 (J[oseph] Leger);

'Van der Mühl, Basel' (probably the 'private collection, Basel, 1935' according to Bredius); also 'Sarasin, Basel'; these are most likely the same, and to be identified as  Hans Franz Sarasin (1873–1933), and his wife Anna, née von der Mühll (1877–1933), and their heirs (see the present catalogue entry);

With Galerie Katz, Basel, by 1936;

From whom sent on loan to Schaeffer Galleries, New York, 1936 until after 1942 (by whom deposited at the Fogg Art Museum for the attention of Dr Jakob Rosenberg on 3 July 1942 and returned on 2 September 1942; bears Fogg Art Museum label on the reverse with inv. no. 411.1942);

With Galerie Katz, Basel, 1948 (see under Exhibited);

With P. de Boer, Hergiswil, Switzerland, 1956.

With Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam (bears their label on the reverse);

From whom acquired in June 1956 by the grandmother of the present owner.



New York, Schaeffer Galleries, The Great Dutch Masters, 1–30 December 1936, no. 13; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, Exhibition of Paintings by Old Masters: Lent by Schaeffer Galleries, 1938, no. 21;

Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Exhibition of Paintings by Old Masters: Lent by Schaeffer Galleries, 18 November – 31 December 1938, no. 21;

Basel, Galerie Katz, Rembrandt-Ausstellung, 24 July – 30 September 1948, no. 23;

Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Rembrandt, 12 January – 15 April 1956, no. 41;

Paris, Musée du Louvre, 21 April – 18 July 2011, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 3 August – 30 October 2011, Detroit Institute of Arts, 21 November 2011 – 12 February 2012, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, no. 41;

Amsterdam, Museum het Rembrandthuis (inv. no. 532), on loan 1 October 2016 – July 2018.


W.R. Valentiner, 'Bust of Christ by Rembrandt', Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1930, pp. 2–3, reproduced; A. Bredius, Rembrandt Gemälde, Vienna 1935, no. 625, reproduced;

The Great Dutch Masters, exh. cat., Schaeffer Galleries, New York 1936, (unpaginated), no. 13;

Exhibition of Paintings by Old Masters. Lent by Schaeffer Galleries, exh. cat., San Francisco and Los Angeles 1938, no. 21;

Annual Report, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge 1942, no. 41;

Rembrandt-Ausstellung, exh. cat., Basel 1948, p. 21, reproduced;

Rembrandt, exh. cat., Stockholm 1956, no. 41 (as Bredius no. 623);

J. Rosenberg, Rembrandt: Life and Work, London 1964, p. 371;

S. Slive, 'An Unpublished Head of Christ by Rembrandt', Art Bulletin, vol. 47, no. 4, December 1965, p. 415, no. 5;

K. Bauch, Rembrandt Gemälde, Berlin 1966, reproduced plate 197;

A. Bredius, revised by H. Gerson, Rembrandt. The complete edition of the paintings, London 1969, p. 614, no. 625, reproduced p. 527;

G. Martin and P. Lecaldano, The complete paintings of Rembrandt, London 1969, p. 114, no. 291, reproduced;

G. Keyes et al., Masters of Dutch Painting: The Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit 2004, p. 178, reproduced fig. 8;

L. DeWitt (ed.), Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, exh. cat., New Haven and London 2011, pp. 58–59, 212, reproduced p. 59, plate 2.4, infrared reflectograph p. 212, plate 2.4a (here and in all previous literature as Rembrandt);

C. Brown, 'Rembrandt and the face of Jesus' (review), The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLIV, no. 1310, May 2012, p. 375 (doubting the attribution);

E. Van de Wetering, Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, Rembrandt's Paintings revisited. A complete survey, Dordrecht 2015, pp. 605–09, no. 217b, reproduced pp. 335 and 605; reprinted as 2 vols., reproduced in Plate volume, p. 335, plate 217b, Notes to the Plates, pp. 605–07, no. 217b (as Rembrandt or pupil);

S.S. Dickey, 'Introduction', in S.S. Dickey (ed.), Rembrandt and his Circle. Insights and Discoveries, Amsterdam 2017, p. 12 (as Rembrandt);

A. Wallert and M. van de Laar, 'Rembrandt’s Head of Christ: Some Technical Observations concerning Matters of Style', in S.S. Dickey (ed.), Rembrandt and his Circle. Insights and Discoveries, Amsterdam 2017, pp. 216–22, reproduced figs 10.1 and as cross sections figs 10.2–10.9 (as Rembrandt). 


Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus:  L. DeWitt (ed.), Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, exhibition catalogue, New Haven & London 2011.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Rembrandt van Rijn. Study of the Head of a Young Man. This painting is on an oak panel, which appears to have always remained stable. A cradle was added behind probably quite early in the last century, perhaps with some conservation in preparation for exhibitions in America in 1936 -1938. A marginal crack at the top edge is backed by one of the bars of the cradle, but shows only minimal movement in the panel over time. The recent restoration may also reflect exhibitions in Paris at the Louvre, and in Detroit, in 2011-12. The fine impasto is concentrated in the face, with some descriptive highlights in the hair. The more delicate flowing brushwork lower down is beautifully intact overall as well, with dramatically sketched hands clenched. Occasional small retouchings can be seen under ultra violet light in the darker central drapery in the shadow of the head. The base edge was originally left scarcely finished, but a few minute retouches are just visible under UV in a few places around the other outer edges, with one or two elsewhere in the outer background. The top left corner may have had some wear in the distant past. A few retouchings from the recent restoration can be seen under ultra violet light including just below the mouth and around the upper outline of the head, where original pentimenti appear. The deepest darks have had a few light touches for instance down the left edge of the hair, and in the curls of the longer hair where the vulnerable darks have been disturbed and where fragile ageing can occasionally be seen. However the strength of the brushwork overall is remarkably finely preserved, suggesting that the historic background of the painting was secure and peaceful. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Rembrandt's brush, pen and burin make him the most important artist of the 17th century, and he is the most famous Dutchman yet to live. A profoundly complex man, he was possessed of a compelling and constantly changing artistic personality, and these facts combined explain why more has been written about him than about any other artist. Though an allegedly difficult personality, his paintings, drawings and etchings constantly remind us that he had an immense depth of understanding of the human condition, and a sympathy for the frailty of mankind permeates his work. Though an outstanding landscapist, nearly all his paintings are deeply concerned with humanity, be they self-portraits, portraits, narratives or as here, an informal study.     In this rapidly painted oil sketch, Rembrandt depicts the head of a young man and his clasped hands, his head tilted to his right and inclined upwards, his shoulder-length hair pushed back behind his left ear. It was quite likely painted from life, and certainly from direct knowledge of a particular model, but it was intended from the outset to represent the head and hands of the young Christ, pensive or in prayer, perhaps as in the Garden of Gethsemene, rather than a mere sketch from life of a head without the spiritual and emotional implications of such a subject. Though known in the Rembrandt literature for eighty years, it has until recently been little seen in public, and was hidden from view in a private collection for many decades until included in the exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus in 2011–12, and subsequently placed on loan in the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam, where it hung until the summer of 2018, between the windows of the room where Rembrandt slept, visible from his box-bed.

'Rembrandt sketched very freely, and he did not have exactly in his mind what would be the final effect'1

Rembrandt’s surviving sketches generally did not serve as direct preparation for a painting, but more often as studies of the fall of light and the rendering of human emotion. Larry Silver noted, 'Ambiguity of these head studies underscores their significance. They look precisely as if they were portraits, posed informally from life with varying angles of lighting and head turns: their facial expressions seem spontaneous and persuasive'.2 In this small painting, Rembrandt has imparted a feeling of deep thought, perhaps even pathos. We can just make out the masterful rendering of clasped hands with a few choice brushstrokes in the lower-left quadrant, leading some to conclude that this sketch served as a preparation for a lost depiction of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Whatever the ultimate intention of this little masterpiece, it stands today as a testament to Rembrandt’s mastery of the handling of paint on a reduced scale, and his ability to depict human emotions and genuine humility, all abundantly evident here. As John Nash put it, Rembrandt was able to capture 'the nuanced subtlety of a living human physiognomy'.3    

It has long been observed that Rembrandt altered his handling of paint, to render different emotional states. For instance, in the present painting, he still “sculpted” the forms with his brush, even though he did this in a more refined manner, because he wished to impart a more contemplative mood. The three-dimensionality of form is nevertheless fully expressed with determined and confident brushstrokes that manage to render a convincing depth. The eyes are open and vivid, the mouth is slightly open, as if in prayer, and the clasped hands imply a devotional element, as if Christ were praying to his father for our redemption.  None of Rembrandt's sketches are iconic and blatantly divine. Instead, they depict Christ as a human being, a man of Ancient times and a man of Rembrandt’s time. As Larry Silver put it, 'Particularly by avoiding the permanence and immobility of a symmetrical frontal pose or profile, what Rembrandt has done with these images of Jesus is to depict him as if alive and present, fully human and with all the animated variety of an actor'.4

In sketches such as this Rembrandt is at his most immediate, imparting a forceful impression of spontaneity, and giving the viewer the impression that the paint is barely dry. As Glenn Brown, a contemporary British artist whose intense response to Rembrandt is reflected in a number of his own etchings and paintings put it, 'you feel as if he has just left the room'.5

The Rembrandt Face of Jesus group

The present painting is one of a group of some seven surviving similar oil sketches, all depicting the same young man in the guise of Christ. There has long been debate about whether all or only some of the group are from Rembrandt’s own brush, and there are additional similar works which are certainly too weak for Rembrandt, and which may well be copies of lost works or imitations by followers – copies of some of the core group are also known. Only the Berlin sketch (fig. 1 & 20) and the present painting have been generally accepted as works by Rembrandt, but this traditional view is likely to be too restrictive.6 Nonetheless, when the core group of seven works were shown together in the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition, the present painting, along with the better-known small panel in Berlin, stood out among its peers as a genuine painting by Rembrandt (all illustrated here: see pp. 32 & 33, figs. 21 to 27).   

One of the most misleading assumptions often made in the past is that some or all of these sketches were made in preparation for Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus of 1648 in the Louvre, Paris, which was included in the exhibition (figs. 2 and 3).7 Since several of them at least are likely to be later in date than the Louvre picture, and can so be shown by tree-ring analysis of their panels, it was further assumed that they could not therefore all be by Rembrandt, despite their similar handling and generally high quality of execution. It is more likely however that the head of Christ in the Paris picture represents a point of departure for them rather than a terminus ante quem. The other point of departure for the group is Rembrandt’s famous Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Preaching, or Suffer the Children to come unto Me) of circa 1649 (fig. 4), in which the figure of Christ is a young man with a beard and long hair, face almost square on to the viewer, of a type very similar to the type and model of the present picture and the group to which it belongs (detail, fig. 5). What the Paris painting and the Hundred Guilder Print show us is that by the late 1640s Rembrandt was preoccupied with the image of Christ. There is ample evidence however that this preoccupation of Rembrandt with the appearance and character of Christ, especially as revealed in his face, as well as with other figures from the New Testament, endured throughout the 1650s and beyond.

As already noted, the best-known painting of the group is the one in Berlin (fig. 1 & 21), which is very similar in handling to the present work.8 Often dated to the second half of the 1640s, it more plausibly belongs to the last years of the decade, or after 1650. Also notably similar to both is the work in Philadelphia (fig. 26) , which has the same glossy grey sheen in the hair found in the present picture.9 It is often catalogued as Rembrandt and Studio, but only because it was enlarged early on in its life, perhaps in Rembrandt’s atelier, being inset into a larger panel. It too probably dates from the first half of the 1650s. Similar grey highlights in the hair are found in the painting in the Museum Bredius, The Hague (fig. 24), which shows more of the sitter’s torso, and his right hand.10 Unlike the first three works, the sitter is shown facing the viewer directly, but the handling of the face is otherwise consistent with the others. A work in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge (see fig. 25), is harder to read, because it has suffered to a greater degree from abrasion, and gives less of an impression of having been painted from life.11 Moreover, its panel, cut from the same tree as the Berlin Portrait of a Young Jew, is later than the others, and could not plausibly have been painted before circa 1652.12 Unlike the others, Rembrandt has in the Fogg picture used the handle of the brush more extensively to draw the hairs of the beard wet-in-wet (although abrasion has probably played a part in making this more apparent; its original appearance may have been closer to the well-preserved Berlin Portrait of a Young Jew). A painting in the care of the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage depicting the head of Christ from his left, almost in profile, seems on grounds of style to belong with the rest of the group, but it has often been more cautiously catalogued as 'attributed to Rembrandt and Studio' (fig. 27).13 This caution has to partly do with its poor state of preservation, but also because dendrochronology of the panel points to a later date: possibly as early as 1653, but more likely later on in the decade. Dendrochronology has yielded a similarly late dating for the panel support of the painting in Detroit, Institute of Arts, also often catalogued as 'attributed to Rembrandt' (fig. 23).14 X-Rays of the Detroit panel reveal a number of significant changes to the composition during its genesis – this characteristic is not found in the other works. The sketch in Amsterdam (fig. 27) shows Christ in near profile, also in a contemplative mood and painted with similarly refined brushstrokes. Four other sketches show the face of Jesus nearly head on, facing the onlooker in much the same way as he is seen in The Supper at Emmaus in the Louvre. 

It is highly likely that Rembrandt used the same model, whose physiognomy is clearly recognisable in each of the core group of paintings, in two chalk drawings of a seated youth.15 In both his long hair parted in the centre falls onto his shoulders, his face bent forward in concentration (figs. 6 and 7). These are the only two drawings by Rembrandt to show the same model as the core group of oil sketches. As well as the hair and the short beard, the aquiline nose, high cheekbones and eyebrows all correspond. The two drawings are generally dated circa 1648 on grounds of style, and are unlikely to be significantly later than that. 

Christ envisaged by Rembrandt
Much of how we envisage Christ today depends upon the description of him that in Rembrandt's time was thought to be by Publius Lentulus, the Governor of Judea before Pontius Pilate, in a letter to the Senate in Rome, a document which was allegedly written during Christ’s lifetime. This letter is now regarded as a medieval fake, but it is of considerable relevance here, because it was widely read in The Netherlands in the 17th century, and seems to have served as the basis for depictions of Christ by Dutch artists, so that by 1678, when it was quoted extensively by Rembrandt’s pupil, Samuel van Hoogstraten, in his Academy of the Art of Painting  (Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkunst), it was a commonplace. In the translation used by Hoogstraeten:

'Honorable Fathers! A man still living is know to us of great powers, named Jesus Christ, called by the people a Prophet of Truth, but his Disciples call him the Son of God, he raises the dead, and cures the sick.  In appearance he is noble, average (in height) but distinguished; his countenance instils great respect, such that his beholders must love and revere him; his hair is the colour of ripe hazelnut, parted above, in the style of the Nazarenes, smooth to the ears, but further below with round curls, shining yellow and falling from his shoulders; he has a smooth brow, his face is without spot or wrinkle, his cheeks are heightened by a pink colour, there is nothing on his body that could be censured; his beard is large and full, not long but forked in the middle; the gaze of his eyes shows simplicity, but tempered by maturity; his eyes are clear and awesome, never about to laugh, but more inclined to weep; he has straight hands, and his arms are exceptionally beautiful; he is a man of few words, and very well-mannered in all his dealings with others; and finally he is the finest of all mankind.'16

If one reads this passage while looking at the image of the present painting, the realization that Rembrandt was aware of the Lentulus letter is inescapable. Lloyd De Witt and Ernst van de Wetering have argued that in their analysis of the Lentulus letter, Rembrandt broke from the hieratic Byzantine portrayal of Christ the Redeemer and concentrated on the basic humility implied in the supposed Roman description.17 However the text is interpreted, it is clear that in his sketches of a young man as Jesus, Rembrandt sought to impart the basic kindness and refined human nature of Christ, not as a deity but as man on earth. Perhaps Jacob Rosenberg captured it best, when he wrote of the present sketch, that it 'moves a step further from reality toward a more idealized 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'.18 

In the present painting, and in most of the Face of Jesus group, Rembrandt has clearly adhered closely to the description of Christ in the Lentulus letter, with the minor proviso that His hair in most of them is of a darker hue than ripe hazelnut.19 Moreover, the image of Christ as described by Lentulus can be recognised in most of Rembrandt’s images of Christ in his etchings and in his later paintings and many of his drawings. More due to the immeasurably strong influence of Rembrandt’s depictions of Christ than to Rembrandt’s own source in Lentulus are innumerable depictions of Christ in art onward to the 19th century and even to the present day. 

Rembrandt and images of Christ in later works
Rembrandt used the same model for the head of Christ in a painting of Christ with Arms Folded in the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, which is generally dated between circa 1657 and 1661. Quite apart from Christ’s physiognomy, which it shares with the present group, there are similarities in handling which are apparent, despite the different canvas support, such as the greasy grey highlights in the hair (fig. 8).20 Rembrandt used the same physiognomic type in a painting dated 1661 in Munich, Alte Pinakothek, which portrays The Risen Christ in a more hieratic pose, as befits the subject, facing the viewer (fig. 9).21 His almost obsessive interest in the appearance and mood as well as the physiognomy of New Testament figures including Apostles and Christ himself in late works from circa 1660 onwards was brilliantly charted in an exhibition held in Washington and Los Angeles in 2005.22

An interesting corollary to the various studies of the Head of Christ from Rembrandt’s hand and from his workshop is the Head of St John the Baptist on a Silver Platter that recently appeared on the market and is now in a private collection in Toronto, Canada.23 Clearly this painting is indebted to the studies of the head of Christ, and it was created at the same time (fig. 10). Dendrochronological analysis has determined that the centre horizontal panel containing the image is on Baltic oak with 'plausible first use… between 1641 and 1656'. One immediately recognizes that the same model employed for the heads of Christ was used for this painting. Although there was no canonical type for the face of St John the Baptist in the seventeenth century, it is reasoned that the two men bore a familial resemblance, since according to the Gospels (Luke 1:36) they were related.

Rembrandt and Jewish models
Rembrandt made several sketch-like informal portraits of Jewish men, presumably neighbours living in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter. None of them portrays the model that Rembrandt used in the present group and afterwards, and they are neither tronies nor studies made with a particular subject in mind, but they are similar in other respects. The Portrait of a Young Jew hangs almost next to the Head of Christ on the same wall in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, and is painted on a panel of virtually identical dimensions (albeit with a vertically orientated grain).24 The technique is very sketch-like – almost more so than in the Face of Jesus group, but the technique, with a more heavily laden brush and shorter, thicker brushstrokes, is rather different. It is generally dated circa 1648, and is consistent with other works of that date, thus adding further weight to a later dating of the Face of Jesus group. Concomitantly, the Bust of a Young Jew in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, though more formal than the Berlin portrait, and on a canvas support, is noticeably closer in handling to the Face of Jesus group, with softer, pastel-like modelling, but is dated much later, to 1663.25 Rembrandt’s painted portrait of his friend Ephraim Bueno done in about 1647 (he also portrayed him in an etching) is both a formal portrait and a sketch.26 Done on a small panel, the handling is very free and sketch-like, but it is nonetheless a finished portrait, possibly made in preparation for the etching. While these portraits of Jewish sitters by Rembrandt are notably sketch-like, there is no historical or documentary evidence to confirm that his model for the Face of Jesus group and related works such as the two chalk drawings was a young Jew, even though this is often assumed to be the case, and it might well be reasonable to suggest that Rembrandt would have sought a model in his neighbourhood who conformed to Lentulus’ precept.27 Seymour Slive, for example, wrote 'one of the members of the Jewish community who were his neighbours on the Breestraat must have sat as the model for the painting listed in the inventory' (see below).28 Slive continued 'the same young man may have posed for the paintings now at Detroit, Berlin, Philadelphia…'. Larry Silver debated whether or not Rembrandt used a live model, if so 'presumably a long-haired Jew from his own Breestraat neighbourhood'.29

'Een Cristus tronie na ‘t leven'
Whether or not the Paris Supper at Emmaus and the Hundred Guilder Print are points of departure or waypoints en route for the Face of Jesus core group, the year 1656 is a likely terminus ante quem. On the verge of bankruptcy, Rembrandt applied on 14 July of that year to the Supreme Court in The Hague for a cessio honorum, a writ that would enable him to sell his property and chattels voluntarily to be distributed among his creditors, while giving him the Court’s protection against further claims. Having approved his petition, the Court acted swiftly, and on 25–26 July, Frans Bruyningh, secretary of the Amsterdam Desolate Boedelskamer (insolvency office) drew up a comprehensive inventory of the contents of Rembrandt's house on St Antoniesbreestraat – today the Museum het Rembrandthuis on the renamed Jodenbreestraat. Because of the specific nature of the descriptions written down, it is generally assumed that Rembrandt accompanied Bruyningh as he went from room to room, and this is likely, since the inventory was initiated by Rembrandt himself rather than being imposed on him. Among the paintings in the room identified as 'In de agtercaemer offte sael' ('In the back room or salon'), which we know from a drawing of it by Rembrandt contained a box-bed, presumably his own, in the corner next to a large ornate fireplace (fig. 11) were two works by him: no. 115, 'een Cristi tronie van Rembrant', and no. 118, 'Cristus tronie van Rembrant' (both mean 'a tronie of Christ by Rembrandt').30 Among the works in the cleyne schildercaemer ('small studio' – a room, probably in the attic, divided into partitions for storage of art) was an unattributed work, no. 326: 'een Cristus tronie nae ‘t leven' ('a tronie of Christ, done from life'). Obviously the latter entry implies that the study was done from life for a figure of Christ. It is obviously impossible to identify any of these items from the inventory with any one to three of the Face of Jesus group, and we cannot be certain that all the three have survived and are known to us today, but it is at least a strong likelihood that the three entries correspond to works from the group, and a certainty that two of them at least were believed to be from his own hand less than a decade after they were painted. The inventory was clearly drawn up at speed, and the absence of Rembrandt’s name attached to the work described as drawn from life does not necessarily imply that he was not its author.   

Technical examination and conservation
The present painting had not been cleaned for many years prior to the Rembrandt and The Face of Jesus exhibition, nor had it been subjected to technical examination, and unlike other paintings in the group, it was not available for side-by-side comparison and technical study before or during the course of the exhibition, where it was displayed in a sealed climate box. It was cleaned and conserved by Michel van de Laar immediately before the exhibition in 2010–11, when it was fully examined using dendrochronology, X-Ray and Infra-Red Imaging during the course of a cleaning. The resulting findings by Arie Wallert and Michel van de Laar, scientific researcher and conservator respectively at the Rijksmuseum are thus of considerable importance in the understanding of the painting, since they were able to find and describe facets of the painting that securely locate it in Rembrandt's œuvre. They were the subject of a paper delivered at the Rembrandt symposium at Herstmonceux Castle in 2013, which was made available to the wider public when it was subsequently published in 2017.31 Their report is quoted from extensively below.

A tree-ring analysis by Professor Pieter Klein concluded that the panel is made of a single plank of oak of Western German or Netherlandish origins, of which the youngest heartwood ring is from 1619, an earliest possible felling date is 1628, but a more plausible felling date is in the span of years 1632-42, and a plausible date of use from circa 1638 onwards.32 

Wallert and Van de Laar’s report concluded that 'Technical examination… supports an attribution to Rembrandt himself'. As in other sketches by Rembrandt, this painting was executed most likely in one sitting. The practice of completing a painting in this manner was known at the time as ten eersten opmaken, i.e. 'to complete the whole concept in one go'. Infrared reflectography reveals the marks that Rembrandt made to locate the position of the head on the prepared panel. Wallert and Van de Laar  recognized in the infrared reflectogram (fig. 12), that 'the general form of the figure was brushed in with large and smooth strokes of a thin and smooth running paint from a fairly loaded brush'. In this stage Rembrandt sets out the 'placement, contours, and the first suggestion of modelling'. In some parts the thinned paint was thinned further, so that the priming layer shows through the 'gossamer-thin veil over the priming'. Even at this early stage the reserve for the hands was marked out, using 'bold strokes with heavier brushwork'. This provided the dead colouring stage, on which the colours were hastily applied, even before the monochrome underlayer had a chance to dry. The eyes, mouth, moustache, and beard were lightly indicated with an almost dry medium. The impasto – thick in many parts of the face as the photograph in raking light reveals (fig. 13) – was built up in successive layers which remained wet so that they the 'blended in the process and cannot easily be distinguished as separate layers. This gives testimony to the confident and efficient way in which the impasto was built up'. The upper layers are of viscous lead white and vermilion teased into a textured volume, surmounted by 'touching up the areas of highest relief in the face, i.e. the forehead above the eyebrows, the top of the cheek, and the ridge of the nose, with a very bright mixture of almost pure lead white and just a trace of vermillion. These spare touches were applied very thickly, more to catch the light than to provide colour'.

We can see in the infrared reflectogram that, although the painting was executed wet-on-wet, certain changes were made to the contour of Christ’s head, which was made smaller at the top, and the height of the shoulder was altered. Consistent with Van de Wetering's observation that 'Rembrandt did not have exactly in his mind what would be the final effect', he has here left a substantial penumbra or reserve around the head, which he filled in quickly after completing it, at the same time slightly altering the outline of the head. This was a practice consistent in Rembrandt's study or trony heads from the late 1620s onwards, and is a means by which we may separate originals from copies, since his copyists, be they students or imitators, left no such reserve. At the same time as he filled in the reserve around the head, he did something similar to the right shoulder, altering its outline in a pentimento. While the paint was still wet, he used the handle of the brush, or more likely a knife blade, to incise lines into the right eye, to indicate movement.

Apparently, this rapid manner of working was rare at the time, and Gerard de Lairesse cautioned painters to avoid the practice of 'smudging' like Lievens and Rembrandt. However, thinking undoubtedly of Rembrandt and Lievens, Lairesse admitted that there were painters who could deliver appreciable results with this direct method. He stated that this remarkable achievement could be accomplished by artists 'with a steady hand and quick brush, who could complete their concepts in one go; which otherwise could not be done without dead-colouring it first'.33 Thus, in every way, shape and form, the present painting of the Head of Christ conforms to what we understand of Rembrandt’s way of working. In summarizing Wallert and Van de Laar's essay in her introduction to the volume in which it was published, Stephanie Dickey wrote that they 'show how technical examination can shed light on a thorny question of attribution: their precise observations provide fresh insights into Rembrandt’s complex painterly technique and confirm an attribution to the master himself'.34

Wallert and Van de Laar’s investigations revealed further information about the painting, including the tantalizing discovery of fingerprints – presumably those of the artist – in the original paint layer along the bottom edge of the painting – a further testament to the speed with which it was executed (figs 14 and 15).

Michel van de Laar's cleaning of the painting, removing thick layers of old discoloured varnish, presumably applied when the painting was last cleaned prior to sale in the 1950s (fig. 16), revealed a very well preserved original work, as the photograph of the painting stripped of all overpaint makes clear (fig. 17). The stripped photograph reveals more clearly than the infra-red image the pentimento at the top and right side of the head, where Rembrandt used a more luminous green-yellow pigment as a contrasting background colour, as well as the pentimento in the right shoulder of his model. The only problematic area – and a very small one at that – was where a previous restorer had misunderstood the wisp of beard immediately under the lower lip.   

Scholarly status
The present painting has only once been specifically doubted in Rembrandt literature: by implication in Christopher Brown’s review of the Rembrandt and The Face of Jesus exhibition in The Burlington Magazine.35 The core group was originally described as six works by Rembrandt by Bredius in 1935. Slive’s addition of the newly acquired paining by the Fogg Art Museum brought that number to seven, of which Bauch included five, and Gerson in his revision of Bredius included six, all of them including the present work. Tümpel accepted the Berlin painting as authentic, but ignored the present work, together with some of the others of the core group entirely, perhaps because he had never seen it in the original.36    

In the concluding volume of the Rembrandt Research Project, Ernst van de Wetering considered the group in its entirety, but only included the present work and the Berlin example in his comprehensive list of autograph works, cataloguing both as 'Rembrandt or pupil', though he concluded that 'I believe there may be two works from that core group that are by Rembrandt’s hand, the one in Berlin and the one in a private collection'.37 He continued that in both sketches 'the manner of sketching, visible in the infra-red images, is strongly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s way of sketching in the brush'. Of the present picture, he noted that 'Christ’s hands, evidently folded in prayer, and the posture of the head and the upward-directed eye, suggest that this sketch was made in connection with a scene with Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemene'. In a letter to the owner, dated 12 February 2017,38 Van de Wetering amplified his view, noting that the subject, related in Luke 21: 41–42, was depicted by Rembrandt in a drawing and an etching (figs. 18 and 19), but in no surviving painting, and that this sketch may be the initial preparation for such a painting.39 He goes on to conclude that this, 'and the extremely high quality of this sketch, in both narrative and pictorial respects, are such that I find it highly likely that this is an autograph work by Rembrandt'.40  

When this sketch hung on loan in Rembrandt’s bedroom in his house, the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam, until earlier this year, it was included in the audioguide for visitors with the following commentary:

'No. 532, Head of Christ, by Rembrandt, in about 1648. A young man, bust-length, leaning forward a little and turned to the left, hands folded in prayer, is captured in swift, assured brushstrokes. Only the head has been worked up, with white highlights on the nose and below the eye. The long, centre-parted dark brown hair, the short beard and the simple cloak are typical characteristics of figures of Jesus. This is a sketch in oils painted on a small oak panel. The little painting was probably never intended for sale as a work of art in its own right. It was more likely a study, possibly made as preparation for a painting or a print of a narrative scene. In this case it could be the episode in the Bible when Christ, in mortal fear, prays to God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemene. There are six other panels like this, portraying Christ in a particular pose and specific lighting. They are in museum collections around the world. Rembrandt’s hand can be identified in this work from a private collection and in a panel in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. A thorough restoration in 2011 meant that the work could finally be studied in detail. As a result it was presented as a work by Rembrandt at successive exhibitions in the Louvre in Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Art. The Rembrandthuis Museum shares this view. The other panels were probably made by Rembrandt’s pupils. The inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions, drawn up in 1656 on the occasion of his bankruptcy, lists a 'Head of Christ by Rembrandt' in the Zaal or salon and a little further on, 'Head of Christ by Rembrandt'. It is intriguing to think that one of those entries may be the work exhibited here; that such a work was hung in his private room attest to the importance Rembrandt attached to it. The inventory also lists a Head of Christ from life among the possessions in the Kleijne Schilderkamer, or small studio. The maker is not mentioned, but it was probably one of Rembrandt’s pupils. The comment 'from life' means that the pupil used a live model. Rembrandt provided the example, as can be seen in this work. Unlike many earlier portrayals, in which Christ was traditionally shown as a detached figure, with a stern look and high forehead, Rembrandt made the radical decision to depict a human Christ, filled with emotion and expression.'41          

This painting  first came to light in or around 1930 with the London art dealer H.M. Clark, who was active from circa 1919 onwards until the 1930s, handling for the most part Dutch Old Masters, including paintings by Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael, and Rembrandt’s pupils Nicolaes Maes, Willem Drost and Aert de Gelder. Much of its subsequent past is documented via labels on the reverse (fig. 20). The Sarasin and von der Mühll families, both Basel dynasties, were combined in 1898, when Hans Franz Sarasin (1873–1933) married Anna von der Mühll (1877–1933). Both died in a car accident in 1933, leaving three children: Ernst, Emanuel and Béatrice.

It is tempting to suggest that Jakob Rosenberg asked for the present sketch to be brought to the Fogg Art Museum in 1942 in the hope that following study it might be possible to acquire it for the museum. Although this did not happen, it might have acted as a spur to his pupil and successor as Director, Seymour Slive, to acquire another of the core group sketches for the Fogg in 1964, prevailing on the generosity of William Coolidge to bring this about. Given that Schaeffer Galleries in New York were keeping the present work safe on behalf of Galerie Katz in Basel, to whom it was returned by 1948, it may not have been available for sale during the war years.       




1 Ernst van de Wetering, in Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, Series 3, Episode 1, BBC 4, first broadcast 17 August 2018.

2 Silver 2018, p. 102. Silver does not discuss the present sketch directly, observing that apart from the Berlin sketch, 'eight or nine other versions exist…, variously attributed to either the master or the workshop' (pp. 101–02).

3 J. Nash, 'The Presentation of 'Soul' by Rembrandt', in R. Shepherd and R. Maniura (ed.), Presence: the Inherence of Prototype within Images and other Objects, Aldershot 2006, p. 198.

4 Silver 2018, p. 102.

5 To camera in a short film introducing the exhibition Rembrandt. Britain's Discovery of the Master, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 7 July – 14 October 2018.

6 Only Christopher Brown (Brown 2012) has ever expressed doubts about the present painting.

7 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, p. 239, no. 27, reproduced plate 1.1.

8 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 62, 240, no. 35, reproduced plate 2.6.

9 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 50–55, 241–42, no. 40, reproduced plate 2.2.

10 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 66–68, 239–40, cat. 30, reproduced plate 2.8.

11 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 60, 241, no. 39, reproduced plate 2.5.

12 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, p. 118, 240, no. 31, reproduced plate 4.6.

13 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 56, 246–67, no. 60, reproduced plate 2.3.

14 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 64, 241, no. 37, reproduced plate 2.7.

15 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 123–25, 240, nos 32 and 33, reproduced plates 4.9 and 4.10.

16 As cited in Van de Wetering 2015, p. 608. See also Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, p. 122.

17 See L. DeWitt, in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 109–45, and E. van de Wetering 2015, pp. 607–08.

18 See Rosenberg 1964.

19 This is not the case with the slightly later Hyde Collection Christ, which follows Lentulus’ description of the colour of Christ’s hair more literally. The darker hair seen in the others may well be attributable to the darkening of pigments.

20 P.C. Sutton, in A.K. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits, exh. cat., Washington 2005, pp. 120–24, no. 15, reproduced; also Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 115, 248, no. 66, reproduced plate 4.3.

21 A.K. Wheelock, 2005, pp. 88–92, no. 6, reproduced; Wheelock noted the source of the model for the Munich Risen Christ in the Berlin painting: see Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 114, 249, no. 68, reproduced plate 4.2.

22 Wheelock 2005.

23 See Lloyd DeWitt, 'A Rediscovered Head of John the Baptist on a Platter from Rembrandt’s Studio', in S.S. Dickey (ed.), Rembrandt and his Circle. Insights and Discoveries, Amsterdam, 2017, pp. 223–29, especially p. 226 on the dendrochronology.

24 Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 118, 240, no. 31, reproduced plate 4.6; also M. Alexander-Knotter et al., The 'Jewish' Rembrandt. The myth unravelled, Zwolle 2007, p. 87, reproduced.

25 See Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, pp. 119, 249, no. 70, reproduced plate 4.7.

26 Alexander-Knotter et al. 2007, pp. 31–33, reproduced.

27 Alexander-Knotter et al. 2007, p. 52.

28 Slive 1965, p. 410.

29 L. Silver, Rembrandt's Holland, London 2018, p. 102.

30 A tronie is a fanciful study.

31 See Wallert and Van de Laar 2017 (where Van de Laar's name is wrongly written Van der Laar). As noted above, the Berlin Portrait of a Young Jew is on a panel cut from the same tree as the Fogg Art Museum Head of Christ.

32 See Wallert and Van de Laar, p. 217.

33 Gerard de Lairesse, Het groot schildersboek, 3rd ed., Haarlem, vol. II, p. 324: 'voor die een vast hand en vlug penceel heft, om zyn Concept met den eersten te voltooien; ‘t welk anders, zonder het eerst te doodverwen niet kan geschieden', as cited in Wallert and Van de Laar 2017 (under Literature), pp. 221 and 222, note 11.

34 Dickey 2017, p. 12.

35 Brown 2012, p. 375. Christopher Brown admitted that prior to seeing the exhibition in Philadelphia, and on the basis of the catalogue reproductions, he has been prepared to 'think the best' of the present picture and the Philadelphia one, but upon seeing them together in the original he felt that only the Berlin and Philadelphia works passed muster.

36 C. Tümpel, Rembrandt, Antwerp 1986.

37 Van de Wetering 2015, p. 609.

38 Available on request.

39 The subject of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene (Mark, Matthew) is equally often given as Christ on the Mount of Olives (Luke), or the Agony in the Garden, and Christ is depicted praying alone or comforted by an Angel (as related by Luke). The etching, dated 1657, is generally known as The Agony in the Garden (Bartsch/ Hollstein 75, New Hollstein 269). The drawings, like the etching depicting Christ in prayer comforted by the Angel, are in Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, (circa 1648–50; see O. Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt, enlarged ed. London 1973, vol. III, p. 168, no. 626, reproduced fig. 80), Dresden, Kupferstichkabinett and Hamburg, Kunsthalle (both circa 1562; see Benesch 1973, vol. V, pp. 251–52, nos 898 and 899, reproduced figs 1175 and 1176).

40 'Dit, en de zeer hoge kwaliteit van deze schets, zowel in narratief als in picturaal opzicht, maken dat ik het zeer waarschijnlijk vind, dat het hier om een eigenhandig werk van Rembrandt gaat'.

41 We are most grateful to the Museum het Rembrandthuis for permission to publish this transription.