An age-old artwork can sometimes distort the truth. This was certainly the case for Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” at the Allentown Art Museum, in Pennsylvania. For more than four decades, visitors to the museum viewed the portrait not as a work by Rembrandt but by his workshop.
In the 1970s, art experts mistakenly deattributed the portrait because conservators over the centuries had altered it to such an extent that it was deemed unrecognizable as a Rembrandt original.
Today, the portrait has been restored and is back on display—as a painting by Rembrandt—in the museum’s exhibition “Rembrandt Revealed.” The exhibition reveals why the portrait was deattributed and how it was reattributed to Rembrandt. The exhibition also gives interesting insights into the process and challenges of art attribution.
In the early 1920s, art scholars began to question whether the artwork had actually been painted by the Dutch master. In the 1970s, art experts deemed it an important work by the “Workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn.”
The painting’s lack of clarity in the clothing and jewelry was one of the reasons for the demotion; another was that the lady’s head showed “indistinct brushwork.”
Conservator Shan Kuang, who restored the painting between 2018 and 2019, said in the museum’s member magazine that anyone who saw the portrait prior to its restoration would have viewed the young lady through “a dirty windshield.”
Over the centuries, various conservators—with a genuine heart to enhance the portrait and in line with the fashions of their time—varnished the painting to such an extent that it created a thick, dark buildup. For example, restorers in the early 20th century used varnish to hide the texture of the painted surface, as was the taste at the time.
The portrait’s numerous varnished layers concealed Rembrandt’s characteristic delicate brushstrokes, obscuring the lady’s porcelain skin. In addition, conservators had overpainted parts of the portrait, muting details such as her hair ornaments, glistening gold necklace, and the touches of lace on her dress.
Revealing Rembrandt, by Chance
Kuang’s first task, at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, at New York University, was to remove the different layers of overpaint and varnish. She differentiated the various layers, using an electron microscope and digital photography, and carefully removed any added elements. It was during this routine work that Kuang made the exciting discovery: The original brushwork was by Rembrandt’s hand.
A fresh analysis of Rembrandt’s signature was also carried out. In the past, there had been confusion as to whether the signature was genuine, but the conservation center confirmed it was indeed his.
The restoration was not limited to the portrait. Prior to its restoration, the portrait was displayed in a 19th-century reproduction of a heavily carved 18th-century gilt frame. A new frame was commissioned to reflect how the portrait may have been displayed in a 17th-century Dutch home. Frame historian and framemaker Timothy Newbery made the eight-sided ebonized pearwood frame in his workshop in Scotland.
Now, visitors to the museum can see the painting truly attributed to Rembrandt and nearer to how the portrait left his studio, nearly 490 years ago.
The Allentown Art Museum’s exhibition “Rembrandt Revealed” runs until May 2. To find out more, visit AllentownArtMuseum.org