In 1961, the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania acquired a 17th-century portrait of a rosy-cheeked woman dressed in fine fabrics and delicate jewelry. The work was initially attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, but experts soon downgraded its status to a painting by a member of the artist’s studio. Now, reports Taylor Dafoe for artnet News, advanced conservation and imaging techniques have confirmed the original assessment: Portrait of a Young Woman, completed in 1632, was in fact painted by Rembrandt himself.
Part of the confusion surrounding the painting’s origins stemmed from its poor condition. Over the centuries, conservators had brushed “thick, dark, gooey” varnish across the portrait, obscuring its brushwork, per a statement from the museum. The woman’s lace collar, jewelry and hair ornaments were further darkened by overpainting. The Rembrandt Research Project, founded in 1968 with the goal of definitively attributing the artist’s body of work, rejected Portrait of a Young Woman as a Rembrandt original in the 1970s, positing that it was likely created by one of his assistants.
But experts’ opinion of the artwork started to change in 2018, when the museum sent it out for “routine conservation” at a New York University lab.
“As they began doing the cleaning, there was sort of this spark, where they thought, ‘Wow, this is incredibly high quality,’” Elaine Mehalakes, the museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, tells NBC10.
The team studied the artwork with a variety of high-tech methods—including “infrared reflectography, scanning electron microscopy, and cross-section evaluation,” as artnet News reports—that allowed experts to distinguish between original features and those added at a later date. Refined details began to emerge: the woman’s warm skin tone, the glisten of her jewelry, the elegance of her lace collar. There was, says the museum, “clear evidence” of the Dutch Master’s hand.
Historically believed to be a painting of Rembrandt’s sister, Portrait of a Young Woman is in fact what is known as a tronie. Though models may have posed for them, tronies represented characters or types rather than specific individuals. Multiple portraits of “varying quality” depict the same sitter, according to the museum, suggesting that Rembrandt may have painted the model at least once as an example for his students.
The shifting story of Portrait of a Young Woman’s attribution is not, in fact, unusual. Rembrandt, highly successful in his day, was a popular teacher, filling his studio with pupils. For decades, scholars have wrangled over many works in the artist’s corpus, debating whether they were created by Rembrandt himself or by his associates.
“In the first half of the 20th century, Rembrandt was believed to have painted some 600 [to] 650 works,” wrote art historian Bendor Grosvenor for the Financial Times in 2014. “But from the 1970s onwards that number shrank rapidly to around 250.”
Upon its foundation in the late 1960s, the Rembrandt Research Project “began to wield its attributional axe,” the Times added, only to later embrace paintings it had once demoted. Debate continues to swirl around notable artworks, including The Auctioneer, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Advanced technologies have helped clear up the confusion around certain works. In 2011, for example, a painting of an elderly man was identified as a Rembrandt original after X-rays revealed a self-portrait of the artist beneath the surface paint. In June, the Allentown Art Museum will display Portrait of a Young Woman as part of an exhibition exploring both “the complexities and uncertainties of the attribution process” and the discoveries made possible by conservation techniques.
“This single object in our collection has this incredibly rich and complicated history and for all we know there could be stories like that among other artworks,” Mehalakes tells artnet News. “It’s very exciting.”