Rembrandt or…Not Rembrandt?

The largest collection of Rembrandts ever assembled in the United States visits the MIA this month. Now if only we could tell which ones are real.

Will the real Rembrandt van Rijn please stand up? Thanks to years spent managing a studio in which his pupils imitated his style (and often borrowed his signature for sales purposes), the Dutch Old Master has spawned more fakes and copycat controversy than any other artist in history. To this day, modern scholars and curators invest lifetimes trying to distinguish the real Rembrandts from the imitators. One hundred years ago, 700 works were attributed to the master. Today, that number has dropped by more than half, and there are at least 25 paintings whose legitimacy has been hotly contested for decades. On the cusp of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s blockbuster Rembrandt exhibition—which presents the largest group of authentic Rembrandts ever gathered under one roof in America—curator Tom Rassieur presents us with two portraits. Both were painted on oval-shaped oak panels. Both feature young girls with fair hair and gold earrings. Both are dated 1632. Both are signed by van Rijn. So which one is the real deal?  

1. Windows to the Soul

No one painted peepers like Rembrandt. More so than any artist of his era, he nailed both the anatomy and the psychology of the eyes. Dig the precisely defined musculature. The exquisitely rendered puffs and folds beneath the lower lid. The sheer aliveness of the gaze. “It’s so intense,” says Rassieur, “you feel like they could blink.” In fact, when connoisseurs are presented with a questionable painting, they often look to the eyes first.

2. The Imitator’s Mask

Studio painters routinely tried to pull off the Rembrandt eyes, but oftentimes could only muster the almond shape. The result is a holes-in-a-mask effect, dead and flat—classic tell of the not-Rembrandt. “This is like a representation of a person,” explains Rassieur. “With Rembrandt, it really is that person. You have the sense that it’s a sentient being in the image.”  

Rembrandt or Not?

3. Overly Defined Features  

Note how clean and traceable the hairline is here. Rembrandt produces a more imperceptible blend, using fine brushwork—with varied paint densities on the bristles—to create the airy effect of his girl’s porcelain forehead evaporating into the wispiness of her hair.

4. Mood lighting  

Rembrandt pretty much invented backlighting. The soft glow emanating from behind the girl here would go on to define how portraits were made for the next 400 years—well into the age of the camera. Rassieur: “He’s created the formula used by the most famous 20th-century portrait photographers,” like Yousuf Karsh, who placed light bulbs behind his subjects.

5. Truth is in the Shadows

Chiaroscuro—Italian for “light-dark”—is another hallmark of Rembrandt’s work, and here the master executes a remarkably complex play of light and shadow across the girl’s chin and neck. The result? Volume—a truer sense of the physical form, a confirmation of anatomy. Says Rassieur: “You can almost envision what the skull would look like with the skin peeled off.”

6. Getting Deep

Rembrandt was 3-D before there even was 3-D, creating depth by staggering multiple planes behind one another. Here, we get three. The girl appears to sit just behind the oval surface, as if gazing out of a window. Then behind her, the viewer has the sense of atmospheric space. Just another trick to make the subject palpable, fleshy, and full.  

7. Painting it Gold…With Fervor!

“This is where he really turns it loose,” says Rassieur. Rembrandt got fast and wild with the gold embellishment, dancing the brush freely over the surface. This “bravura” handling of the paint, most associated with kinetic abstraction (think Pollock), has a surprisingly realistic result; the quick and casual strokes, interpretive as they are, convince as real-life, gold-embroidered thread.

8. Painting it Gold

“Here, you don’t have the same sense of freedom of play with the brush,” says Rassieur. “This is all very laboriously done.” In other words, Rembrandt’s assistant is trying too hard. But Rassieur cautions against automatically dismissing painting shortfalls as not-Rembrandt. “Is it a student trying to learn to paint like Rembrandt? Or is Rembrandt trying to learn to paint like Rembrandt?” he says. “For me, it’s always going to be fuzzy.”

Gregory J. Scott is a regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly’s arts blog, TC Culture.