Rembrandt's trick with mirrors

Image1Rembrandt 1Rembrandt 2Image 2
Konstam (NK:) is interviewed here by Clive O'mahoney for everything (e:):

Image 1 shows a sketch by Rembrandt alongside a reconstruction of the same sketch created with models (image 2) by Nigel Konstam. The models were placed against a mirror and photographed. This, along with a number of similar reconstructions (and a hundred other examples), illustrates Konstam's assertion that Rembrandt was in the habit of using mirrors to enhanced the spatial, rhythmic and compositional harmony within a picture. It also underlines Komstan's belief that Rembrandt was essentially an observational painter. who would set up Tableau Vivants which were studied from various angles. This, and other claims made by Konstam, bring into question many of the findings of the Rembrandt Research Project who have, over the past 20 years, been the arbiters of the authenticity of Rembrandt's work.

Konstam's campaign

In addition to a slim volume on the subject Konstam has produced three newspapers entitled The save Rembrandt Campaigner. Their publication coincided with major exhibitions of Rembrandt's work in Berlin, Amsterdam and London. The publications were devoted to his own theories on the authenticity of Rembrandt's disputed paintings in the face of what Konstam believes to be the distortions of Rembrandt academicians. He has, thanks to the intervention of E H Gombrich, published an article in the Burlington Magazine and mounted an exhibition in St Martains in Trafalgar Square which illustrated his thesis. The revolution in Rembrandt scholarship which Komstan expected has not yet occurred and his observations have been met by a virtual silence from the academic community. His address to art historians at Harvard, despite a vigorous debate following his lecture, failed to bring Komstam's arguments into a wider arena. It would seem that the academic community are reluctant to even debate the validity of Komstam's claims: &squot;So, I haven't published any more of those newspapers, I think my next trick will be on the internet."


Image 1:
Rembrandt drawing

Image 2:
Maquette for the drawing shown in image 1
N Konstam

e: You have been struggling for many years against what you believe to be the unnecessary reassessment of the work of Rembrandt. Particularly against the findings of the Rembrandt Research Project who have contested the attribution of a great number of his paintings. What is it you're struggling against?

NK: Well, I wouldn't say that reassessment is unnecessary, but that it's been very badly done. I, in fact, would like to reassess particularly his drawings, and the way in which his drawings have been dated. I think it's absolutely necessary to do that.
Essentially, I'm proposing a revolution in the way these things are done because I've discovered something about his working methods which is so practical, so matter of fact, that no artists I've explained it to has denied that it could be anything other than the way he worked. Essentially, The difference between me and the Rembrandt experts is that I say the he worked exclusively from life, from groups of models that he would direct in his studio. We know that he had shelves and shelves of musical instruments, weapons, shields, &c. in fact a whole theatrical wardrobe that he used for creating the groups that he then drew and painted. The proof of it is that not only did he draw them directly from life but that occasionally he would glance from left or right and look at the reflection of those groups in the mirror. The drawings based on the reflections are often dated towards the end of Rembrandt's life by the scholars and the original drawing might be dated from an early part of his life. That is, the stimulus for two completely different looking drawings was in fact the same: the same group of models.

e: What do you think is the status now of the Rembrandt Research Project ?

NK: I think they're more or less defunct. I believe I've knocked them off their perch. But I don't feel that I've won any kind of victory. I've stopped the rot as far as this reassessment, based on very pinickity, pedantic values, is concerned but, I haven't replaced it with the truth about Rembrandt. That is, that Rembrandt was varied and the variety comes from a variety of stimulus. I haven't been allowed to. I've tried to publish my work in the media but the establishment is immovable.

e: Can you give me an example of where, what you describe as, their pedantry has lead them to false conclusions?

NK: The Polish Rider, I suppose most critics regard, or used to regard, as a flawed masterpiece. It's so Rembrandtesque that you just cannot but accept it as a Rembrandt and yet, the horse, for instance is very perculiar indeed. It's well known that all four hooves had to be repainted by the restorer because they looked so odd (they were also damaged when it was bought). But Rembrandt needed the stimulus of life in front of him, and as Rembrandt couldn't have a walking horse in front of him he did the best he could as a kind of invention. It's not of the quality we normally associate with Rembrandt, his horses are not nearly as good as many much more minor painters could do. So, in this instance, we have a rider that is very acceptably by Rembrandt, and a horse which they find very difficult to accept. I don't find any difficulty at all. The same is true of Frederick Reill in the National Gallery, a man on a rearing horse, a very splendid portrait of a known person, and yet the horse looks like a rocking horse. It doesn't have the kind of verve that you would expect from a Reubens or a Van Dyke; it's a very clumsy construction. I'm of the opinion that we just have to accept that Rembrandt, when he wasn't working directly from life, produced a quality of work which was very, very different and if you can't accept that, then you are bound to end up with the incredibly small collection of paintings that the Rembrandt Research Project reduced his work to. They attribute something like 250 - 270 paintings to Rembrandt, which for a man who worked for 43 years, who was extremely famous and easily recognisable, is quite absurd. He is likely to have painted 1500 - 2000 paintings. It's been recorded that he was devoted to his work, he stayed at home and worked very hard. Some of his work would have been done in a day or two and some he worked on for years on end and the amount of effort that went into any particular painting was immensely varied. The fact that the experts can only accept such a very small quantity as having survived is contrary to common sense. We know that in one year he produced 22 portraits. He was a very, very prolific artist. One of the things that is interesting from an artists point of view is that he didn't exercise a great amount of self criticism, he allowed himself a this huge variety of quality. He went through life starting many new things and leaving them when he himself was satisfied. He said "the work was finished when the artist had realised his intention" - that's a very sensible dictum. The standard Dutch artist would polish every nook and cranny of of his painting, it was full of very rich detail. Rembrandt was saying the opposite, it is the artist's intention that is interesting and the finish polish of the whole thing is of very minor interest - a completely different attitude to a work of art.

e: What do you think of the idea that Rembrandt had a workshop ?

NK: I reject it. He did have a school, it is well known that he trained as many as fifty painters, some of whom turned out to be much more successful than himself in terms of getting portrait commissions and things of that kind. But, the idea of Rembrandt's workshop is very new and is based on very little evidence. This idea became necessary because, having rejected so many Rembrandt's, the experts had to find somebody else who might have painted them - so, the idea of the workshop was created pout of nothing: contrary to all the written evidence. The most disgraceful innovation was a chap called Isaac Judeville, who studied under Rembrandt in Leiden. Judeville was a thoroughly incompetent student, who, in fact enrolled himself in the School of Philosophy in Leiden as soon as Rembrandt left for Amsterdam. He did not need money, he had inherited a reasonable fortune from his parents. There is no reason whatsoever to think either that he needed employment or that he was capable of producing the rather wonderful early portraits that are now attributed to him. The only works that we know of his are absurdly incompetent.

e: It is now accepted that the different quality of work previously attributed to Rembrandt is a result of commissions being executed under his direction, but not by him. You refute this ?

NK: I do completely, yes. I think it's a disgraceful result of the last twenty years of scholarship. Poor old Rembrandt has suffered appallingly from this new story that is put out. It has no basis in fact, in tradition or in the documents, and there is much more evidence against it. He did occasionally get his students to make copies of his paintings, this was normal practice and he admitted to it. For instance, when somebody asked what he had for sale, he said he had a copy made by a student and with a few touches it could pass for a Rembrandt. That's completely straightforward, he's explaining the nature of the canvas, it was a copy of something that he had already sold, alongside many other works which were by himself. It was a rare occasion and he made no attempt to hide what was normal practice within the guild.
I say you have to expect from Rembrandt a very wide variety of work.
He could spend an immense amount of time on the etching of a shell, of the highest quality of Natural history draughtsmanship - a very beautiful thing, and also find comparatively crude passages within his etchings (which are authentic beyond doubt) as well as within his drawings and paintings. All are the work of one man who has a huge range of approaches to his work. He would focus peoples attention by taking a great deal of trouble in one part and, as his contemporaries said, painting with a white-wash brush in other parts: this was his method.

e: Do you think that the current reassessment is a matter of fashion and will sooner rather than later be rejected ?

NK: I'm pretty sure it will. The fact that four out of the five members of the Rembrandt Research Project resigned together saying they couldn't agree as to how to proceed is more or less throwing in the sponge. Essentially the whole group started out very sensibly with volume 1 of their reassessment, they were rather cautious; they started to get results which tied up with previous results, there were no surprises in it at all.
They were getting a huge grant from the Stich Foundation. If they were to carry on in that way the question might easily have arisen why are we bothering to spend all of this money if the results are exactly what we already thought. Volume 2 was not particularly controversial. Volume 3 had a number of outrages in it and the advanced publicity for those that have not yet been published show that the later works are going to come in for a completely amazing reassessment, including the polish Rider - they've found another painter for that.

e: What has been the reaction to your "Save Rembrandt from the Experts" campaign ?

NK: The people I've been able to get to have been convinced by the evidence, it's not as though I've found Rembrandt using mirrors once or twice, I've found him using them about a hundred times. It's also clear from the works in his studio and the works of his school that there was a group of models in the studio and that each individual student observed that group from a different point of view. And, therefore, you get a variety. For instance, the dismissal of Hagar, of which there are about 25 Rembrandt drawings, and there are also student paintings that refer to the same group of models. We have an enormous amount of evidence that points to the fact that there were groups of live models in Rembrandt's studio which he and his school worked from. But that evidence is an embarrassment to the scholarship which has built castles in the air as a result of misinterpreting the same evidence: the iconography of the Rembrandt school is based on studio facts not individual philosophising, as far as I am concerned.

e: Is there a detectable difference in the work of Rembrandt from the time when he did have money and the time when he didnŐt ?

NK: Yes, there's a tremendous difference, really. What I would say is that we need to redate the drawings so that it's perfectly clear that the drawings with lots of models present, milling around in his studio, obviously came from the peak of his fame in Amsterdam, and are likely to be between, shall we say, 1635 and 1648 - that's a broad span. From his old age we tend to have ;life drawings, life etchings, drawn from his mistress and not these Biblical set-ups. The pattern of his work changed very drastically.

[This is an edited text:. For the full transcript write to us at everything enclosing a SAE, marking your envelope Rembrandt Transcript.]

© Clive O'Mahoney 1995elogo