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Genuine Rembrandt Revealed Under Layers of Varnish After Restoration

A restoration of “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1632), formerly credited to Rembrandt’s studio and residing at the Allentown Art Museum, revealed the work to be an original by the Dutch Master.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1632), formerly attributed to “Studio of Rembrandt,” before restoration (left) and after (right) (all images courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum)

An exciting new addition to the collection of the Allentown Art Museum (AAM) in Pennsylvania, Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1632), had been in the museum all along. Donated to AAM in the 1970s, the exquisite oil on oak panel was formerly attributed to the studio of Rembrandt — meaning it was thought to be created by someone in the artist’s workshop, and not by Rembrandt himself. A recent restoration has revealed the work to be an original by the Dutch Old Master.

How did Rembrandt’s inimitable brushstrokes and mastery of light and shadow remain hidden from view? Ironically, past restorations are to blame. Over the centuries, conservators applied thick, dark varnish over the painting to create a sheen, sacrificing the clarity of the portrait, muting its colors, and concealing Rembrandt’s meticulous brushwork. Viewers had been looking at the painting “through a dirty windshield,” said Shan Kuang, an assistant conservator and research scholar at the Conservation Center of the New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, in a press release.

An x-ray of the painting dating back to the 1970s (left) and a more recent x-ray produced with the Carestream HPX-1 digital system (right)

When it was first donated to the museum in 1961, the work hung as a Rembrandt original, but the Rembrandt Research Project contested the attribution in 1970, basing its research on then-limited x-ray technology. The painting was henceforth credited to the artist’s workshop.

During the two-year restoration process, undertaken at the Conservation Center and coordinated by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Kuang removed layers of varnish and paint, cleaned the portrait, and used digital photography and electron microscopy to distinguish original materials from later alterations.

“The painting has this incredible glow to it now that it just didn’t have before,” said the museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, Elaine Mehalakes, in an e-mail. “This single object in our collection has this incredibly rich and complicated history. There could be stories like that among other artworks. It’s very exciting.”

Shan Kuang, an assistant conservator and research scholar at the Conservation Center of the New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, with “Portrait of a Young Woman”

The painting, currently in the museum’s vault, will go back on public display in its Kress Gallery starting June 7, 2020.

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