Rembrandt, “Oil sketch of The Raising of the Cross” (c. 1642-1645) (all images courtesy Museum Bredius)

For decades, a Rembrandt sketch at the Netherlands’s Museum Bredius in the Hague was thought to be an imitation, but last week, the museum announced it was in fact painted by the famous master of the Dutch Golden Age.

Art historian Jeroen Giltaij, the former chief curator of Old Masters paintings at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, discovered the oil sketch of “The Raising of the Cross” (c. 1642-1645) last year while conducting research for his monograph on Rembrandt. He noticed it was listed in a 1935 publication as an original Rembrandt but had since been dismissed as a copy made by a follower of the artist.

“I was so fascinated,” Giltaij told Hyperallergic. “I was convinced that it was a Rembrandt, but it was a curious kind of Rembrandt, so I can understand why people thought it was an imitation.”

Giltaij and conservator Johanneke Verhavetook began studying the work and then sent it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Using infrared and x-ray technology, the team determined that the work underwent many changes, suggesting that the artist was not copying another work but instead creating something new. While at the Rijksmuseum, guest researcher Marta Dominguez-Delmás also used tree rings on the painting’s wood panel to determine its age. She found that the panel dated back to 1634, and the painting was created some 10 years later.

Rembrandt’s finished “The Raising of the Cross” (c. 1633) at the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich

This timeline, however, has raised questions for the team. The oil sketch closely resembles a finished Rembrandt painting titled “The Raising of the Cross,” housed at the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich, that was created in 1633, ten years before the newly attributed sketch.

“Why would he do that?” Giltaij asked.

The question is still unanswered. Giltaij said that the sketch does not resemble any later Rembrandt paintings, and the team is still trying to determine the work’s purpose. While Rembrandt created sketches for his etchings, no sketches exist for his paintings, although Giltaij suspects they have simply been lost to time: Given their unfinished nature and broad brushstrokes, people did not see their value and discarded them.

To even begin to study this rare oil sketch, the team had to strip away varnish and paint, additions the art historian said were common as 19th-century art dealers tried to make sketches more salable by literally finishing them. Giltaij said the work’s value, however, is in its finest details. “You see this can only be by Rembrandt, by a great painter,” he said, adding that Rembrandt even included in the sketch a self-portrait in the face of the man at Christ’s feet, a detail he also added to the oil painting.

“It’s very powerful and very beautiful when you study it,” added Giltaij, explaining that in just a few brushstrokes, Rembrandt rendered an impactful expression in the face of Christ, one in which he accepts his fate.

Museum Bredius will exhibit the painting and the team’s recent research through January 15, 2023.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

One reply on “Mysterious Oil Sketch Turns Out to Be a Real Rembrandt

  1. I attended and loved SVA in the 60’s. I’m still making art on the other coast north of San Francisco and enjoying my membership to hyperallergic daily. Thank you to all of the great writers and interesting articles.

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