It was in 2008 that the owner of the painting discussed here received an unusual request: would he be willing to lend his painting to the manor of Dekema State near Leeuwarden (http://www.dekemastate.nl/) for a few months? It would provide the centrepiece of an exhibition commemorating events that took place there in 1904, when the painting was discovered in the attic of the house causing a veritable sensation, in the course of which the painting was dubbed the ‘Dekema State Rembrandt’.
When the owner asked me what I thought of the request, I advised him to respond positively. I remembered Dekema State from several years before, when it was still owned by the Van Wageningen family. As maintenance of the manor with its wealth of art treasures became too costly for the family, eventually they had no choice but to hand over responsibility of the house and its contents to the authorities. This meant that all the works of art had to be valued. After the handover, both the manor house and the artifacts underwent a programme of restoration and conservation before opening to the public. It now provides a unique cultural experience in an oasis of beauty just north of Leeuwarden. I still have fond memories of my work for the estate.
But there was another reason for giving full support to the exhibition: if the painting was going to be in the Netherlands anyway, it would be a perfect opportunity to conduct proper art-historical research on it once the exhibition was over. For, let’s face it, the story surrounding the painting was peculiar: although Dr Abraham Bredius had been extremely enthusiastic when the painting was discovered, later experts had been less excited. The painting was disposed of and subsequently forgotten. But what was the true story behind this painting?
To find an answer to this question the painting was brought down to Amsterdam where Ernst van de Wetering, leader of the Rembrandt Research Project, immediately responded enthusiastically. Using X-radiography he discovered that the painting was the result of an artistic process in two stages: the initial design – no longer visible to the naked eye and possibly by Rembrandt – and the final execution, which was carried out by a different hand. Then, dendrochronological research by Peter Klein enabled Van de Wetering to establish that the panel dated from the early 1630s, which more or less matches the date of another painting of the same subject and with a similar composition, now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artwork/heroine-from-the-old-testament ). Furthermore, with the help of dendrochronological research it turned out that a copy of the Dekema State Rembrandt, which is now in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, also dated from exactly the same time (http://www.lakenhal.nl/nl/zoeken/collectie?keywords_technique=geschilderd&page=0&q=rembrandt&utf8=%E2%9C%93).
The research allowed Ernst to identify the two pictures as ‘satellites’, a term he uses for paintings from Rembrandt’s workshop, which derive their subject matter and composition from a prototype by the master, but which are still the result of a distinctive artistic process. They are just what the word ‘satellite’ means: celestial bodies orbiting and escorting another much more important body, the star that nourishes them.
Meanwhile the results of the research have been published by Ernst in Volume V of the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings and will perhaps in the future be the subject of an exhibition in the Rembrandthuis. With great pleasure I remember the fascinating sessions in the studio of Martin Bijl in Alkmaar, where we gathered to discuss the results of the research, as well as the confrontation of the two ‘ satellites’ in Leiden under the eyes of Christiaan Vogelaar, and, last but not least, the contagious enthusiasm of the owners. As so often happens, whereas in the past they were indifferent to Old Master paintings, they now find them truly exciting.