Painting by Rembrandt Discovered in Museum Collection

In 1961, the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania received a donation of more than 60 Renaissance masterpieces, including a portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn’s studio, from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The painting, entitled Portrait of a Young Woman (1632), which shows a girl with rosy cheeks, strawberry-blonde hair and a gold necklace around her neck, was probably painted by a student of the great Dutch painter, the painting hung in the gallery with one of the decades Plaque that attributed it to someone in his studio. However, a recent routine cleaning and further investigation revealed that the work was actually not by an apprentice at all, but by the hand of the Dutch master himself.

In 2018, a portrait of a young woman was sent to the Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center at New York University for standard treatment when conservator Shan Kuang discovered something conspicuous while removing several layers of varnish. “To be very clear, I neither make attributions nor authenticate myself,” explains Kuang AD. “My job is to restore the painting so that it can be seen for what it is and to do conservation and research.” But the varnish needs to be routinely removed and replaced, and as she was working on the painting, the restorer noticed subtle alternating hues and brush strokes between layers.

A photo of the portrait during restoration shows the extent of the layers of varnish (left side) and what the work looked like when it was first painted (right side).

Image courtesy Shan Kuang and Allentown Art Museum.

As she explains, the last time the nearly 400-year-old painting was treated was in the 1930s when Kress first acquired it. Taste preferences change over time, and during this period dealers, collectors, and restorers primarily preferred paintings with a mirror-smooth surface without texture. The restorer at the time had applied many layers of varnish and repainted the clothing in the portrait, which, according to Kuang, is a practice that would never have been carried out today, as it is a restoration faux pas. It was only when the newly restored painting was rated equally by scholars and experts that it was decided to re-attribute the work to Rembrandt.

Conservator Shan Kuang, who is working on the painting.

Image courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum.

However, the work was not always assigned incorrectly. In the 1970s, the Rembrandt research project traveled around the world to authenticate thousands of paintings by the Dutch master. When they came across Portrait of a Girl, the researchers viewed it as the work of one of his assistants rather than themselves, as the layers of varnish and added color suggested a variation in the pattern they had seen on his other work. The technology they used was quite out of date and limiting by today’s standards, and so a statement was made that it could not be painted by Rembrandt himself. For nearly 50 years, no other experts looked at the painting to express a different opinion (“That’s the problem: no experts or curators can really get past Allentown,” says Kuang) until the painting was put under preservation in New York has been. “Allentown took the judgments and opinions of art historians and scholars into account when deciding how to present the painting,” she says.

To celebrate the newly minted masterpiece, the Allentown Art Museum is hosting an exhibit starting June 7th that will feature the painting.

After the treatment process in a clean state.

Image courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum.

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