The 107-year-old Old Arts building at the University of Pretoria was once a building that held lectures and is now a museum and the head of the Arts Faculty. As a museum, it holds hundreds of ceramic pieces and several art collections. Among these is the Van Tilburg art collection, within it is a specific painting with an interesting history. Number 16 of the Van Tilburg art collection is long rumoured to be a Rembrandt. Believed to be the Portrait of a Rabbi, its authenticity is disputed as the premier expert on Rembrandt art, Ernst Van de Wetering, could not confirm if it truly was a Rembrandt.
Born in 1606, Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch painter, printmaker and draughtsman. Seen by many as one of the greatest visual artists in art history and the most influential Dutch artist of all time, Rembrandt’s work has been seen by millions. The Rembrandt Research Project believes he created roughly 300 paintings, 300 etchings and approximately 2000 drawings, during his lifetime.
There are some reasons as to why some would deem Number 16 to not be authentic. One of the major reasons is because the painting has been glazed. It is possible that it was glazed to help preserve it, however it removes the ability to identify a painting by brush strokes. It is due to this reason that Van de Wetering could not say if it truly is a Rembrandt. There are also several versions and copies of the painting, and there is a possibility that one of Rembrandt’s students could have copied the painting while being taught at his studio. The painting is possibly one of nine authentic pieces, all believed to be different versions of Portrait of a Rabbi, including a sketch. One of the pieces famously belonged to the Rothschild family until 1922, when it was donated to the Louvre. The piece in the university’s possession however, was willed to UP in 1976 by Jacob van Tilburg.
Authenticating the painting has been led by the university research project in the Arts Department. It was undertaken by UP Arts Professors Gerard de Kamper and Isabelle McGinn. The painting is European in origin which begs the question of its whereabouts during World War II, as during the war, the Nazi regime was responsible for stealing thousands of artworks in their invasions of several nations. This ignited a search into the history of the owners, to determine if it was in Nazi possession. The records found could only trace ownership to as early as 1885. From 1885 the painting was in the hands of 18 different owners including at one point the curator of the Victorian and Albert Museum, Sir John Charles Robinson, all before arriving at UP. The research uncovered records proving that the painting was bought at an auction early after the start of the war in the Netherlands in 1941. It was sold by a collector named Elisabeth Hartogs to Rudolph Liffers, who ultimately sold it to Jacob van Tilburg. With legal transactions confirming it was never in Nazi possession, it was then time to date the painting.
The painting was done on a piece of wood, which meant dating could be done by analysing the age of the wood itself. A piece was removed and sent for testing. The results were promising, as the wood was dated around the 1650s, during the lifetime of Rembrandt. The results also identified the wood’s origin as being from the west German, east Dutch forest. This confirmed it was from the correct region. The last test that was administered involved an X-Ray Fluorescent (XRF) machine to deep scan and analyse the paint. An XRF machine is used to analyse and determine the elemental composition of an object, in this case the paint used in the painting. The results of such a test would be able to tell the age of the paint used and help determine authenticity. An XRF machine was donated to UP in 2017 by German manufacturer Bruker, specifically to analyse the painting. The machine currently resides at UP and is being used by the natural sciences faculty.
With the results of all the tests, the nine-yearlong research project has finally concluded. Whether or not painting Number 16 truly is a Rembrandt will be revealed at a public lecture held on 18 May, at the plant sciences auditorium at 13:00.