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“Rembrandt”? Probably Not: Worcester Art Museum’s Own Version of “American Hustle”

Arthur Wheelock, Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings, National Gallery, Washington

Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington

I need to revise this headline from last Wednesday’s CultureGrrl post—Worcester Art Museum’s “Fake” Rembrandt: “American Hustle” Cons the Audience.

I’m beginning to believe that it’s the Worcester Art Museum (WAM), not the new movie, that’s misleading (if not exactly “conning”) its audience when it comes to the “Rembrandt”: “There are no questions about the authenticity of the painting,” the museum’s spokesperson told me last week (presumably after consulting WAM’s director or curatorial staff).

The spokesperson described this portrait as “our very fine Rembrandt“:

Rembrandt, "Saint Bartholomew," ca. 1633, Worcester Art Museum

Saint Bartholomew,” ca. 1633, Worcester Art Museum

Near the beginning of the movie (and at the very beginning of its trailer, which I embedded in the above-linked previous post), the character played by Christian Bale stands in front of Worcester’s painting and says the following to Bradley Cooper‘s character: “It’s a fake! People believe what they wanna believe. The guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody…”

…including, it seems, to the Worcester Art Museum, which has reason to “wanna believe” that its star attraction is indeed by the renowned master.

But Arthur Wheelock Jr., a Rembrandt authority who is curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery, Washington, told me this today:

There’s a general consensus at this point that it’s not Rembrandt. I don’t know of anybody who defends that attribution these days.

Nevertheless, on its new movie-inspired webpage, the WAM extols it as “the Worcester Rembrandt.”

Although the museum’s attribution is shaky, the movie conman’s connoisseurship is not rock solid either: This portrait is not properly characterized as “a fake”—something intended to deceive. More likely, it’s an authentic work by an as yet unidentified artist who was working at the same time and place as Rembrandt and was influenced by him.

As Wheelock wrote in his 2005 catalogue for the exhibition of Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits, WAM’s painting was “almost certainly produced in his [Rembrandt’s] studio.” (See his text in the second column, below, preferably using a magnifying glass):


From “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” 2005, p. 78

“It’s a painting that I remember very well, because I grew up in that area, outside of Worcester,” Wheelock told me today. “It was one of the first ‘Rembrandts’ I knew.”

Here’s what he said about the attribution question:

When I last saw it, I had a pretty strong sense it wasn’t by Rembrandt, but I couldn’t give you a name [for the artist who actually did paint it]. It should have a name, because it’s a very strong painting….

Everything is totally consistent with something being produced in the Rembrandt orbit in the early 1630s…. Stylistically, it’s unlike ones that we call Rembrandt. I would say it’s more expressively modeled in the face. My memory is that the forms are somewhat more rounded….

It’s not in the Rembrandt Research Project’s Volumes 1, 2 or 3. That means they do not believe it’s by Rembrandt.

Wheelock told me that he felt certain that the RRP knew and had evaluated the Worcester painting, because “it’s pretty well published.” The RRP was formed in 1968 to create an authoritative catalogue of Rembrandt’s entire painted oeuvre, sorting out the sometimes difficult questions of authorship. (However, some experts, including Wheelock, disagree with some of its determinations.)

I’m still waiting to hear back from WAM about whether it already knew (notwithstanding what its spokesperson told me) that Rembrandt’s authorship of its “St. Bartholomew” has been strongly doubted by experts. If it did know, it neglected its professional responsibility to represent truthfully to me and to its audience what has been one of its collection’s biggest draws.

If it didn’t know about what Wheelock called the “general consensus” of scholarly opinion regarding this work, then WAM’s own scholarship may have been deficient. Maybe the imminent arrival from the Cleveland Museum of Jon Seydl as WAM’s new director of curatorial affairs will help bring a return to rigor. Perhaps he’ll wisely attempt to reverse WAM’s recent decision to eliminate wall labels for its 16th- to 18th-century old masters in the permanent collection galleries. At an institution with an educational mission, imparting knowledge is always a good thing.

Seydl should sidle up to the “Rembrandt,” composing a new label for it that at least acknowledges the questions about attribution. A good model for this could be a label that I saw back in 2008 at Seydl’s former professional home, the Cleveland Museum. It accompanied this portrait:


Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I saw it in 2008, this label for the above painting (which, coincidentally, is from the same period as Worcester’s “St. Bartholomew”) struck me as such a model of forthright scholarship that I snapped a photo of it (and it came back to mind today):


Who knows? “American Hustle” may have started something—truth in labeling. The movie about Abscam may have unwittingly uncovered WAMscam.

[Hat-tip to the Grumpy Art Historian for being the first of several who tipped me off about Worcester’s fallen “Saint” after my initial post.]

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