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Worcester Art Museum’s “Fake” Rembrandt: “American Hustle” Cons the Audience UPDATED

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

“You’re calling me a fake?” Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew,” c. 1633, Worcester Art Museum

More on this, here.

Is the Worcester Art Museum’s Rembrandt not a Rembrandt?

That’s what the main character of the uproarious, caustic new film, “American Hustle,” convincingly maintains (without identifying the museum that he’s debunking), at the very beginning of the movie’s trailer:

Notwithstanding these cinematic antics, “there are no questions about the authenticity of the painting, which was acquired by the Worcester Art Museum in 1958,” Monica Elefterion, the museum’s spokesperson, told me in response to a query I sent her after seeing the trailer. [UPDATE: Now I’m not so sure.]

I sharpened my poison pen, preparing to scold the museum for allowing its treasured Dutch old master painting to be so conspicuously and wrongfully denigrated. My thoughts strayed to the time when the Metropolitan Museum had refused to allow filming on its premises of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which depicted a heist (that could never have happened in the manner depicted) from a major New York museum, clearly modeled on the Met.

Then I saw “American Hustle” and I dismounted from my high horse.

I still don’t know if the audience is meant to leave this mindgames movie believing that the Rembrandt is a fake. But I do know (spoiler alert?) that almost nothing said by anyone in this intricately clever movie, least of all by the resourceful conman played by Christian Bale, can be taken at face value.

It still seems to me, as it did when I had seen only the trailer, that the museum needs to provide wall text assuring visitors of the painting’s authenticity, to correct any mistaken impressions left by its high-profile public exposure. But in Worcester’s new, unorthodox installation, dubbed [remastered], there are no wall labels at all for the 16th- to 18th-century old masters in the permanent collection galleries.

Elefterion indicated to me that there were no plans to confirm the Rembrandt’s authenticity via text in the gallery: “We are not worried that anyone will perceive the painting as anything but authentic,” she said.

As reported in Judith Dobrzynski‘s recent Wall Street Journal review, “people are complaining about the lack of labels” in the new permanent-collection installation. Nevertheless, she wrote, director Matthias Waschek is “not sure he’ll bring them back.”

For now, you’ll need to go to the museum’s website to learn more about “St. Bartholomew.” The homepage features an image from the in-gallery filming, which occurred last April. Clicking that image takes you to a page devoted to “Saint Bartholomew.” It includes commentary from James Welu, the museum’s former director, who calls the Rembrandt “a favorite among museum visitors.”

Anthony Amore, director of security at the famously compromised Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, writes about “Saint Bartholomew’s” real-life contact with criminals: It was among four works stolen in 1972 from the Worcester Art Museum.

Not all visitors to the museum will take the time to supplement their on-site visits with virtual visits, to learn more about this and the other unexplicated paintings in the new installation. The Rembrandt that now has no wall label used to have this label:

The style and technique of the execution serve to date this painting at about 1633. At that time Rembrandt was employing the warm color harmonies and rich textural variations seen here. The agitated expression of the saint is also characteristic of this period when Rembrandt was particularly interested in capturing intense emotions in his subjects.

Saint Bartholomew is shown holding the instrument of his martyrdom, a knife, and looking forward to his grisly fate with a troubled, fearful expression. In two later representations of the same saint, painted by Rembrandt in 1657 and 1661, these violent emotions have disappeared, and Bartholomew is shown calmer, more secure in his faith, and with the profound psychological penetration characteristic of Rembrandt’s later works.

Rembrandt was born at Leiden but lived and worked in Amsterdam after 1631 or 1632. Unlike most of his Dutch contemporaries, he was not a specialist but worked in virtually every category of painting and in the etching medium as well. In each of these fields he created works that rank with the most impressive in Western art.

I think this (or something like it) would be edifying, even if the museum didn’t need to counter disinformation disseminated by a bracingly cynical, satirical film that ends (second spoiler alert) with Bale’s larcenous character going legit (maybe) as (what else?) an art dealer.

an ArtsJournal blog