How important is the origin of a painting

Copy or original - how an art historian determines the origin of a picture

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Copy or original - how an art historian determines the origin of a picture

The Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg has had a portrait of the Dutch painter Rembrandt for 120 years. For a long time it was considered a copy of an original that hangs in The Hague. Experts only agreed in 1999: "The original hangs in Nuremberg - the copy in The Hague". An exhibition in Nuremberg that runs until October 14th explains the scientific methods used by the researchers to arrive at this result.

Often it is hardly possible to decide whether a picture was actually painted by a great master himself or by one of his students. In the past, art historians often used a "sensitive method" to assess this.

Today one tries through intensive, scientific work and a clear questioning to find characteristics that are objective. In other words, to collect data that give clear indications of the painter. But that is not so easy.

Such a controversial painting hangs in Nuremberg. For a long time it was believed that it was a copy of a picture from The Hague. Now one thinks that the Nuremberg self-portrait actually comes from Rembrandt. In order to arrive at this result, the two paintings had to be compared very carefully. In addition, studies and drawings as well as a third picture have been used for comparison. Many things are precisely analyzed:

The material

How are the colors composed? What are the ingredients in it? What wood did Rembrandt use as a board for his work? How old is the wood? Which brush was used for painting? Which frame did the picture get? How is it fixed?

The painting style

How does the artist paint his painting? Are there any preliminary studies? In which style, i.e. with which brushwork? Does the picture have the characteristic line of Rembrandt? How does it represent skin? How does he use light and shadow for expression and how do these effects arise? Does the painter paint in layers? Is there an exact preliminary drawing or background drawing?

The biography of the artist and his living conditions

Of course, when it comes to the exact dating and assessment of a picture, it is also important to know:
Was there a client? For what reason did Rembrandt paint the picture? What does he mean by that? Was he in need of money? In a hurry? Which students did he have in his workshop? What was he painting the picture for?

These are all questions that scientists ask themselves, and partly thanks to scientific methods they also get answers that they put together like a puzzle - in order to recognize what is original and what is a copy.

(from - 13.08.2001, photos: Liane Manseicher, with kind thanks to the GNM. The exhibition of the Germanisches National Museum N├╝rnberg, "In Rembrandt's Workshop" can be seen until October 14, 2001.)

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