Digital images of all Rembrandt's work on show

July 1, 2009 6:51:11 AM PDT
The life work of Rembrandt - all 317 known paintings, 285 etchings and more than 100 drawings - go on display next week in full-sized digital reproductions that attempt to recreate the works as they emerged from the artist's studio rather than as they exist today. In some ways, the high resolution images are more authentic than the real paintings, said Ernst van de Wetering, a leading Rembrandt scholar who supervised the project.

Employing computer wizardry, pieces of canvas or panel that were sliced off centuries ago have been patched back on. Colors are restored to the vibrancy they had when they came off the master's brush. Details hidden in darkness because of aging pigments emerge into view.

"The Complete Rembrandt, Life Size" exhibition opens Sunday in the former Amsterdam Stock Exchange building and runs through Sept. 7.

Not everyone is happy with the idea of passing off posters as true art. But even Van de Wetering, who has examined much of 17th century artist's work with x-rays and microscopes, said he discovered details he had never seen before.

"I got surprises," he said, as he watched the folds of painted cloth materialize on the computer screen and dark corners highlighted.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition brings together work from more than 100 museums and collections around the world to offer viewers "a walk through Rembrandt's mind," said the art historian. It follows his 45-year evolution from young painter to possibly the most famous master of his day, and the sudden leaps of inspiration and conceptualization in between that jolt him to new levels.

Van de Wetering heads the Rembrandt Research Project, created in 1968 to verify whether disputed works were true Rembrandts. Since then, it has disallowed about half the 600 paintings that once were attributed to the Dutch master, identifying them as either works by his students, copies by later admirers or deliberate forgeries.

The group of experts also has authenticated several previously unknown Rembrandts.

Over 40 years Van de Wetering has learned to dissect a Rembrandt into its smallest components, from the paint he used, the grounding of the work, the grain in the wood from which he cut his panels and the number of threads in his canvas.

Working with that knowledge and from contemporary copies by students, Van de Wetering could reconstruct works like "The Night Watch," arguably Rembrandt's most famous work, which has been radically altered and which he calls "a ruin" of the original.

"It's a wreck," he said in an interview.

In the exhibition, a copy of The Night Watch - a 1642 group portrait of an Amsterdam militia in colorful formal attire - as it is in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, stands next to a recreation of the original. Over the years, the massive painting had been trimmed on all sides, and two figures were cut completely from the left side. The result moved the two central characters to the middle of the canvas, destroying Rembrandt's intention to convey an image of motion.

Van de Wetering reconstructed the original work using a small copy painted by Amsterdam artist Gerrit Lundens seven years after Rembrandt finished The Night Watch. The copy not only included the pieces later lopped off but its colors had better retained their brightness because it was painted on panel.

Van de Wetering worked with computer specialist Aehryan Hesseling to alter high resolution photographs. The images were then printed and mounted by the Van Straaten company, which specializes in billboards and large-scale advertising.

The exhibit revives a 3-year-old debate about the value of seeing copies of the full range of Rembrandt's work as compared with viewing a few originals. The argument first arose during an exhibit of 290 photographs - some of them poor quality - for Rembrandt's 400th birth anniversary.

Van de Wetering argues that the reproductions have the advantage of stripping away the aura of awe viewers often have when they see an original, which hinders their assessment of the work.

Axel Ruger, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, complained in 2006 that the organizers appeared to see no qualitative difference between a reproduction and the real thing.

"Reproductions cannot convey anything of the wonderful three-dimensional quality of Rembrandt's painted surfaces," Ruger wrote at the time. A spokeswoman said the Van Gogh director has not changed his mind, but declined to comment specifically about the current exhibition.

Rather than duck the controversy, Van de Wetering reprinted Ruger's complaints in an epilogue to the book accompanying the show.

He argues that Rembrandt made copies of his work, and had his students make more copies, because he wanted a wider audience.

"Rembrandt would have been very happy if he had known we were doing this," he said. "But the copies he made of his works are many times worse than ours."

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