Ernst van de Wetering, Leading Rembrandt Authority, Dies at 83

AMSTERDAM — Ernst van de Wetering, an art historian who was a towering figure in the world of Rembrandt studies, died on Aug. 11 at his home here. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by his partner, Carin van Nes. She did not specify the cause, but she said he had suffered from both cerebral amyloid angiopathy, a condition that caused him to have strokes, and polyneuropathy, a disease that affects peripheral nerves.

Professor van de Wetering spent more than half a century examining paintings by, or said to be by, Rembrandt. He was regarded by many in the art world as the leading authority on their authenticity.

“His decisions on Rembrandt are going to be taken seriously for a long, long time,” said Otto Naumann, a consultant in the old master paintings department at Sotheby’s New York. “No one else alive knows as much as he did about Rembrandt; nobody else comes even close.”

Professor van de Wetering was trained as an artist and art teacher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague, but his career was largely defined by his leading role at the Rembrandt Research Project, an initiative established in Amsterdam in 1968. At that time, the authenticity of many works that had been deemed Rembrandts and Vermeers by a previous generation of scholars was in dispute.

He started there at age 30 as an assistant. He was the youngest of a group of scholars who set out to use new scientific technologies like X-radiography and ultraviolet fluorescence, combined with connoisseurship, to determine a work’s authenticity with greater certainty. In 1993, he became the project’s chairman; in that position, he was often thought of as the final word on Rembrandt authentication.

“He became the arbiter of what is accepted as a Rembrandt painting,” said Gary Schwartz, a historian of Dutch old masters and his sometime rival in the world of Rembrandt scholarship.

Ernst van de Wetering was born on March 9, 1938, in Hengelo, a small town in the eastern Netherlands, to a German mother, Anna Maria Bahlmann, and a Dutch father, Gerardus Hermanus van de Wetering, an electrical engineer who was a member of the Dutch Nazi Party.

On what came to be known as “Mad Tuesday” in 1944, when rumor spread throughout the country that the Allies had liberated the south, his mother took him and his brother, Jan, to a village near Hamburg, Germany, where they stayed until the end of the war. He later recalled that he didn’t see his father for three years.

In a 1993 appearance on the Dutch television program “Zomergasten,” Professor van de Wetering spoke publicly for the first time about the shame he felt growing up in a family that had been “wrong in the war,” the Dutch expression for collaborators. He said he was constantly worried that “people would know.”

He studied art history at the University of Amsterdam, where in 1967 he met his future wife, Katja Reichenfeld, who would later work as an art historian at the Jewish Historical Museum and a music critic.

In 1987, a year after completing his doctorate, he became a professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, a position he would hold until 1999. During his tenure, he taught many students who went on to have important roles in the art world, including Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum.

Mr. Dibbits recalled that while getting his master’s degree at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the 1990s, he took a seminar with Professor van de Wetering at the University of Amsterdam, which included a group trip to Berlin.

“He took us to the museum for eight hours to look at two or three paintings,” Mr. Dibbits said. “I never thought you could spend two or three hours looking at a single painting.”

Part of Professor van de Wetering’s very thorough approach was to explore all aspects of a work, including the thread count of the weave of a canvas and the ways a painting might have been altered or restored after it was painted, changing its structure or subject. In so doing, he pushed the entire field of old master studies in a new direction. Backed by science as well as art-historical knowledge, and with many acolytes trained in his methods, he entered a realm of Rembrandt scholarship that previous experts had not been able to achieve.

Some saw his authority in the field as positive for Rembrandt; others, like Mr. Schwartz, said it could be “deleterious to scholarship.”

“Before him,” Mr. Schwartz said, “there was more open debate about what might and might not be Rembrandt, and arguments went across the table and around the world, which was a frustration to the art market sometimes. Everyone in the market was very pleased that there was now a bankable name, so you could say in your auction catalog, ‘Approved by Ernst van de Wetering.’”

When Professor van de Wetering confirmed that a Rembrandt was indeed a Rembrandt, prices for the work could soar. But if he deattributed a work by saying that it had been painted as a copy by a pupil or completed by a member of the studio, or that it was a fake, the impact could be devastating.

“He created lots of excess value for some things and decreased value of other things,” Mr. Schwartz said. “But he didn’t go after profits; I don’t think he ever took a penny for himself.”

As his influence grew, Mr. Dibbits said, he also became more temperate about his attributions. “He became far more mild when he discarded Rembrandts,” Mr. Dibbits said, “because he knew the impact that would have. He re-examined things, and he would change his mind.”

Since 1989, the Rembrandt Research Project has produced six volumes of “A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings,” an encyclopedic catalogue raisonné of all the master’s verified works. Professor van de Wetering wrote the last three, “Self-Portraits” (2005), “The Small-Scale History Paintings” (2013) and “Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited: A Complete Survey” (2014). In the last volume, he changed his opinion on some 70 artworks that had been examined in the project’s early years, a move that stunned some in the art world.

“Rembrandt is one of those artists who are always new,” he wrote in the foreword to “Rembrandt: A Life in 180 Paintings” (2008). “This is not only because each generation of viewers looks at his work with new eyes, influenced by their own time and their own culture, but also because our knowledge about Rembrandt is constantly shifting.”

Mr. Dibbits said that much of van de Wetering’s scholarly work, such as his landmark “Rembrandt: The Painter at Work” (1995), explored the process of creating art — how he worked, thought and experimented with paint. “His main curiosity,” he said, “was: How did Rembrandt make a painting? Not just did he make it, but how did he make it?”

One of his methods for trying to understand the “how” was to paint in the style of Rembrandt. He often had a canvas on an easel by his side, and when he was working out such a question he sometimes turned to paints.

The Rembrandt Research Project closed its doors in 2017. Not long after that, Professor van de Wetering became ill, which compromised his ability to work.

“He was so sad about it,” Ms. van Nes, who had lived with him since 2006, said by email. “He couldn’t read, walk, make music, and his concentration became worse.” Even so, she added: “He could paint! He painted very free paintings with pastel and gouache.”

His most recent professional endeavor was to encourage the Rijksmuseum to reconstruct pieces of Rembrandt’s monumental canvas “The Night Watch,” which had been cropped from the canvas in the early 18th century so that it could fit between two doors at the Amsterdam Town Hall.

Professor van de Wetering conceived of the idea and advised the museum from afar. He wasn’t well enough to participate.

In addition to Ms. van Nes, he is survived by two sons, Constantijn and Jonathan, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Dibbits said that Professor van de Wetering’s ultimate contribution to the field of old master studies was to encourage a generation of scholars, art dealers and curators to keep their eyes open. “He taught me to look,” he said, “and to look again, and never be satisfied with a simple conclusion.”

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