After a CSI-style investigation and restoration spanning eight years, the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague has declared that one of its star paintings really is by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.
The announcement should end years of is-it-or-isn't-it debate about whether "Saul and David" was a real Rembrandt.
Researchers used advanced X-ray techniques to peer through several coats of paint that had been applied during previous restorations and establish that the original pigments were the same as those Rembrandt used in the 17th century. Paint sampling showed that the primer used was typical of Rembrandt's studio in the 1650s and 1660s.
"We've taken off all these layers now you can actually see the original paint again and then there's no doubt."
- Restorer Carol Pottasch
For decades, there was no question. A former director of the museum in The Hague, Abraham Bredius, bought the painting more than a century ago, but in the late 1960s Rembrandt expert Horst Gerson cast doubt on who actually painted the Biblical scene of King Saul using a curtain to dab a tear from his eye while David, kneeling below the king, plucks the strings of a harp.
Restorer Carol Pottasch said it was no surprise that Gerson questioned who painted the oil-on-canvas work, because previous restorations had added so much paint.
"I guess that was the biggest problem that he faced. He couldn't see a painting by Rembrandt because there was no painting to see," she said Tuesday. "And now we've taken off all these layers now you can actually see the original paint again and then there's no doubt."
Now newly re-attributed to Rembrandt, the painstakingly restored canvas is the centerpiece of an exhibition opening Thursday and running through Sept. 13 that goes into forensic detail on how the museum unraveled the mystery of who painted "Saul and David."
Part of the team that confirmed the attribution was renowned Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering.
Like many crime-scene investigations, the Mauritshuis probe had to deal with a "victim" that had suffered much abuse. Cut up, painted over and faded over time, "Saul and David" even had part of another painting stuck into its top right-hand corner.
"Before the painting was treated, before it was cleaned, it became clear that the painting had been overpainted a number of times, that the painting had discolored, that its original dimensions had been changed in the past," said Joris Dik of Delft Technical University, whose high-tech scans helped establish the painting's authenticity and guide restorers. "It's been really treated brutally, this painting, in multiple past restoration campaigns."
Emilie Gordenker, the director of Mauritshuis, said the investigation turned up plenty of surprises. Peering through the paint, experts saw a canvas that almost resembled a jigsaw puzzle.
"The analysis helped us to determine that the painting is in fact made up of 15 different pieces of canvas; three main parts — the Saul, the David, and an insert of a copy of an old painting in the upper right corner plus strips all around the edges. So it's a real patchwork," she said.
It remains unclear why the painting was carved up in the past.
One result is that the painting now hanging in pride of place in the Mauritshuis exhibition — "Rembrandt? The case of Saul and David" — is smaller than Rembrandt's original.
But, in keeping with the high-tech nature of the investigation, the museum also commissioned a 3D printed version of the painting in its original size that visitors can touch to get a true feel for the Dutch master's brush strokes.
Director Gordenker said the museum did not set out to prove that the painting was indeed a Rembrandt.
"In fact, we only came to the conclusion about a month ago," Gordenker said. "We would have been happy to do this show and come to the conclusion it wasn't (a Rembrandt)."