This week, a long-concealed self-portrait of Rembrandt is set to return to The Hague. From Tuesday 29 November onwards, it will be on display in Escher in The Palace, which was home to it from 1850 to 1894, when the palace belonged successively to Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands and his sister Great Duchess Sophie. The painting has not been seen in the Netherlands since 1898 – for nearly 125 years – and has not even been on public display since 1967. The self-portrait is being given a unique spot among the famous self-portraits by Dutch printmaker M.C. Escher, whose work has been on display in the palace since 2002. The Rembrandt will be exhibited here until 29 January 2023.
This unique event is the result of recent research into the painting’s history by Rembrandt specialist Gary Schwartz. Schwartz drew on numerous unpublished documents in the Royal House Archive, the archives of the American and German governments, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, German courts, as well as private correspondence between Hereditary Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and the German-American Rembrandt specialist Jakob Rosenberg. In his publication Rembrandt in a Red Beret – The Vanishings and Reappearances of a Self-portrait, Schwartz reconstructs the adventures of this significant work.
The painting first surfaced in 1823, when it was purchased in Brussels by the future King Willem II of the Netherlands (1792-1849). The work was relocated to The Hague in 1839, after which it hung in the newly constructed Gothic Hall of nearby Kneuterdijk Palace from 1842 onwards. The death of Willem II resulted in 1850 in the break-up of his outstanding art collection through auction. And yet the self-portrait did not go very far. It ended up in Lange Voorhout Palace, which belonged to Willem Frederik Hendrik (1820-1879), Prince of Orange, known as Hendrik the Seaman. The painting remained here for at least 35 years, most likely 44 years.
Its subsequent history reads like a detective novel. After being bequeathed within the royal family to Hendrik’s sister, Princess Sophie (1824-1897), the work was taken to the German city of Weimar, where she was Grand Duchess. There it remained until 1921, when it was stolen from the Weimar Museum. It was missing until 1945, when it suddenly resurfaced in the USA.
The American government seized the self-portrait and sent it back to Germany in 1967 with the intention of having it returned to the museum in Weimar. Once in Germany, it was successfully claimed by an heiress of the last Grand Duke, Hereditary Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1912-2010). Once again, the canvas disappeared from public view. Until now, 55 years on.
Attribution to Rembrandt
It was taken for granted that the painting was a genuine Rembrandt until 1969, when a German-Dutch art historian Horst Gerson suggested that it might be by or in imitation of Ferdinand Bol. Although Gary Schwartz maintains that no Bol expert has ever entertained this idea, the Rembrandt Research Project did actually take it seriously. Gary Schwartz: ‘Doubts about who produced the painting were fuelled by the damage sustained by the self-portrait after it was stolen in Weimar. Incompetent overpainting misled people as to the work’s quality. Comprehensive new technological research work carried out by the renowned Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft in Zürich has revealed that only the face is work by the original painter. And anyone looking at that face will struggle to regard it as anything other than a self-portrait by the master himself’. In his new publication, Rembrandt in a red beret – The vanishings and reappearances of a self-portrait, Gary Schwartz argues that the work deserves to be acknowledged as by the master himself. He interrogates and refutes objections to accepting the painting for what it appears to be, a Rembrandt self-portrait.