Recently, The Netherlands and France pulled funds together in order to acquire a rare pair of portraits by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn for a total of 160 million euros! The two countries are said to have diffused a potential bidding war over the two full-length portraits of a young couple – Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit – painted in 1634 to mark their wedding.
The portraits were rarely seen by the public and belonged to the Rothschild banking family, who had reportedly owned it since 1877. As there are, apparently, little over ten of Rembrandt’s paintings still in private hands, this is a very rare acquisition.
I find it reassuring that two countries with such a proud and rivalling artistic heritage can join forces to make these paintings accessible to the public. The portraits are to be shared between the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre, with each institution owning half of each painting. This way these portraits will not be separated. The husband and wife can remain together, just as Rembrandt (and the couple) intended. Heart-warming.
This is what I mean by keeping the stories alive. These portraits were commissioned as a double marriage portrait, designed to be displayed together. Often such compositions ‘talked to each other’. In other words, there may have been a repeated element or a colour connecting them, a symbol recurring in both portraits, something to identify the roles of the new husband and wife, or intentional positioning of the figures as if in conversation with each other from their separate frames. To add to that, each wealthy family, capable of commissioning a full-length marriage portrait, had its own history and its own impact on the artist’s life. These portraits would have been a part of hugely productive years in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam career after his move from his home town of Leiden. They also remind us of a rising middle class in The Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, when art of painting flourished, and the numbers of painters were growing at astonishing rates. By keeping these portraits together, France and The Netherlands are preserving the historic unity of these works.
I like to harp on about the value of old art (or classic art, whichever way you like to put it). But it is important to acknowledge the innovators of every time period, not just in our current 21st century. When I was little, every time Rembrandt was mentioned, my mum had that tone in her voice – like he was someone to be respected and admired. I didn’t know any of his paintings then, but I knew that attention must be paid.
At one stage over 600 paintings were attributed to the artist, following his prolific and highly productive career. He had numerous students and assistants, who produced a multitude of work, first under his name, and then as artists in their own right. In 1968, this led to the establishment of Rembrandt Research Project – a group dedicated at identifying the works completed by Rembrandt himself from those completed in collaborations or by hands of assistant/students. Their catalogue halved the number of works attributed to Rembrandt.
Now, considering the astronomical prices of his paintings, this is a seriously hot topic! In 2010, three works by Rembrandt were on the market: Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet (1633) valued at $32 million dollars, Minerva in Her Study (1635) with asking price of $45 million, and a more recent Apostle James the Major (1661) offered for $41 million. More recently, ArtNet news reported an auction sell of Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting at Bloomfield, New Jersey auction house: the painting valued at $800 was sold after a phone bid battle for $870,000! What sparked the battle? The speculation by experts that this was in fact an early Rembrandt. So yes – hot topic.
While I am not a connoisseur, I am delighted at the opportunity to see the largely unseen pair of Rembrandt’s 1634 portraits, in Paris or Amsterdam. Heck, I love both of these cities – separated only by a 3-hour train journey!