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In 2007 an English family decided to sell a small painting in their collection: an image of a man laughing with a label featuring the name Rembrandt. The work was initially attributed to a contemporary of Rembrandt, but scholarly analysis and scientific testing determined that it was indeed a Rembrandt. We visit the painting in the Getty Museum’s galleries with Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty, who reveals the mystery and magic behind this endearing self-portrait by one of the most eminent painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Rembrandt Laughing / Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Rembrandt Laughing, about 1628, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Oil on copper, 8 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.60

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Rembrandt Laughing, about 1628 artwork information


JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

ANNE WOOLLETT:  From the distance, even in the gallery, if you don’t know what the subject is, you see this moving line. This is a body in motion. So he’s laughing.

CUNO:  In this episode, I visit the galleries of the Getty Museum with curator Anne Woollett to talk about Rembrandt’s charming painted image of himself titled Rembrandt Laughing.

Rembrandt was a master of depicting human character. In about 1628, when he was just twenty-two years old, he painted a small picture on copper depicting a young man, in fact himself, tossing his head back and laughing. The charming and bravure painting shows Rembrandt in full command of his art at a very young age. What is equally interesting about the picture is that it was only recently discovered and convincingly attributed to the master. I joined Getty Museum curator Anne Woollett in the galleries where the picture hangs to talk about its history and what it tells us about Rembrandt at the start of his career.

WOOLLETT:  Well, Jim, this really has to be one of the most charming images in this room, and it’s also one of the smallest. It’s painted on a copper sheet, a very thin piece of copper, about the diameter of a piece of paper. And it shows a young man, bare-headed with long hair—in fact, a strand of hair coming down the right side of his neck as we look at him—leaning back and giving us a wonderful broad smile and a twinkle in his eye.

He’s dressed in a deep purple robe that we see is also surrounded by a rougher brown cape that wraps around him. And around his neck, very distinctively, is a polished metal gorget, which is a piece of armor.

CUNO:  And the kind of thing he would have in the studio, as a kind of prop.

WOOLLETT:  That’s it. [Cuno: Yeah] It was a—evidently, one of his most prized props. We see it in many paintings of this period. And in a way, it is his signature. It shows that he can paint this shiny metal surface with great fidelity.

CUNO:  Would it have been seen as a contemporary prop? Or was meant to be an historical thing, as if it were a century before, a biblical scene or something like that?

WOOLLETT:  It certainly has a timeless quality about it. I think it would’ve had contemporary associations, because of military actions in the Netherlands at the moment. Of course, the northern provinces of the Netherlands are fighting for their independence against [the] Spanish. But also it’s a fairly neutral and standard part of armor, and so could allude to something earlier [Cuno: Yeah] in the sixteenth century.

CUNO:  And the fact that it’s on copper is so interesting. How often did he paint on copper? Because this is a painting early in his career; he’s only twenty-two years old at this time. And it’s of a size from which one might make an etching. Is it an etching plate? And what—how often in his early career did he actually paint on copper?

WOOLLETT:  Rembrandt painted a handful of paintings on copper. He really appears to have enjoyed the properties that copper brought to the painting process. So it’s, of course, very hard. It’s a—probably a very wonderful feeling to paint on this smooth, hard surface. It’s a surface in which you can erase your brushstrokes, if you want to and you can also separate them as we see here. And he does both these things.

CUNO:  [over Woollett] Just by rubbing it off with a cloth? Rubbing out the paint—the fresh paint through—

WOOLLETT:  Just using your brushstrokes to blend, so that [Cuno: Yeah] things become a sort of smooth—almost as if the brush hasn’t touched the surface of the painting, is the idea. And this is something that Dutch artists in particular were famous for, this miraculous surface. But you’re quite right, because Rembrandt, in addition to being a very remarkable painter at an early age, was very active as a printmaker. So in his studio he was, at this moment, producing etched works of art, history scenes, biblical topics, smaller expressive heads, for example. And it’s very easy to imagine that he turned to the side in his studio and picked up an existing plate. This particular copper plate does not appear to have been prepared for etching. It does not have a subject already on it. But it does have another painting under the painting we see here. And that is a history scene. So he was thinking about this small format, this upright format, as a possible kind of compositional choice for a scene that seems to have had a couple of figures and some armor in it. Hard to tell exactly what he was going paint.

CUNO:  When he was—at this point in his career, he’s age twenty-two, he’s now in Amsterdam? Or where is he at this point?

WOOLLETT:  He is in his hometown of Leiden.

CUNO:  So what is career like at this point?

WOOLLETT:  I think at this point, the world is his oyster, in his mind. You know, he’s really trying to make a name for himself. I think we can rely on some contemporary commentary of about this moment. He was already known to critics. So Constantine Huygens, [Cuno: Yeah] who advised the stadholder, who was the ruler of the Netherlands, wrote about young Rembrandt and his friend Jan Lievens at this moment, essentially, distinguishing them, noting their ambition, noting that Rembrandt hadn’t gone to Italy yet.

CUNO:  Yeah.

WOOLLETT:  So Rembrandt is really, I think, looking at ways of coming up with subjects that are going to be interesting to potential buyers. And one of those subjects that he seems to really develop and make his own is the tronie. And tronie is a Dutch word. It means really—mug, actually is the slang—head. A character study, in essence, is what it was, based on a living person. In this case, the living person is himself. We sometimes refer to this painting as a self-portrait. But really it wasn’t, I think, intended as a formal representation of his likeness.

CUNO:  But we can say that because we have some confidence that what we’re looking at is the man himself? In other words, there are other images that are somehow identified as Rembrandt that we can associate this with?

WOOLLETT:  Certainly. Rembrandt spent a lot of time in front of the mirror. [she chuckles; Cuno: Yeah] We have a lot of paintings from the very earliest moments of his career—so from 1625, ’26, ’27; we’re here about circa 1628—that we know of are of him.

CUNO:  And we know that because they’re inscribed Rembrandt by Rembrandt, or—how do we know the original picture we were looking at was by the man, and from that picture, then we can identify the others as also of the man, by the man?

WOOLLETT:  [over Cuno] Same physiognomy. We have a sort of round-tipped nose, a little bit of a bulbous nose; very round, close-set eyes. But then really the physiognomy can differ. And this is where Rembrandt is very interesting for those of us trying to understand the early career. He modifies his features, you know, to create certain characters. And that’s what I think he’s doing here. So the main, the primary features of the head that we see here—the raised eyebrows, the nose, the eyes—really resemble other works that we know of Rembrandt. And I should say, too, some of those early so-called tronie self-portraits, it’s clear that this is someone who’s looking in the mirror. You know, they have a sort of fixed quality to them. [Cuno: Yeah] Unlike this piece, I should say.

CUNO:  You mentioned the term tronie, and that was a conventional term at the time, suggesting that it was also a conventional kind of painting of a figure study or a character study kind of painting. Is it the case that he was doing this in order to convince someone that he could do something else on a larger scale—a costume painting or a history painting? In other words, this wasn’t a painting being made for the market itself but to demonstrate to a patron. The patron could commission something from him on a scale that would be more elaborate than this one.

WOOLLETT:  You know, it could be that. One thing that Rembrandt seems to do at this early stage in his career is convey the impact of a larger subject on a small scale. That was kind of his specialty. So although this is really something that you can hold in your hands, and maybe as with some other works on copper we can think of, one might’ve held it in fact—you might’ve had someone over for dinner and afterward, looked at your art collection and handed them your most precious works of art or pieces of nature—this kind of thing could work like that. But indeed, as you say, it has some of the hallmarks of an historical subject, particularly in the costume. So Rembrandt is showing in particular that he has this wonderful command of technique here. We can really see the different materials in this painting. But I think also he’s doing something that is, in fact, a step outside the norm. And the tronie theme or concept is something I think modern art historians find convenient to kind of describe these somewhat liminal works that are both from life and yet imagined.

Here, Rembrandt is, in a way, capitalizing perhaps on his small-town fame, if you will, at this moment, something that, you know, maybe someone would want a painting that resembled an artist, a known artist. But he’s also embodying a broader concept and this concept of laughter, which is really not something that we see very frequently in Dutch painting at this moment. And it’s something we only see twice in Rembrandt’s whole oeuvre that survives—here at the Getty—

CUNO:  [over Woollett] A laughing person only twice?

WOOLLETT:  [over Cuno] Yes. Only twice.

CUNO:  [over Woollett] In a very long life, in a very big car— [Woollett: Yes] big oeuvre?

WOOLLETT:  [over Cuno] The beginning and the end, that’s it. [Cuno: Gosh] Yes.

CUNO:  That doesn’t make for such a jolly professional experience. [they laugh]

WOOLLETT:  Well, you know, it’s hard to show someone in a state of hilarity or joy but also be decorous. So there’s an informality that comes with humor. And [Cuno: Yeah] I think that’s what—Rembrandt is actually treading a very interesting line here, because he’s using a more open and free style of brushwork in certain parts of this painting, which sometimes feel informal, [Cuno: Yeah] compared with other more finished areas.

CUNO:  Yeah.


CUNO:  Well, tell us about his career. So he’s age twenty-two. How long has he been painting by this time, and how did he start painting? With whom did he study, as it were, to do work as a young painter? And is he now independent, at this point, of that master with whom he worked?

WOOLLETT:  Yes. So I think at this point, he is independent. We should say he was born in Leiden, in 1606, the ninth of ten children. Leiden, a really vibrant commercial center with a very old university. He attends Latin school and he attends some years at Leiden University also. He has a very good education, essentially. And he trains initially with a local painter, van Swanenburgh, who is a Dutch artist that spent some time in Italy and then came home to specialize in scenes of hell, [they laugh] interestingly.

CUNO:  Couldn’t have painted those in Italy; had to come home to paint those paintings, yeah.

WOOLLETT:  [over Cuno] Had to come home to paint hell. And you know, in fact, there’s nothing about van Swanenburgh’s manner painting that we’ve really picked up in Rembrandt, particularly. And then there’s a period of time where we don’t really have any precise idea of how he’s making his decisions. We have no documents. This one thing that’s a little bit interesting about Rembrandt’s career, compared with some other artists.

But about 1625, ’26, he goes to Amsterdam for six months, to study with the great history painter, Pieter Lastman, another Dutch artist who spent time in Italy, a great master of narrative and also of color. A very expressive way of painting. And this has a huge impact on Rembrandt. So Rembrandt comes back to Leiden after that experience. And this is about the point where we see him now. He’s been painting probably independently for a couple of years. We don’t know—

CUNO:  [over Woollett] Successfully? I mean, he’s had commissions or he’s sold pictures?

WOOLLETT:  We think so, yes. [Cuno: Yeah] There’s a good group of biblical subjects and a growing array of works on paper. And the painting that we see here with this beautiful expression really fits into what seems to be an exploration of emotional states that he carried out through the graphic medium. So lots of small heads, essentially his own visage, smirking and frowning and smiling and laughing.

CUNO:  You mean in the graphic medium, [inaudible]?

WOOLLETT:  [over Cuno] In the gra—yes.

CUNO:  [over Woollett] Yeah. So it drawings and etchings?

WOOLLETT:  Yes. [Cuno: Yeah, yeah] Yes, absolutely delightful. And really, clear preparation, it would seem for a future career as a history painter. That’s, of course, the top. That’s the top league there. That’s where you want to be, and that’s where he will soon be in only a couple of years.

CUNO:  Uh-huh. I think I know that there are two so-called self-portraits or pictures of the artist in some format like the one we’re looking at, that might be a character study of something, of the same times, when he’s twenty-two years old—1916, ’28. [Woollett: Mm-hm] So that means that this is among the very earliest paintings he painted? Or what does that mean, that we have only one other self-portrait painted at the same year? How early is this in his career?

WOOLLETT:  I think this is the third or the fourth self-representation in painting, [Cuno: Oh, right, uh-huh] probably, that we might separate like that. Although we have to say that with the assembly of the allegories of the Senses, which date from about 1624, ’25, we may have a self-representation in one of those, included amongst the figures [Cuno: Oh, right] in those paintings. [Cuno: Right] But yes, indeed, this is really the first phase of his career. And we see rapid development in that period of time. This is quite different from those early Senses, which are very ambitious, with very tiny, very close compositions, vivid colors, big contrasts in light and shadow. This is actually quite a sophisticated picture, where he is showing us his ability to convey light a cross different surfaces, amongst other things. And also I think quite remarkably and very differently from what we might call a pure self-portrait. He is capturing a transient state.

So you know, a laugh is a very immediate and kind of ephemeral thing. One of the things I really love about this painting is how the contour that we see as we look at the painting on the right—so the far contour of his left part of his body—undulates. And from the distance, even in the gallery, if you don’t know what the subject is, you see this moving line. This is a body in motion. So he’s laughing.

CUNO:  So there is a convention by which a laughing figure would be paired with a sad figure. And I know there’s a kind of Roman precedent for this or something. Tell us what that is, and then also tell us whether you suspect that there might have been, or might have been intended to be, a sad figure to pair with this one.

WOOLLETT:  One of the very popular subjects in the Netherlands at this time were the two philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus. And Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher. And he had this sunny outlook on life. His philosophy of life was a positive one. And Heraclitus was a philosopher who lived somewhat earlier, who was more melancholic, who was shown in paintings as weeping. So the pair made this wonderful kind of bookends of philosophic kind of view of life, and gave great opportunity to show very focused expression, essentially, of the two extremes, joy and sadness.

This painting, in some ways, does share the characteristics we find in other works of around the mid-1620s of Democritus, this excuse to show a figure laughing, which is very difficult, a real challenge to artists. And in fact, one of the previous owners of this painting—I believe an eighteenth century French owner—wrote on the back of this copper panel in ink, an excerpt from his copy of The Philosophers, History of the Philosophers he had on his desk, the passage about Democritus laughing at the folly of mankind.

CUNO:  Uh-huh.

WOOLLETT:  So he felt that it was probably Democritus. However, the convention in the Netherlands was usually to show the laughing philosopher Democritus with a globe. [Cuno: Hm] We don’t see that here. We also have some elements here that are more in common with some of Rembrandt’s current ideas about soldiers, perhaps, and the associated aspects of fortitude; and sort of a moment in the Netherlands when it is in war with Spain and it is showing its own self-courage and its self-reliance.

CUNO:  Uh-huh.

WOOLLETT:  So that’s one possible reading of the metal collar here, the allusion to being a soldier and to being a Dutchman.

CUNO:  Yeah. So you mentioned about a prior history of the painting—that is, ownership history of the painting. Tell us about that ownership history and how it is that it came to be in—come to our collection.

WOOLLETT:  It was an extremely exciting moment in 2007 when an English family in the west part of the country decided they wanted to sell a small painting in their collection. And it was framed and had a little nameplate on the frame that said Rembrandt. And they did due diligence. They sent images of the painting to various experts to help them determine whether it could be by Rembrandt. And they were told it was a very nice seventeenth century Dutch painting. And so it was put into the 2007 auction in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, along with many other types of more regular item[s]. But it was also such a beautiful, compelling, and charming image that the auction house very cleverly put it on the cover of the catalogue, and so it caught the attention of the art experts in London. And some of those art dealers decided they wanted to potentially pursue this work and see if it could be an important picture associated with Rembrandt, or even perhaps by Rembrandt, and they came to the auction.

CUNO:  Isn’t there a Rembrandt Project which is sort of endeavors to identify every Rembrandt painting, and then it also endeavors to distinguish those between looking like Rembrandt and actually by Rembrandt and so on? Was this not documented by the Rembrandt Project?

WOOLLETT:  That’s right, the Rembrandt Research Project, which has been running since the 1960s and combines experts with art historical expertise in Rembrandt with scientific analysis and study. And no, this painting was not [Cuno: Just not known to them, huh?] included in their study. Not known to them. Although the main expert and scholar who researched this picture, once it had emerged into the public purview, is Ernst van de Wetering, who’s the head of that project.

CUNO:  [over Woollett] Yeah. I see.

WOOLLETT:  In any case, it sold after some competitive bidding, but not for what would be considered a Rembrandt price. But the purchaser really wanted to take a risk. They felt that the quality was evident, and they wanted to know more. Could it be Rembrandt?

In fact, the cleaning revealed something pretty immediately. And that is a beautiful set of initials in the upper left corner, which are painted in the wet paint. It’s a little bit tricky for us looking in the gallery, but the image that we have on our website and online is very clear. The initials RHL, interlaced and in a format that was very specific to about this moment. And we can thank Ernst van de Wetering for having kind of created a chronology of those signatures. So it stands for Rembrandt Harmenszoon, son of Harmen, Leidensis.

CUNO:  Yeah.

WOOLLETT:  So that’s very exciting.

CUNO:  And in the other images of Rembrandt of himself, using himself in the character study, from the same time, do they also have the same initials?

WOOLLETT:  In slightly different forms, yes. Yes. So it helps us kind of put them into an order, if you will, as best we may.

CUNO:  Yeah. So it was a great surprise then, this painting coming onto the market, and then coming onto the market and being proven to be by Rembrandt, rather than in the circle of Rembrandt?

WOOLLETT:  Just the greatest surprise and really a great joy. It was a painting that immediately captured everyone’s imagination. It’s very unusual. It’s very personable. And it took some time for the various researchers, scientific and curatorial researches, to have access to it and to really get to know it. But the signature made a big difference. And also just the unbelievably accomplished facture. The brushwork is remarkable. There really cannot be anyone else responsible for this piece. Then of course, realizing through various technical imaging tools—infrared reflectography, XRF scanning—ah, there’s a composition underneath. Very, very Rembrandt process. So it was about six years, really, between the appearance and sale of this work at auction and the time that it entered our collection.

CUNO:  Yeah. And when it came up to auction in the West Country in Britain, was there an unbroken history back in the seventeenth century, but just not—the authorship of the painting was lost? Or was there a history that was disrupted, and there were times in which it was lost and we didn’t even know the physical whereabouts of the painting?

WOOLLETT:  Well, unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of seventeenth century Dutch paintings, we may not know the initial stage of its life. And I am surmising an eighteenth century French ownership, based on the style of the writing on the back, [Cuno: I see] and the date of the book of philosophers that seems to be paraphrased. [she chuckles; Cuno: Uh-huh] And then there’s really a gap until it emerges out of the English collection. But between the eighteenth century ownership and that English ownership, a print was made by a Flemish printmaker in about 1830, I believe, [Lambertus Antonius] Claessens, of this painting. [Cuno: Oh, uh-huh] So it’s somewhere, I think, in a prominent French collection. But Claessens didn’t associate this work with Rembrandt; he thought it was Franz Hals.

CUNO:  Oh, right.

WOOLLETT:  And he thought that, presumably, because the most famous paintings of this type are by Franz Hals—very small scale, very quickly and energetically executed. Works of young children laughing. You know, [Cuno: Uh-huh] the teeth and the—and the big smiles and—that’s very much associated with the Franz Hals mode. And the brushwork and the smile probably really suggested that to Claessens.

CUNO:  I see, I see.

WOOLLETT:  But it does occur in some Rembrandt literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a work that is not known as a painting, but that is known indirectly through this print source.

CUNO:  Well, now, as a specialist in Dutch painting, as you are, is this the first time you’ve had a chance to be involved in a purchase for a collection of a recently discovered Rembrandt painting? Is this a great moment for you?

WOOLLETT:  It was an absolutely thrilling moment. And it remains a thrilling process to understand better what Rembrandt is doing here, both in the image that we see on the top and the underlying image, which is a mystery history subject, and to put together the pieces of its history. Because I think actually, it probably had a very illustrious history as a prized object. It’s in beautiful condition. It was treated very well throughout its life.

CUNO:  Yeah. Well, it’s a fantastic picture and it’s a compelling story, so thank you, Anne, very much.

WOOLLETT:  Thank you, Jim.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

ANNE WOOLLETT:  From the distance, even in the gallery, if you don’t know what the subject is, ...

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