The Dutch painter Rembrandt, born 400 years ago this year, was remarkably tolerant of imitators. He actively encouraged the practice among his students and profited by selling some of their output as authorised copies.
That habit has been the curse of art historians, who have been arguing for years about which works are authentic. The artist's frequent stylistic evolutions and experiments have also rendered the task of identifying originals painfully difficult.
The arguments seem certain to run for some time yet, judging by a new exhibition in which the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford concludes that four works dismissed as imitations by critics are in fact Rembrandt masterpieces.
Dr Christopher Brown, whose analysis of the works forms the basis of the exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London, delivers a withering critique of the Rembrandt specialists who have rejected them in the past.
One of the works, Good Samaritan (1633), was dismissed by the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), which has been classifying the artist's works since the 1960s. The work revealed an "execution so weak and the architectural details so insecure, that the painting must be considered an old copy after a lost original," the RRP said.
But after a discoloured varnish was removed from the piece in cleaning, a fluent, confident handling of the subject was exposed, plus a palette consistent with that period of Rembrandt's work and the monogram RHL (Rembrandt, son of Harmen, of Leiden).
The Wallace has been sanguine about the received wisdom on its collection of 12 "Rembrandts", bequeathed by Lady Wallace in the 19th century. In 1992, an exhibition at the museum curated by John Ingamells concluded that only one of the collection was a genuine Rembrandt. Seven were from his workshop, "produced under his eye", while two were adjudged to be by Rembrandt's early pupils, Flinck and Backer.
Dr Brown, whose findings are published in the December issue of the Apollo magazine, agrees with Ingamells that Titus, the Artist's Son was in the style of Rembrandt. But he also restores to the master the Self Portrait in a Black Cap which, despite its title, the RRP said in 1989 "cannot be regarded as authentic". The exhibition's commentary finds it to have been consistent with the more vigorous style Rembrandt was known for in the second half of the 1630s.
Also "restored" to the artist are the pendant portraits of Jean Pellicorne and his Son Casper and Susanna van Collen and her Daughter Anna. The first was attributed to Rembrandt's pupil Flinck and the portraits to an unknown pupil.
The Wallace Collection exhibition runs until 27 JanuaryReuse content