28 March 2012

Woburn Abbey unveils Rembrandt Masterpiece

A newly authenticated Rembrandt masterpiece has been revealed.

WA Rembrandt

Until recently the original oil painting entitled Portrait of an Old Man or The Old Rabbi had hung in a private room at the home of the 15th Duke and Duchess of Bedford.  On public display from 30th March, visitors to Woburn Abbey will have an unparalleled opportunity to view this ‘new’ Rembrandt up close.

Professor Ernst van de Wetering, acknowledged as a world authority on Rembrandt, was invited to Woburn last year to study the portrait.  His conclusion was that the quality and style of work proves it could only have been painted by the Dutch old master Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn.

Woburn Abbey General Manager Jonathan Irby said: “This is a discovery and a fine addition to the Abbey’s wonderful collection of Dutch art.
“We are very excited about bringing this exquisite painting into the public eye, especially since visitors will be able to get within a few inches of it.  The opportunity to discover a ‘new’ Rembrandt will provide an even more memorable day for our visitors in 2012.”

The first written reference to the painting in the Abbey records is in 1791, showing it was cleaned that year.  Along with two other portraits, it was initially accepted as a Rembrandt.  Over time studies of the three portraits resulted in uncertainty.  However, curatorial staff believed Portrait of an Old Man had virtues that made it stand out as something special.

As Professor van de Wetering has highlighted: “This painting is one of Rembrandt’s most impressive evocations of dignity in old age. The way the light makes the figure emerge from the dusky space and illuminates the wrinkled skin of the face, and the hands resting on a stick, makes it an outstanding specimen of Rembrandt’s art.”  It is therefore implied that this is more than a study of old age.  It is believed that the Woburn picture and a painting in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin (thought to be a portrait of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia) were intended as a pair.  Both were painted in 1643 on a mahogany panel taken from the same sugar case.  This along with the similarities of design and biblical style: the prominent hands each displaying a ring on the little finger, the black hat with fine decoration and the decorative chains has led to the suggestion from Professor van de Wetering that the pair are depicting the Old Testament biblical story of Boaz and Ruth.

Woburn Abbey’s outstanding art collection
Woburn Abbey has been the family home of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford for nearly 400 years and is currently the home of the 15th Duke and his family.  The Abbey houses one of the most important private art collections in the world with over 250 works by artists including Gainsborough, Reynolds, Van Dyck and Cuyp. 
The most popular painting in the collection is the iconic portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower in 1588.  Known as ‘The Armada Portrait’ it commemorates the great victorious sea battle the same year against the Spanish invasion fleet.  A statement of power and authority, Elizabeth is portrayed as Empress of the world and commander of the seas. 
The Dining Room at Woburn Abbey contains the largest private collection of Venetian views by Canaletto (1697 – 1768), being 21 paintings displayed in one room. The future Fourth Duke of Bedford visited Venice while on the Grand Tour in 1731 and the paintings were subsequently commissioned. These outstanding paintings remind us of the fascination of this beautiful city for the traveller.

2012 is the third year of the Woburn ArtBeat exhibition.   The village of Woburn and Woburn Abbey join together to promote high quality original art by transforming the village into an art gallery from the 6th April until the 27th April and a large contemporary outdoor sculpture exhibition in the gardens of Woburn Abbey from the 6th April until 31st August.  Works on display in the Abbey Gardens are by artists as varied as Maurice Blik, Philip Blacker, Nicolas Moreton, Paul Vanstone, Peter Randall-Page and William Peers.

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