Joslyn Art Museum Unveils Rembrandt
What's Pictured: (Left) Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Portrait of Dirck van Os, ca. 1658, oil on canvas, Museum Purchase, 1942.30. Photograph by René Gerritsen.

At a lecture and luncheon event on Monday, May 5, Joslyn Art Museum unveiled its newly conserved Rembrandt painting, Portrait of Dirck van Os (ca. 1658). Recently returned from Holland following extensive conservation, this popular favorite of the Joslyn collection, acquired by the museum in 1942, has now been definitively attributed to the hand of Rembrandt by Ernst van der Wetering, the leading Dutch authority on the artist.

Over the centuries, Rembrandt’s portrait of Dirck van Os was subject to additions painted after the artist’s time, as well as conservation efforts that obscured its original appearance. Following treatment by conservator Martin Bijl, the former head of conservation at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the canvas has been carefully conserved in a manner consistent with its original appearance. Removal of layers of varnish and embellishments added by later artists gave van der Wetering the confidence to attribute this engaging and compassionate portrait to Rembrandt.

The conservation of Joslyn’s Rembrandt has been generously supported by the Joslyn Art Museum Association, with additional funding provided by the Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.

Support for the Revealing Rembrandt Lecture Luncheon event provided by Stacy and Bruce Simon and Omaha Steaks. Over 200 guests were on hand to see the painting and hear a lecture by Alison Kettering of Carleton College, a specialist in Dutch painting and Rembrandt portraiture.

Prior to its conservation, Portrait of Dirck van Os was last on public view at the Museum in December 1999. It will be viewable by the general public for the first time since its conservation beginning on Tuesday, May 6, and will remain on view indefinitely.

The Subject of Joslyn’s Painting: Who was Dirck van Os?

Dirck van Os III (1590–1668) was a prominent Dutch citizen and respected dijkgraaf or mayor of the Beemster, a municipality built upon land reclaimed from a former lake. Using windmills, canals, and a ring of dikes, Dirck van Os’ enterprising father (Dirck van Os II, 1556–1615) drained a large area north of Amsterdam to create the Beemster in 1612. The elder van Os financed the engineering project with the huge fortune he amassed in banking and as a founder of the Dutch East India Company.

The younger van Os earned considerable respect in his own right. Over the course of his lengthy governance of the Beemster (1618–1666), Prince Maurits awarded him the title of Lieutenant Forester, and Holland’s most famous poet, Joost van den Vondel, praised van Os as a wise and experienced “ox” — a reference to his last name — overseeing an Arcadian land.

Rembrandt and Dutch Portraiture

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) was the most acclaimed painter of the Dutch Golden Age, an era marked by Holland’s prominence in trade, global exploration, science, and art. Portraiture sprang to life as a new class of prosperous citizens desired likenesses to hang in fashionable mansions, and civic and professional organizations commissioned life-size group portraits to commemorate their roles as members of the Dutch Republic. Rembrandt garnered fame for his profound ability to express mood and feeling in his portraits and historical and religious paintings, although his inventiveness as a draftsman and printmaker is equally notable.

The son of a miller, Rembrandt was born in the university town of Leiden and moved to Amsterdam around 1632, where he worked for the remainder of his career. The city pulsed with intellectual curiosity — wondrous goods arrived in port daily, as did accounts of an ever-expanding world. Scientists studied natural phenomena, and philosophers challenged long-held beliefs, seeking new ways to find meaning in existence. Rembrandt’s genius stemmed from a similar impulse to understand and express man’s place in a changing world. Acknowledged as one of the most distinguished portraitists in European art, the impact of Rembrandt’s style comes from his perpetual interest in observing directly from nature and exploring new possibilities of expression. His early years in Amsterdam were incredibly prosperous. Newly married to Saskia van Uylenburgh, many young artists came to study in Rembrandt’s studio, and commissions flowed in from princes and wealthy burghers. Shedding the static, idealized poses favored during the Renaissance, his keen appreciation of the subtleties of expression, gesture, and emotion reveal the personality and likeness of his sitters far beyond their physical appearance — Rembrandt’s portraits stand out because they so readily capture us and draw us in.

In his day, Rembrandt was popular, innovative, and at times, controversial. He was renowned for his ability to capture psychological moments and suggest the inner complexities coursing beneath his sitter’s outward appearance. In quick chalk drawings, leisurely sketches, and numerous prints, Rembrandt captured endless varieties of pose and form, but also subtle, fleeting passages of mood and spirit, often turning to himself as a subject. Although criticized for not making the requisite journey to Italy to study classical models, Rembrandt was acutely aware of Renaissance masters like Titian, Raphael, and Caravaggio, and emulated his predecessors’ use of color, light, and shadow. Inherently an innovator, Rembrandt stepped beyond older models by reducing compositional elements and amplifying the expressive potential of his paintings with the bold twist of a brushstroke, the tactile presence of paint, and the looming power of negative space. Masterful and forward-thinking, Rembrandt’s style feels almost modern to audiences today.

The period when Rembrandt created this portrait of Dirck van Os saw a profound shift in the artist’s life. The
artist was struck by a number of personal hardships, beginning with the death of his wife in 1642, and persisting after legal and financial troubles forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. Rembrandt’s early fame tangled with changing tastes, but the works he produced between 1656 and his death in 1669 are also recognized as his most bold and evocative. Distilling narrative elements, Rembrandt used an increasingly expressive brushstroke to experiment with texture, formal abstraction, and emotional intensity. Dirck van Os’ aging face and downcast eyes suggest solemn introspection. Although he holds a cane, his careful posture conveys quiet authority, making us question whether this is a fragile old man, a resilient commander, or both. Rendered in a manner that is insightful and empathetic, Rembrandt instills in his likeness an expectant tension. The evocative quality of Dirck van Os’ expression and the careful modeling of his features glow softly against the heavily-shadowed background, exemplifying Rembrandt’s genius as a portraitist.

The Conservation and Attribution of Joslyn’s Rembrandt

Joslyn’s portrait of Dirck van Os underwent many generations of changes since it was originally painted more than 350 years ago. To return this masterpiece as close to its original condition as possible, the painting was sent to Amsterdam in March 2012 for treatment by Martin Bijl, one of the most experienced and respected conservators of Dutch paintings. The former head of restoration at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Bijl now collaborates with the Bijl-van Urk gallery in Amsterdam, which specializes in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings.

He has conserved over 20 Rembrandts in his career, as well as works by Jan Lievens, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Jacob van Ruisdael, and many other masters of the Dutch
Golden Age of Painting.
What's pictured: (Right) Joslyn's Rembrandt prior to conservation.

Bijl sought not only to repair existing damage but also to remove or hide areas of over painting that had clearly been added in other handsover the years. Embellishments to van Os’ costume were probably carried out in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, including lace added to the sitter’s collar and on his right cuff, a ribbon added to his cane, and a chain with a cross. Gold-colored ends were added to the sleeves, as were other parts of the costume, such as gold buttons that were painted over the original deep purple buttons. Significantly, a large coat of arms was also added in the top right corner with an inscription, a common practice when the identity of the sitter was at risk of being forgotten.

These elements of Dirck van Os’ dress were considered to be later additions for several reasons: they were atypical for Rembrandts style, they appeared to be painted in an awkward fashion, and they were historically inaccurate to the fashion of period the portrait was originally painted, in particular the lace additions to the collar and the cuffs. Research confirmed that these decorative elements were painted on top of dried paint, and that the quality of white lead in the paint used for these additions did not exist in the seventeenth century.

Old layers of varnish were first removed with alcohol, and all modern retouching from previous conservations was removed. The coat of arms in the upper corner and the improvements to van Os’ dress – considered to be of possible historic value – were not removed. Following this process, the surface of the canvas was carefully retouched under magnification, using what remained of the original paint as a guide. Bijl was able to determine with certainty that the portrait originated in Rembrandt’s workshop because ground quartz was found in the background layer of paint, a practice exclusive to his studio. To return the portrait to its appearance in Dirck van Os’ time, the later additions to his clothing were retouched with paint of the same color as the original background. Following this, all old damage and missing areas on the painting’s surface were carefully retouched under magnification, using what remained of the original paint as a guide.

During the conservation, the characteristics and qualities of the original areas of the canvas became more clearly evident. On the basis of those original passages, most especially in the face of the sitter, ample evidence was preserved to support the attribution of the painting to Rembrandt. Ernst van der Wetering pointed to the relation between brushwork, color, and illusion in the face as characteristic of Rembrandt’s own hand, as well as the rendering of the facial features and hair of the sitter, firmly attributing Joslyn’s portrait to the great Dutch Master.

The painting returned to Joslyn in September 2013, where it remained in the vaults until today. Portrait of Dirck van Os will be included in van der Wetering’s definitive publication surveying Rembrandt’s oeuvre. Five volumes of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings have already been completed as part of van der Wetering’s Rembrandt Research Project, begun in 1968 with the aim of separating Rembrandt’s own paintings from the vast number of Rembrandtesque paintings made by his many apprentices and followers. A relatively small number of Rembrandt paintings (possibly as few as 40 or 50) exist outside of Europe in US Museum collections. In the US, the museums housing the most notable collections of Rembrandt paintings include Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The museums in closest proximity to Joslyn with one Rembrandt painting in each of their collections are The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City), Art Institute of Chicago, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

On View Again in Joslyn’s Galleries

The Portrait of Dirck van Os is on view in a special installation in the Hitchcock Gallery (gallery 3) at Joslyn Art Museum. Illustrated text panels describe the complex conservation of the painting and the details of its attribution. Rembrandt’s painting is flanked by other great Dutch artworks from the permanent collection, including the evocative Jacob van Es Still Life (1630) and a second recently-conserved painting, Landscape with Waterfall (1665-75), by Jacob van Ruisdael, as well as a selection of prints by Rembrandt and other seventeenth-century Dutch artists.