A few years back when my wife and I were in New Orleans, and I was pleasantly hammered on absinth, she walked and I staggered into an antique shop in the French Quarter. Honestly, bringing me into a shop with very old, very breakable things in that condition was a questionable choice on her part. And so was asking the salesman if I could hold the violin that I saw laying on the counter. But I have a thing for violins.
Ages ago, back in my teen years, I came pretty close to pursuing a career in violin performance. It was a toss-up between that and writing. My musical love was the Gavotte en Rondeau of Bach Partita III, a delicate and cheery bit of music when properly played. When I played it, it sounded like an elephant trying very hard to dance a ballet. But I could eek out the melody, and that made me so happy.
Until, it is, I walked by a room where another kid my age was playing that piece at a violin competition, and he was just slaying it in front of the judges. And in that instant, I knew I would never have what it takes to make it as a violin performer. A music teacher, maybe, but that’s not what I wanted. My vision for the future was crushed. I rushed to the bathroom and had something of a nervous breakdown. I think every kid who has considered a career in the arts and then realized almost had what it takes — but not quite — has had a moment like that.
Anyway. There I was years later in the French Quarter, the antique store gently spinning under the influence of absinth as I held the antique instrument. It wasn’t playable — strings were missing, the bridge was cracked and the bow had lost half its hairs. So I just inspected it, rolled it around in my hands, peered through its F-hole into its belly.
“You’ll need to reset the soundpost,” I told the merchant.
I showed him the wooden post inside the instrument that had become dislodged and was now precariously tipped at an angle, ready to fall over flat.
“And you know, it’s not a Stradivarius,” I added.
The disappointment on his face told me he, in fact, did not know. And I knew why. A label pasted directly under the F-hole proclaimed the instrument as a Strad, but so what. The beginner’s violin I learned on had the same label, as did nearly every factory-made violin from the mid-1800s to about 1890, when a new law required a country of origin to be identified on imported products.
I explained all that as I passed the factory-made violin back to him, but I could tell he doubted the word of someone who looked and perhaps sounded suspiciously tipsy.
People who know stringed instruments know all about the Strad scam. People who find old violins in attics and under grandma’s bed do not. Proprietors of stringed instrument stores are sick to death of people calling them up to appraise a new Stradivarius they found at a garage sale and wish people would just stop it already.
Truly, great works of art aren’t just found hiding in the open.
Except for when they are.
New life for an old master
I’ve thought a bit about that exchange in the French Quarter lately when it came to light that a “new” Rembrandt painting has been found hiding in plain sight. The painting, a portrait of an unnamed young woman, has been among the collection of the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania since 1961. At that time, it was added to the museum’s collection as a Rembrandt— and it certainly looked the part.
Seven years later, though, an organization called the Rembrandt Research Project declared that it was not a Rembrandt after all. The portrait lacked the brush strokes that were the definitive sign of a Rembrandt work, and the woman’s garments appeared to be too murky. It was decided that the work was not done by the hand of Rembrandt himself, but one of his students or apprentices in his workshop. So it wasn’t Rembrandt, but perhaps Rembrandt-adjacent.
The painting was one of many downgraded by the Rembrandt Research Project. Before it went to work, there were an estimated 600-650 Rembrandt paintings in the world. When it was finished, they had knocked the number of verified Rembrandts down to about 250.
The Allentown Art Museum still hung onto their painting, even though it had fallen from grace somewhat. And they still cared for it enough to send it out for restoration in 2018. That’s when everything changed.
Don’t try to improve a masterpiece!
Once art restoration professionals got their hands on the work of art, they were in for a shock. Not only did they have to remove the usual dirt and grime that accumulates over the years, but layer after layer (after layer after layer) of varnish that had been added “to improve” on what was already there.
It seems that whoever owned the painting in the 1920s wasn’t a fan of Rembrandt’s distinctive rough brush strokes, and thought that they could make the painting better if they just glossed over them. A lot.
“It was the fashion, in the 1920s, to not see any texture,” (art restorer Shan) Kuang told told CNN when discussing the surface of the painting and how it had been altered over the years. “We call it a ‘mirrored surface’—people wanted to see their reflection, which is really counter to what a Rembrandt should look like. The restorer was so frustrated building up the layers of varnish to make the texture disappear, that he actually poured it on. It was the consistency of molasses, and you could actually see the drip marks.”
Once the team of restorers carefully peeled away all that garbage, they were shocked to see that what remained was, in fact, the genuine article: a real Rembrandt.
“Portrait of a Young Woman” was painted in 1632. Rembrandt would have been about 26-years-old, and he would have just moved to Amsterdam the year before. He was still two years away from marrying Saskia, who would feature in so many of his paintings. He still had so many great works and such a full life ahead of him at that point.
The Allentown Art Museum will have the restored painting on display starting June 7.