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Rembrandt replacement in Royal Palace Amsterdam an exalted party decoration

For centuries a sombre painting of more than five by five metres has hung in one of the galleries of the Royal Palace Amsterdam. NWO researcher Margriet van Eikema Hommes discovered together with art restorer Emilie Froment that the mysterious work was never created to hang in the hall for hundreds of years. Their technical research revealed that Rembrandt’s pupil Govert Flinck made the painting as a temporary decoration to mark the occasion of a visit from the Orange family. Although various restorations have done little to enhance the painting’s beauty over the course of several centuries it is still unique in its class: other temporary party decorations have long been destroyed or have decayed. The journal Oud Holland [Old Holland] will publish an article about this discovery.

The Delft art historian Van Eikema Hommes used the planned restoration of the gallery’s paintings to carry our technical research on the materials of the painting The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. This painting hangs in the same place as Rembrandt’s canvas with the same title once hung. However, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis that hangs there now is dark and drab and in terms of quality does not compare to its illustrious predecessor of which only a piece remains.

Research by Van Eikema Hommes and Froment has revealed that Govert Flinck was commissioned to paint the work in 1659 by the city council. In that year Amalia van Solms, widow of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, visited Amsterdam accompanied by the Orange family. To make the then somewhat bare gallery of the City Hall (the current Royal Amsterdam) more festive, Flinck produced a cheap watercolour painting of the conspiracy between Claudius Civilis and the Batavians. The plan was that Flinck would eventually produce a permanent version of this piece. He died, however, in 1660 and the commission was given to Rembrandt. But Rembrandt’s Conspiracy was removed after just one year. In 1662, with an upcoming episcopal visit to the city hall that part of the gallery was once again empty. Flinck’s work was therefore taken from storage and touched up by Jürgen Ovens. After 1662 the patched up decorative piece was never replaced again due to a lack of funds.

Rough version by Flinck
Van Eikema Hommes and Froment could deduce the true nature of the painting by carefully investigating all of its layers. Flinck was found to have used a hemp canvas treated with a dark brown watercolour paint layer instead of the long-lasting undercoat used for oil paintings. Subsequently he briskly painted the figures in black and beige watercolour. Bright colours are completely absent in the original. That Flinck had to work quickly in order to complete the painting before the visit of the Oranges is evident from a wide range of drips of paint that the researchers found. Flinck clearly did not consider it necessary to smooth away these drips.

Touched up by Ovens
Van Eikema Hommes and Froment also deduced Jürgen Ovens’ contribution to the painting. He carefully applied a layer of glue to the parts of the canvas he wished to touch up. He left the dark parts of the painting intact and mainly elaborated the illuminated parts by adding touches of colour. Finally Ovens added several figures to the painting, but he also worked quickly and merely shaped the newcomers with a few broad strokes. All of the details make it clear that Ovens also assumed that this work would only hang in the city hall temporarily.

Damaged by restoration
Over the centuries the vulnerable painting has suffered a lot from poor climatic conditions in the galleries. Consequently, just like all other paintings in the gallery, it was regularly restored. Unfortunately it was also treated just like all the other pieces: as an oil painting. That has largely led to the somewhat shabby impression that the work gives nowadays. In the eighteenth century a supporting canvas was stuck to the back of the painting on several occasions; a technique in which a lot of water is used and so disastrous for a watercolour painting. Later layers of varnish have hidden all the nuances of colour the painting once had. According to Van Eikema Hommes and Froment the painting can no longer be restored to its former glory as it has suffered too much damage in the past.

For the research, Van Eikema Hommes and Froment worked together with a team of art restorers and chemists from the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency. With the help of chemical and physical investigation techniques they jointly exposed the different layers of the painting. Van Eikema Hommes’ research was part of her Veni research project funded by NWO. Van Eikema Hommes received a Vidi grant from NWO in 2010, which she is using to continue her research. In recent years she has investigated a series of five wall-filling canvasses by Ferdinand Bol most of which currently hang in the Peace Palace in The Hague. Her book about these paintings will be published mid-January 2012.

Since 2006, Emilie Froment has been involved in the restoration of the paintings in the Royal Palace Amsterdam and in this context she is working on her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam. The subject of her thesis is the implications of the restoration history of gallery paintings for their current appearance (with support form the Stichting Gieskes-Strijbis fonds).

About NWO
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is the independent Dutch science funding body and its mission is to facilitate excellent scientific research in the Netherlands by means of national competition. Each year NWO spends more than 500 million euros on grants for top research and top researchers, on innovative instruments and equipment, and on institutes where top research is performed. NWO funds the research of more than 5000 talented researchers at universities and institutes. Independent experts select proposals by means of a peer review system. NWO facilitates the transfer of knowledge to society and industry.