The story has become so oft-told that it scarcely seems real, a kind of fantasy whose contours of reality have been stripped away. In 2015, a painting found in a basement in New Jersey was put up for public sale by local auctioneers. It was a small oil painting on panel, entitled Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell), apparently Dutch, showing three figures, one of them passed out, being awoken by a handkerchief soaked in pungent perfume. An emblematic representation of the sense of smell, it likely belonged to a series which covered all five senses, although it was hardly remarkable aesthetically. So confusion mounted when the sale commenced and the initial paltry estimate ballooned to astonishing proportions. It was only after it sold for $850,000 that the auctioneers were informed that the artwork was a Rembrandt. There was utter astonishment, not least because the painting is anything but a masterpiece.
The four surviving Senses, the earliest known works by Rembrandt, are currently on display at the Ashmolean. An Van Camp, curator of Northern European art at the museum, said in a talk to the Edgar Wind Society that ‘I couldn’t have attributed them to Rembrandt… it’s not probably great art, but it allows us to see where Rembrandt started.’ It is only due to one of the four being signed by Rembrandt and technical analysis confirming that all the panels come from the same source which allows us to be so confident of the attribution. However, equally undeniable is that these are very weak, minor works; the anatomy is frequently incorrect, with the hands in Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch) dubbed ‘floppy sausages’ by Van Camp. In Three Singers (Allegory of Hearing), the perspective is off, and the music book from which the family sing is not correct: its verso is longer than its recto, making nonsense of the cramped pictorial space. True, the series is unusual for the allegories to be situated in vernacular Dutch society rather than as mythological images, as seen in Brueghel’s and Rubens’ interpretation of the theme. Yet by most aesthetic standards, they would hardly deserve pride of place in Gallery 45 in the Ashmolean, displacing all other Dutch art from their wall and dubbed a ‘Sensation’ by their exhibition title. The only reason such works are so celebrated is the almost talismanic attachment of the name of Rembrandt to the paintings.
Theorist Roland Barthes declared in 1967 that the author was dead, but if so, the spectre of the author/artist has had a curiously long afterlife. Increasingly, they seem to hold an even greater sway over the imagination of curators, audiences, and exhibitions. From the Scottish National Gallery earlier this year presenting Inspiring Impressionism: Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh to the huge Caravaggio and Da Vinci shows of recent times, the artist is more and more centred in the art historical narrative. Here, Rembrandt’s name becomes far more important than the artworks themselves. When we see The Senses we are actually looking at “the young genius at work”, rather than judging the paintings on their own merits: in the press release for the display, words like ‘precociousness’, ‘celebrated’, and – of course – ‘genius’ crop up more than once. There is no investigation of why these scenes were painted, who the audience would have been, or how they fit into the Dutch visual culture of the early 17th century. The name of Rembrandt dominates the discourse.
When people visit a gallery, many look first not at the artwork but the name on the little board beside it. If they haven’t heard of the artist, then the art surely cannot be of any interest and they pass on. The small canon of artists whose names have transferred into mainstream culture means people are only looking at a select few works, the rest regarded as so much patterned wallpaper. This attitude, supported by museums like the Ashmolean, who know they will increase their visitor numbers if they advertise showing ‘Rembrandt’s First Paintings’, effectively encourage and promote such a mindset. On one level, then, their promotion of this as a ‘Sensation’ is a ploy to draw in an audience, for if even its curator cannot endorse the quality of the four works, then the display represents the pure fetishisation of the name, of the signature, of the cultural power of Rembrandt.
Sensation is impressively curated, undeniably. The large, black ebonised frames bind the panels together, while an empty fifth frame poses the question of what Taste, the one sense that is missing, would look like. Van Camp has been ingenious with the presentation of the artworks. Their aesthetic thinness, however, cannot be concealed. It represents a paean to a kind of mythical genius that obfuscates more than it reveals. Ignore the slight frisson upon seeing the work of an eighteen or nineteen-year-old Rembrandt and turn to Aert de Gelder’s Esther and Mordecai (1685) in the same room to see what the Dutch Golden Age was capable of producing, and do not linger on what should best be termed as ‘curiosities’.
Sensation: Rembrandt’s First Paintings runs until 27 November 2016 in Gallery 45 of the Ashmolean Museum. Admission is free. Credits: The display has been made possible thanks to the generous loan of the artworks from The Leiden Collection, New York; and Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, the Netherlands. Tour: The display will travel to the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam to be shown from 1 December 2016 onwards.