The Case of the Servant With the Fur Collar
By CAROL VOGEL - Published: September 22, 2005 (nytimes.com)
Why was she wearing fur?
That was one of the first questions experts asked when they began studying a 17th-century portrait of a woman who had the unmistakably stolid face of a servant but was decked out in a sumptuous fur collar. And why did the light on her face appear to be reflected off the dark surface of that collar when it should be absorbed by it?
These were puzzling questions, since the woman, whose head is covered in a plain white bonnet, certainly did not seem to belong to the class of 17th-century Dutch society that had its portraits painted. Some experts would have taken one look at the canvas and immediately dismissed it as the work of a minor artist.
The restored "Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet" after a fur collar was removed.
"Portrait of an Elderly Woman in a White Bonnet" with the fur collar.
But when Ernst van der Wetering, the head of the Rembrandt Research Project, saw the painting, he recognized something far more important than her dress.
For more than two years now, the painting on wood panel has been undergoing slow but extensive restoration and study under the care of Mr. van der Wetering and Martin Bijl, a former head of conservation for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. With scientists' help, they have concluded that the painting is a Rembrandt from about 1640 that someone tried, a century later, to transform into a formal portrait.
No other experts have seen the painting - until today, when it goes on view at the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam in anticipation of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the artist's birth in 2006. Now, the theory will be posed to the world's Rembrandt scholars. The painting is then headed for the auction block, at Sotheby's January sale of old master paintings in New York.