The Results Are In: This Mysterious Painting Is a Rembrandt


For eight years, researchers at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, have made it their mission to discover who really painted Saul and David. When the museum was given the work in 1946 after the death of its original owner, they were under the impression that it was painted by Rembrandt. But in 1969, Horst Gerson, a German-Dutch art historian and expert on the 17th century Dutch painter, questioned the painting's provenance in his book Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Recapping his thesis for The New York Times, Nina Siegal wrote that his book suggests Saul and David "was the work of one of the master’s pupils, because 'the painterly execution is superficial and inconsistent' and he didn’t 'recognize Rembrandt’s touch in it.'"

After the book's publication, the museum replaced the original attribution plaque next to the painting with one that said "Rembrandt and/or Studio."

But recently, through the combined efforts of the Mauritshuis museum, Delft University of Technology, and the University of Antwerp, the museum was finally able to re-attribute the painting to its legendary creator. The team employed a number of different technologies, including X-ray fluorescence analysis, in order to isolate elements in the paints' pigments. In this way, they were able to differentiate between the original paint and the layers added on top during restoration efforts. They were then able to remove these top paint and varnish layers, bringing the painting back to its intended—rather than a completely stripped—state.

Next, the researchers matched the original primer's pigments with those known to be used by Rembrandt's studio. They also determined that the painting "is in fact made up of 15 different pieces of canvas; three main parts—the Saul, the David, and an insert of a copy of an old painting in the upper right corner plus strips all around the edges," explained Emilie Gordenker, the museum's director. According to Siegal, the slices down the middle and through the center were cut during the 19th century so the painting could "be sold as two Rembrandt portraits" and then within "the next 40 years, it was sutured back together with pieces of an entirely different canvas, and layered with paint to cover up its scars."

Ultimately, a panel made up of restorers, curators, Rembrandt scholars, and Gordenker were able to declare that Rembrandt did indeed create Saul and David.

The story behind the eight-year long investigation will be featured in a new exhibit opening tomorrow, titled "Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David."