Rembrandt's authenticity

The news that 44 Rembrandts aren't really Rembrandts at all has come as a shock. Some people are behaving almost as if it were Rembrandt's fault.

Somehow the fact that the art experts sitting in judgment are Dutch makes the exposure more devastating. Nor is the worst necessarily over. This report constitutes only the first volume of five and restricts itself to the 93 paintings attributed to the period 1625 to 1631. What masterpieces of Rembrandt's maturity will future volumes ruthlessly dispatch, with a combination of ''opinion'' and ''scientific techniques''?

We should be used to almost any public disillusionment by now. Don't we live in the Age of Post-Watergate? But art isn't politics - or at least that's what those of us outside art think. And so it comes almost as an insult that such personal subjects as ''Rembrandt's Father'' should be deemed inauthentic. This is meddling in family business.

Perhaps most staggering of all is the news that two self-portraits - one hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, one in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass. - have made the bogus list.

If a self-portrait isn't to be trusted, what is? A forged self-portrait seems the ultimate outrage.

But to whom? The more one thinks about it, the more one can speculate that few artists would be as little distressed at the offense as Rembrandt. He was notably generous to other artists - even the hacks - bidding up the value of their works at auctions far above the going rates. He believed in the brotherhood. Would he have resented even the counterfeiter - if he was talented?

Far more than most artists, Rembrandt seemed genuinely indifferent to what others thought or did. He was absorbed in the act, as all artists are supposed to be.

According to one count, Rembrandt produced 84 self-portraits, 58 of them in oil. He recorded his face over five decades, turning out as many as a dozen self-portraits in a single year. Yet no self-portraitist was less egotistical.

In Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait we are presented with a genius, as registered by a genius, with eyes so restlessly observant that he can barely pose for himself.

In El Greco's self-portrait we get a face practically indistinguishable from the excruciating faces of martyred saints that fill so many of that master's canvases.

In the self-portrait of Rubens we encounter a jaded worldling who has looked at one too many of his own voluptuous models.

In Rembrandt's self-portraits, by contrast, we are given a kind of Shakespearean seven ages of man - an individuality so profound it finally becomes Everyman.

In early self-portraits Rembrandt could be a bit of a dandy, with embroidered jacket, dressy collars, and a well-tended beard.

Later he came to look rather like one of the solid burghers of Amsterdam.

At one point, his face took on an almost military determination: the artist as general, rallying the troops within him, resolved to see the battle through.

After his bankruptcy at 50, all the costumes went, all the masks dropped.

In his youth Rembrandt loved to paint old faces: the faces of those lined by the years or by experience - the beggars and ex-soldiers who made up the underclass. At the end, those faces became his own.

In one of his last self-portraits he painted himself for the first time as an artist. Bowed and a bit shrunken, he stands before an almost invisible easel. The focus is on the face: smiling, almost laughing, as if a triumph were being savored - not just by Rembrandt but by all artists and maybe all human beings who survive what their eyes tell them.

This cosmically amused Rembrandt is a man beyond possessiveness - even the possessiveness of a signature on a painting. It is the face of a pure witness, transcending not only art but mortality to open up larger questions of what is, and what is not, authentic.

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