Monday, 27 July 2015

Rembrandt? The case of Saul and David

Fig.1 Saul and David after restoration, Photographer: © Margareta Svensson, credits: Mauritshuis, Den Haag
Saul and David (fig.1), one of the masterpieces of the Mauritshuis, disappeared from the center stage, since Horst Gerson, a Rembrandt expert and authority in his time, questioned the attribution of the painting to Rembrandt in 1969. After the research and restoration of the painting started in 2007 by the Mauritshuis, this painting is in the spotlight once again at the exhibition “Rembrandt? The Case of Saul and David”, which has been showing since June.

The painting Saul and David represents two biblical figures – Saul, the first king of Kingdom of Israel and David, a skillful harp player, whose soothing music gave Saul great comfort. But after David killed the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul became jealous of David’s victory and tried to arrange for his death. In many paintings depicting these two figures, Saul is portrayed with a spear in his hand trying to kill David from jealousy, as Rembrandt also painted Saul with a spear in his hand in his work of the same theme around 1629. However, in this painting of Saul and David, which was put under a research this time, Saul is portrayed as being moved by David’s music, wiping away his tears with the curtain, with his hands only touching on the spear. This inconsistency in treating the same subject, comparing to his past work, caused the question to the attribution of this painting.

Fig.2 Saul and David on restoration infrared,
Photographer: © Ivo Hoekstra, credits: Mauritshuis, Den Haag
The painting was researched mainly by the curators and the restorers of the Mauritshuis, with a committee composed of international experts. After the process of removing the touches and colors added in the past restoration, there emerged a dramatic revelation: The current painting consists of no fewer than fifteen different pieces of canvas and only two large pieces were from the original, one with Saul and the other with David. The research also showed that the original painting was larger. It was reduced in size, cutting away 10 cm at the bottom and 5 cm on the left.

Even after the true nature of the painting was revealed by removing the touches and colors added in the past restoration and through the research using the latest technology such as X ray photography, the Mauritshuis hesitated to fully attribute this work to Rembrandt. This was because the retouches were made to the painting several years after its completion and certain clumsiness, on a delicately finished part of the work such as the cloak of Saul, was detected. It was not clear whether it had been done by Rembrandt himself or by his pupil. Horst Gerson questioned this work in 1969 because he thought it was far from the technique of Rembrandt. The Mauritshuis, however, pursued the research further to analyze the pigments used on the work and finally decided to fully attribute it to Rembrandt by concluding that over time, the painting had lost its original touches and colors due to the past restorations.

This exhibition presents Saul and David and other works that were referred to in the research. You can follow the images on four screens for the detailed interpretation of the works. The experience may be similar to that of unraveling of a mystery movie: the provenance of the painting, the new discovery in the process of the restoration, and the final conclusion of the full attribution of the painting to Rembrandt reached by a large team of experts. This whole lecture will change the way you view Saul and David.

The exhibition Rembrandt? The case of Saul and David is until 13 September 2015

Mauritshuis Museum
Plein 29
2511 CS The Hague
The Netherlands
Opening times:
Mon 13:00—18:00 
Tue—Sun 10:00—18:00(Thurs till 20:00)
Special opening hours apply during holidays.