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The wanderings of Rembrandt's Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

For more than a century the only eyewitness account of Rembrandt's Portrait of an old woman (fig. 1) was a description made by Wilhelm Bode in 1883. At the time, he was unable to decipher the date, 1632; nor did he know anything about Aeltje Uylenburgh or the history of the panel. However, the painting's provenance has since been revealed, and it can be traced back in an almost unbroken line to its commission, a rare occurrence in Rembrandt's oeuvre. A pendant portrait, now lost, featured the preacher Johannes Sylvius, who is also the subject of an etching by Rembrandt dating from 1633 (fig. 2). Rembrandt had a close relationship with the Sylvius couple and he married their cousin Saskia Uylenburgh in 1634.After Aeltje's death in 1644, the couple's son Cornelis Sylvius inherited the portraits. We know that Cornelis moved to Haarlem in 1647, and that in 1681 he made a will bequeathing the pendants to his son Johannes Sylvius Junior. For the most part of a century they remained in the family. We lose track of the portrait of Johannes Sylvius when, in 1721, Cornelis II Sylvius refurbishes a house on the Kruisstraat in Haarlem. However, thanks to a handful of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century copies, it has been possible to reconstruct the trail followed by Aeltje. In 1778, a copy from Dessau turned up at auction in Frankfurt. It was bought under the name of Johann Heinrich Roos by Henriette Amalie von Anhalt-Dessau. There is a copy of this copy in the museum of Marseilles, attributed Ferdinand Bol (fig. 3).In 2000 an article in the Tribune de Genève revealed that the original had belonged to the Burlamacchi Collection in the eighteenth century, and was then thought to be a portrait of Rembrandt's mother. Jean-Jacques Burlamacchi (1694-1748), a prominent Geneva collector, acquired major works of art, including probably the Rembrandt portrait, while travelling in Holland and Britain around 1720. It was the heirs of Burlamacchi, the Misses de Chapeaurouge, who opened the famous collection to the public. In 1790 or thereabouts, the Swiss portrait painter Marc-Louis Arlaud produced a copy, now in the museum at Lausanne (fig. 4), which for many years was thought to be an autograph work by Rembrandt. The painter Georges Chaix also made a copy, which he exhibited in Geneva in 1823. This work still belongs to the artist's family; unfortunately it has not been possible to obtain an image. After the Burlamacchi Collection was sold in about 1825, the painting was referred to somewhat nostalgically as 'Un Rembrandt "genevois"'. It was bought for 18,000 francs by the Paris art dealer Dubois, who sold it to the London banker William Coesvelt. In 1828, Coesvelt in turn sold the portrait through the London dealer John Smith, who described it as 'the painter's mother, at the age of 62'. We know that the picture was subsequently acquired from Albertus Brondgeest by the banker James de Rothschild (1792-1868) for his country house at Boulogne, as this is mentioned in the 1864 description of Rothschild's collection by Charles Blanc. Baron James's widow, Betty de Rothschild, inherited the portrait in 1868 and it was in Paris that the Berlin museum director Wilhelm Bode (fig. 5) first saw the painting. In his description of 1883 he states that the woman was not, in his opinion, Rembrandt's mother. In 1886 the portrait fell to Betty's son, Baron Alphonse (1827-1905). Bode published a heliogravure of the work in 1897, which remained for many years the only available reproduction (fig. 6).Rembrandt's portrait of a woman was a showpiece in Baron Alphonse's Paris smoking room (fig. 7). Few art historians came to the Rothschild residence and neither Valentiner nor Bredius, who published catalogues of Rembrandt in 1909 and 1935, respectively, had seen the painting. Alphonse's heir was Baron Edouard de Rothschild, who in 1940 fled to America with his daughter Bethsabée. The Germans looted the painting, but immediately after the war it was exhibited, undamaged, in a frame carrying the (deliberately?) misleading name 'Romney' (fig. 8). In 1949, Bethsabée de Rothschild became the rightful owner of the portrait. She took it with her when she moved to Israel in 1962, where under the name of Bathsheva de Rothschild she became a well-known patron of modern dance. In 1978, J. Bruyn en S. Levie of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) travelled to Tel Aviv to examine the painting. Although the surface was covered with a thick nicotine film, they were impressed by its condition. Bruyn and Levie were doubtful, however, that the panel's oval format was original, as emerges from the 'Rembrandt-Corpus' report of 1986. Not having seen the copies mentioned earlier, they were unaware that one nineteenth-century replica was also oval (fig. 9). Their important discovery that the woman's age was 62 was not further investigated at the time.Baroness Bathsheva de Rothschild died childless in 1999. On 13 December 2000 the painting was sold by Christie's, London, after a surprising new identity for the elderly sitter had been put forward. It had long been known that Rembrandt painted portraits of Aeltje Uylenburgh and her husband, the minister Cornelis Sylvius. Aeltje, who was a first cousin of Rembrandt's wife, Saskia Uylenburgh, would have been about 60 years old at the time. Given that the age of the woman in the portrait was now known to be 62, it was suggested that she could be Aeltje.The portrait was acquired for more than 28 million US dollars by the art dealer Robert Noortman, who put it on the market as 'Aeltje' with a question mark. In 2005, Noortman sold the portrait for 36.5 million to the American-Dutch collectors Mr and Mrs De Mol van Otterloo. At the time, the Mauritshuis in The Hague felt that trying to buy the portrait would be too extravagant, while the Rijksmuseum was more interested in acquiring a female portrait from Rembrandt's later period. Aeltje was thus destined to leave the Netherlands for good.A chronicle of the Sylvius family published in 2006 shows that Aeltje Uylenburgh would have been born in 1570 (fig. 10), demonstrating that she could indeed be the 62-year-old woman depicted by Rembrandt in 1632. We know that Aeltje was godmother to Rembrandt's children and that Saskia was godmother to Aeltje's granddaughter. Further evidence of the close ties between the two families is provided by Rembrandt's etching of Aeltje's son Petrus, produced in 1637. It is now generally accepted that the woman in the portrait is Aeltje. She was last shown in the Netherlands at the 'Dutch Portraits' exhibition in The Hague. In February 2008 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced that it had received on long-term loan one the finest Rembrandts still in private ownership.


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