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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

The baptism of the eunuch

c. 1630-1636
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Panel
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115.1 x 90 cm
This painting has always been described in the art-historical literature as an anonymous copy after Rembrandt´s painting of circa 1631. New scientific study bij Martin Bijl however reattribute this painting to Rembrandt and his studio.
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ENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJL

ENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJL
ENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJL

ENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJL
ENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJLENTER ESSAY BY MARTIN BIJL

Artist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Title The baptism of the eunuch
Date c. 1630-1636
Technique Oil
Materials Panel
Dimensions 115.1 x 90

Essay - Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn & assistants - The baptism of the eunuch

It was in 1623 or 1624 that Rembrandt served as an apprentice to the leading Amsterdam history painter Pieter Lastman. The latter’s influence on the fledgling artist was to be immediate and profound. In nearly all his earliest paintings Rembrandt took his cue from Lastman’s style and his subject matter. A theme that Lastman treated no less than four times between 1608 and 1623 was the baptism of the Eunuch. Rembrandt could have seen all of these versions. The subject derives from the New Testament (Acts 8: 26-40) and relates how Philip, one of the seven deacons assigned by the apostles to spread the Christian faith, encountered an eunuch who was the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. He converted him and, having elucidated a text by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, baptized him, too. The story revolves around the Church’s expansion beyond Palestine after Christ’s death. Philip and Stephen were key figures in this episode.

Rembrandt’s best-known and until recently only accepted painting with the baptism of the eunuch is in Utrecht’s Catharijneconvent and is signed and dated 1626 (fig. 1). Rembrandt arranged Philip, the eunuch and bystanders according to a close-knit diagonal composition that sharply recedes into the distance. Although the painting is small, its upright orientation and low viewpoint lend the scene a powerful monumentality. In this approach Rembrandt deviates from Lastman’s versions of the theme, all of which are horizontal and more elaborate, including larger crowds of Ethiopians. Five years later, in 1631, Jan Gillisz van Vliet produced a remarkably big etching after another baptism of the eunuch by Rembrandt (fig. 2). The etching is signed by Van Vliet and Rembrandt is mentioned as the inventor.

For this scene Rembrandt opted for again a different approach. The beholder witnesses the event from a greater distance and a slightly more elevated standpoint. The three main figures, the eunuch, Philip and an Ethiopian courtier on horseback, are grouped along a vertical axis. The figure on horseback magnificently towers above the viewer, rendering this version even more impressive than the Utrecht picture.
The painting here discussed has always been regarded as a copy after Rembrandt’s lost original. However, there are various reasons to reassess this label. Dendrochronological analysis allows for an early creation of the painting in 1631, which neatly coincides with Van Vliet’s reproductive etching of 1631. Furthermore, recent technical analysis revealed an extensive underpainting in browns and an X-ray fluorescence scan shows that this monochrome scene tallies entirely with the etching in reverse. It is plausible that this was Rembrandt at work, a scenario advanced here. Features characteristic for the master are clearly recognizable, For instance the way the tree at upper right has been executed, which is part of the dead colouring, with uncovered outlines, is consistent with Rembrandt’s handling of similar backgrounds in dead colouring in works dating from c. 1628 onwards, for instance the Rijksmuseum’s Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. We can further hypothetise that after Van Vliet had produced his print, Rembrandt set out to work up the painting with colours to make it saleable. It seems as if the artist at that point resolved to set the scene at afternoon and adjusted the palette accordingly, adding yellowish and reddish hues. Obviously, the painting still lingered in Rembrandt’s Leiden studio in 1631-35, where the master who was meanwhile building a flourishing career for himself in Amsterdam under the aegis of Hendrick Uylenburgh, would during occasional visits have corrected the parts of the painting that he had entrusted to pupils or assistants.

One of Rembrandt’s first corrections was to improve Philip’s hand, giving it its present cupped position. Since we see this hand also on the engraving by Claes Jansz Visscher it must have been executed after Van Vliet’s etching. Underneath this hand in the painting is the completed other hand. Another artist who seems to have worked on the painting was the shadowy Dirck Lievens, a younger brother of Rembrandt’s compatriot Jan Lievens. He painted the sky, the background and the central group of figures. He redid the still wet sky, causing problems in the paint. Characteristic, here, is the too thickly applied paint, the grey tonality in which an amount of black has been used and generally signs of inexperience in the execution of the background. It is to be assumed that a third as yet unidentified master took over the work and painted the figure on horseback, the carriage and the background figures at left. However, Rembrandt then intervened again. Without bothering to paint out the already finished parts, he added plants of a new design, leaving uncovered fragments of the underpainting between the various parts. He also began on the white coat of the eunuch, right shoed foot, sash and the now discoloured brown of Philip’s mantle. He furthermore redid the cloth over the carriage, which initially was identical to the etching, and possibly the rest of the carriage except for the wheels. All these parts are in a restricted colour scheme of blue, yellow, black, white and brown and seem to have been painted rapidly, wet-in-wet, which pleads for Rembrandt doing this during a visit. Interestingly, all these parts deviate from the original dead colouring.

At this moment, the work was still not entirely finished. Rembrandt was no doubt already gone again to Amsterdam because the final touches appear to have been done by another artist. These are highlights on the plants, more vegetation on the waterside, the flowers, the golden chain and other decoration on the white coat, and the pink and red parts of Philip’s dress. Rembrandt only executed the illuminated parts of Philip’s hand and face, leaving the shadowed ones as they are at present in the dead colouring.

The Biblical tale continued to fascinate Rembrandt. A rapid sketch in black chalk on a square sheet of paper in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich is compositionally related to our painting but was possibly made in preparation for an etching, in which case maybe for Rembrandt’s only etching with the baptism of the eunuch, of 1641, which shows a horizontal composition with drastic alterations, although the print is almost square just like the drawing (figs. 3, 4). The latter thus seems to show a transitional step in Rembrandt’s attempt to transform the composition of our painting into something different.

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