The above are three images, of many more, that pop up in my browser when searching for Rembrandt’s Proserpina.
Their differences are huge and what makes it even more confusing is the strong blue in the lower image.
So which one of these three images represents the original painting? The palette used in it’s creation? How to choose?
Unlike Vermeer, Rembrandt is not known for an abundant use of blue pigments. The blue sky is probably a mistake and the image can be discarded.
Picturing Rembrandt’s body of work, we see brown as the leading colour, followed by reds and yellows.
In pigments this would be:
red & yellow earth (ochre and sienna)
umber (burnt & raw)
black (ivory, lamp, bone)
lead tin yellow
madder & other red lakes
A palette that dominated painted art from the 16th up to the 18th century.
Following this reasoning, one of the two other images should be the one resembling the original.
The middle one shows the familiar warm browns, but is extremely yellow. Even with many layers of an oily varnish, it’s unlikely this would be the result.
Leaves us with the top image. Yes, this one certainly has it’s points. The brown hues and the subtle grey of the sky, both part of a convincing 17th century old master’s palette. It brings to mind other landscapes painted by Rembrandt.
Rembrandt, Landscape with a stone bridge, ca. 1638, oil-paint on panel, 29.5 x 42.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
I was not prepared for the confrontation with a brighter, apparently different palette.
|The painting in situ in Berlin, daylight conditions. Photo monica rotgans|
Like his colleagues, Rembrandt did use strong blues and greens, but most of these pigments have turned brown or disappeared. However, in this particular painting the blue is still as stunning and overpowering as it was when it was painted, which sets it apart from his other works.
According to the colour-temperature the blue is probably made from lapis lazuli, natural ultramarine (I haven’t read the conservationist’s report yet) and it shines. Applying the extremely expensive natural ultramarine had to be done with care. The use of a non-oily binder is the reason why it still stands out in it’s bright hues.
The sky was originally in harmony with the greens of the full green foliage, and the strong colouring of the clothing of the main characters: reds, purples, blue (other), violet, and yellow. However, the greens based on copper-pigments and a warm lake yellow, have fallen away, as have the purples and reds, and the other, cheaper blues.
|This detail shows clearly the loss of greens, purples, and blue.|
The conclusion is that of the three images presented the lower one is the closest to the original. Also brown pigments were not the dominating colour in Dutch baroque painting, but the instability of pigments, the ageing of oils, in combination with layers of yellowed varnishes, have for a long time clouded our view and set the standard.
Fortunately, the revolution in conservation science enables us to be more aware of how art-works were originally intended, to recreate their colour-schemes in our mind when looking at painted art. Both in old and modern art.
The abundance and availability of (digital) images and reproductions are no guarantee, as long as there is no international standard or reference checkpoint, for a better understanding of the painter’s materials.