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Attribution Saul and David

The attribution of Saul en David remained in the balance until the very end of the project. It now seems certain that the picture was painted in Rembrandt’s workshop, given its similarities − particularly with regard to the ground and the build-up of the paint − to other works he made in the 1650s and 1660s. Furthermore, we are now convinced that the painting was executed in more than one phase.

As the painting re-emerged from under its dark and cloudy layer of varnish, it became very clear that Rembrandt must have painted the first stage just after 1650. The sensitive modelling of David’s teenage face displays the handling that is entirely characteristic of Rembrandt around that time.

The second phase caused us more hesitation. The loose brushstrokes that make up the mantle at lower left look uncharacteristically wild. The daubs of paint on Saul’s hand and nose, and especially around the eye, seem unnecessary and ham-fisted. But we must remember that the appearance of the painting has changed greatly over time. Not only was it cut apart and put back together, but paint layers were removed in old conservation treatments and some pigments have discoloured. However, rejecting Rembrandt as the author of the second phase would force us to acknowledge that he allowed a pupil to ‘finish’ some of the more crucial parts of the painting, specifically Saul’s face and hands. Another possibility is that the painting remained unfinished at the time of Rembrandt’s death and was subsequently completed by another artist – but for this we have no evidence.

We have concluded, therefore, that the second phase was also painted by Rembrandt in the mid-1650s, but that the picture’s appearance has altered dramatically over time. This explains the rough and clumsy appearance of parts of the second painting phase. In our opinion, Bredius did buy a Rembrandt in 1898, but a rather damaged one.

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