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Provenance Saul and David

We can trace the provenance of Saul and David to 1830, when it was sold from the collection of the Duke of Caraman in Paris as a painting by Rembrandt.

It remained in Paris, sold on through various auctions, until it ended up with the dealer Durand-Ruel in 1869. It then passed from collection to collection until it was back with Durand-Ruel between 1891 and 1898. The dealer apparently had trouble selling the painting, perhaps because the great Rembrandt connoisseur Wilhelm von Bode had expressed doubts about the authenticity of the work during an exhibition in 1876. In his search for a buyer, Durand-Ruel even took the picture to the United States, where it was exhibited in New York and Chicago in 1893.

In 1898, Saul and David starred at the large Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam, at the time still in the hands of an art dealer. The director of the Mauritshuis, Abraham Bredius, was immediately sold and bought the painting with his own money for a lofty sum. There was no doubt in his mind that this was one of Rembrandt's most important paintings.

Saul and David became one of Rembrandt’s most admired works, mainly thanks to Bredius, who seems to have had a personal connection with the painting. A music lover, he felt emotionally involved with the subject matter and identified with the figure of Saul. After buying the picture, Bredius gave it on loan to the Mauritshuis and launched a hugely successful public relations campaign in the press, even claiming to have sold his own coach-and-four to finance the acquisition. The painting captured the public imagination and rich American collectors offered great sums to buy it – in vain. Bredius left Saul and David to the Mauritshuis when he died in 1946.

Attribution 

The bubble burst in 1969, when Horst Gerson de-attributed the work, with the devastating comment: ‘Ever since this famous picture – which does not have an old history – was acquired by A. Bredius in 1898 for exhibition in the Mauritshuis, it has been hailed as one of Rembrandt’s greatest and most personal interpretations of Biblical history. (…) I fear that the enthusiasm has a lot to do with a taste for Biblical painting of a type that appealed specially to the Dutch public of the Jozef Israëls generation, rather than with the intrinsic quality of the picture itself.’ 

This assessment must have been due, at least in part, to the painting’s condition. Although structurally sound, it certainly looked the worse for wear. The two figures were relatively well preserved, although worn in places. The painting had been restored in Berlin in 1899–1900  by Alois Hauser, who gave the insert at top right a dark tone and partially overpainted the curtain. The prominent vertical join and added piece were disfiguring. The paint surface was heavily flattened throughout, and the old varnish was yellowed and cracked. 

Many eminent scholars, including Jakob Rosenberg, criticised Gerson’s rejection of the painting. In 1978, A.B. de Vries (former director of the Mauritshuis), M. Tóth-Ubbens and W. Froentjes published a book titled Rembrandt in the Mauritshuis, in which they argued that the stylistic inconsistencies in the picture could be explained by the fact that Rembrandt painted Saul and David in two phases, in the mid-1650s and the mid-1660s. But weaknesses in the painting convinced other scholars that it could not have been painted by Rembrandt. Henry Adams suggested an attribution to Karel van de Pluym (1625–1672) in 1984. Christian Tümpel proposed an unidentified Rembrandt pupil as the author of the picture. In 1993, Ben Broos tentatively assigned the work to Willem Drost (1633–1659), but Jonathan Bikker subsequently rejected this attribution.

Last year, however, Ernst van de Wetering published the work as entirely by Rembrandt, executed in circa 1646 and circa 1652. The full attribution of the painting Saul and David to Rembrandt is also the conclusion of eight years of research by a large team of international experts under the leadership of the Mauritshuis.

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