- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

In a quiet area, away from the National Gallery’s public spaces, curator of northern Baroque paintings Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and his colleagues are considering relieving an elegant 17th century man of his hands.

Eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, the man has no name, but does have a notable history, including being smuggled to the West by Prince Felix Felixsovitch Youssoupoff, a reputed assassin of Rasputin, as he fled the Russian Revolution.

The elegant man is the subject of Rembrandt’s 17th century painting, “Portrait of a Gentleman with a Tall Hat and Gloves.”

Mr. Wheelock and his colleagues are considering whether to risk revealing Rembrandt’s original hands, cuffs and collar, which have been overpainted, as they restore the masterpiece.

This painting and its companion work, “Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan” have been off the gallery’s walls since Christmas for their first cleaning since being acquired in 1942.

Thought to have been painted about 1660, their early history is unknown, although they became part of the Youssoupoff Collection in St. Petersburg by the 19th century and passed to Felix, who spirited them out of Russia in 1919.

According to the widely recounted version of the story, Felix escaped Russia disguised as a painter with the two paintings. The Rembrandts were concealed behind modernist paintings that were either separate canvasses or painted over the Rembrandts. According to the story he recounted when he arrived in London, he had been stopped by a border guard but talked his way out and made it to London.

In 1921, Felix sold the paintings to collector Peter A.B. Widener, whose son, Joseph, gave them to the National Gallery.

To the trained eye, though, some aspects of the painting don’t look right, and X-ray analysis showed that the collar, cuffs and hands now visible were later additions painted over Rembrandt’s original painting, including more boldly painted hands.

The question is whether to tackle the intricate task of revealing the original details now, while this painting is undergoing its restoration.

This is a tricky process, but, “whatever we do, we don’t want to damage the original paint,” Mr. Wheelock said yesterday.

Restoring the original details, though, would require removal of layers of overpaint and varnish on top of the original painting, including layers applied on at least two occasions, once probably in the 18th century and once in the late 19th century.

David Bull, a senior consultant to the museum, has determined that he can remove the top layer of overpaint, a brownish glaze, using mild solvents, and will then decide whether he can go further to remove an earlier stage of overpainting without damaging the authentic Rembrandt image that lies below, according to Mr. Wheelock.

The decision to undertake this restoration effort is not made lightly, and involves a continuing examination using a variety of high-tech methods, including X-ray and infrared analysis. It also involves studying minute fragments of the paint — about one-fourth the size of a period on this page — with a stereo microscope by research conservator E. Melanie Gifford.

Mr. Wheelock suggests that the broader hands underneath the image were overpainted because someone, perhaps a dealer, wanted the man’s boldly executed hands to be more compatible with the woman’s more refined hands.

He does not think the overpainting was malicious, but said that this happened at a time when Rembrandt’s robust style of painting had gone out of favor, adding that artists such as Rubens and Rembrandt himself are known to have fixed up paintings by other painters.

Nevertheless, it is important to decide whether to try to recover these earlier, authentic images, Mr. Wheelock said, “particularly because we have this wonderful painting of the woman next to this gent and we would like to make these two works as compatible as possible.”

Mr. Wheelock and his colleagues do not want to rush their decision, but expect to know how far they can proceed in coming months.

Either way, the painting will look much better. The team has already restored the portrait of the lady, and she now glances to her right, looking newly rejuvenated.

The highlights in the flesh tones are now visible, for example, according to Mr. Wheelock. “She’s 15 years younger,” he said.

If the National Gallery team takes the plunge, though, visitors to the National Gallery may see a version of the painting that more closely resembles Rembrandt’s vision than it has for 300 years — original hands and all.

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