Museum press release, 25 March 2004
In January 1992 the bringing together of both versions of Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of
Isaac was celebrated as an “important art historical moment”. For the first time
in more than 350 years, the painting dated 1635 and belonging to the State
Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg and the version belonging to the Alte
Pinakothek Munich, which was completed one year later, were shown side by side
in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. This 1992 presentation however lasted only a few
hours and was only open for the Rembrandt specialists attending an conference of
expert. Starting March 26, 2004, Rembrandt experts and art fans alike will be
afforded the extraordinary and long-awaited opportunity for a comparative
examination of both masterpieces side-by-side – undoubtedly the last chance for a
long time to come.
„Rembrandt. verandert. En overgeschildert. 1636.“ [Rembrandt altered and
painted over (it) in the year 1636]. This unique verbatim inscription on the lower
edge of the Munich painting has been of particular interest to Rembrandt experts
since its rediscovery in the late 19th century. Even today, the Sacrifice of Isaac in
the Alte Pinakothek is a key work and decisive touchstone for connoisseurship
relating to Rembrandt’s oeuvre. The interpretations of the inscription are
controversial and the resulting individual assessments of the painting highly
varied as well. What and just how extensive is Rembrandt’s participation, what did
the Master “change” and what did he “over paint”? The answer to this decisive
question has always been and remains to be of central importance.
With the first version in the Hermitage, undoubtedly from Rembrandt’s own hand,
the artist took up for the first time the moving Old Testament story of the patriarch
Abraham who God commanded to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. For the climax of
the scene, Rembrandt opted to show, through a brilliant composition, the moment
when the angel prevents the son’s sacrifice in the last minute. The three
personages are closely woven together and shown life-sized, filling the painting’s
surface in a shallow foreground plane; Abraham’s brutal grip, the resolute angel
and the falling knife all combine to heighten the drama and reality of the moment.
With this composition Rembrandt has rendered one of his “baroque” narratives
stemming from the 1630’s, works which were seemingly in direct competition with
other contemporary art works, most especially however with those of the much
esteemed Peter Paul Rubens.
The Munich version of the painting, which was begun a short time later, was not
only based on the one in St. Petersburg, it was originally intended to be an exact
copy of it; this was ascertained for the first time prior to the exhibition through an
infrared reflectography examination that made visible the original position of the
angel as it was intended in the first version.
In studio operations of the 17th century it was not unusual that students copied the
master’s works for instructional as well as commercial purposes. In the case of
the Munich painting however Rembrandt intervened in this process, making
considerable changes with regard to the first version. A roughly sketched chalk
drawing from London’s British Museum, also on view during the exhibition, bears
witness to this alteration, which is primarily concentrated on the angel, who is
emerging out of the clouds. This modification was undoubtedly a gain for the work,
rendering the turning point of the action even more striking: The angel no longer
approaches Abraham from the side, but from behind – the patriarch’s surprise is
thusly all the more reinforced.
The intellectual authorship, the „inventio“, for the new conception of Isaac’s
Sacrifice in the Munich painting is thereby firmly attributable to Rembrandt. The
physical execution conversely is, for the most part, ascribable to another hand.
The extremely high quality of the painting technique gives rise to look among the
most important of the master’s students; Ferdinand Bol and Govaert Flinck, two of
Rembrandt’s most productive students in the 1630’s, have been regularly singled
out; however an attribution to the one or the other painter cannot be securely
made. Although a sure and lively, relaxed style can be detected, which is oriented
towards Rembrandt’s effective “rough manner” of around 1635, occasional
weaknesses do reveal themselves – especially in direct comparison with the
Petersburg version – more in the sketched rather than the painted detail.
The hoary head, whose features express at once disgust and lack of
understanding, takes on through the strong brush strokes, in comparison to its
predecessor in St. Petersburg, an even stronger expressiveness. Other figures, for
example the lesser articulated countenance of the angel as well as the flatly
sketchy ram, are not quite as persuasive.
Rembrandt himself carried out in the end – according to the inscription – several
instances of repainting – just how extensive is still at present hard to determine;
nevertheless there is cause to believe that several accentuating brush strokes can
be discerned in the wing area, in the angel’s hair and on Isaac’s loincloth.
With the ca. eight etchings and engravings from Rembrandt and his contemporary
Jan Lievens, the supplemented presentation provides a unique and unusual
opportunity – in direct comparison with the two painted versions of The Sacrifice
of Isaac, as it were a ‘school of observing’ – to track down the genius Rembrandt
and, with regard to the painting belonging to the Alte Pinakothek, to draw one’s