Irina Sokolova, head of department of Dutch paintings, Hermitage
From the museum website
On 3 November 2005 a new exhibition in the series entitled Masterpieces from the World’s Museums opened in the State Hermitage. The show features Rembrandt’s painting of the Pallas Athena from the collection of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. One of Rembrandt’s (1606-69) celebrated works has now returned for a while to the Hermitage on the eve of an important anniversary marking 400 years since the great 17th-century Dutch artist’s birth in 1606.
The Pallas Athena has for many years belonged to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. However, it has unseen ties from the past binding it to the Hermitage. From the end of the 18th century right up to the 1930s this work by Rembrandt decorated the Hermitage gallery.
Athena (oil on canvas, 118 x 91 cm.) arrived in St. Petersburg in 1781 as part of a new acquisition of Empress Catherine the Great: the large collection of Count Sylvestre-Raphael Baudouin (1715-97), a well-known engraver as well as an admirer and great connoisseur of old paintings. In 1930 the painting’s fate took a sharp change in direction, as happened to many other works of art at the time. In May 1930, following a decision of the Soviet government, Rembrandt’s Pallas Athena was sold to the oil magnate and well-known collector Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955). As a result of secret agreements concluded in Paris between the entrepreneur and representatives of Gostorg RSFSR, the Hermitage was compelled to turn over a number of precious jewels and works of art to the office of the agency Antikvariat. The Athena was in an especially valuable shipment including masterpiece paintings by Rembrandt, Gerard Terborch, Watteau and Nicolas Lancret as well as Houdon’s celebrated statue Diana the huntress. Gulbenkian paid the Soviet government a total of 140,000 pounds sterling for these treasures.
The museum management’s protests were to no avail. It is known that Rembrandt’s Athena was sent to Paris via the Berlin customs office in its gilded frame from the Hermitage. It is displayed in the present exhibition in this same frame.
Like almost all the late works of the Dutch painter, the subject of this canvas has been subject to various interpretations. A young warrior is presented by the artist turned three-quarters to the viewer. He stands against a gloomy dark background. Light from the left falls on his metal armor, causing it to glitter in the dark. His face is in semi-shadow. There can be no doubt that this is a hero from classical antiquity, but who exactly is he? Attributes carry a huge figurative and semantic content in this composition. The fanciful details of the costume involuntarily intrigue the viewer. A luxurious helmet adorns the head of the knight. Its high crest is topped with the figure of an owl and luxuriant plumage of crimson feathers. These motifs are a free fantasy on the theme of showy Late Renaissance arms. Rembrandt was a great connoisseur and collector of old arms and he obviously took pleasure in conveying the sheen of gilded metal. The lock of curly hair which has come loose from under the helmet falls onto the folds of a wine-red cloak that has been tossed over the cuirass. In their freely and summarily drawn forms one can barely make out lion mascarones.
With one small gloved hand the warrior grips a spear, while in the other he holds a huge rounded shield decorated on its outer surface with the head of the Gorgon Medusa. The red outline of the shield (allowing us to suppose that the inside is lined with crimson velvet) forms an energetic ellipse. This form creates distance between the viewer and the figure of the hero and it has considerable significance. The massive shield balances out the warrior’s spear, depicted as aimed to the left, and his head, which is slightly bent under the weight of the helmet. The handsome hero of the painting is lost in thought. His fragile and feminine face is indistinct and not specific.
In the earliest manuscript catalogue of the Hermitage (1773-85), Rembrandt’s canvas was mentioned as “Pallas Athena.” However, not everyone agreed with this name. In the Baudouin collection inventory (1780), the composition was entered as a Portrait of Alexander in the Armor of Pallas. The special protection of Athena was ascribed to Alexander the Great. In later literature the painting has been variously called Mars, Portrait of Titus, and Young Warrior.