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Did Rembrandt paint Leiden Professor van Schooten?

Leiden Professor of Maths Frans van Schooten Jnr. (1615-1660) and his wife Margrieta were painted by Rembrandt. This is the claim made by mathematician and art historian Johan Zwakenberg in his recently published article in the 2018 Leiden Yearbook. Leiden art historians are not completely convinced of this discovery.

The portraits, owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, had already been ascribed to Rembrandt. Zwakenberg compared them with the portrait of Frans van Schooten Jnr. from the collection of professors' portraits in Leiden's Academy Building. This portait is hanging in the  faculty room of the Faculty of Science. Zwakenberg believes that the similarity is remarkable, and he says it would not be unusual for Rembrandt to paint the professor and his wife. Rembrandt apparently knew Van Schooten's uncle well and it was a prosperous time for the couple. In the period that the portrait was painted, Van Schooten was appointed ‘Professor Matheseos’ and member of the Senate. Read more in the article in the Leidsch Dagblad (in Dutch) 'Leidse hoogleraar op portret van Rembrandt'. 

Left: Rembrandt's portrait from the National Gallery of Art, and right: the portrait of Van Schooten Jnr. exhibited in the Academy Building.

An exact likeness was not the first priority

Stijn Bussels, Leiden professor of  ‘Art History before 1800’, reacted with caution to the discovery after taking an initial look at Zwakenberg's  publication. ‘Certainly, with artists like Rembrandt it is difficult to identify portraits on the basis of external appearance. An exact, true-to-life representation of the subject of the portrait was not the first priority; it was more important to accentuate the individual's prominent social standing. A portrait was intended not to reflect the outward appearance of the person, but to reinforce the seriousness and dignity of his or her position.'  

Critical comments

Marion Boers, also a Leiden art historian, also responded critically to Zwakenberg's finding. 'I read the article and have some critical comments. In the first place, Zwakenberg claims that artist Joris van Schooten was well known to Rembrandt. As chance would have it, I have done some extensive research on Van Schooten and there is absolutely no evidence of this 'good relationship'." Moreover, according to Boers, it would not be at all logical for Rembrandt to paint someone from Leiden when he himself lived in Amsterdam. 'It was highly exceptional for Rembrandt to paint prominent individuals from outside his home city. Clients always first looked for artists from their own city. True, there were not many of these in Leiden, but there must have been enough potential candidates.' 

Looking for similarities is tricky

Boers also comments that looking for similarities is tricky. ‘Because of the abundant use of shadow in the face, but also because Rembrandt was criticised in his own lifetime for the lack of similarity in his portraits, it is quite dangerous to make these kinds of attributions.' Finally, Boers also remarked on the absence of Rembrandt's name in the inventory of contents. ‘The lack of any reference to the artist is for me a third indication that this is an attribution that raises some questions.' 

More research by experts needed

Art historian Corrie van Maris, a staff member of the Academic Historical Museum at Leiden University, responded to the discovery with some surprise. 'It is very unusual for a mathematician who is also an art historian to take a fresh look at this research.' She finds it hard to say whether she shares Zwakenberg's opinion. 'I have yet to read his publication and Rembrandt experts like Rudi Ekkart need to look at it first. He knows the portraits in the Academy Building like the back of his hand.' During his term as Director of the Academic Historical Museum, Ekkart published the collection of professors' portraits, the Icones Leidensis. Van Maris believes it is possible that the Van Schooten family knew Rembrandt. Frans van Schooten Jnr. and his father also taught at the school for engineers and he also moved in the networks of artisans to which Rembrandt probably also belonged. 

Rembrandt's famous portrait of Marten Soolmans (1634) from the National Museum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris.

Rembrandt's connection with Leiden University

Separately from the question of whether Rembrandt did indeed paint the portrait of Van Schooten, it is certain that Rembrandt had a connection with the then young Leiden University. The Leiden-born artist was enrolled in the University as a student of Literature, although it has to be said that this may have been largely due to the advantages it offered, such as exemption from military service. We also know for sure that Rembrandt painted several portraits of prominent men who had studied in Leiden. The best known of these are Marten Soolmans (Law) and Nicolaes Tulp (Medicine).

Text: Linda van Putten
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