UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 2)

The first part of this exercise was posted 7-Sept-2013 and was an annotation of The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicholas Poussin.

The subject of the second annotation is Two old men disputing (1628) by Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt, held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

Harmenszoon van Rijn REMBRANDT Two old men disputing (1628) Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

Harmenszoon van Rijn REMBRANDT
Two old men disputing
oil on wood panel
72.4 x 59.7 cm
Image provided by National Gallery of Victoria

This picture is beautiful – luscious and rich, warm and enveloping.

Two men sit in a study, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of learning. They are deep in conversation, intent on a passage in the book held on the lap of one. A shaft of light from a high, unseen window falls between them, illuminating their discussion and casting the rest of the room into relative shade.

rembrandt_eyesOne man dominates the painting. He sits in the larger chair – apparently at his desk in his study, speaking to a visitor. His face is lit as he leans forward, making his argument. His body is expansive, filling the centre of the room, one side brilliantly lit the other side, in the centre of the painting, virtually the darkest area of all. His face is lined and his eyes rheumy, but still intent and focused. rembrandt_beardThere are still some flecks of brown in his white beard, still some vigour left.

rembrandt_candleThere is a clutter of books in bags, on a stand, almost falling off a stack on the floor. A shape which may be a globe looms behind. A half-burnt candle with wax running down can be seen, sitting on yet another book, suggesting the occupant studies late into the night. This is what matters in his life, the world of thought and ideas.

The man in brown, his back to the viewer, appears to be a visitor – is he wearing a travelling cloak? He sits on a lower stool, below the chair of authority, and listens. His feet are bare. Is he a supplicant or a disciple of the scholar he is visiting? A quill is laid beside the ink pot – perhaps he interrupted the owner busy making notes. I don’t get a sense of a dispute, more a debate, an exchange, an exploration.

Above I described the painting as “luscious and rich”, but in some ways it is austere. It shows an intellectually rich life but there is no overt wealth – the room and furniture look a little shabby. They are of no consequence. Much of the richness comes from the textiles which cover a large portion of the picture – the fringed brocade cloth draping across the desk, and their clothing, the possibly wool robes simple but warm and well-kept. The palette is also rich but limited – mostly golden yellows and browns, with some touches of pink and neutrals.

rembrandt_1It’s the light which captures me in this work. It could have a metaphorical intent – knowledge bringing light, or a religious message – but it’s the physical light that warms and attracts. It is reflected everywhere, shaping and defining the room and its occupants. The corner of the visitor’s robes, its border made up of small individual brushstrokes rather than lines or smooth shading, is lightened and brightened by the light reflected by the table drape.
rembrandt_3Zooming in still more (if you click on the thumbnail to the left) you can see the myriad colours, yellows and pinks, flecks that bring texture and depth to the picture.

rembrandt_2Where the brocade cloth spills onto the floor there is reflected light shaping the deep folds, an extra touch of comfort. You can see the highlights and shadows (but not dark shadows, no lost detail) of the scholar’s face above. The glints in the eyes enliven the whole face, bringing personality and that sense of piercing intellect.

It is interesting that in a painting so full of light the centre is such heavy, dark shadow. I found my eyes circling around it, unable to piece it, and enjoying the contrasting detail and warmth around it. Some sense of depth to the room is suggested by the shadows behind the globe (if that’s what it is), but the focus remains at the front of the picture plane in a fairly shallow area containing the two men and the desk, centered around that shaft of light connecting the two scholars.

Although there is a lot of texture in the picture, including the background stucco (?) wall, the old wood on the left and all those textiles, there seemed to me an overall uniformity in the paint strokes in the foreground and highlighted areas and in the background. This work was painted in Rembrandt’s early Leiden period, when he was about 22 years old.

rembrandt_2372_handHanging next to it at NGV was another Rembrandt from near the end of his life – Portrait of a white-haired man (1667), see I didn’t spend much time with this work, just enough to notice the difference in the brushwork – so varied and fluid and uneven, none of that sense of painstaking precision. Although so different both seem to me to have a sense of assurance, of purpose.

Two old men disputing was bought around 1934-36 for the NGV. The actual purchase was by the Felton Bequest – a massive bequest from merchant Alfred Felton in 1904 (Mangan, 2004). There is an independent Committee managing the bequest, interacting with the Council of Trustees of NGV. This arrangement became very difficult when the Rembrandt, previously thought lost, appeared in Amsterdam having been in a private family collection in England. Bernard Hall, then acting as London adviser to the Felton Bequests Committee and a former NGV director, made the discovery and urgently recommended purchase. A long and frustrating process followed, the Council of Trustees keen and the Bequests Committee dubious about the painting’s authenticity (Perkin, 2006).

Obviously in this case the concerns were allayed, the painting was purchased and the attribution appears to be sound. However on the same wall of the gallery, alongside Two old men disputing and Portrait of a white-haired man is a third painting – Rembrandt (1660s), purchased by the Felton Bequest in 1933. It was then thought to be a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The NGV online collection listing today shows artist/s name REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn, REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn (studio of) ( The painting hung on the gallery walls for fifty years, a star attraction, before the attribution was revised in 1984 to “Unknown”, and subsequently revised again to “studio of” ((Maslen, 2006) and National Gallery of Victoria (2007)). The NGV website doesn’t seem to have a photo of Rembrandt, but I found a couple in other sources (linked below) which show an interesting contrast in the authors’ responses to the work as a fake.

The first is at Here W H Chong wrote “I’ve always thought it was a very good piece, and if it was by another hand it means that the other painter had very good eyes and hand, too” (Chong, 2011). Chong has done his own sketch from the work as a way of exploring its structure and leading on to comments about the nature of portraits.

In contrast at Boyle used photography and photo-manipulation to investigate well known paintings and perceived value, with one conclusion being “Our perceptions of art are very strongly influenced by our knowledge of the status of the artist who created the work” (Boyle, 2012. p. 2). Boyle “reverently admired” the Rembrandt in the 1970s and 80s. Revisiting the work with the knowledge that it was not painted by Rembrandt, Boyle identified “an anatomical impossibility” (Boyle, 2012. p. 33) and poor draughtsmanship (Boyle, 2012. p. 13).

My own experience of “what’s in a name” came while studying Two old men disputing. A woman walking through called her child over to look at “this one by a really famous painter” – pointing at the only work hanging on the wall which wasn’t a Rembrandt. Having already read the label I felt slightly superior in my better information – a reaction rather unattractive and nonsensical, but not I think unique. I’ve been musing since on whether knowing the artist should make a difference to my response to a work.
* Clearly there’s a difference in financial terms. Estimates for the “Rembrandt” fell from $3 million to less than $54,000 (Maslan, 2006).
* We may be unduly influenced by the perceived status of the artist, as described by (Boyle, 2012). On the other hand it seems a good idea to try to approach each work on its own merits – after all, not every item produced by a master is a masterpiece.
* We can have a sense of history, a sense of connection to another, when looking at a work. When I was able to see and touch the Book of Hours (posted 17-July-2013) I was thinking of the person who may first have used it, rather than the artist(s) or artisan(s) that created it, but it’s still that feeling of a link to another person, another time.
* I want to look at work which is an authentic expression of a person’s creativity, part of their artistic exploration, and certainly not falling off the end of a cynical and deceptive production line (this thinking of forgeries rather than mis-attributions). I don’t know how that fits with the Book of Hours, or the Italian plate (posted 28-July-2013), or any work created because a person wanted to eat as much as or more than they wanted to express their inner thoughts.
* As I learn more it becomes really interesting to look at a work in context – what was happening in the world around at that time, influences on the artist, work they did before and after. All that becomes meaningless if a work isn’t what it purports to be.
* Attributions can change, and change again, as seen with the “Rembrandt”. Both Art Historical knowledge and the technology available continue to develop. Another revised attribution at NGV is a work previously thought to be by van Gogh, and a report by the Van Gogh Museum and the NGV response is available at The museum’s art historical investigation included literature, provenance, the identity of the sitter and style of the painting including comparison to known works of van Gogh. The technical examination used light microscopy, x-radiograph, analysis of thread and paint samples and more. The NGV’s response, at the same link, is worth reading.

I’m sure I’ll learn and think more on this, but the immediate conclusion is that I am very happy that NGV has continued to display both the “Rembrandt” and the “van Gogh”.

It hasn’t quite fit into this particular post but I want to mention one other resource I found while researching Two old men disputingArticulating Desire by Leonie Watson. Watson’s discussion on the depiction and use of light in Two old men disputing is detailed and rather different to mine, especially where she finds a “central brightness” and definitely not a “central dark void” (Watson, 2012, p. 30), while I was disturbed by my eye circling around a central deep shadow. In addition to light Watson discusses the use of drapery and folds in artworks. She doesn’t discuss the Rembrandt specifically in this context, and I found her discussion beyond my current grasp. I hope to return to it another time.

Reference List

Boyle, M. (2012) Do you like my pics?: Exhibition and exegesis as self reflective study. Master of Education thesis. Victoria University. [online] Available from: (Accessed 12-Sept-2013)

Chong, WH (2011) Self-portraits: why do it? (Rembrandt in NGV’s “Naked Face”) Crikey 8 February 2011 [online] Available from: Accessed 12-Sept-2013)

Mangan, J. (2004) The bequest of a century The Age 12 January 2004 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Maslan, G. (2006) Fakery in the frame The Age 12 August 2006 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

National Gallery of Victoria (2007) Head of a Man Background Information [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Perkin, C. (2006) Oh! We’ve lent the Rembrandt The Age 25 February 2006 [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Van Gogh Museum (2007) Summary Report: Examination of Portrait of a man [online] Available from: (Accessed 13-Sept-2013)

Watson, L. (2012) Articulating desire. Doctor of Creative Arts thesis. University of Wollongong. [online] Available from: [Accessed 8-Sept-2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p2-Ex Annotate two seventeenth-century art works (part 2)
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project two: The age of Baroque
Exercise: Annotate two seventeenth-century art works

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

September 2013

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



%d bloggers like this: