Full Name: Wetering, Ernst van de
Date Born: 09 March 1938
Date Died: 11 August 2021
Place Born: Hengelo, Overijssel, Netherlands
Place Died: Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands
Home Country/ies: Netherlands
Institution(s): Rembrandt Research Project and Universiteit van Amsterdam
Rembrandt expert and researcher, Professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam (1987 – 1999). Van de Wetering’s parents were Gerardus Hermanus van de Wetering, an electrical engineer and amateur artistand, Anna Maria Bahlmann a German. During World War II his father belonged to the NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland), the Dutch Nazi party, led by Anton Mussert (1894-1946). With the liberation of western Europe in 1944, his mother took the family to Hamburg to avoid a hostile Netherlands. His father was imprisoned for three years, all of which had a lasting effect on the younger Van de Wetering. Ernst Van de Wetering received his training as a painter at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. After having worked for a short period as a teacher of drawing, he enrolled, in 1963, as a student at the Institute of Art History of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). At the Institute, he met fellow student Katja Reichenfeld (b. 1942) in 1967, later also an art historian, and the two married. Meanwhile, in 1968, a team of leading Dutch scholars, including Josua Bruyn, Bob Haak, J. G. van Gelder, J. A. Emmens, Simon H. Levie, and J. J. van Thiel had formed the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). The group was convinced that the accepted number of authentic Rembrandts by previous scholars, most recently Abraham Bredius and Horst Gerson, was in need of revision through critical study, intent on publishing a critical catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s work. The same year Van de Wetering returned from a study trip in New York where he became convinced that a Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a collaborative effort between Rembrandt and Aert de Gelder (1645-1727). When he reported this to Bruyn, now a professor of Art History at the University of Amsterdam, Van de Wetering was invited to join the team as an assistant. He became a full member of the team in 1971. Two years later, in 1973, he graduated in Art History with a thesis–not on Dutch Golden Age art–but on the nineteenth-century German painter Hans von Marées (1837-1887). Rembrandt intrigued him and in 1977 his article “De jonge Rembrandt aan het werk” (The Young Rembrandt at Work) was published in the Dutch periodical Oud Holland.
Trained as a painter himself, Van de Wetering focused on Rembrandt’s working methods. In addition to Van de Wetering’s membership of the RRP, he served, between 1969 and 1987, as a staff member at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science in Amsterdam (now The Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, ICN). In 1986, he earned his doctor’s degree from the University of Amsterdam under professor Bruyn with a dissertation, Studies in the Workshop Practice of the Early Rembrandt. In 1987, Van de Wetering was appointed Professor of Art history at his Alma Mater, succeeding his former adviser. In the meantime, the first three volumes of the Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, were published in 1982, 1986, and 1989. They provoked much debate and controversy in the art world, as the attributions of many paintings to the master were ascribed to other painters. The continuing controversy over their decisions led to the resignation, in 1993, of the four founding members, Bruyn, Haak, Levie, and van Thiel. The directorship of the RRP was left to Van de Wetering, who advocated a different approach, opting for a thematic and scientific approach instead of the historical and chronological methodology employed by the others. In 1997, Van de Wetering published Rembrandt: the Painter at Work. In this book he thoroughly studied multiple aspects of Rembrandt’s studio practice, his method of working, and his painting technique, taking into account contemporary art-theoretical literature. In addition to his teaching and professional work, Van de Wetering was eager to communicate his insights to a larger audience, with an active program of lectures and public appearances. Van de Wetering retired as professor at the University of Amsterdam in 1999 and was succeeded by Eric Jan Sluijter (b. 1946) in 2002. Following his retirement, he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University (2002-2003). His 2009 publication, Rembrandt in nieuw Licht (simultaneously published in English as Rembrandt, A Life in 180 Paintings), focused on Rembrandt’s life based on seminal paintings. At the same time, he continued his work on the RRP, in collaboration with a team of specialists. This resulted in the publication of three additional volumes of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. The fourth volume, The Self-Portraits, appeared in 2005, and the fifth volume, Small-Scale History Paintings, in 2010. The sixth and final volume of the Corpus followed in 2014: Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited. A Complete Survey.
In 2016, Van de Wetering published Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking. In part II of this meticulous study, he attempted to find Rembrandt’s specific ideas on painting, analyzing the content of two Dutch treatises on painting, written by Karel van Mander, and Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678). Van Mander’s didactic poem Grondt der Edel vry Schilderconst (The foundations of the noble and free art of painting) appeared in 1604, as the first part of his famous Schilder-boeck (Book of Painting) in verse. Van Hoogstraten, who between 1643 and 1647 was a pupil of Rembrandt, rewrote and reorganized Van Mander’s poem in his 1678 didactic treatise, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst. Anders de zichtbaere werelt (Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World). Van de Wetering argued that the basic aspects of painting discussed in both these works played a significant role in Rembrandt’s own thoughts on the art of painting. This allowed Van de Wetering to embark on a path, in his own words, “towards a reconstruction of Rembrandt’s art theory”, of which that book merely provided a sketch. Van de Wetering was critical of what he saw as confusion and misunderstandings in previously published commentaries regarding the meaning and purpose of Van Mander’s and Van Hoogstraten’s treatises. Van de Wetering singled out for his criticism the 2008 study of Thijs Weststeijn, The Visible World, Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age. In 2003, Van de Wetering was made a Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion and in 2011, he received the Silver Museum Medal from the Community of Amsterdam. In 2020, he became an honorary member of the Association of Dutch Art Historians. In later years, he lived with partner, Carin van Nes. He died at home after a struggle with cerebral amyloid angiopathy and polyneuropathy.
Van de Wetering’s respect as an authority on authenticity, conservation and preservation of Rembrandt (and other) artworks found detractors as well as admirers. His evaluations of Rembrandt work were considered so conclusive–and had such impact on the value–that he was dubbed “the Rembrandt police” (de Lange). The art historian Gary Schwarz (b. 1940) described van de Wetering’s work as “deleterious to scholarship” because it essentially ended debate on a work’s authenticity (NY Times). The auction world celebrated this as sales of work authenticated by him greatly increased in value.
- [dissertation:] De jonge Rembrandt aan het werk. University of Amsterdam, 1986; sections published earlier as, “De jonge Rembrandt aan het werk/Studies in the workshop practice of the early Rembrandt.” Oud Holland 91 (1977): 27-65;
- and, Bruyn, Joshua; Haak, Bob; Levie, Simon; van Thiel, P. J. J.. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, 3 volumes, Boston, 1982 (I), 1986 (II), 1989 (III);
- Rembrandt: The Painter at Work. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997;
- Rembrandt in nieuw licht, Amsterdam, 2009, English, Rembrandt, A Life in 180 Paintings, Amsterdam, 2008;
- A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. IV: The Self-Portraits. Dordrecht, 2005; V: The Small-Scale History Paintings. Dordrecht, 2010;
- A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings VI: Rembrandt’s Paintings revisited: A Complete Survey Dordrecht 2014.
- Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking, Amsterdam University Press, 2016.
- “Ernst van de Wetering (1938-2021) Passed Away.” Codart News 14 August 2021;
- Frans Grijzenhout and Eric Jan Sluijter, In Memoriam Ernst van de Wetering (1938-2021) Universiteit van Amsterdam, 17 August, 2021;
- de Lange, Henny. “Ernst van de Wetering zocht naar de waarheid achter Rembrandt.” Trouw Aug 13, 2021.
- ”Ernst van de Wetering, Authority and Arbiter on Rembrandt, Dies at 83.” New York Times, September 3, 2021.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/03/arts/ernst-van-de-wetering-dead.html;
Contributors: Monique Daniels