Rembrandt and the ethics of painting restoration


The portarits of Maarten and Oopjen by Rembrandt

The Rembrandts are coming home! In the past months the media have been full of it. The marriage portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit will return to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Two absolute master paintings of Rembrandt. Two of the most wanted and less exhibited paintings of Rembrandt. The portraits were part of a private collection and have been shown to the public only once in the past 150 years. That was in 1956 in the Rijksmuseum in celebration of the 350th birthday of the artist.

Netherlands – France

After a turbulent process with a political backdrop, the paintings have been bought for 160 million Euro by France and Netherlands. It’s absolutely unique that two countries together buy a painting. Thanks to this exceptional buy the two paintings will return to the public domain. Negotiations between the two countries took longer than the negotiations with the seller. After more than 4 months of talks the countries came to agreement on the paintings. To keep the couple together the two paintings will always be exposed together in turn in the Louvre in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


The restoration of the Rembrandts was one of the hardest discussion points during the negotiations. This was caused by difference in restoration culture between the two countries. In the Netherlands (and rest of the world) it’s common to remove surface dirt and an oxidated varnish as part of a standard cleaning. The French however, encouraged by a strong anti-cleaning lobby, tend to see yellowish varnish as time patina and as such as a part of the artwork.

The media and the public show a lot of interest for Rembrandt’s paintings of Marten and Oopjen which can now be seen again in the Rijksmuseum.

Ethical code

An art restorer works according an ethical code. An example of such a code is the internationally accepted standard Ethical Code E.C.C.O. Such a code provides guidelines and declarations of intend regarding the responsibility of the art restorer for the art object, and the relation with client and colleagues. An important rule is that the art restorer should always respect and follow the intentions of the artist and the art object as much as possible.

Interpretation of these ethical rules is often ambiguous and subject to subjectivity. We see this often happening, especially in situations where the art work has been undergoing changes over time. In such cases discussions may arise what to do with these changes during a restoration.

Full restoration would mean that some part of the artwork will get lost to get something else in return. But the changes may have been part of the artwork for centuries and as such have become integral part of the artwork, although the intentions of the artist didn’t include the changes. This creates a dilemma. In my previous blog post on the restoration of an Erasmus sculpture I have discussed such dilemma.

Basilica San Vincente in Avila

Another typical example of an ethical dilemma from my own restoration experience is the restoration of three sculptures in the basilica of San Vicente in Avila, Spain, in 1994. During restoration we discovered that under the 16th century sculptures other sculptures from the 12th century were hiding. This remarkable discovery was big news in the local media. It put all people involved for a serious dilemma: should the original 12th century sculptures be recovered during restoration? If yes, it would also mean destroying the 16th century sculptures. In close consultation between all stakeholders all pros and cons have been discussed. The governmental institutes with the final say decided to leave the 16th century sculptures intact. The 16th century sculpture had been an integral part of the local history for centuries, and it was seen as undesirable and inappropriate to destroy these sculptures. Many years later new technologies were used to visualize the sculptures from the 12th century and create a 3D replica.

The above images reveal that under each of the 3 sculptures another sculpture goes hidden. At the knees of each sculpture a part has been cleared to disclose the underlying sculpture. After the decision not to recover the original sculptures, the knees have been restored again to the 16th century sculpture.


Restoration of the Rembrandts

Back to Maarten and Oopjen. Finally Netherlands and France agreed that the restoration of the paintings will be carried out in the restoration studio of the Rijksmuseum and will be supervised by a committee of international experts.

Let’s hope this committee of wise people will follow the internationally accepted ethical codes and not choose for a political solution. Removing oxidized varnish and surface dirt is not considered as controversial, but as an unwanted side effect of the time patina. A half-baked solution where the varnish will only be removed partially, as done before by the Louvre, will bring more damage than joy.

The restoration of the paintings will disclose the true faces of Marten and Oopjen. Exactly as intended by Rembrandt in 1634.