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A Fallen Star

August 4, 2013

She was once a star attraction with people paying good money to wait in line just to gaze at her tender expression. A place of honor was afforded her, a spacious wall with excellent lighting to show her off to best effect. You might not think her worthy of such attention; she isn’t young or beautiful or sexy, but she came with one of the best pedigrees on earth for a painting—she was created by Rembrandt van Rijn. Or was she?


Stars never come cheap, and in 1908 one of America’s greatest art collectors, Benjamin Altman, paid just under $150,000 for Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, an unthinkable amount of money in its day. Altman relied on more than his own expertise when purchasing this painting. His admiration was bolstered by most of the art critics of his day who declared the painting a triumph from Rembrandt’s last and most exalted period, a feat of delicate harmony, the face emerging from the preternatural abyss from which the human soul was spawned—a masterpiece of the highest order. In 1913 Altman bequeathed the painting to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where it hung in a place of honor for over fifty years.


Then in the mid ‘60s the painting was stripped from its position of honor and demoted to a dark room in the Metropolitan’s basement where it can be seen today if one looks hard enough. What happened to this revered icon of the art world? What crime did this painting commit that sent it plummeting from favor? Just this—today it’s believed that Rembrandt didn’t paint it.


People often ask me how to tell a good painting from a bad one. I don’t have a pat answer because, like all subjective things, art is judged by a variety of factors. The #1 rule for art collectors, people whose sole concern is the value of their collection, is this: Better to buy crap by a master than a masterpiece by an unknown artist. Even today this premise is reflected on the walls of the Met, where a few hideous but authentic Rembrandts hang in place of Old Woman Cutting Her Nails.


Who were these critics who kicked this poor old woman off her pedestal? Were they artists who knew what they were talking about any more than the critics who placed her on that pedestal in the first place? I wonder. I believe the person who once wrote: When God made artists he created critics from the scrap that was left over. It’s also been said that art critics are like eunuchs; they want to perform but just don’t have the proper equipment.


My intention is not to convince you that this painting, which hasn’t altered in any way since being painted, is a masterpiece. My focus is to point out that a signature on a painting (forged in this instance) shouldn’t be the paramount factor in deciding its value. For fifty years this woman cut her nails while people swooned at Rembrandt’s brilliance. Were these people wrong? Were critics in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries who ranked this painting so highly wrong? Are you wrong to admire it? The answer to all these questions is NO.


Unlike Benjamin Altman, I don’t have a fortune to spend on expensive paintings, but my home is filled with great art. What makes it great? It’s great because I say so. And really, who else matters? No one looks at this art more than me, and I have no intention of bequeathing my collection to anyone and doubt anyone would even want it. My collection reflects the joy I experience when gazing at worthy pictures pulled from garbage cans at local art colleges, paintings that, in my opinion, are masterpieces even if created by unknowns.


The next time you’re in New York take time to visit the Met’s Rembrandt collection on the second floor, then descend to the basement for a view of Old Woman Cutting Her Nails. She looks pensive these days, even though she didn’t do anything wrong. But she’s a patient old woman, biding her time and waiting for the pendulum of opinion to reverse itself, anticipating the day when a fresh group of critics return her to her starring role upstairs.


I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you, but bring a coat. It’s chilly in the basement.       





This reminds me of a preview I saw yesterday for this "American Hustle" movie where two characters are looking at a "Rembrandt" that's actually a fake. I wonder if that was based on this story?
By: PT Dilloway on August 4, 2013
It sure LOOKS like a Rembrandt!!
By: fishducky on August 4, 2013
Your definition of snobbery is spot on. S
By: Scott Park on August 4, 2013
Art is really a personal thing. Just as in wine or beauty.
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 4, 2013
To me some art is wonderful not because of who painted it but how it affects me- I look at some so called great contemporary art and I go "Really? Looks like crap to me." Our home is filled with paintings and sculptures that make our home so personal and enjoyable. Each piece has a story to us. To call this gorgeous work of art worthless because someone other than Rembrandt put the paint on the canvas is ridiculous. Thanks for the art history tid-bit and have a great day!
By: Kathe W. on August 4, 2013
whether done by a 'master' or not, she is masterful.
By: TexWisGirl on August 4, 2013
We have a few original oil paintings on our walls (nothing expensive, the most we've paid is $400). All I know is that the ones B picked out are really nice. The one I picked out looks like crap.
By: tom sightings on August 4, 2013
I was unaware of this story-thanks for the art history. I agree with your sentiment and love your comment about critics! Stellar!
By: Tom Cochrun on August 4, 2013
Beauty should be in the eye of the beholder, not in the pedigree or price tag. I quite like that painting-
By: Shelly on August 4, 2013
Hah - this story reminds me of the new book by J.K. Rowling, written under a pseudonym. One publishing editor, who didn't know that she had written "The Cuckoo's Calling" turned down the novel. Interesting...
By: Pixel Peeper on August 4, 2013
Art appreciation is personal as the painting needs to connect with the person looking at it in a certain way, and we are all thankfully different. I think this is a beautiful painting and well done, whether by Rembrandt or another. It certainly doesn't deserve relegation to the basement! Thank you for sharing her story, Stephen, it's an interesting post.
By: Sharon Bradshaw on August 4, 2013
I agree with you! Art appreciation is definitely subjective. And there's also a difference in appreciating something for its technical skill and for its beauty. (Sometimes those things even happen together!).
By: The Bug on August 4, 2013
Well, she sure beats dogs playing poker.
By: Val on August 4, 2013
Art is what you love, and she is beautiful.
By: mimi on August 4, 2013
My dad always told me, "Taste is not to be disputed." Whether it's a painting on a wall or a flavor of ice cream--beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
By: Nancy Felt on August 4, 2013
You are so right about things subjective. there are pendulum swings. Yes this picture could be again highly valued when a critic who has clout decides this is a Rembrandt again.
By: Red on August 4, 2013
I'll take Vargas over Rembrandt any day, except for the resale value.
By: JoeH on August 4, 2013
A nice article. I wonder who forged Rembrandt's signature. If the original artist did, why?
By: David Walston on August 4, 2013
A great tale, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
By: John on August 5, 2013
Can't help thinking of words like "beauty", "eye" and "beholder".
By: Brighton Pensioner on August 5, 2013
"Better to buy crap by a master than a masterpiece by an unknown artist". I busted out laughing! No since I revisited a Playboy interview with Jack Nicholson was my sense of humor tickled this much! But I agree.
By: Michael Manning on August 6, 2013

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