45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Specialty Group jointly with Research and Technical Studies, May 30th, “Re-examining Old Findings and Inferences: The Study of a Magus at a Table by Jan Lievens,” by Shan Kuang

This presentation by Shan Kuang focused on the technical analysis and reattribution of Magus at a Table from Upton House, National Trust.

Multiple versions of this composition exist, variously attributed to Rembrandt, circle of Rembrandt, Lievens, copy after Lievens, and so on. The attribution of this particular work has long been contested. The painting was listed as an original Rembrandt, then reattributed as a “copy after Lievens” after a 1983 examination. Dendrochronological analysis conducted at that time indicated that the tree from which the panel was fashioned was felled after 1660. Additionally, samples were taken and examined in cross section, and the results of this analysis seemed inconsistent with the painters’ techniques.

New scholarship on Lievens provided the impetus to reexamine the attribution, and the work was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for treatment and study in 2014. At this time, dendrochronology specialist Ian Tyres revisited the prior dating, questioning the methodology used and ultimately rejecting the 1660 date. This once again opened up the possibility that Rembrandt or Lievens had a hand in the painting.

New imaging technologies showed that an initial sketch had been revised significantly in the final composition and that the color of the table had been revised. Furthermore, macro X-ray fluorescence scanning revealed pentimenti that had been previously undetected by X-radiography. An arc of foliage that had been painted out by the artist was particularly notable. These changes indicate the likelihood that the painting is an original artwork rather than a copy. Additionally, such extensive reworking is fairly common for Lievens.

Previous analysis of the cross sections from the painting had concluded that copper green was present, which was used as evidence against attributing the painting to either Lievens or Rembrandt. However, re-examination of the cross sections indicated that the element copper actually corresponds to blue particles and that a mixed green is present, which is in line with the practices of both artists.

In light of this new information, the painting was reattributed to Lievens based on stylistic grounds and consistency of materials and technique. Shan presented this research logically and effectively, and the analysis of this painting provides an impressive case study of how re-examination of paintings – utilizing new research and improved technologies – can lead to exciting discoveries and contribute to our understanding.