Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn – The baptism of the eunuch (Copy of a lost painting)

Acts 8:26-40 tells the story of the apostle Philip and his encounter with an African eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The eunuch, supervisor of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia, is returning from a visit to the holy city and is engrossed in reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip explains the scriptures, convincing the eunuch that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The latter then asks to be baptised, a request the apostle fulfils. The painting depicts the main characters having just alighted from their coach. The eunuch has sunk to his knees at the side of a small stream and the apostle pours water from his left hand over the convert’s head. Grouped almost dramatically behind them are the vehicle, a man on horseback and other members of the moor’s travelling party.

Rembrandt turned his attention to this biblical tale a number of times. In 1626 he painted a first version, now in the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht (fig. 1).1 In or shortly before 1631 he produced a second picture – probably the basis for this copy – which has since been lost. Finally, an etching was completed in 1641.2 The two early works were undoubtedly inspired by Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman (cat. no. 33), who treated the subject a total of four times.3 Lastman’s mark can be seen in the composition and various other portions of the Utrecht painting, which was clearly influenced by all four of the older artist’s works on the theme.4

The picture here under discussion has always been described in the art-historical literature as an anonymous copy after Rembrandt’s painting of circa 1631.5 The attribution of the original model – which, as far as we know, no longer exists – is based on an exceptionally large print (fig. 2) by Jan van Vliet (1600/10-1668?). Van Vliet was the artist’s ‘house-etcher’ in this period and was responsible for the reproduction of a number of Rembrandt’s early works.6 Because the original has since disappeared, it is difficult to determine the exact relationship between the painting, the etching and the painted copy. The print, however, is executed with great subtlety, suggesting that Rembrandt himself may well have served as the engraver’s guide in a manner similar to Rubens and Van Dyck, who often worked closely with their own printmakers.7 If indeed the print was a cooperative effort, this could indicate that it follows Rembrandt’s original more or less to the letter. On the other hand, there are quite obvious variations between the etching and our painted copy. The vegetation at the lower left, for example, is missing in the print; the sky is brighter; and the generally lighter base tone makes the pile of figures seem to tower less threateningly above the two men in the foreground. Quite the opposite is the case in the painting, where a strong contrast of light and dark and a forbidding, cloud-filled sky create an almost sinister atmosphere. The light comes sharply from the left, creating the long shadows that fall over Philip’s left shoulder and the belly and chest of the horse. Clearly, the artist intended these light effects to lend a certain drama to his copy, appropriate to the emotional nature of the conversion scene. The daring placement of the figures also adds to the picture’s dramatic tenor. In terms of inventiveness, this solution is comparable to Rembrandt’s own manner of working – for example, in his Abduction of Proserpina (c.1631, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

The question then arises as to the maker of our painting. The complex circumstances surrounding the production of so-called ‘satellite works’ in and around Rembrandt’s studio in the 1630s, which are only now beginning to be clarified, have until recently made answering this question well-nigh impossible. However, the recent restoration and accompanying technical examination of our picture have produced some surprising results. The painting has an underdrawing, carried out in dark brown or black paint. Although infrared reflectography revealed little, a more or less complete impression of this underdrawing was made possible by the fact that the painter left gaps between the various areas, making it in some portions visible even to the naked eye (fig. 3). Here and there it also shows through the surface paint. From this it appears that the underdrawing and the etching are alike in every detail. The differences we see today must therefore have come about during the actual painting process. This is particularly true of the landscape elements, as the figures have remained faithful to the underlying model.

Another question that came to the fore was thus whether different artists had perhaps been responsible for the figures and the landscape. One indication for this is that in the execution of the landscape, space was clearly left open for the three main figures and the horse. It is around their contours that the lines of the underdrawing are most clearly visible. The landscape and the background figures, on the other hand, form a more organic whole, with more fluid and logical transitions. The most important argument in favour of two artists, however, is the stylistic difference between the landscape and the figures. The landscape is painterly, applied with a loose but practiced brush. By contrast, the figure painter works almost in the manner of an engraver: the eunuch’s clothing and the horse consist of crosshatched strokes – just as in the etching. The rider’s costume, too, has the same illogical striped pattern as in the print – a pattern similar to that found in the eunuch’s sleeve. The disparity between the foreground figures and the landscape becomes even more striking with the realisation that a large part of what is now sky was once taken up with trees. The figure painter apparently thought this was too much of a good thing and sought to make them disappear – with little success, as they are still clearly visible beneath

the rather thin top layer of paint, transforming the atmosphere of the whole work. The creation of this new background also meant that the figures in this area had to be painted over the sky, in order to achieve the necessary sense of depth.

In our search for the author(s) of our painting, we came across a number of interesting facts. For example, the measurements of the panel point to a Leiden provenance.8 Moreover, dendrochronological research revealed that it was most likely painted around 1636.9 This was the year Jan van Vliet stopped working as Rembrandt’s etcher, Lievens having ceased using his services some time before.10 These events forced Van Vliet to think of new ways of earning his living and he probably turned to painting. Our picture is a mirror image of the print, indicating that it is based on a Rembrandt model. This was not necessarily the finished work, however. In fact, it seems more likely that it was a drawing or, as was sometimes the case with large etchings, an oil sketch.11 Either one could still have been in Van Vliet’s possession.

In addition to a series of etchings after his own work, we also know of several paintings and a drawing by Van Vliet. In terms of style, his oeuvre is quite varied. One peculiarity found throughout, however, is an apparently uncontrollable need to give all his bending figures an arched back – preferably with a bar of light falling over it that contrasts strongly with the neighbouring colour. This can be seen in the figure of the kneeling eunuch in the work discussed here, and returns in one of the artist’s few other surviving paintings, St Francis at prayer, now in the Musée Denon in Chalon-sur-Saône (fig. 4).12 Based on these facts and arguments, one may cautiously suggest that the figures in the Baptism of the eunuch are the work of Van Vliet. Whether the landscape is also by his hand or that of someone else deserves further investigation.