Rembrandt's Abraham's Sacrifice: Two
Versions of the Same Composition
This exhibition in the room of the School of Rembrandt draws on the collections of the State Hermitage and the Alte Pinakothek, Munich and provides visitors with a rare opportunity to compare two closely related but at the same time different compositions which reflect the evolution of a dramatic idea. The creation of these paintings relates to the time when Rembrandt had won fame as the best painter of historical subjects in Amsterdam.
The history of the patriarch Abraham as recounted in the Old Testament book of Genesis (chapters 12-22) was widely used in Dutch painting of the 17th century. According to the biblical tale, God promised to make Abraham the founder of a great people. To test the spiritual will of his chosen prophet, the Lord subjected him to many trials.
The earliest mention of the painting entitled Abraham's Sacrifice, which now belongs to the Hermitage, goes back to 1736. This work by Rembrandt painted in 1635 was one of the last acquisitions in the collection of Robert Walpole (1676-1745). In 1779 Empress Catherine the Great purchased the Walpole Collection to fill out the art collection of the Imperial Hermitage in St Petersburg.
The Munich canvas was first firmly associated with the name of Rembrandt in a list of items sold at auction in Amsterdam in 1760. Later the painting entered the collection of Prince Elector Carl Theodor of Mannheim. However, an inventory of this collection made in 1780 lists the painting as a work by Ferdinand Bol, a student of Rembrandt. This attribution persisted up to the end of the 19th century.
Rembrandt's works of the 1630's were repeatedly copied in his atelier, where they served as models for his students. These copies were highly appreciated and entered well known collections. Moreover, many artists made variations on Rembrandt's themes and sold them as originals in the master's hand. The appearance of a second version of Abraham's Sacrifice dating from 1636 and held in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, demonstrates these principles of work in the Dutch master's atelier.
Comparison of the two compositions leaves no doubt that they were done by different painters. The author of the Munich canvas followed the Hermitage original and "transposed " its images in a different and individual manner. The painterly style of this painting is noted for a broad, generalized and sketch-like manner, which is especially evident in the rendering of the raised hand and face of the angel, the details of which are hardly seen. In those places where the artist strictly follows the Hermitage details (the figures of Abraham and Isaac), their treatment is much simpler, the forms are rigid and the chiaroscuro is not richly nuanced.
Despite the apparent derivation from the Hermitage model, the second version has distinguishing features at the level of the composition itself. The most important of these is the portrayal of the angel, which appears not from the left, but from behind Abraham. This moving pose emphasizes the suddenness of the situation, but deprives the scene of "dialogue" between Abraham and the angel, which plays an important role in the original composition.
The version from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek does not have the portrayal of the bowl with fire; and it pictures the ram mentioned in the Bible as replacing Isaac, Abraham's son as the sacrificial object. There are also many small changes which are noticeable not only in the lay-out but also in the colors employed in the painting.
The identity of the author of the Munich canvas has not been determined. Most researchers believe it was Govert Flinck, who in 1636 completed his studies under Rembrandt. However, the mention of Ferdinand Bol in 18th century inventories remains a weighty argument.
This version, as well as several old copies that have come down to us, attest to the success of Abraham's Sacrifice, which embodies a brilliant artistic idea.