Rembrandt van Rijn : The Tribute Money of 1629
The 17th century was a period of great change, when international trade and colonialism led to exploitative wealth generation, with the Netherlands at the forefront. Rembrandt, ambitious and entrepreneurial, was able to capitalize on the many opportunities provided by the growing and changing Dutch art market. In 1629 he turned 23 and, while still in his hometown of Leiden, was beginning to make a name for himself. Versatile, he worked as painter and printmaker and would later develop a reputation for portraiture and large figure paintings. In the late 1620s, his focus was on smaller-scale works intended for close viewing and generally painted on oak panels – ideal for developing a descriptive vocabulary in paint and exploring novel means of telling stories and creating drama.
Rembrandt’s The Tribute Money falls into this category. It depicts an episode from the Christian Bible: a group of men attempt to entrap Jesus, perceiving him as a radical threat to the religious establishment. They ask him whether taxes should be paid to the Romans, the occupiers of Judea. Calling the men hypocrites, Jesus avoids the trap and reminds them of the difference between earthly and divine power, "Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." This is the moment Rembrandt chose to depict, and he set the scene in what he imagined to be the architecture of the Temple at Jerusalem.
Since its discovery in the early 20th century, this work had been accepted as a Rembrandt by generations of scholars. The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) – a group set up to create a definitive list of the artist’s work – visited the National Gallery of Canada in 1972 to examine the painting, along with x-radiographs of it and other forms of photography. They had difficulty accepting the painting as Rembrandt’s work, in part because of its style and handling, and in part due to inadequate technical documentation. The RRP, comprised mostly of art historians, incorporated technical research into their investigations, but in this case, the information did not help them.
Dendrochronology is the science of dating wood by studying a tree's growth rings, which helps establish the approximate age of a tree when it was cut down. In 1981, the RRP requested that the panel of The Tribute Money be examined. The last growth ring appeared to date to 1610, to which a statistically-based number of years was added to account for wood that had been removed during preparation and for seasoning time. The dendrochronologist who performed the work stated that the tree could have been felled in 1625, but a date of 1630 was statistically more likely.
Since The Tribute Money is monogrammed RHL (Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden) and dated 1629, the RRP team could align the dendrochronology with their suspicions. They could now interpret the painting as one made by a close follower of Rembrandt, imitating his work from the early 1630s. In particular, they singled out Rembrandt’s Simeon’s Song of Praise of 1631, a work so similar in interests and focus that they felt it must have inspired the painter of the Ottawa panel. They acknowledged that this painter must have had detailed knowledge of Rembrandt’s technique and access to his studio, but still argued that it was not by him. They initially suggested it might be by Willem de Poorter, a contemporary of Rembrandt, who parroted his early work.
The publication of the first volume of the RRP catalogue in 1982 fundamentally changed the field of Rembrandt studies: although controversial and occasionally flawed, their work became the standard reference. Certain institutions challenged negative pronouncements, and some were successful. The Gallery defended the attribution to Rembrandt, but could not sway the RRP. In time, other scholars paid the work less and less attention, content to rely on the RRP’s opinion. The Gallery resigned itself to being unable to change the minds of those for whom this was authoritative.
In the early 1990s, the painting’s materials were analyzed by the Canadian Conservation Institute and found to be entirely consistent with Rembrandt’s practice. Although this helped push the painting closer to Rembrandt, it did not regain acceptance as a work by him. In 2002, the Gallery lent the painting to an exhibition on the young Rembrandt, organized by a member of the RRP. He listed it as “Circle of Rembrandt”, as before, implying that the artist and Rembrandt knew each other, but dropping any reference to a named painter, such as de Poorter. Not only was the attribution to de Poorter clearly untenable, but the lack of any other suggestion is potentially telling. The date was assumed to be around 1631 – as before – as the work was still seen as derived from Simeon’s Song of Praise.
As dendrochronology developed, statistical models changed. While the last extant growth ring is now dated to 1616, data shows that much less wood was typically removed and that seasoning time was shorter. This new model of calculation made Rembrandt’s use of this panel in 1629 entirely unproblematic. In fact, during the late 1620s and early 1630s, he appears to have often used wood that had been recently felled.
In 2016, the painting was re-examined and restored, offering new insight into its true nature. It regained a sense of space and the artist’s touch was seen to be more focused and lively. Improved x-radiography and infrared reflectography revealed a way of working that was entirely consistent with Rembrandt’s adaptive approach. For instance, the x-radiograph revealed a “reserve” – a space left for the figure group in front of Jesus, while the architecture was being resolved. When he came to paint the figures, Rembrandt ignored the reserve by making the men smaller, further ensuring that Jesus would be the focus. The imaging also showed the artist experimenting with architectural space: in the infrared reflectogram, we can see his first thoughts – arch-topped shapes, possibly an arcade, very similar to the preparatory drawing and the early stages of his painting Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver. Also from 1629 and considered his greatest work thus far, it shares many of the same concerns as The Tribute Money, and the genesis of both paintings must be interlinked; they were possibly painted at the same time.
In addition, a contemporaneous drawing by Rembrandt was used as a model for one of the figures, but reversed for pictorial and dramatic effect – as painted, the figure joins the brightly lit circle of men questioning Jesus. The x-radiograph shows underpainting for the figure’s raised hand that matches the drawing – although Rembrandt ultimately rejected this gesture, instead concentrating pictorial attention on the coin and making it clear that Jesus is the one talking.
His self-confident and even eccentric approach is also evident in his response to a contact accident that occurred during painting. In the x-radiograph we can see a dark shape on the column, above Jesus’ head, where sticky paint was somehow removed from the panel, pulling the preparation layer with it and exposing the oak. Rembrandt simply painted into the loss, leaving it visible, so that it reads like damage to the column itself. This is a bold thing to do on a painting that requires close looking.
The painting’s adaptive, creative nature and the intelligent use of a preparatory drawing point strongly towards Rembrandt. The technique, methodology, composition of the paint and painterly preoccupations are characteristic of the young, ambitious and developing artist at this exact time. These features included the means of storytelling, the integration of figures into fanciful architectural settings, certain compositional devices such as plunging perspectives, dramatic lighting, as well as the exploitation of touch and paint texture to descriptive ends. These are exactly the things that set the ambitious and developing artist apart from his contemporaries. Prior to the Project, The Tribute Money had been seen as key work in Rembrandt’s early career, intimately tied to the Judas and showing him working out problems he would then more fully resolve in Simeon’s Song of Praise. Reinstating this work in its place within his developing oeuvre tells us more about Rembrandt and sheds light on his struggles and experimental approach to picture-making.
The Tribute Money is on view in Room C205 at the National Gallery of Canada. Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 6, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.