Unparalled Lives

For much of the 20th century The Man with the Golden Helmet was esteemed one of Rembrandt’s greatest paintings. The brilliant play of light on the gilded helmet, the subject’s shadowed face and pensive, down-turned eyes, and the secondary glint off the metal of the gorget seemed to most viewers a bravura display of the master’s technique. But by the 1960s some scholars had begun to question whether Rembrandt had in fact painted it; and two decades later, after extensive analysis, a scholarly consensus arose that it had probably been done by one of Rembrandt’s students.

What are we to make of this? Is the painting still a masterpiece? Did we set too high a value on it when we mistakenly thought it a Rembrandt? It is still the same picture: do we get less pleasure from it now that we strongly suspect it to be by a lesser hand? Why did we love it in the first place: because it was a brilliant artistic achievement, or because (as we thought at the time) it was by Rembrandt? These questions have no simple answers. They are all related to the intractable problem of taste.

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