Two Hands, Two Styles, One Masterpiece
The Story Behind The Boka Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt Van Rijn and Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp
It’s a lazy, sultry Sunday — prime time for browsing art connoisseurs and antiquarians on the prowl for collectibles. An otherwise unremarkable August afternoon in 1980 is about to be transformed into a historic day of monumental importance in the world of art history.
Destiny has placed her gentle hand on the broad shoulder of unassuming painter and art historian Georges Boka, directing him across the threshold of an obscure antique shop nestled in the Laurentian mountains, 25 miles north of Montreal.
Within minutes, Georges will reach into his pocket and pull out a $100 bill to buy an old painting — 10.63 inches x 12.598 inches — executed on a beveled piece of mahogany wood. For the next 18 years, he will work relentlessly to research and prove that this odd little painting is a previously undiscovered Rembrandt done in 1631 in conjunction with one of the Master’s students, Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp...
Look of love
When he first fixed his eyes on his newly-acquired Rembrandt on that August afternoon in 1980, he immediately recognized its Rembrandtesque qualities, but thought it must be a copy. At every red light beween the antique shop and his home, 20 miles away, he studied the mysterious scene of shepherds and angels bathed in a radiant light.
By the time he reached his destination, Georges was convinced that the painting bore two hands — that of a Master in the upper and lower left portions showing cherubim and a dove in the golden light; and that of a student in the lower right which portrays poor shepherds huddled around a baby and a sheep.
Once home, he noticed that the painting was fluorescent yellow when examined under an ultraviolet light, leading him to conclude that it was more than 300 years old.
The more he studied the scene, the more the clues pointed to Rembrandt as the Master who had left his mark. He noted that the mahogany panel was professionally prepared and that the different layers of paint had never cracked.The long, bold strokes in the upper left corner where the light falls from the heavens showed a deft hand.
The greenish background preparation was indicative of Rembrandt’s Leiden period. There were other signs of Rembrandt’s presence — the precision of the angles in which the light fell, the fine details of the cherubim and dove, the depth, color and shadow of the sheep in the background, the dynamic movement of the cherubim and the anatomical perfection of the sketched characters in the lower left portion.
The painting clearly contained more the hand of Rembrandt than of his student. Its unity — including the lower right portion which had been completed by a less accomplished artist — convinced Georges that Rembrandt had probably sketched the entire composition ahead of time after preparing the panel and putting on another undercoat of special yellow-green.
Then Rembrandt put on a coat of yellow creating the desired atmosphere and quickly painted the ethereal light which bathes the dove and cherubim. Next, he painted the characters on the left-hand side. Only after the Master had finished did he turn it over to one of his students to practise on the lower right portion of the composition.