Rembrandt's 'Saul and David' (c. 1652) : use of multiple types of smalt evidenced by means of non-destructive imagingRembrandt's 'Saul and David' (c. 1652) : use of multiple types of smalt evidenced by means of non-destructive imaging
Faculty of Sciences. Chemistry
Research group
AXES (Antwerp X-ray Analysis, Electrochemistry and Speciation)
Antwerp X-ray imaging and instrumentation laboratory (AXiL)
Publication type
New York,
Source (journal)
Microchemical journal. - New York
126(2016), p. 515-523
Target language
English (eng)
Full text (Publishers DOI)
University of Antwerp
The painting Saul and David, considered to date from c. 1652 and previously attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn and/or his studio, is a complex work of art that has been recently subjected to intensive investigation and conservation treatment. The goal of the research was to give insight into the painting's physical construction and condition in preparation for conservation treatment. It was also anticipated that analysis would shed light on authenticity questions and Rembrandt's role in the creation of the painting. The painting depicts the Old Testament figures of King Saul and David. At left is Saul, seated, holding a spear and wiping a tear from his eye with a curtain. David kneels before him at the right playing his harp. In the past, the large sections with the life-size figures were cut apart and later reassembled. A third piece of canvas was added to replace a missing piece of canvas above the head of David. As part of the investigation into the authenticity of the curtain area, a number of paint micro samples were examined with LM and SEM-EDX. Given that the earth, smalt and lake pigments used in the painting could not be imaged with traditional imaging techniques, the entire painting was also examined with state of the art non-destructive imaging techniques. Special attention was devoted to the presence of cobalt-containing materials, specifically the blue glass pigment smalt considered characteristic for the late Rembrandt. A combination of quantitative electron microprobe analysis and macroscopic X-ray fluorescence scanning revealed that three types of cobalt-containing materials are present in the painting. The first type is a cobalt drier that was found in the overpaint used to cover up the canvas inset and the joins that were added in the 19th century. The other two Co-containing materials are part of the original paint used by Rembrandt and comprise two varieties of smalt, a K-rich glass pigment that derives its gray-blue color by doping with Co-ions. Smalt paint with a higher Ni content (NiO:CoO ratio of around 1:4) was used to depict the blue stripes in Saul's colorful turban, while smalt with a lower Ni content was employed (NiO:CoO ratio of around 1:5) for the broad expanses of Saul's garments. The presence of two types of smalt not only supports the recent re-attribution of the painting to Rembrandt, but also that the picture was painted in two phases. Saul's dark red garment is painted in a rough, "loose" manner and the now discolored smalt-rich layer was found to have been partially removed during a past restoration treatment/s. In contrast, the blue-green smalt in the turban is much better preserved and provides a colorful accent. While the use of different types of smalt in a Rembrandt painting has been previously identified using quantitative EDX analysis of paint cross-sections, to the best of our knowledge this is the first time such a distinction has been observed in a 17th-century painting using non-destructive imaging techniques. In addition to the XRF-based non-invasive elemental mapping, hyperspectral imaging in the visual to near-infrared (VNIR) region was also carried out. (C) 2016 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.