Yannis Hadjinicolaou’s book, based on his PhD thesis, is concerned with Rembrandtesque handeling in the works of those students of Rembrandt who adhered to their master’s style after it began to go out of fashion around 1650. Hadjinicolaou argues that these students, chief among them Arent de Gelder, embraced and continued an “ideology of [Rembrandt’s] painting” in their own artistic handling. The word handeling, according to Hadjinicolaou, references aspects of both practice and theory. The practical component is the manner in which paint is applied to the surface of a picture, a topic that is certainly most relevant in discussions of Rembrandtesque painting methods. The factor of theory is explained as an intentional engagement of body and mind in the action of coloring, so that the concept, as it were, takes on a momentum of its own.
Organized into six chapters, Hadjinicolaou’s study begins with a discussion of the term handeling. The meaning of the Dutch word ranges from acts of touching and taking things into the hands – the etymological origin of the word – to a narrative of a story as in a plot. Rembrandtesque handeling, according to Hadjinicolaou, is capable of setting up action and the narrative in a picture. The chapter includes informative discussions of uses of the word in Dutch art literature and comparisons to references in other languages. Unfortunately, it does not draw clear distinctions between the meaning of handeling and other terms that appear in similar contexts but differ in origination, medial implication, and critical connotation such as manier, stijl, and wijze. Further in the chapter, the author discusses the dissemination of Rembrandtesque handeling in terms of local traditions and geographical transfers. The author argues that those students who tried to understand the essence of Rembrandt’s painting from the beginning continued his style after it fell out of fashion, while those who adopted Rembrandt’s manner only superficially dropped it at that time. This point is not easily proved, especially in view of Arnold Houbraken’s report (De groote schouburgh, 2nd ed., The Hague 1753, II, 21) that Govaert Flinck took great pains to cast off the manner he had adapted during his apprenticeship with Rembrandt.
In the second chapter, the author discusses Rembrandtesque handeling in terms of qualities of judgment and foresight as well as freedom and sprezzatura. Hadjinicolaou argues that intellectual elements are part of the practical exercise of Rembrandtist artists. In order to describe the interaction of both components, he uses the phrase ‘Denkende Hände’ (‘hands that think’). By comparing three paintings of an artist’s studio in different styles, the author illustrates how exalted attitude and painterly style are combined in Rembrandtesque handeling, something that has been observed in late works by the master.
The third and fourth chapters are concerned with materiality and application of paint. The author goes into remarkable detail about painting techniques of Rembrandtists, ranging from painting with visible brush strokes, to scratching and applying paint with the hands and fingers. Such painting practices signify imperfectness and are compared to the creative process of nature. Effects of kracht (‘force’) and enhanced vibrancy in Rembrandtesque works are explained by something akin to a principle of natura naturans taken to extremes. After close up views of artistic procedures in the middle of the book, the last two chapters extend to a holistic view on the physical engagement of beholders of Rembrandtesque works. The haptic quality of Rembrandtesque handeling and its stimuli of several senses are investigated in chapter five. The last chapter discusses the effects of visible brushstrokes (‘kennlijkheyt’ in terms of Van Hoogstraten) in Rembrandtesque painting. The rough structure of the surface appeals to both visual and haptic senses and thus forces the beholder to alter the distance by which he looks at a painting. Ways of looking at macchie or kennlijkheyt in paintings were discussed by contemporaries; Hadjinicolaou complements the statements with illustrative examples and offers explanations for the behavior of the beholder contained in scientific literature.
Hadjinicolaou’s study is carefully researched and well-illustrated. His central argument takes up a very old topic in Netherlandish art theory. The statement that the brains of Netherlandish painters are located in their hands was made by Domenicus Lampsonius in 1572, though in a rather disapproving manner (Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, Antwerp 1572, 11). Rembrandt knew how to work a persistent bias to his own advantage, and Hadjinicolaou manages to show that some of his students followed him deftly in this facility. De Gelder, Paudiß, and Drost enhanced components of Rembrandtesque handeling, but this augmentation did not, as a consequence, intensify the artistic effects in their paintings. And what would paintings by Flinck, Bol and the others who turned away from their master’s late style look like, had they never gotten in touch with his manner of painting? By limiting the discussion to the handeling of stylistically loyal students, the author categorically excludes any of the Rembrandtesque elements that survived in the new, fashionable styles of the breakaways. These painters may not be nearly as kennelijk and rough in their handeling as Rembrandt was, but neither are their works “fine” in manner. Between the extremes are many more facets of handeling, and they may yield more information about the effects of kennlijkheyt in the handeling and the impact of Rembrandt’s style.
Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main