Sometimes it is necessary to take a small step backward in order to get set for a long leap forward. Such was the sense of the exhibition “The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt,” sponsored by the Staatliche Museen Kassel and the Museum het Rembrandthuis Amsterdam in 2001-2002. The catalyst for the show was the conviction of the curator Bernhard Schnackenburg that a small tronie in Kassel, Bust of an Old Man with a Golden Chain (cat. no. 81), should indeed be attributed to Rembrandt despite its earlier rejection in the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (vol. 2, 1986, no. C83). Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project, much to his credit willing to reconsider many past positions of the Project, recognized the broader implications of re-opening the dialogue on this one painting. Rather than the originally envisioned exhibition focusing tightly on a single attribution, the collaboration produced a significant retracing of ground previously thought well-trod. Thus it seemed worthwhile to postpone the long-anticipated fourth volume of the Corpus in order to re-lay, practically and methodologically, some of the foundation.
The exhibition contributed thoughtful detours along three avenues: the beginnings of Rembrandt’s career, the relationship between his early fame and followers, and the examination of heads executed in “fine” and “rough” manners. These themes are explored in the catalogue entries (compiled by authors including Ed de Heer, Bob van den Boogert, Justus Lange, Beate Chr. Mirsch, Marieke de Winkel and Christiaan Vogelaar as well as the editors) and essays by Ernst van de Wetering (two, on Rembrandt’s beginnings and the limits of his autograph oeuvre), Dagmar Hirschfelder (on the term *tronie* and its meaning), Gerbrand Korevaar (on Leiden in Rembrandt’s time) and Bernhard Schnackenburg (on the “rough” manner).
To take the last issue first, Rembrandt’s stylistic evolution traditionally has too easily been divided into an early/late or fine/rough dichotomy. Within the range of contemporary styles, Rembrandt’s was never “fine” and in fact from the beginning was quite coarse and almost sculptural in defining form. He, like many young artists, tackled problems of representation, space, lighting and expression in fits and starts, with many types of inspiration. The more we understand the norm, the easier it is to see Rembrandt as normal; we can say this while still acknowledging his promise and precocious skills. This exhibition explored a subcategory of work – broadly executed character studies – that fell outside the straight and narrow formula of Rembrandt’s evolution originally adopted by the Rembrandt Research Project.
To our understanding of the beginning of Rembrandt’s career Van de Wetering and Schnackenburg contribute insights into the relationship between the young artist and his first known master, Jacob Isaacks van Swanenburg, all too often dismissed as a non-factor, as well as his relationships to Pieter Codde and Jan Lievens. These investigations lead to two new attributions to Rembrandt: Interior with Figures, called “La main chaude” from Dublin and Flight into Egypt from Tours.
The attribution of the latter is built on the case for the former, and in his essay “Delimiting Rembrandt’s Autograph Oeuvre – an Insoluble Problem?” Van de Wetering once again demonstrates that he is acutely aware of, and exceptionally able to express in verbal form, the procedures and pitfalls in building a catalogue raisonné. The “house of cards” risk is carefully measured against the intuitive conviction of similarities to accepted works. The process must be transparent, and the practitioner must maintain a keen awareness of footholds and reaches, expressing them in terminology that is appropriate to degrees of certainty.
That said, words sometimes fail, and consensus in a scholarly community is best built on personal interaction. To that end, a scholars’ day was held in Amsterdam at the conclusion of the exhibition, at which approximately 100 attendees were able to share opinions and present papers in an informal setting. Such events are enormously productive, even when they have an opposite effect than one would hope. Indeed, on many of the attribution questions central to the exhibition, particularly assignments to artists in Rembrandt’s workshop and circle, little consensus was reached. These gray areas are notably difficult because of our inability to “backtrack” from the moment of emergence of a young artist’s discreet identity to discern his earlier work while still heavily under the influence of the master or while still within the workshop itself. Van de Wetering’s essay confirms that this issue was addressed already in the seventeenth century. We must also guard against the opinion, expressed at the conference, that our inability to put a name on so many paintings means that the process is flawed, and that many of these works of high quality must be by Rembrandt himself. He had a large number of students; the fact that we know so many by name is pure happenstance, due in no small measure to the trouble that Rembrandt continually found himself in, resulting in many declarations made to notaries. That said, there were countless students we will never know, and some were quite adept at mimicking his skills. It is also important to remember that Rembrandt was hired by Hendrick Uylenburgh to lead a fully functioning workshop that had been in business for years under several prior masters. Moreover, the onus of attribution is always to make a positively-directed case: not “Why isn’t it by Rembrandt?” but “Why is it?”. The latter question is always more difficult.
Far too often, scholars engaged in a field as complex and well-published as Rembrandt studies focus too narrowly on issues of attribution, documentation or iconology. When confidence in a hypothesis is reached, it is easy to forget the speculative nature of the whole enterprise. For example, catalogue entry no. 7 (Bob van den Boogert) plausibly identifies the 1626 history painting in Leiden as The Clemency of Charles V but, in an otherwise fine contribution to the long-vexing question of this painting’s theme, refuses to consider the ramifications of the potential subject for its possible owner Petrus Scriverius on the grounds that any such hypotheses would be speculative. To my mind, there is much speculation going around, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we recognize it as such and use the appropriate terms. Applied to connoisseurship, the sooner we not only recognize – as Van de Wetering does – that some questions are insoluble, but take the next step and allow ourselves to be comfortable with that limitation on knowledge, the more we can challenge basic assumptions and move forward with a new set of questions.
Washington University in St. Louis