One approach to the complexities of Rembrandt and his art is to divide the artist’s periods, works, themes, and associations, so that the small doses of the artist or oeuvre allow in-depth examination of a fraction of the whole. This is a practical approach, one that has been used in the 1999 self-portrait exhibition (London, National Gallery and The Hague, Mauritshuis: Rembrandt by Himself), and in the 1991 exhibition on Rembrandt and Lievens (Rembrandt & Lievens in Leiden, Leiden, Lakenhal). These two exhibitions and their catalogues are significant precedents for the Gardner exhibition, for there are overlaps in works and themes, and differences in scholarly interpretation. In the Gardner show, the limit of a three-year-activity for Rembrandt’s oeuvre allows a close study of the years around 1630. These years are those in which the young man emerged as a fully independent artist, achieved near-celebrity status through Huygens, and began to publish his imagery. Along the way, of course, Rembrandt created some exceptionally stunning paintings. The beauty of these images made the Gardner exhibition so successful, and the solid scholarship in the catalogue will serve as a resource for years to come.
The catalogue, by Hilliard Goldfarb, Michael Zell and Alan Chong, presents a limited range of Rembrandt’s work, but includes some rare etchings and early paintings that are not often on view. Among the most interesting to compare, for paired type and variation, are the St Peter in Prison (Private Collection) and the Jeremiah (Rijksmuseum), and the Selfportrait (Gardner) and Man in Military Costume (Getty). The Artist in his Studio (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) was a welcome juxtaposition with other images of the artist, whether or not by Rembrandt. The Tribute Money (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), ascribed to Circle of Rembrandt, is a puzzle, in style and composition; as an early imitation of Rembrandt, this painting offers, as do other similarly derivative works, a measure of reception. Rembrandt’s works seem to have been among those most often imitated in their own time.
The introductory essays, by Arthur Wheelock, Mariët Westermann, Christopher White, and Alan Chong, discuss issues and works beyond those examined in the catalogue. These include the presentation of personality through actions and art, economic and cultural circumstances in Leiden, technique, the myth of the young genius, and the reception by Huygens and others. Rembrandt’s ambition as a history painter seems to have taken shape early in his life, probably during his years at Latin school (where, in fact, he may have first had some art training – a topic worthy of further investigation). But Rembrandt was no child prodigy, and his artistic achievement was not precocious. Rembrandt’s Judas of 1629 was so highly praised by Huygens because it had two qualities in abundance: grand invention and exquisite execution. Huygens, who was especially receptive to images that evoked strong emotional response, is still among the most valuable witnesses to Rembrandt’s early life and art. His passages on Rembrandt and Lievens establish the two young artists as rivals within the rhetoric of artistic competition.
Huygens’s assessment of Rembrandt is bolstered, if ever it needed strengthening, by recent research that places the artist more firmly within circles of literary patronage. Only in November, 2000, a new interpretation of the 1626 Leiden history painting as the three Horatians before King Tullus was published in the Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis (vol. 99, 1/2) by P. Tuynman; shortly thereafter, a similar solution as the pledge of the Horatians to fight the Curatians was published in Simiolus (vol. 28, 1/2, 2000-2001) by J. Stumpel. Both authors used an obscure ‘rederijker’ play in order to establish the narrative text, which differs somewhat in the play from the standard version given by Livy. The very richness of the material surrounding the early works is a cause for amazement and celebration.