That such a major exhibition dedicated to situating Rembrandt in the competitive art market of Amsterdam could be successfully presented this year, after delays due to the world health crisis and its attendant difficult circumstances, is amazing. Having recently completed its run in Ottawa at the time of this posting, the show will be on view at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, October 6, 2021 – January 30, 2022. The two venues present different emphases. Many works on paper from the National Gallery of Canada, highlights of the museum’s permanent collection, are on display in Ottawa only. (The museum website has links to six programs presented virtually during the exhibition; these concern current Rembrandt research and reaction to aspects of the Dutch seventeenth century by contemporary artists.) The Frankfurt show will include paintings that did not come to Ottawa, notably mythologies and additional portraits. Those who might be able to see this show in both venues would be fortunate indeed. Having had the pleasure of attending the show in Ottawa this summer, I can attest to its illuminating conception and thoughtful design. This review focuses on the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Stated succinctly, this book, which treats topics ranging from categories of painting to the legacy of the artist, admirably succeeds. Twelve authors and nineteen essays examine Rembrandt’s place in Amsterdam from the city’s economic growth to its art production. The introductory essay by Stephanie Dickey establishes the trajectory of Rembrandt’s youth and career, his versatility in subject and medium, early partnership with Hendrick Uylenburgh, portraits and self-portraits, associates and patrons, personal life, finances, and collecting and dealing activities. These themes are examined in further depth in the subsequent essays.
Martin Prak surveys the economy, international commerce, governance, and politics of Amsterdam within the context of the Dutch Republic. Waves of immigration transformed the social fabric, and contributed with labor, capital, and creativity to prosperity. In order, three main immigrant groups were those leaving the Spanish Netherlands, Germans and Scandinavians fleeing the Thirty Years War, and Jews from Spain and Portugal.
Jochen Sander examines how Rembrandt’s signature evolved from his monogram to simply “Rembrandt,” an assertion of first-name recognition previously limited to Italian Renaissance artists. Along with “qualities of directness, dramatic story telling, details and light effects” Rembrandt distinguished himself by his brand name (86).
Jasper Hillegers locates Rembrandt within the Amsterdam art market, proposing that Rembrandt made contact with Uylenburgh by 1628, and moved to Amsterdam to manage his workshop 1631-1635. During these years, Rembrandt painted 97 known paintings, of which 44 were commissioned portraits, many for people with Mennonite connections to Uylenburgh. Of these, 33 were for Amsterdammers, six were for clients in The Hague and five were for sitters in Rotterdam. Some of these patrons also acquired histories by Rembrandt. Competition for portraiture at the high end was primarily Thomas de Keyser and Nicolaes Elias Pickenoy. Rembrandt’s infusion of movement and engagement with the viewer distinguished his portraits from theirs and later those by Govert Flinck, Joachim von Sandrart, and Ferdinand Bol.
Early portraits for clients outside Amsterdam, in The Hague, Leiden, and Rotterdam are discussed by Rudi Ekkart and Claire van der Donk. Although portraits were most often painted by artists living in proximity to their sitters, Rembrandt gained patrons far afield. The five Rotterdam clients portrayed by Rembrandt in 1633-34 were all Remonstrants. Johannes Wytenbogaert, the Remonstrant leader in Amsterdam who was painted by Rembrandt in 1633, may have recommended the artist in this network of confession.
For the first time since their separation in the eighteenth century, the 1635 pendants of Philips Lucasz (National Gallery, London) and Petronella Buys (The Leiden Collection, New York) are displayed together in Ottawa. Having met in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1629, the couple returned to Amsterdam in late 1633, presumably to get married; on May 2, 1635, they sailed for Batavia, where Philips was an officer in the East India Company, leaving their likenesses with family. The portraits were commissioned by Jacques Specx, Petronella’s brother-in-law, former governor general of Batavia and an owner of three Rembrandt histories. Although these oval panels are well known, their juxtaposition reveals how differently they are painted. Dickey points out that Petronella’s millstone ruff was on the way out, and may have been borrowed for the occasion, perhaps from an older relative for whom it was still appropriate. Her cap, lacy edge of the ruff, hair ornament, jeweled pin and gold necklace are painted brusquely, as if finished quickly after the couple had departed Amsterdam. Philips’s flat lace collar is more sturdily modelled than Petronella’s ruff; it was very much in vogue and marks his status as officer who traveled with the current fashion.
An Italian journey was not requisite for success. Jonathan Bikker examines Rembrandt’s international ambitions and patrons, noting that his teachers had spent years in Italy and imparted their experiences to him. Good Italian art was found locally, owned by the Coymans family, Gerard Reynst, Joachim von Sandrart, Lucas van Uffelen and Joan Huydecoper I.
Around 1650, a generational shift to younger artists working in a smoother, brighter, and more polished style tended to eclipse Rembrandt, although he still had cachet among elite and international patrons. This coincided with the first naval war of 1652, launched by England against the Dutch, and would be followed by the 1672 rampjaar and war with the French. The ways in which these developments played out in the art world, and specifically the vicissitudes of Rembrandt’s reputation and fortune, are discussed throughout these essays in various ways.
Rembrandt often blurred the boundaries between history, allegory, portrait, and genre, thus cultivating ambiguity, perhaps to encourage debate among connoisseurs (194). This exhibition is rich in such imagery. Among the women with much discussed identities are the Heroine from the Old Testament (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), here identified as Esther preparing to meet Ahasuerus, and the Woman in Bed (Sara Awaiting Tobias) (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). Another is the 1634 woman with a kneeling maid and an old servant in the background, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, a title given it in 1754 (Prado, Madrid). The nautilus cup reverentially offered by the kneeling maid and the large book that would contain eulogies in Mausolus’s honor seem to indicate Artemisia. Other artists understood the book as a sign of homage, and prominently displayed a huge volume in their paintings of Artemisia drinking the ashes (Willem de Poorter, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; Arnold Houbraken, Private Collection). Perhaps Rembrandt was considering how her identity might be flexible, to give us a topic for discussion?
Frederike Schütte’s essays examine the narrative qualities of Rembrandt and his circle, with the Blinding of Samson (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), mythologies, and representations of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. Although these paintings differ in scale and purpose, they follow the rules of rhetoric to give pleasure and moral instruction. Concluding that a turning point in a story conveyed its plot as well as its meaning, she quotes Van Hoogstraten on the popularity of such pictures: “illustrious histories are a dime a dozen” (211).
A brief chapter by Dickey is devoted to a document, the manuscript by Rembrandt to which the most attention has been paid. In one of his seven letters to Constantijn Huygens, Rembrandt succinctly sets forth his goal: to portray “the greatest and most natural motion and emotion” (“die meeste ende die naetuereelste beweechgelickheijt”) (220). Much debated, this phrase indicates both inner and outward movement, psychological as well as physical. To exhibit this sheet dated 12 January 1639 (The Royal Collections of the Netherlands, The Hague) along with paintings, prints, and drawings underscores Rembrandt’s confidence as an artist who could encompass the individual as well as the universal.
The ambience of the studio is evoked by divine messengers, represented by Maarten van Heemskerck’s departing angel in the woodcut The Angel Departing Tobias and His Family. Rembrandt cribbed this figure shamelessly and repeatedly. But if his students were made familiar with Van Heemskerck’s woodcut, they often relied upon Rembrandt’s iteration. Examples here are Flinck’s The Sacrifice of Manoah of 1640 (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston) and Jan Victors’s The Angel Departing from the Family of Tobias, 1649 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Both evolved from Rembrandt’s 1637 Angel Departing from the Family of Tobias (Louvre, Paris; not exhibited); Flinck apprenticed to Rembrandt, and Victors adapted Rembrandt’s inventions with his own glossy brushwork. This comparison demonstrates not only the force of Rembrandt’s imagery on both direct pupils and the broader milieu of Amsterdam artists, but also how a motif by an earlier artist was mediated by Rembrandt. One can almost hear his assignment: imitate Heemskerck’s angel, then make your own. Bol, Nicolaes Maes and Van Hoogstraten, among other pupils, took this to heart.
The full range of subjects and media is further discussed with respect to Rembrandt and his circle in shorter chapters by Dickey on daily life and the life of Christ, Martin Sonnabend on landscapes, and Sonia Del Re on drawings. While the landscapes by Hercules Segers and Rembrandt combine imaginative scenery with grandeur, those by Philips Koninck seem rooted in defined places; those by the Italianates, here represented by Jan Asselijn, in contrast, present a luminous idyll with ruins.
Robert Fucci’s examination of Rembrandt and the business of prints makes important points: several thousand impressions survive that were printed during Rembrandt’s lifetime; Rembrandt likely had a printing press in the Breestraat house (1639-1658); he may have also sent plates to a commercial printer; he printed small editions at various times and on different papers, as The Three Trees, dated 1643, was printed on at least 8 different watermarked papers during his lifetime. The exhibited copperplate of Clement de Jonghe, 1651, is singularly apt, as he came to possess 74 plates by Rembrandt (Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam). The likeliest explanation is that Rembrandt sold these plates to him in 1656 but made some arrangement to continue to have the use of them.
The final essay by Jan Blanc analyses how Rembrandt’s enormous reputation is a collective construction, due to the artist’s own strategies, authors who seized on his singularity, and to later commercial exploitation for products from vaudeville theatre to toothpaste. Examples of his significance for artists are legion, and selected here are Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Andres Serrano. Writers mentioned range from the serious scholar to the flippant critic. Blanc concludes that Rembrandt’s extraordinary success and fame are due to “the narratives surrounding his name and image” that he promoted during his lifetime (354); these could be exploited posthumously to enhance the narrative, whether legendary or actual.
Logan A. Richmond Professor of Art History Emerita