This lively book examines the history of critical responses to Rembrandt from the artist’s own time to the present day. All ten contributors are Dutch, and the text was designed primarily for students at the Open Universiteit. For more advanced readers, it offers a cross-section of art historical methodology as it has developed around the study of Rembrandt, particularly in The Netherlands. The first half of the book traces the evolution of Rembrandt’s reputation up to the end of the nineteenth century, and the second half focuses on art historical scholarship since 1900. Topics addressed in the individual chapters include Rembrandt’s standing among his contemporaries (Thijs Weststeijn), the appreciation of Rembrandt’s art by eighteenth-century collectors (Everhard Kortes Altes), workshop methods and relations with students (Michiel Franken), prints and their impact on Rembrandt’s reputation (Jaco Rutgers), Rembrandt’s entrance into the canon of great artists (Evert van Uitert), the practice of connoisseurship (Anna Tummers, borrowing from her own important book, The Eye of the Connoisseur, 2011, reviewed here November 2012), the study of iconography as manifested in interpretations of Rembrandt’s Biblical imagery (Xander van Eck), how technical examination contributes to solving questions of attribution (Ige Verslype), the history of efforts to define Rembrandt’s oeuvre (Frans Grijzenhout), and Rembrandt’s place within the Dutch Golden Age (Rutgers).
The main focus of the book is Rembrandt as a painter. There is no chapter on drawings, a few of which are introduced in relation to other topics. The chapter on prints is designed primarily to show how their widespread dissemination contributed to Rembrandt’s fame as a painter, contextualizing his remarkable etchings in a marketplace that included numerous reproductions and copies. There are compact asides on Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Rembrandt’s impact on French eighteenth-century artists, and academic classicism. Franken’s essay on Rembrandt’s studio practice ends with a list of twenty-six documented pupils (103), leaving aside many more speculative associations. In summarizing recent research trends, Rutgers (173) observes that despite growing attention to Rembrandt’s status in the art market, his relationship to seventeenth-century art theory, and the reception of his work, the field remains preoccupied with questions of authenticity: how to determine which of the many “Rembrandtesque” works of art are really by Rembrandt and which not. The fact that the chapters by Franken, Verslype, and Grijzenhout all address this issue, while only one chapter (by Van Eck) concerns studies of iconography, reflects the dominance of object-centered, materialist research. Theoretical studies are hardly mentioned in this text, perhaps because the impact of this line of inquiry has been relatively modest in the Netherlands. The bibliography overall, no doubt catering to its intended audience, is thin with respect to English-language sources.
The volume is thoroughly illustrated, mostly in color. Representations of many of the critics and historians who have contributed to Rembrandt studies, from Sir Joshua Reynolds to Joos Bruyn and Ernst van de Wetering, help bring the history of research to life. The book concludes with thumbnail color illustrations of all paintings by Rembrandt discussed in the text, arranged in chronological order. There are 88 of them, a bit more than a quarter of the 330 paintings now accepted by the RRP, illustrating the diversity and stylistic development of Rembrandt’s painterly oeuvre.
In appraising scholarly tradition, the authors of this volume write with refreshing candor. An English translation would be welcome in order to reach a wider audience (Frans Grijzenhout’s book of 1992 in the same series was published as The Golden Age of Dutch Painting in Historical Perspective by Cambridge University Press in 1999), but readers who can tackle the Dutch are urged to savor the blunt, contemporary prose of this edition. (I suggest it as an exercise for grad students learning to read Dutch!) Although terms such as inzoomen (Xander van Eck’s rendering, 197, of the influential concept known by Christian Tümpel’s German term Herauslösung) may be already halfway to English, it will be a challenge to capture the flavor of Mieke Rijnders’s acerbic comment that, compared with Abraham Bredius’s firm confidence in his own connoisseurial eye (kennersoog), the RRP, endlessly dithering amid their array of technological aids, were a bunch of professional doubters (een stel deskundige twijfelaars, 6) or Jaco Rutgers’s description of Bredius and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, pioneers of archival research, as archiefsnuffelaars (172). Rutgers (10) makes the valid point that, after centuries of ups and downs, there is hardly anybody left today who will admit to not admiring Rembrandt. There is amusement but also food for thought in these observations. For scholars interested in the historiography of our discipline, the history of responses to Rembrandt outlined here offers a useful case study.