Rembrandt’s last portrait print came about because, on 22 December 1664, the artist’s son, Titus, who lived with his father in Amsterdam, happened to be walking down the street in Leiden when he was hailed by the publisher Daniel van Gaesbeeck, who asked him if he knew a good engraver (‘een curieus plaetsnijder’). When Titus recommended his father, Van Gaesbeeck was understandably skeptical for he needed a portrait that could be published in a book, Jan Antonides van der Linden’s edition of Hippocrates’s collected writings; Rembrandt was known for his etchings, not for his engravings. Nonetheless, Titus was convincing. Not surprisingly, however, the resulting posthumous portrait of Van der Linden, which Rembrandt made with his customary combination of etching, dry point and engraving, was much too fine and delicate to be published in the book. Titus was at this point legally in charge of his father’s finances and business. We do not know what it took him to persuade Rembrandt to undertake a commercial commission that went so against the grain of his previous portrait print production. Presumably it was for the money.
Rarely do the documents spell out so precisely how one of Rembrandt’s portraits came about; and, as we learn from Stephanie Dickey’s intelligent analysis, rarely, too, were his portrait prints either motivated by such exclusively commercial concerns or so clearly the product of happenstance. The contribution of Dickey’s masterful Rembrandt: Portraits in Print is to piece together as clear a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding the genesis and reception of the seventeen portraits and three formal self-portraits that Rembrandt etched over the course of his career. Dickey argues, absolutely convincingly, that Rembrandt’s etched portraits and self-portraits ‘record his contribution to an aesthetic community celebrated in 1660 as a ‘Dutch Parnassus,’ a circle of artists, authors and art lovers that included not only associates and patrons of the artist, but also poets such as Joost van den Vondel and Jan Vos.’ (11) She demonstrates that, to a remarkable degree, Rembrandt’s formal portraits were of people he knew and with whom he shared aesthetic and artistic interests, and that they were part of a broader cultural production, testifying to ‘a fascination with the articulation and celebration of individual character and accomplishment.’ (11)
By examining Rembrandt’s portrait prints against the conventions of a genre that tended to have inscriptions, be engraved reproductions of paintings and/or be circulated in series, Dickey brings out the unconventionality of Rembrandt’s etchings, which were produced independently, as original works of art, mostly without inscriptions, and never in series. In her epilogue, Dickey quotes the poet Jeremias de Decker, who wrote in 1667 that Rembrandt painted his portrait ‘not in order to spin an income from it, but purely out of good will, as a noble offering to our Muses, [and] out of love of art.’ In illuminating the ‘private, aestheticized nature of his production’ and its suitability for the intellectual interests of his clients, Dickey shows us the extent to which the motivation of ‘love of art’ was not just an abstract ideal, even when it was necessary, also, to make a profit. It is most refreshing to see Dickey go against the current trend to commodify Rembrandt’s production when she writes, ‘his increasing defiance of prevailing taste makes it difficult to conclude that his motives were purely mercenary. [His] Etchings, especially, appear to be the product, in most cases, of a close association between artist and sitter. It was among the humanists and connoisseurs of Amsterdam that these relationships developed.’ (25)
Dickey’s book expands on and develops her 1994 Institute of Fine Arts dissertation. Her approach is associative; indeed, it is a model of the method advocated by Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, which is to examine all the associations that the work of art would have had for the artist and his contemporaries. The result is an incomparably nuanced, subtle and thorough understanding of the motivations behind, the meanings and reception of, and Rembrandt’s stakes in virtually each of the portraits. What becomes absolutely clear is that each likeness came about under highly individuated circumstances and that Rembrandt treated each sitter as an individual. Just as clear, though is that however singular and original his portraits may have been, they were produced in dialogue with the period’s portrait conventions and traditions.
Dickey approaches her material chronologically and, thus, begins with Rembrandt’s first truly ambitious formal likeness of himself, the flamboyant Self-Portrait in a Hat and Patterned Cloak , which he etched in 1631, the year he left his native Leiden for the greater challenges and opportunities of Amsterdam. This was also the year in which he painted his first formal portraits. Dickey rightly brings out the extent to which, in this self-portrait, Rembrandt relied, at least initially, on the model of Anthony Van Dyck’s print series of uomini illustri , the so-called Iconography , to fashion for himself an international courtly guise that may have been intended to appeal to potential clients associated with the court in The Hague. Through close analysis of three impressions of intermediate states of the etching that Rembrandt retouched with black chalk, Dickey reveals ‘a shift in direction away from Van Dyckian swagger’ toward a more prosaic image that was more in keeping with the reality that he would be working for an Amsterdam burgher clientele not yet ready for courtly glamour.
Chapter 2, ‘Burning with Zeal for God,’ treats Rembrandt’s etched portraits of three preachers in scrupulous detail, to bring out how they at once met a broad demand for inspirational images of religious leaders, arose out of particular, varied circumstances, and transformed existing traditions for representing saints and scholars in their studies. Rembrandt, Dickey demonstrates, develops from suggesting ‘interiority through the depiction of an abstracted or introspective gaze,’ (34) in his first formal etched portrait, dated 1633, of Jan Cornelis Sylvius, to characterizing these preachers as extroverted scholars, as in his second posthumous portrait of Sylvius of 1646. Dickey uses the three religious men – the Reformed pastor Sylvius, the Remonstrant leader Johannes Wtenbogaert, and the Mennonite preacher Cornelis Claesz Anslo – to elucidate just exactly what was at stake in the complex of Protestant factions that colored spiritual and political life in Rembrandt’s day, and to demonstrate that Rembrandt was ecumenically liberal from the outset. This chapter also brings out the range of associations Rembrandt had with his sitters, from Sylvius, who was a relative by marriage, to Anslo, whose portrayal, Dickey argues, demonstrates Rembrandt’s ‘courageous sympathy with the movement to which so many of his acquaintances belonged.’ (49)
With Chapter 3, on The Goldweigher , the allegorical portrait of Jan Wtenbogaert (cousin of Johannes), who was Holland’s Receiver-General or chief tax collector and also an art collector and notable patron of painters and poets, Dickey begins to build the detailed descriptive analysis of the circles of art lovers, poets and artists who made up Rembrandt’s cultural milieu. Jan Wtenbogaert, whom Rembrandt portrays as ‘virtuous steward of the public funds’ (88), was representative of the many regents and burghers who aspired to the ideal of the mercator sapiens (wise merchant), advocated by Caspar Barlaeus, who called for the ‘citizens of Amsterdam to bring about ‘a union of Mercury and the Muses’ by combining a love of profit with a love of learning.’ (81) So too was Jan Six, whose etched portrait, Jan Six in his Study , of 1647, is sensitively discussed (in Chapter 5) as a conceptual and technical tour de force befitting the new ideal of gentlemanly learned introversion. As Dickey points out, Rembrandt’s three most ambitious etched portraits – the images of Jan Wtenbogaert and Jan Six, along with that of the print collector and apothecary Abraham Francen (Chapter 7), each of whom is shown in his office or study – depict men ‘whose complex ties to the artist involved financial as well as aesthetic matters.’ (145) These are also men of greater wealth and higher status than the painter Jan Asselijn, the print dealer Clement de Jonghe, and the silversmith Jan Lutma, whom Rembrandt portrayed more modestly.
Rembrandt also portrayed himself more modestly than he did his collector friends and acquaintances. Dickey may be right that the 1648 Self-Portrait at a Window (Chapter 6) draws on the pictorial tradition of the scholar in his study, but the type has been so transformed as to be virtually unrecognizable. The study has become the studio, in which the sole evidence of scholarship is the book that Rembrandt reduces to a support on which to rest the plate he is etching. Although Dickey rightly raises questions about Rembrandt’s quite literate but essentially non-literary relation to the written word (16), she does not extend this discussion to show how markedly Rembrandt differentiates himself from such erudite contemporaries as Jan Six.
The differences between Rembrandt’s relatively straightforward images of art producers, including himself, and the much more elaborate portraits of the art lovers, with their detailed interiors, raises questions of status that Dickey might have delved into in greater depth. The union of Amsterdam’s intellectually sophisticated economic elite with artists as a ‘Brotherhood of Painting’ – at auctions, in kunstkamers and studios, on the occasion of St. Luke’s day feasts, and through poems about images – is evidence of a breech or blurring of long (and still) standing distinctions in class and status. Patrons, painters, and poets came together over art; but to what extent was their contact limited to artistic matters and, in Rembrandt’s case, art-related financial matters, and to what extent did it represent a wider, if only temporary, breakdown of social distinctions? To what extent were studios andkunstkamers special sites, and St. Luke’s day festivities special occasions, where differences in wealth, education or power were overlooked? In other words, where did the artists really stand in relation to their patrons? Where did Rembrandt really stand in relation to the collectors with whom he became financially entangled? And, for that matter, what would he have made of the poems that were penned about his portraits (many of which were quite clichéd and all of which are translated in the appendix)? These are, to varying degrees, unanswerable questions. The important contribution of Stephanie Dickey’s outstanding book is that we now have a full picture of Rembrandt’s cultural milieu against which to ponder them.
H. Perry Chapman
University of Delaware