This study is a thoughtful, lively, and wide-ranging discussion of Amsterdam’s Jews – as they appear in Rembrandt’s art, as they had business dealings with the artist, and as they lived as new arrivals settling in Holland in the seventeenth century. The author, a philospher by discipline, is an expert on Spinoza, although he does not broach the subject of Spinoza and Rembrandt here. He makes accessible to the non-art historian many of the fascinating aspects of Rembrandt’s art and life that concern Jewish subjects. By inserting occasional passages about his own visits to the Amsterdam neighborhoods once familiar to Rembrandt and to the synagogues and burial sites that originated in the seventeenth century, he adds an appealing personal note. He also deftly sets forth the social, legal, and aesthetic concerns and differences of the Sephardic (Portuguese) and Ashkenazic (German and Polish) Jews in Amsterdam. The Sephardic Jews began settling in the Netherlands after 1600, and the Ashkenazic somewhat later; they found a general welcome because of the official policy of toleration and the shrewd assessment of their ability to contribute to the country’s economic well-being. In 1672, the population of Amsterdam was 200,000, and this included 7,500 Jews (2,500 Sephardic and 5,000 Ashkenazic). Given their small representation among the populace, the Jews had a highly visible and effective position.
Three chapters directly concern Rembrandt, and the remaining two examine the general situation of seventeenth-century Amsterdam Jewry. Chapter One begins with the summer of 1653, and the construction work on Daniel Pinto’s house on the Breestraat. If this house were not adjacent to Rembrandt’s, it might get little notice. However, the construction affected Rembrandt’s own dwelling, artistic production, and worsening financial situation. The house was owned by the successful Sephardic businessman Daniel Pinto, and during the construction, Rembrandt rented out his own cellar to Pinto for storage of tobacco belonging to the Pereira brothers. Documents, first published by S.A.C. Dudok van Heel (Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis, 1990 and 1991), reveal how Rembrandt had difficult relations with Pinto, since he refused to reimburse the merchant for shared costs, and that the cellar was burgled by two Ashkenazi Jews. The neighborhood, which had been an area in which many artists had lived, was becoming attractive to Sephardic immigrants, who were gradually displacing the artists.
Chapter Two examines Jewish and Calvinist attitudes toward imagery, Portuguese-Jewish artists, art owned by Amsterdam Jews, and religious controversy including millenerians (those who believed that conversion of the Jews was essential for Christian redemption). Two scholars whose recent publications examine these issues in depth are Shelley Perlove (“An Irenic Vision of Utopia: Rembrandt’s Triumph of Mordecai and the New Jerusalem,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 56, 1993, 38-60; “Templum christianum: Rembrandt’s ‘Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,'” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 126, 1995, 159-70) and Michael Zell (Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam, Berkeley, 2002). Nadler relies upon and credits their contributions as he creates a larger historical context for a broader readership. The newly-forged identity of the Dutch Republic was bound up with Old Testament parallels, of which the revolt against Spain and the Exodus is the most famous.
Chapter Three concerns the art by Rembrandt that depicts subjects explicitly Jewish in character, including those for Menasseh ben Israel. The rabbi had a thorny relationship with his own co-religionists, and was honored more in the Christian community than in his own. Menasseh was an interpreter of Jewish matters to the Christians, many of whom were prominent scholars and preachers. Rembrandt had two points of sure contact with Menasseh, although it is difficult to judge if they were in fact close friends. Rembrandt relied upon Menasseh’s advice for the Aramaic inscription in Belshazzar’s Feast (c.1636); Rembrandt made four etchings for the rabbi’s book Piedra Gloriosa (1655). The etchings involved a sustained dialogue with the author, for Rembrandt adjusted details in the prints that could only have developed from a collaboration.
Chapters Four and Five offer social history that provides a context for the Jewish aspect of Rembrandt’s art and life. Measures of the prosperity of the Amsterdam Jewish community include the two new synagogues of the 1670s, one Portuguese and one German, and the acquisition of a burial ground. Other foremost Dutch artists who depicted Jewish sites and life include Emmanuel de Witte, Romeyn de Hooghe, and Jacob van Ruisdael.
Making judicious use of the archival research by S.A.C. Dudok van Heel and Walter Strauss (Rembrandt Documents, New York, 1979, and elsewhere), and of the scholarly interpretations of Rembrandt and his contact with Jewish patrons and subjects by Shelley Perlove and Michael Zell, Steven Nadler has written a delightful book. He has brought together a great deal of material that is scattered in specialized publications. Outside the scope of his study, yet tangent to it, are a few of the more obvious aspects of Rembrandt’s art that have made it so appealing to emancipated Jewish culture since the nineteenth century. These aspects include: The Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum) that has iconically indicated Rembrandt as sympathetic to the culture of the Old Testament (see, for example, S.Y. Agnon, “Hill of Sand,” discussed in Dutch Crossing, vol. 25 , Autumn 2001: issue on Rembrandt Reception); art historians and artists concerned with Rembrandt (see C. Soussloff, ed., Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, Berkeley, 1999); and art collectors of Jewish background (for examples, L.J. Rosenwald; B. Altman). The reception of Rembrandt by Jews as writers, scholars, collectors, and artists is a topic for further study. Nadler has brought together a great deal of material that contextualizes the relationship between Rembrandt and the Jews of Amsterdam. He has examined Rembrandt’s affinity for the Jews, and implicitly, he has contributed to the Jews’ affinity for Rembrandt.