What did Rembrandt know, and how did he know it? This variant on the classic Water-gate interrogation forms the basic inquiry of this stimulating new essay by Amy Golahny, Professor at Lycoming College, Williamsport Pennsylvania. The author is a respected Rembrandt scholar, whose work has appeared in leading journals and recent anthologies on the artist and on mythology. Moreover, she has earned the gratitude of many HNA members for her leadership role in the American Association of Netherlandic Studies. Thus there are many reasons to be glad for this new contribution on Rembrandt’s utilization of classical sources.
Golahny uses two major moments of Rembrandt’s career as the focus of her study. First she examines the early results of training under Lastman, then she features the clues gained by close inspection of the 1656 inventory and its”books of various sizes.’ For the most part, the works of art elucidated comprise mythological subjects and classical histories, and there is also some attention to Lastman’s oeuvre as well as works by the workshop and pupils of Rembrandt.
However, for the attentive student of Golahny’s own work (I consider myself such an admirer), there are few surprises. Her insights into the mythologies have for the most part been previously published. Her fine study of the Berlin Proserpina already appeared in the Penn State volume, Dutch Art of the Golden Age (1988); her Lastman material in Dutch Crossing (1996) and Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis (1998); her study of Homer and Vulcan in the Gardner Museum conference, published 2002, etc. She has made good use of more recent studies, such as Paul Crenshaw’s NYU. dissertation (2000) on ‘Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy’ and Stefan Grohé on the artist’s ‘mythological histories’ (1996), as well as basic references like Broos on the artistic models for Rembrandt. But there are also notable omissions here. In a book dedicated to Rembrandt’s rethinking of classical narratives, there is no contribution to the ongoing dialogues that attempt to discern the subject of the 1626 ‘History Painting’ (Leiden, Lakenhal), whose classical gestures and costumes stand closer to Lastman than any other early painting. She also fails to incorporate the impressive Minerva in her Study (1635; Otto Naumann, Ltd.), even as she offers attentive analysis of the Prado Artemisia (1634; in a reprise of her article in Oud Holland, 2000) and presents the New York Bellona (1633). This kind of selective attention undercuts the deeper, more lasting kind of contribution to Rembrandt scholarship, which might have built upon her earlier insights by period or classical subjects. Indeed, there is also no mention of the later Rembrandt images of Minerva, particularly the Minerva in her Study, whose patron in the context of an album amicorum was Jan Six (1652; discussed admirably but outside this context by Nicola Courtright in her 1996 Art Bulletin article). Because of the presence of books and study in both the painting and the drawing as well as Golahny’s extended evocation of Six as a learned interlocutor for Rembrandt, this omission is regrettable.
There are many helpful pointers here for both the specialist scholar and the Rembrandt novice, beginning with an introduction on ‘book culture’ in Rembrandt’s Holland and concluding with a discussion of ‘artist’s libraries.’ In general, Golahny builds upon the foundations of Jan Bialostocki’s worthy essays (‘Books of Wisdom and Books of Vanity’ plus ‘The Doctus artifex and the Library of the Artist in the XVIth and XVIIth Centuries,’ reprinted in The Message of Images, 1988) and often follows the careful methods employed by Christian Tümpel for the religious images. Indeed, she affirms Tümpel’s own insistence on the importance of Flavius Josephus for Old Testament scenes from Jewish history, as well as his use of pictorial models – especially prints – as important Rembrandt sources for the classical and mythic histories considered here.
Golahny aptly reminds us of the importance of certain earlier printmakers, especially Tempesta, and illustrators of source books, principally Tobias Stimmer, for the formulations and variations of subjects achieved by Rembrandt. In an ongoing contribution of this volume, she does note numerous examples where the artist made careful readings of more than one source text (Homer, Ovid, Livy, Valerius Maximus, and their recent vernacular translations and adaptations) in order to explain the artist’s choice of specific details of costume or staging.
If there is a criticism of this useful and welcome book, it is that this vitally important topic makes the reader hungry for more – more examples, more visual models (and more illustrations of those), more consideration of circumstances, patrons, or advisers (such as Jan Six, whose album amicorum offers a convergence of all three). One wishes for more systematic examination of various topics, often connected to periods and phases of Rembrandt’s art, broached here but not plumbed: the relation to Lastman (such as the overlooked Stechow essay in Oud Holland, 1969, as well as the fuller studies by Astrid and Christian Tümpel); the flurry of mythological subjects, some in rivalry to Rubens in the early 1630s (akin to the Gardner Museum exhibition, Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt, 2000-01); the developing image of the Temple in Jerusalem, based on visual sources and other ‘historical’ reconstructions, such as one illustrated book she cites (pp. 81-88) by Bernardino Amico da Gallipoli (1609; 1620); plus the obviously familiar rivalry in terms of both cultural prominence and erudition with Vondel, including the Amsterdam City Hall program.
The virtue of Golahny’s new book, and her published articles that form its core, is to raise such ongoing and valuable questions, while offering numerous well-researched examples that contribute to lasting answers for them.
University of Pennsylvania