Although nearly four decades have passed since the landmark exhibition Gods, Saints and Heroes (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980), history painting as an aspect of art in the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ remains insufficiently appreciated. Yet, the perennial notoriety of Rembrandt, for whom pictorial interpretation of the Bible was a lifelong fascination, has ensured attention to works in this genre created in his milieu. In Rembrandt’s Rivals, Eric Jan Sluijter considers Rembrandt’s approach to history painting as a product of his “radical from-life ideology” and powerful rendering of the passions. While Sluijter has pursued this theme in previous publications, Rembrandt’s Rivals breaks new ground by thoroughly exploring Rembrandt’s artistic context in Amsterdam, where the market for history painting, as Sluijter shows, was both intensely competitive and surprisingly broad. Each chapter examines a different tier of the market, from Rembrandt and his true “rivals” – talented artists like Jacob Backer and Jacob van Loo – to journeymen painters producing endless variations on familiar historical subjects.
This book builds on the results of a multi-year, archivally-based research project directed by Sluijter and Marten Jan Bok at the University of Amsterdam (“Artistic and Economic Competition in the Amsterdam Art Market, ca. 1630–1690: History Painting in Amsterdam in Rembrandt’s Time”). Within the on-going cascade of publications resulting from that project, especially useful is the open-access ECARTICO database (http://www.vondel.humanities.uva.nl/ecartico/), tracking data for thousands of painters and craftsmen. Sluijter makes good use of statistics and textual sources to show that artistic rivalry was as fierce in seventeenth-century Amsterdam as it had been in Renaissance Florence or ancient Athens (a tradition of which, Sluijter notes, Dutch artists must have been keenly aware).
Opening with an introduction to the artistic culture of the city, the book presents an illuminating, top to bottom survey of Amsterdam history painting and its practitioners. The highest echelon of the market, defined by stratospheric prices and support from influential admirers, was dominated by Rembrandt. His rise was facilitated by his status as “star pupil” of Pieter Lastman, whose example, as Sluijter shows, remained broadly influential throughout the period. In the chapter devoted to Rembrandt, the suave, internationally-connected Joachim von Sandrart is cast as personal and stylistic opponent.
Sluijter sorts other Amsterdam history painters into clusters based on chronology and market share. The first group consists of Govert Flinck, Jacob Backer, and Bartholomeus Breenbergh, three highly talented masters who, like Rembrandt and the majority of artists active in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, came to the city from elsewhere. Sluiijter then turns to “moderately successful” Amsterdam-born painters operating outside Rembrandt’s orbit (Claes Moeyaert, Adriaen van Nieulandt, Isaac Isaacz, Salomon Koninck) and, farther down the ladder of success, to minor masters working for dealers who offered their wares at bargain prices. I am willing to wager that many readers of this review will not be familiar with painters such as Willem Bartsius and Gerrit Willemsz Horst (who earn their own chapter as followers of Rembrandt), or Rombout van Troyen and Daniël Thivaert (exemplary journeymen). Yet, Sluijter’s analysis demonstrates that their works deserve attention for their prolific and sometimes quirky adaptations of inventions percolating down from workshops that served more elite consumers.
While history painting has often been considered a ‘difficult’ genre that appealed primarily to sophisticated buyers, Sluijter and his research team have discovered that even the most modest consumers acquired history paintings, especially Biblical scenes, which would have appealed on grounds of faith as well as aesthetics. (Sluijter acknowledges the important contribution here of Angela Jager; see her article in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, “’Everywhere illustrious histories that are a dime a dozen’: the mass market for history painting in seventeenth-century Amsterdam,” JHNA 7:1  DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2015.7.1.2.) From one end of the market to the other, success depended on building a network of patrons and emulating formal and iconographic innovations by one’s peers. In this competitive atmosphere, Rembrandt’s work stood out not only for its aesthetic power and high prices but also, and perhaps most importantly, for its novelty.
Sluijter devotes a chapter to occasional (and fascinating) forays into history painting by artists primarily known for their work in other genres (Thomas de Keyser, Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Dirck van Santvoort, Pieter Codde, Pieter Potter). He then charts the impact of a new generation of talented artists emerging around 1640 (Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Jan Victors, Jacob van Loo), along with Rembrandt’s old friend Jan Lievens, who returned from Antwerp to settle in Amsterdam in 1644. Interestingly, Sluijter does not discuss Rembrandt’s ‘school’ as a group or even as a cohesive response to the work of the master. Instead, artists such as Flinck, Bol, Victors, and Eeckhout are situated as full-fledged competitors. The book closes with a rich “summarizing epilogue” that neatly pulls together the book’s key themes.
Many artists of the younger generation contributed to the rise of a ‘clear’ style that would come to supplant Rembrandt’s earthy naturalism in appealing to the tastes and requirements of increasingly wealthy and sophisticated patrons. As Sluijter mentions in his epilogue, what happened next will be treated in a second volume. Meanwhile, Rembrandt’s Rivals stands as an essential resource not only for specialists interested in Amsterdam or Dutch history painting but for anyone concerned with the conditions of artistic production in seventeenth-century Europe.
Stephanie S. Dickey
Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada)