I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition, and found its accompanying catalogue a beautifully produced guide to the material. In concept and realization, the show was a true success; those who missed it may be comforted to know that the Rembrandthuis has incorporated some of the objects from the exhibition into its permanent displays. It would have been impossible to gather only those items certifiably in Rembrandt’s possession, and the result was an evocation, rather than a rigorous reconstruction, of the artist’s extensive collection of paraphernalia and art.
There are several recent developments of scholarship into which this catalogue, and its original exhibition, fall: the history of collecting; the contextualizing of a particular aspect of one artist or his behavior; and the estimation of value of works of art, both in monetary terms and in aesthetic importance or usefulness. Three chapters examine the most interesting aspects of Rembrandt’s collection, with respect to these developments. The first two, by R. van Gelder and J. van der Veen, examine collecting in the time of Rembrandt, the artist’s own collection and how it came to be, and the artist’s collection relative to those of others. They discuss the sources of information for collecting in general, and Rembrandt in particular: invoices, sale catalogues, wills, letters, private journals, and visual material. R. W. Scheller, in his groundbreaking 1969 study of Rembrandt’s collection, proposed that it was encyclopedic; that is, by definition it contained references to all ‘artificilia’ and ‘naturalia’ in the realm of knowledge. Whether Rembrandt’s collection was, like other encyclopedic collections, intended to represent the breadth of human experience in this way, is unlikely; although it contained examples of most of the requisite items. Another aspect of Rembrandt’s collection is its apparently jumbled appearance; often the encyclopedic collectors presented their pieces in seemingly far more orderly display and storage.
By examining the documents and the famous 1656 inventory, the authors point out that Rembrandt’s collection was unusual in its holdings of paintings by several artists (Hercules Seghers, among them), but that it was truly exceptional in art on paper. Rembrandt’s graphic art collection contained foremost works by Lucas van Leyden and Raphael, and other Netherlandish and Italian artists, in both quantity and quality of impressions of prints.
The third chapter, by Ben Broos, discusses how the collection served Rembrandt’s own art. The paraphernalia that appear in his works were present in his studio: statuary, curiosities, weaponry, fabrics, costumes, and anatomical models. The art on paper also provided touchstones for his own compositions. Occasionally Rembrandt made careful copies, as in the Mughal miniature series. More often, he appropriated general groupings and particular figural motifs from Rubens, Raphael, Lucas van Leyden, and other canonical models. The process of looking at prints must have been a constant, daily practice for Rembrandt; after all, he was living in a sort of private Rijksmuseum/British Museum/Louvre situation – and he was the keeper of his own print room. The limitations of the catalogue format do not allow a full examination of the pervasive presence of such sources in the formation and development of Rembrandt’s art. For the artist-collector Rembrandt, as for his nearest rival in this respect, Rubens, the status and wealth implicit in ownership are not as interesting as the use of the collection in his art. For the general public, it may be intriguing and even appropriate to juxtapose a visual model with its variation by Rembrandt. For the scholarly audience however it is more challenging and perhaps necessary to extend the discussion to the meaning of a style (for example, rouw or net), the relation of the borrowing in theme or subject, and the recurrent interest in the model. There is still much to be studied in this regard.
I mention two cases in which the catalogue falls short of considering more fully the ways in which Rembrandt used his treasures. In the often underestimated Artemisia (Prado), the shell cup and elaborate costume convey the queen’s wealth and grandeur. But the folio, too, is among her personal attributes – she sponsored a eulogy contest in honor of her husband Mausolos (see my forthcoming article in Oud Holland). Such a folio likely was owned by Rembrandt; for the cup he probably relied upon his imagination. Another example is in Mars and Venus caught in Vulcan’s Net (Amsterdams Historisch Museum), where some discussion is warranted concerning the meaning of Raphael’s Farnesina frescoes for this particular composition; the drawing has been linked to the decoration of an Amsterdam house, an inescable comparison between a Dutch decorative program and an Italian villa.
The compulsion to get as close to the artist as possible – to walk in his space, touch his possessions – seems stronger in the case of Rembrandt than with most other artists. One reason for this is the general and intense fascination with Rembrandt as an artist and as a personality. The reasons for this enduring fascination are probably as many as the artists, amateurs, and scholars who studied his life and work. But it seems that Rembandt did indeed set up puzzling, complex images that invite investigation. Later critics seem to consider getting close to his possessions as one means of better understanding the man and his work. Those involved in the Rembrandthuis and its ongoing programs recognize this in a fruitful and exciting way.