Symposia are snapshots of the state of a field. Rembrandt research offers notable examples, especially the great international anniversary gathering, Rembrandt after Three Hundred Years (Chicago, 1969). Now, a generation later, another symposium (October 2000) by leading, often younger, Rembrandt scholars, mostly Americans, generates a volume to accompany Alan Chong’s fine focus exhibition, Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt, Art and Ambition in Leiden 1629-1631. Its very title (with the second name in italics) suggests the concept (broached by Stephen Greenblatt) of ‘self-fashioning,’ the construction of identity. Meanwhile, the Rembrandt Research Project (and its discontents), a rich social and documentary history (led by Gary Schwartz), and a latter-day return to pictorial interpretation, often inflected by gender concerns, have all reshaped our vision of the artist, and these varied essays exemplify those contemporary approaches.
Only Catherine Scallen really engages with the Rembrandt Research Project – but through method. She offers a flashback of a hundred years to the crystallization of Rembrandt connoisseurship in the 1890s, the lively era of Bode, Bredius, and Hofstede de Groot. Her assessment of their limits also should serve as a cautionary tale for modern debaters about attribution, even as she reminds us that issues of working method and workshop participation were already raised back then. In the process, she reminds us of the seminal role of Rembrandt images in establishing connoisseurship as an early cornerstone of art historical practice, not to mention both art publishing and blockbuster exhibitions, even prior to the new technical evidence that has flourished since 1969.
Ivan Gaskell ponders master-pupil links in discussing how Rembrandt and Dou pursued ‘an evolving relationship.’ He stresses their differences and intentional divergence, even while using the same motifs, such as fictive curtains and efforts at trompe l’oeil. Charles Ford considers the diverse self-portraits as a construct (‘oeuvre’), a false, modern category that fetishizes a modern ‘Rembrandt’ – in contrast to several contemporary categories, such as tronies. His compact essay, analytically historiographical (L. de Vries, Raupp, Chapman, van de Wetering) is also critical, fully undermining (without explicitly mentioning) the recent exhibition, Rembrandt by Himself (1999-2000) as a problematic, self-confirming reading.
Many of the essays, however, focus on the social connections and behavior of Rembrandt. Some fundamentally draw upon documents. Paul Crenshaw revisits the 1656 bankruptcy and adds fresh information about the financial supporters and timing of this legal declaration. This complex network of Rembrandt clients combines Gary Schwartz’s documentation with Svetlana Alpers’s autonomous ‘self-fashioning,’ as the scandals – of his own making – with his two female consorts are read here against the estrangement of the artist from the patrician Jan Six. John Michael Montias, most senior of the contributors, also uses archives to discuss clients (e.g. art in exchange for shares with another bankrupt, Marten van den Broeck). He clarifies their connections to Rembrandt as individual buyers at the Orphan Chamber bankruptcy auction. In the process he underscores earlier Rembrandt ties to Amsterdam Reformed (Counter-Remonstrant) preachers.
Poised between the documentary and the social approaches to Rembrandt is Michael Zell’s interpretive study of social behavior, ‘The Gift among Friends: Rembrandt’s Art in the Network of his Patronal and Social Relations.’ Zell also attempts to navigate between Schwartz’s networks and Alpers’s autonomy by using the social theory of the gift, derived from Marcel Mauss. Such social exchange permits and personalizes mutual obligation and spans a range of clients from courtly patrons (esp. Huygens) to Amsterdam collectors, friends (the Six albums) and (Alpers’s territory, but now see Crenshaw) creditors. In keeping with the renewed recent interest in Rembrandt prints, Zell also notes the importance of celebrated individual etchings as a form of exchange, ‘small editions for a select, discriminating audience,’as well as the artist’s choice of sitters for portrait prints. He ends with a thoughtful discussion of Jeremias de Decker and Rembrandt’s gifts of art, including a portrait, reciprocated by the poet’s verses.
A more interpretive and lengthy essay begins the volume, incorporating documentary evidence about Rembrandt’s marriage and his images in all three media. Stephanie Dickey perceptively analyzes the ‘poetics of portraiture’ through the varied, creative images of Saskia, ‘disguised by costume, attributes, or the acting of a role’ – a neglected complement to the more celebrated self-portraits sequence (and to Charles Ford’s essay, displaced much later in the anthology). She properly notes how, like Rubens, Rembrandt’s feminine ideal overlaps with the features of his beloved, which fosters his rich conflation of history, genre, and portraiture (even Petrarchan idealization or arcadian fantasies) in representing her. Rich, topical comparisons to other depictions of women (and wives) in roles, such as portraits historiés, reveal Saskia’s visible identity, even while posing as a model in costume, within an intimate, companionate marriage.
Margaret Carroll revisits the Nightwatch, subject of her dissertation (1976), and as usual she rethinks received wisdom. In this case, she challenges prior observations of coordinated action by the militia company and instead finds both centrifugal movements and dangerous, non-drill behavior by individuals. She considers the tensions between Amsterdam’s peace party and the stadhouder’s militarism, embodied as well as the artist’s mysterious Concord of the State. Social and historical analysis reinforces and frames her careful observation of details in a familiar picture.
The remaining essays provide interpretations of individual ‘histories.’ Rodney Nevitt considers the neglected Wedding Feast of Samson(1638), adducing Dutch contemporary nuptial festivities (and literary texts, e.g. Cats) in relation to this staging of a biblical event. Thus beyond its exotic elements (considered by Slatkes) he shows how this painting also owes a debt to the pictorial tradition underlying Bruegel’s lively peasant weddings. Nevitt observes within wedding decorum how the brazen gaze of the bride violates norms of demure behavior and raises moral questions (cf. Bal) as she engages the viewer. Amy Golahny reinterprets a mythological drawing, Vulcan’s Net, in relation to both learned texts as well as Renaissance prints (Raphael/Coxcie, Goltzius). At once classical as well as comic, the scene unfolds before varied gods, identified in the analysis, with varied human responses. She notes the dependence on Homeric narrative (via Coornhert’s translation) and relates this image to later Rembrandt engagements with the bard, as well as his to adoption – and subversion – of Italian models (the subject of her dissertation, 1984).
Clearly we have come a long way from Kenneth Clark’s Rembrandt or the 1969 symposium. Where once we heard Bialostocki on Iconography, Held on Classical Subjects, and Rosenberg on Drawings Connoisseurship, we now ‘rethink’ Rembrandt less as an individual and more as an imbedded Dutchman, imbricated within the market, politics, society, and local history. If we worry less about issues of authenticity, which dominated the period between the two symposia, and if we are more likely to pursue case studies than produce authoritative syntheses, we now offer close analysis of documents or Dutch texts or patronage circles, which also made our ‘Rembrandt’ together with the artist’s self-fashioning.
University of Pennsylvania