Gary Schwartz, The Rembrandt Book. New York: Abrams, 2006. 384 pp, 464 color, 185 b&w illus. ISBN 13-978-0-8109-4317-9.
Mirjam Alexander-Knotter, Jasper Hillegers, and Edward van Voolen, with an Afterword by Gary Schwartz, The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt. The Myth Unravelled. [Cat. exh. Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam, November 10, 2006 – February 4, 2007.] Zwolle: Waanders; Amsterdam: Jewish Historical Museum, 2006. 104 pp, 57 color, 31 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-400-8467-6.
Laurence Sigal-Klagsbald and Alexis Merle du Bourg, Rembrandt et la Nouvelle Jérusalem. Juifs et Chrétiens à Amsterdam au Siècle D’Or. [Cat. exh. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, March 28 – July 1, 2007.] Paris: Éditions du Panama, 2007. 367 pp, 174 color, 105 b&w illus. ISBN 13-978-2-7557-0243-9.
With the myriad celebrations of Rembrandt’s birth from 2006 to 2008, a number of worthwhile publications have appeared, and among them are the three titles reviewed here. Schwartz’s large and impressive volume is one of the most important publications from this recent crop. The book is far from a re-hashing of his famous publication of 1985, but offers many new and thoughtful insights. As the author openly acknowledges, this is a personal view of the artist, the product of many decades of careful research and reflection. For this very reason, this volume offers a broad perspective on Rembrandt’s long and prolific career, while also providing penetrating discussion on individual works.
Lavishly illustrated, the book is a treat for both the eyes and mind. It is clearly written for a wide audience that includes the layperson and undergraduate, as well as the art historian. Arranged thematically, the structure of the book, at first, seems daunting and difficult to follow, but the text gains in logic, richness, and depth as one reads more and more of the chapters. This is a book with which you really need to sit down and read carefully, chapter by chapter. Its unusual organization and insufficient index, alas, makes it rather challenging to use as a reference book, which is unfortunate, since it contains so much excellent information.
The first two chapters cover the history of Rembrandt attributions and documentation. Schwartz here rightly emphasizes the usefulness of consulting Rembrandt’s ‘jottings’ on drawings as an essential source of additional information on the artist. Chapter Two focuses on the artist’s formative artistic influences, and emphasizes the uniqueness of Rembrandt’s interest in the art of the Mughal court. Schwartz investigates the role and misconceptions surrounding the artist’s family household in Chapter Three, where he reveals how scholars of the early twentieth century erroneously identified the artist’s sitters as family members. The fourth chapter, on Rembrandt’s craft, is a joy to read and behold, with its incisive discussion of the artist’s techniques, media, and paper, all illustrated with stunning details. Issues regarding Rembrandt and the art market and his patrons are addressed in Chapters Five and Six, respectively, and landscape, the focus of Chapter Seven, is especially fascinating because of its discussion of the outdoor settings in Rembrandt’s historical subjects. Chapter Eight investigates the types of humanity that appear in Rembrandt’s art, from preachers and philosophers, to beggars, animals, and children. In this case, the thematic organization especially leads to new ways of viewing these images. “Man and God” the title of the last chapter, addresses the important problems of evaluating Rembrandt as a religious artist.
Schwartz challenges many ideas and ‘myths’ surrounding the artist, and offers some new ideas and approaches for further research. The many graphs and tables in the book, some of which were garnered from other sources, and others newly created here, are all extremely useful to scholars, offering information on the frequencies of subject matter and on the art market, among other things. In discussing attributions, the author makes the useful suggestion that given the complexities and confusion of Rembrandt attribution, art historians might opt to research all works seriously attributed to the artist. This might apply as well to the area of Rembrandt drawings. Schwartz challenges the viewpoint that the artist owned only 22 books, and suggests that many books do not appear in the inventory of Rembrandt’s collection. This seems reasonable, especially since the Statenbijbel, which was so important to the artist’s religious works, was not listed. The author also dismisses the idea that Saskia’s role as a model implies Rembrandt’s personal reactions to the subject matter. Schwartz generally argues that the artist was more interested in the broader issues of the day than in personal matters. The author, on the other hand, seems to contradict this idea when he speculates that the artist’s later renunciation of settings for his works was a result of personal suffering and loss.
Schwartz vehemently challenges the myth that Rembrandt was a friend of the Jews. He justifiably debunks the scant evidence that gave birth to this romantic idea. He minimizes the impact of Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel on Rembrandt’s art and argues that living in a Jewish neighborhood does not mean that the artist was disposed towards Jews. Rather, as revealed by the author, Rembrandt adhered to an eminently Christian view of Jews, and in such works as the Hundred Guilder print and the grisaille of St. John Preaching, the artist’s interpretations are clearly anti-Judaic. Schwartz also reveals that Rembrandt interpreted the Hebrew Bible through the lens of Christianity. All of this makes perfect sense, although Schwartz tends to over-emphasize the poet Waterloos’s anti-Semitic inscription on the Hundred Guilder print, which may or may not be the opinion of the artist. Schwartz appropriately uses the image of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait of St. Paul as the ‘emblem of the book,’ explaining that Rembrandt, like St. Paul, was for all men. This resemblance goes even deeper into the core of the artist’s own theology and ecumenical beliefs, however. Rembrandt’s imitation of St. Paul also explains much about the artist’s attitudes towards Jews.
Two other publications reviewed here also address the issue of Rembrandt’s so-called enchantment with the Jews, through exhibitions and catalogues. The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt, on display in Amsterdam, resolutely attacked the myth of the ‘Jewish Rembrandt’ by revealing weaknesses in the evidence surrounding specific works of art that included Rembrandt’s so-called Portrait of Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, and others. The exhibition in Paris, Rembrandt et la Nouvelle Jérusalem. Juifs et Chrétiens à Amsterdam au Siècle d’Or, also examined the romanticized myth of Rembrandt and the Jews, but was more extensive in its scope and treatment. Including such objects as contemporary Hebrew publications, portraits of Jews, prints of Jews by artists like Romeyn de Hooghe, and Old Testament subjects in Dutch painting and prints, this show offered a well-balanced and revealing view of the Dutch New Jerusalem. In this way the Jews of Amsterdam are revealed within the full context of seventeenth-century Amsterdam.
University of Michigan