Alison McQueen, The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt. Reinventing an Old Masterin Nineteenth-Century France. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003. 388 pp, 19 color plates, 80 b&w illus. ISBN 90-5356-624-4.
Catherine B. Scallen, Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004. 416 pp. 61 b&w illus. ISBN 90-5356-625-2.
In the centuries following the death of Rembrandt, the artist’s reputation fluctuated to an extreme, falling to its lowest ebb in the eighteenth century, and rising to its zenith in the late nineteenth century. Two scholarly publications, one by Alison McQueen and the other by Catherine B. Scallen, closely investigate the period that witnessed a meteoric rise in Rembrandt’s fame. These scholarly books, published by Amsterdam University Press, examine the critical responses to Rembrandt’s art from different perspectives. McQueen charts Rembrandt’s rising star as a painter, draughtsmen, and printmaker in nineteenth-century France. Scallen’s book focuses upon the formation and development of Rembrandt connoisseurship from 1870 to 1935 in Germany, the Netherlands, and America. Both scholars demonstrate the inherent subjectivity of art criticism by unraveling the intricate matrix of cultural and historical factors that informed the critical assessments of Rembrandt’s art during this vital period.
Alison McQueen’s The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt. Reinventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France examines treatises, newspaper and journal accounts, and correspondence to recreate Rembrandt’s reputation in nineteenth-century France. She devotes particular attention to the development and impact of Rembrandt’s stature as a printmaker. McQueen begins by charting the formation of the myth of Rembrandt in nineteenth-century France. Such critics as Charles Blanc and Thoré-Burger politicized the artist by presenting him as a republican, a man of the people who stood for the ideals of religious and political liberty and individualism. McQueen demonstrates that while critics such as Blanc attempted to situate Rembrandt’s art within the classical tradition of the Italian Renaissance, critical assessments of the Dutch artist’s draughtsmanship drew upon changing aesthetic theories in advocating the merits of Rembrandt’s drawings. The new aesthetic accommodated Rembrandt’s drawing style by emphasizing “expression” and “spontaneity” over purity of line.
McQueen imparts richness to her study by investigating nineteenth-century French paintings, drawings, engravings, cartoons, and posters that portray Rembrandt as a fictionalized hero and/or recreate his art or style. These images constitute a “text” of their own. Interestingly enough, the artist, for the most part, appears in these works as a wealthy bourgeois. Only his impassioned looks seem to convey an image consonant with critical commentaries characterizing him as a republican rebel against authority. Since the painterly qualities of Rembrandt’s etchings were highly esteemed in the period, it stands to reason that Alberto Masso Gilli’s etching of Rembrandt (Fig. 13) imitates the Dutch artist’s drypoint. The painted copies after the Dutch master’s prints, such as the oil painting based on Rembrandt’s etching of Jan Six in Bayonne (Plate 17), may reflect the notion that the painterly qualities of Rembrandt’s etchings made them especially appropriate for “creative” copies in oil. McQueen’s discussion of engraved copies after Rembrandt, such as Louis Marcy’s Doctor Faust(Fig. 27), would have benefited by a comparison with re-strikes of Rembrandt prints of the same subject. One wonders to what extent French printmakers of the nineteenth century were influenced by Rembrandt re-strikes.
McQueen demonstrates that by the end of the nineteenth century, Rembrandt emerged as a model for French professional printmakers who sought to establish etching as an art, rather than just a reproductive technique. His experimentation with printing techniques and papers was used as an argument in defense of printmaking as an art form. McQueen’s study thus perceptively chronicles Rembrandt’s rising stature and its considerable impact upon nineteenth-century French printmaking.
Catherine B. Scallen’s Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship is a finely crafted study of the early formation of Rembrandt connoisseurship. Scallen focuses upon the years 1870 to 1935, a period of considerable scholarly controversy in which the number of works attributed to the artist grew exponentially, totaling over 700 paintings, and the prices for Rembrandt’s art soared. Scallen concentrates upon the most influential Rembrandt scholars of the period, the museum curators Wilhelm von Bode, Abraham Bredius, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, and Wilhelm Valentiner. Scallen demonstrates how these early “art history professionals” influenced and dominated the art world. Their espousal of what they deemed a “scientific” approach to connoisseurship firmly established their reputations and fueled the market value of Rembrandt’s art, especially among collectors in America. The “expertises” these so-called “Rembrandt Doctors” supplied to collectors and dealers would determine the prices for Rembrandt’s art, providing “definitive” authority to attributions. Scallen’s close examination of museum acquisitions, catalogues raisonnées, exhibition catalogues, scholarly and newspaper articles, critical reviews and personal correspondence offers a well-balanced picture of the methodological debates raging among art curators, collectors and dealers during this period. Scallen also traces the emergence of a younger generation of connoisseurs in the 1920s that challenged the old guard. This group included such critics as William Martin, F. Schmidt-Degener, and even Bredius, branded a pariah by his old friends. Scallen broadens her investigation by uncovering the political networks, egotism, backbiting, and shades of corruption that underlay the discourse. Alfred von Wurzbach criticized Bode for his close associations with such dealers as Charles Sedelmeyer, raising questions regarding the objectivity of Bode’s attributions that expanded Rembrandt’s oeuvre.
Scallen’s book is a welcome addition to Rembrandt studies. It makes a major contribution to the historicism of Rembrandt scholarship and provides new insights on major critics during a crucial period. Her study also offers a fresh perspective on the growth of art history as a profession; the dynamics of private collecting in America; the founding and expansion of art museum collections in Germany and America; and the development of the methodology of connoisseurship. Her analysis of works formerly attributed to Rembrandt such as Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Fig. 29), formerly in the Walker Collection, ably demonstrate the vicissitudes of art connoisseurship during this period. It took nearly 80 years of connoisseurship to remove it from the museum walls. Many of the attributions of the “Rembrandt Doctors,” and of amateur critics such as Max Lautner and John C. Van Dyke, have not stood the test of time. Scallen’s useful notes tracing the status of prior attributions to the present day make this eminently clear. Her book is thought-provoking in many ways, especially as it relates to present-day debates on Rembrandt connoisseurship.
Shelley Karen Perlove
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Note: For additional discussion related to Rembrandt’s reception see my “Perceptions of Otherness: Critical Responses to the Jews of Rembrandt’s Art and Milieu (1836-1945),” Dutch Crossing, vol. 25, 2001, 244-290.