Marieke de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy. Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2006. 398 pp, 58 color, 96 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-5356-917-7.
Eric Jan Sluijter, Rembrandt and the Female Nude.Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2006. 448 pp, 61 color, 379 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-5356-882-8.
Two distinguished scholars, Marieke de Winkel and Eric Jan Sluijter, have produced important studies on Rembrandt’s figures. One focuses upon dress, the other undress. De Winkel investigates Rembrandt’s fashionably and fancifully attired men and women. Sluijter offers an exhaustive study of the artist’s nudes, clothed only in opulent flesh. Both works complement one another and together offer fresh insights into Rembrandt’s working methods.
De Winkel demonstrates the centrality of dress in Rembrandt’s work. The artist used clothing in portraiture to convey the character and social status of his sitters, including himself in self-portraits. Moreover, Rembrandt’s richly textured, glittering costumes, and jeweled accessories play a major role in his historical subjects, enhancing the “authenticity,” exoticism, aesthetic appeal, and dramatic effectiveness of his characters. De Winkel explores these aspects in Fashion and Fancy, which is neatly organized by broad topics. Chapter One examines the tabbaard, the gown commonly worn by old men, academic doctors, lawyers, and clergymen. The author outlines the history of this venerable garment, and explains its variant forms, worn by different professions during the course of the seventeenth century. The author also uses the analysis of dress to address essential issues in Rembrandt scholarship. De Winkel demonstrates that in Rembrandt’s portraits of the Mennonite Anslo, the preacher is appropriately attired in a modest tabbaard, not richly dressed in accordance with his wealth, as has been previously thought.
The author’s discussion of the fashionable accessories of dress in Chapter Two is an excellent resource for the study of seventeenth-century female portraiture. De Winkel consults contemporary literature and inventories for her analysis of such coveted luxury items as fans, handkerchiefs, hats, and gloves. In Chapter Three she reveals that Jan Six is portrayed by Rembrandt wearing informal riding clothes, like a proper country gentleman. Chapter Four is the most illuminating of all, since it explores the artist’s distinctive method of “inventing” clothes for his self-portraiture. An important source for Rembrandt’s costumes was Hieronumous Cock’s portraits of sixteenth-century artists. In his Self-Portrait of 1640 in the National Gallery in London, the artist drew upon the art of Titian and Raphael for his composition, as is well known, but also derived his own clothing from Cock’s portraits of such famous northern artists as Albrecht Dűrer and Lucas van Leyden. Thus, Rembrandt, in this self-portrait, seems to proclaim himself as an artist within the tradition of northern masters of the sixteenth century; but he also asserts his status as a painter who has assimilated the rules of Italian Renaissance art. This certainly offers insight into Rembrandt’s self identification in this painting. The artist’s use of a number of graphic sources to create his own garment in this case also redefines the notion of his “realism.”
As demonstrated in Chapter Five, Rembrandt, as a northern artist, made important choices regarding the costumes for his “oriental” women. He asserted his northern roots by favoring heavy, fitted garments, rather than the flimsy, light cloth in the “antique” style, as employed in contemporary Italian art. Costume studies are notoriously challenging, because of the lack of material remains and the pitfalls of circular reasoning. One can never be sure if images reflect actual clothing or were simply expressions of a pictorial tradition that may have replicated either real or imagined garments. The pictorial evidence remains; the costumes do not. Despite problems inherent within this field of research, De Winkel makes a strong case for the impact of the graphic tradition upon Rembrandt’s costuming. Her fine study is carefully researched and well-reasoned, and extremely useful to scholars.
Sluijter begins his exhaustive study by quoting from Arnold Houbraken’s famous critical assessment of Rembrandt’s female nudes. The eighteenth-century critic attributes the “ugliness” of these figures to Rembrandt’s practice of working only from life, seeking lifelikeness rather than beauty. Earlier writers also shared this view, and Sluijter addresses this essential issue by placing Rembrandt’s images within the visual and theoretical context of the period. Sluijter’s study is so rich in comparative imagery, it might have been titled “The Female Nude in Early Modern Art.” One only regrets that more color illustrations were not included, but this is, no doubt, the result of financial constraints in publishing these days. The book examines Rembrandt’s historical female nudes in five chapters, each devoted to a famous woman whose nudity is implicit within her story. These include Andromeda, Susanna, Diana, Danaë, and finally Bathsheba. Interspersed between these chapters are cogent, theoretical discussions related to the portrayal of nudity and its expressiveness.
In Chapter III, ‘Rembrandt and the Depiction of the Passions in the 1620’s and 1630’s,’ the author focuses upon rhetorical writings on the passions, the analog of the theater, and an actual case study of Rembrandt’s The Rape of Proserpina, the artist’s most violently emotional narrative. In Chapter V the author examines issues of morality and eroticism, always implicit in the undraped female body. Theoretical debates on coloring and painting from life are addressed in Chapter VII, with writings by critics from Vasari through Joachim van Sandrart. Chapter IX discusses imitation and artistic competition, subjects integral to understanding Rembrandt’s lifelong dialogue with the art of the past.
The artist’s drawings of the nude model could have been a book by itself, but Sluijter does an admirable job of conveying the richness of this material in two chapters. Here the author challenges long-held critical notions that Rembrandt created ugly nude women from life to enhance their realism. He argues that figures such as Eve in the etching of Adam and Eve (1638) rather conform to the artist’s “realistic” ideal of a woman. Most importantly, Rembrandt is revealed as an artist who drew heavily upon the visual tradition and its iconography, but also consulted text and used his own imagination to evolve a distinctive approach to the female nude. Sluijter’s excellent book will be a classic on this subject for many decades to come. Like De Winkel’s study, it is especially valuable because it offers new ways of defining what is meant by “realism” in Rembrandt’s art.
University of Michigan-Dearborn