Ton Broos and Augustinus P. Dierick (eds.), About & Around Rembrandt (Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies/ Revue canadienne dʼétudes néerlandaises, XXVIII). Windsor (Ontario), 2007. 242 pp, 45 b&w illus. ISSN 0225- 0500.
Paul Crenshaw, Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy. The Artist, His Patrons, and the Art Market in Seventeenth-Century Netherlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 221 pp, 39 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-521-85825-9.
The two titles reviewed here belong to a permanently extending and fascinating category of Rembrandt-literature: the new material on the artist and his work.
To begin with, the special issue of the Canadian Journal, a collection of twelve articles by authors from diverse professional, geographical, and linguistic backgrounds, sheds new light on a very dynamic period of Dutch history and, by doing so, on Rembrandt’s elastic relationship to this very context. What is at stake is putting the work of the Netherlandish artist in a broader intellectual and historical perspective, which results in a wide range of topics: four articles focus on Rembrandt and his art (“Rethinking Rembrandt’s Renaissance”, Dickey; “The Return of the Prodigal Son and Rembrandt’s Creative Process”, Kuretsky; “The Disappearing Angel: Heemskerck’s ‘Departing Raphael’ in Rembrandt’s Studio”, Golahny; “Rembrandt and the Dutch Catholics”, Perlove), while the eight other ones concentrate on the artistic context (“‘To See Ourselves Greatly Misled’: The Laughing Deceptions of Jan Miense Molenaer’s Five Senses (1637)”, Noël Schiller) and its fictional representation (“Purloined Icons: Dutch 17th-Century Painters in some Recent World Fiction”, Augustinus P. Dierick), the intellectual context (“L’Humanisme et les études classiques dans les Pays-Bas de la Renaissance”, Marc van der Poel), the religious context (“Remonstrants, Contra-remonstrants and the Synod of Dort (1618-1619): The Religious History of the Early Dutch Republic”, William van Doodewaard; “A New Mokum: The Jewish Neighborhood in Seventeenth-century Amsterdam”, Saskia Coenen Snyder), the literary context (“Street Smarts in the Age of Rembrandt: Examining a Collection of Seventeenth-Century Witty Inscriptions”, Ton Broos), the geopolitical and maritime context (“Capitaine flibustier dans la colonie française de Saint-Domingue: le cas de Jan Willems, alias Yankey (1681-1687)”, Raynald Laprise; “Jan Erasmus Reyning, Privateer and Hero”, Basil Kingstone).
The editors have arguably chosen an apt title to describe their endeavor of recontextualization: the issue that celebrates the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth does not only contextualize the art and works of a genius (it is “About Rembrandt”) but interestingly adds new (and original) pieces to the rich and complex context of his existence (it is “Around Rembrandt”) – a “sample of subjects,” as the editors have it, since a publication of that format cannot pretend to represent every aspect of the Dutch Golden Age. As a consequence, the Journalrelies on a horizontal axis in that it sweeps a vast horizon, “sometimes painted with a broad brush, sometimes in pointillist details” (ii).
As for Paul Crenshaw, a specialist in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, he investigates a turning point in Rembrandt’s career, his bankruptcy, and, through this prism, Rembrandt’s economical habits and their impact on his work, and vice versa. He states: “one of the goals of this study is to identify the way that Rembrandt mediated between the expectations of his public clientèle and his own artistic aims” (p. 12) and correlatively to establish the link between “[Rembrandt’s] original thinking and a tireless dedication to his art” (p. 14) and the personal and social tensions which affected his life and work. Compared to the Journal, his study revolves around the vertical axis of close examination: drawing on the substantial documentary evidence as well as on Rembrandt’s work, the author provides both a detailed assessment of Rembrandt’s finances and fresh information about the financial supporters, the timing of the legal declaration of bankruptcy, the Dutch market of art, and the implications of Rembrandt’s claim to authority.
These two publications have a salient common point: they stress the interaction between Rembrandt’s art and his (sometimes in) direct environment, and elaborate further on this interaction by subsuming it into a process of autonomization and artistic self-empowerment. In their respective articles for the Journal, Stephanie Dickey and Amy Golahny compellingly bear out that the customary notion of imitation is a delicate, if not an inept one regarding Rembrandt: when the artist appropriates a theme, a figure, or a motif, which has some value on the market or belongs to a tradition, he departs from the model by an idiosyncratic process of revision which encompasses other processes like internalization, interpretation, inspiration, emulation, transposition, or reinvention. This is an example among many others of the individualism that, in Crenshaw’s opinion, is the cornerstone of Rembrandt’s life and art. It follows from these interpretations in theJournal and by Crenshaw that negotiation and articulation are prominent notions to approach Rembrandt’s creation. Indeed, Rembrandt never stopped negotiating with his patrons, with the market, with conventions, negotiating for him and his authority as an artist, composing and imposing at the same time without ever submitting or compromising over his artistic choices. And that he had to negotiate proves that he was by no means a completely free electron, he did not gravitate around but within the market: from his specific position in the artistic field he had to take position on the field and its rules, hence the fundamental notion of articulation.
Therefore, by representing various aspects of Rembrandt’s context and illuminating some of the positions of the artist in this context, the Journal articles and Crenshaw’s study are welcome additions to Rembrandt studies. The Journal offers a fresh and well-documented perspective on the Dutch Golden Age, a series of vignettes, which capture selected aspects of Rembrandt’s work as well as definite aspects of the context. The presentation is clear and well-illustrated, although a Table of Contents is regrettably lacking. Further, it does seem excessive to publish two closely related articles about piracy (Laprise and Kingstone), when so many other maritime questions, pertaining to colonialism, commerce, war, and so on, could have been instead examined. Secondly, Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy makes an important contribution to the analysis of evidentiary documents and to the disclosure of numerous domestic and historical connections in Rembrandt’s bankruptcy and provides new insights into the way Rembrandt managed and marketed his business and succeeded in maintaining control of his artistic production through a potentially debilitating insolvency. The reader cannot but be thankful for the exhaustive character of the study, especially in the footnotes, for the clear and compelling structure of the analysis, for the presence of a conclusion at the end of each chapter, and, last but not least, for the extreme cautiousness of the reasoning. Thus, if Crenshaw restores the earlier view of Rembrandt as a “staunch individualist”, his discourse does not fetishize Rembrandt’s individualism, but tries to substantiate it with a new method that scrupulously compares sources and never asserts when the least doubt subsists.
It appears that the issue About & Around Rembrandt and Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy supply us with new fragments of Rembrandt’s life, art, and environment and thus help us fit the pieces together to puzzle out one of the most intriguing phenomena of art.
Rice University and Université Paris 8