Getting at Rembrandt

Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance

by Kenneth Clark
New York University, 224 pp., $10.00

Rembrandt; drawing by David Levine

In books on Rembrandt we often read that compositions are “taken from” some earlier source. When this is said of other artists the words “taken from” can be accepted literally; they refer, as they invariably do with Rubens, to the conscious transposition of motifs. But with Rembrandt their significance is rather different; they denote not a simple act of theft, but recourse, frequently unconscious, to a visual culture of great richness and unusual depth. The nature of this problem, and the piecemeal nature of the attacks that have been made upon it, are seen very clearly in Münz’s exemplary catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings, where we read of the Hundred Guilder print that

it is not possible to go fully into the dependence of the composition on Italian art and on that of Raphael in particular; however, many details point to Rembrandt’s having known Annibale Carracci’s Miracle of St. Roch. The etching after this painting…may have been in Rembrandt’s collection of prints…. The group of pharisees on the left is not directly dependent, as had been thought, on Leonardo. Rembrandt clearly took it, in my opinion, from the background of Lucas van Leyden’s Adoration of the Kings.

At least since the publication of Valentiner’s Rembrandt und seine Umgebung, it has been recognized that the key to Rembrandt’s store cupboard of images lay in his own collection, and fortunately for the art historian, if not for the artist, an inventory was made of it at the time of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656. In it were the Dutch paintings we might expect—works by Seghers and Lievens and Brouwer and many more—but beside them were a number of paintings of Italian origin, “one rich man by Palma Vecchi,” “one large painting of the Samaritan Woman by Giorgione,” “one head by Raphael of Urbino,” and so on. More important still, among the artist’s books were volumes of engravings “full of the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti,” “with prints after Raphael of Urbino,” “very large with almost all the work of Titian.” Needless to say, account is taken of this background in every book on Rembrandt. For example, it is a commonplace that the etching of the Blind Tobit makes use of a figure from Raphael’s Blinding of Elymas, and it has been pointed out by Jakob Rosenberg, in his standard Rembrandt monograph,* that at a certain moment, relatively late in life, the influence of sixteenth-century Venetian prints and drawings is reflected in his landscapes. But what, we may ask, as these instances multiply, was the aggregate significance of derivations such as these for the development of Rembrandt’s style? This is the question answered, in the first series of Wrightsman Lectures, by Sir Kenneth Clark.

HIS BOOK IS WRITTEN from the standpoint of a student of Renaissance art, and it has the double aim first of defining the influence of Renaissance art on Rembrandt, and second of…

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