How Rembrandt Made It

Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market

by Svetlana Alpers
University of Chicago Press, 160 pp., $29.95

“Rembrandt is in the news again,” Svetlana Alpers’s challenging book begins. The reason for such attention, she continues, “used to be the discovery of a new painting by the master, or the purchase of an old one at a record-breaking price. But today it is the discovery that many attributions of pictures to him are false.”

The contested paintings are not minor works, whose removal from the Rembrandt corpus would leave it unaffected: they are at its very center. They include the David and Saul in The Hague, the Man with the Golden Helmet in Berlin, and now even the Polish Rider in the Frick Collection. Scholars continue to argue about the exact attribution of the David and Saul; the Man with the Golden Helmet, once considered among the greatest of Rembrandt’s paintings, is said to be the work of an unknown follower; and the Polish Rider is ascribed to the obscure Willem Drost.

These are the kinds of verdicts that will be confirmed by the most systematic attempt ever made to establish a secure corpus of authentic Rembrandts: the Rembrandt Research Project under the direction of Professor Joos Bruyn of Amsterdam. Using the most advanced scientific techniques—including autoradiography and infra-red reflectography—it is producing a generally restrictive catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s work: two volumes have appeared so far, reaching only the year 1633 (when the painter was just twenty-seven years old), so much damage to the canon is yet to come. But the project has already caused considerable controversy, above all in American museums eager to defend their holdings. Each new analysis is apprehensively awaited and rumors about its possible decisions abound.

But Svetlana Alpers, a professor of the history of art at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of The Art of Describing, a subtle and ingenious book on seventeenth-century Dutch painting, is less apprehensive. She uses these cases of disputed attribution to introduce her discussion of the radical distinctiveness of Rembrandt’s approach to painting. What she argues is that Rembrandt’s artistic project was intimately linked to the production of studio works he did not paint himself. He was, in her view, an “entrepreneur,” whose studio was a school for turning out “Rembrandts.” Her conclusion is that Rembrandt was an artist whose enterprise “is not reducible to his autographic oeuvre.”

Alpers begins with a series of remarks about what has long been recognized as one of the most characteristic features of Rembrandt’s art: the way he applies paint. She observes that the Man with the Golden Helmet, like much of Rembrandt’s work, is distinguished by the tangibly rich quality of the impasto, above all in the painting of the helmet. What the follower copied—almost too successfully—was Rembrandt’s way of turning paint into a substantial object within the painting, applying the paint so thickly that it even casts shadows. It is so thick “that it looks as if one could lay one’s hand on it.” This invocation of the sense of touch, Alpers suggests, is matched…

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