Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings
Rembrandt As An Etcher
Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, His Time
Rembrandt in Amsterdam
Rembrandt’s “Aristotle” and Other Rembrandt Studies
There are any number of good reasons for remembering Rembrandt, but certainly one which is rather irrelevant—the fact that we have ten fingers on our hands and therefore regard centenaries as round numbers. Since Rembrandt died at the age of sixty-three, an undischarged bankrupt, on October 4, 1669, the calender indicated last year that exhibitions had to be mounted and books published, not to speak of articles and radio talks asking the mock-soleman question “How do we stand with respect to Rembrandt today?” How indeed? How do we stand with respect to the Psalms, to Chartres Cathedral? Such works are more or less protected by anonymity from the dangerous institution of centenaries which not only tend to create a revulsion by surfeit but also are counterproductive of scholarship. The normal course of research depends on continuous argument; the ideas and suggestions advanced by one scholar are accepted or rejected by the next, and we all hope that in this sifting process we get a little closer to the truth. But it is rare, in the nature of things, that publications which appear in one given year can take notice of each other, and so the result is less like a dialogue than like a Babel of voices.
The present spate of Rembrandt books provides an instance which has become notorious. Invited by the Phaidon Press to bring their standard edition of Rembrandt’s paintings by A. Bredius (1935) up to date, Professor H. Gerson has not only relegated 56 out of 630 paintings to an appendix of unacceptable pictures, he has also expressed his doubts in the notes about a good many others, among them such famous works as David Playing the Harp before Saul, the proud possession of one of Europe’s most attractive galleries, the Mauritshuis in the Hague.
Ever since this famous picture—which does not have and old history—was acquired by A. Bredius in 1898…it has been hailed as one of Rembrandt’s greatest and most personal interpretations of Biblical history…. I fear that the enthusiasm has a lot to do with a taste for Biblical painting of a type that appealed specially to the Dutch public of the Jozef Israels generation rather than with the quality of the picture itself.
The allusion here is no doubt to the markedly Jewish type of the young David, which reminds the author of paintings by the famous Victorian painter of Jewish life. For it is this realistic type rather than the quality of the paint, he goes on, which has caused the enthusiasm.
The painterly execution is superficial and inconsistent: Saul’s turban is shining and variegated, and rather pedantic in treatment, in contrast with the clothing and the hand, which are painted loosely, in one monotonous tone of brownish red. All this points to an execution in Rembrandt’s studio….
The picture, we learn, has been mutilated.
This may partly help to excuse the emptiness of the curtain motive, but not the somewhat “larmoyant” interpretation. David’s figure is the best and most consistent part of the picture, but not to the degree that I would recognise Rembrandt’s touch in it….
In the opening remarks of his own volume (from which the David and Saul is excluded) Professor Gerson has certainly nailed his colors to the mast:
The mystique of art has begun to be debunked, and surely all of us can breath a sigh of relief over that. One element…that has assisted this process is the declining share of German interpretations as against critical work done elsewhere in the world.
The cheapness of this aside is out of keeping with the general standard of the book. Be that as it may, it happens that among the present crop of books, a brief monograph translated from the French of Joseph-Emile Muller shows no awareness of Professor Gerson’s opinion. To that author the painting is not only a great work of art but also a document of Rembrandt’s reaction to his bankruptcy:
His purpose in painting David harping before Saul (c. 1657) was obviously to depict the mental torment and the relief, albeit accompanied by tears, which art is able to bring to the depressed and lonely man. Beyond doubt, the great powers of suggestion of this picture are due to Rembrandt’s personal experience of these two feelings. Bowed down by melancholy, the King is seated holding a fold of the heavy curtain which hangs behind him. He conceals half his face as he wipes his left eye with it; the right eye blazes with anxiety. His long, thin, nervous hand rests limply on the shaft of a spear, incapable of throwing it at the target of his jealousy. Beside this man, impressive both in his size and in the splendour of his robes, David looks small, but the combination of light and shade on his own features gives him rather the demoniac appearance of a sorcerer. Rembrandt now knew that stirring, and even soothing, art could arise only from a mind from which serenity and peacefulness were excluded.
It is precisely this kind of response that explains Gerson’s reaction, but does it also justify it? Must we not be on our guard precisely because of the trend toward “debunking” for which Gerson renders thanks? Response to art demands a certain initial receptiveness. Granted that Gerson may be right that the reputation of a work may sometimes tend to make us overresponsive, it is equally true that you can inhibit response by sowing the seeds of doubt. Who wants to have fallen for “bunk”? Tell us in the right tone of voice that such a crude melodrama as King Lear cannot have been written by Shakespeare, and we may begin to ask ourselves whether we have been insufficiently sensitive. It is not a mood in which we can easily surrender to the spell of the play. Tell us that a painting is “larmoyant” and we will strengthen our defenses against being moved.
But what of the painterly qualities? Jakob Rosenberg, in what is still the most readable general book on the artist, Rembrandt: His Life and Work, showed himself moved not only by the story the picture tells:
The glow and vibration of the colours add tremendously to the moving power of this picture, particularly the deep purplish red and golden-yellow lining of Saul’s cloak and the gold embroidery of his robe. Here the colour is laid on with Tintoretto-like boldness and sketchiness, while the variegated turban, surmounted by a pointed crown, is executed in a more detailed manner. This flexibility in technical treatment lends the picture an unusual richness…. Everything, colour and brushwork, light and shade, spatial composition and pictorial design, serves primarily to express the meaning of the story. And for this purpose the artist’s language has taken on a symbolic significance….
Can it be that it is not so much the mystique of art but the mystique of connoisseurship that is in need of “debunking”? In one respect this may indeed be the case. For connoisseurship in art, the craft of the attributionist, has inflated the “cult of personality.” Collectors want to own a “genuine” Rembrandt, one by the master’s own hand, which is worth a multiple of what is called “a work by the school” or “from the studio.” Thus to admire a painting of this lesser category is to betray insufficient discrimination, a damaging lack of fastidiousness. But, historically speaking, this is nonsense. Much of the art of the past was the product of teamwork under the inspiring guidance of a great master.
Perhaps the time has come for us to take more notice of the potentialities of such modes of creation. In science, after all, it is a matter of course that the director of research guides and inspires his younger collaborators and that none may be able to tell in the end who exactly did what. The same must be true of the most lively of contemporary arts, such as film and television where the producer must rely on others to carry out his ideas, but is also fed with ideas by them. Even our leading statesmen have their speech writers who learn to express their policy and their thoughts. One wonders whether even they themselves can always tell in the end which passages were totally their own.
Admittedly it is much more difficult for the modern critic to imagine a painting to be the product of a collective. We are so wedded to the idea of every individual brush stroke being the expression of a unique personality that we have no use for second-hand creations. There is a cautionary tale for all who believe in the possibility of making this distinction, though it concerns a work by Raphael rather than by Rembrandt:
When the Duke of Mantua wanted to possess Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals (now in the Uffizi in Florence), the Pope instructed the owners to send it to him. Being unwilling to part with this treasure, however, they had a copy made by Andrea del Sarto and sent it instead. Vasari, who tells us this story, had watched Andrea doing the copy and when years later he came to Mantua he was surprised to find that Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano believed it to be the original. In fact—and this makes the story doubly relevant—Giulio assured him that he remembered having painted part of it himself. He was wrong; he obviously could not tell his own brushwork from that of Andrea del Sarto.
Modern connoisseurs are in less danger of being refuted, for they are rarely confronted with witnesses who watched the painting being done. Of course the fact that they are fallible does not prove that they cannot be right or that their activities are useless. Those who have spent a lifetime studying the works of a particular master do build up in their minds a picture of his personality which is sure to be more consistent and more valid than that of the casual observer. But the fact remains that different students build up different pictures and that we have no means, as a rule, of testing their vision against reality. Sometimes they may be too rigorous, sometimes too lenient in their criteria. We tend to prefer the first, and so did Max Lieberman, who is reported to have said that “it will be the job of future art historians to deny that I ever painted my bad paintings.”
The history of Rembrandt research shows the pendulum swinging backward and forward; the canon of his etchings was the first battleground. Around 1800 it was thought to number some 375; during the late nineteenth century artists who were themselves etchers, such as Seymour Haden and Alphonse Legros, found that most of them were wanting by their standards; in fact only seventy-one were left after they had done their best or worst. In 1952 Ludwig Münz acknowledged 279, and some modern connoisseurs find him too strict. It is the same with painting: Hofstede de Groot early in the century listed more than a thousand, though his list was intended to be as comprehensive as possible. Rudolf Valentiner in the next generation included some 700 in his volumes of Klassiker der Kunst, while Gerson’s own list now comprises only 420.