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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 by the subjects of many of the paintings themselves. Touch, for Rembrandt, opened the way to comprehension. From the early Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp to Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer and Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph, the hands, not the eyes, are the instrument of understanding. Blindness, a favorite theme of Rembrandt’s, was no obstacle to understanding, since understanding was fundamentally manual. And so, Alpers writes, his paintings call attention to the instrument of their making. They are deliberate and virtuoso displays of the use of the hands and the creation of tactile substance. In this sense Rembrandt’s ambitions are sculptural rather than painterly. And the peculiar use of paint, Alpers maintains, is theatrical, turning “the act of painting itself” into the “performance we view.”

This description of painting as performance Alpers quickly transfers to the figures within Rembrandt’s paintings, which, she asserts, themselves involve performances of various kinds. Every student of Rembrandt knows that he had close connections with a few playwrights, and that several of his drawings, an etching, and possibly a few paintings illustrate specific theatrical performances. But Alpers has a larger case to make. She notes that many works themselves seem “theatrical,” and that in early paintings like Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver and the Wedding of Samson Rembrandt seemed peculiarly interested in painting characters with posed and artificial gestures. In works like these, she suggests, the characters “perform” emotions. Rembrandt, moreover, had his students act out scenes devised in the studio, thus staging the subject for his drawings. Alpers interprets other works in these terms as well, even describing the Louvre Bathsheba as “the memorial in paint of what it is to view a woman acting as a nude model.” The studio, she writes, was Rembrandt’s stage.

This means, in Alpers’s view, that Rembrandt saw life itself as a studio event, and that he actually brought life into the studio. He brought the outside world under his control by placing it on his studio “stage.” A passage in the book on painting by his pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten (1678) tells how Hoogstraten’s brother went out into the street one day to find a beggar to serve as a model for a St. Peter he was painting. On this basis Alpers claims that Rembrandt too brought beggars in from the street in order to serve as models. He even brought his wife and mistresses into the studio to act in roles assigned to them by the painter-director.

So strong was Rembrandt’s impulse to use the studio as a stage, Alpers suggests, that he did not turn to the art of the past or of Italy for his models, and his students did not use as examples the works in Rembrandt’s own vast collection of art. They drew and redrew after the live nude model and after works created in the studio. And in making his own corrections to their work, he imposed his own authority ever more strongly. “Life in the studio,” Alpers writes, “replaced the art of the past.” All this allowed Rembrandt to exercise an unprecedentedly firm control both over life and over art.

As a result of this extraordinary assertion of his authority, Rembrandt, according to Alpers, could also control the demands of his patrons. By neither aspiring to their way of life nor acceding to the fine pictorial styles they expected, Rembrandt both established his own independence and produced a distinctive commodity peculiarly adapted to Holland’s entrepreneurial economy.

Although Gary Schwartz, in his recent Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings,* brilliantly documented Rembrandt’s intense, complicated, and often headstrong relations with a wide circle of patrons, Alpers takes the view that Rembrandt refused to submit to the prevailing patronage system. He preferred, she claims, to sell his works on the open market, and played the entrepreneur. (The term Alpers uses to describe him is pictor economicus.) He devised his own strategy to sell his paintings, she points out, with the same stubborn sense of independence that was evident in the studio. At a time when Dutch artists were organizing into professional brotherhoods and academies, Rembrandt stood apart. He would have nothing to do with the ways in which his colleagues set out to elevate their status and emulate their well-born sitters. The only “academy” he ever had anything to do with was the workshop run by the uncle of his first wife, a combination of studio and business.

Alpers goes on to argue that the smooth manner of painting employed by the so-called fijnschilders (painters whose works had a fine, almost enamel-like finish) including Dou, van Mieris, and van der Werff had a clear relation to the equally smooth personal relationships they enjoyed with their well-to-do and aristocratic patrons. Rembrandt’s rough and often apparently hasty and unfinished paintwork would not have suited such an audience. In fact, these features of his style were, according to Alpers, directly tied to the strategies by which he manipulated the market. Recognizing that “the value of painting is a function of exchange,” he deliberately turned his pictures into loan instruments. In the best known case, a loan from his onetime friend and patron Jan Six was transferred from one creditor to another, with the principal and increasing interest to be repaid either in pictures or the proceeds from the sale of pictures. In such cases it was in Rembrandt’s interest not only that they should appear as distinctively his own, but that they should be left unfinished. By reworking and retouching them, it is suggested, he could always increase their real financial value.

Alpers’s portrait of Rembrandt, then, shows virtually every aspect of his life and art pervaded by economic motives. For her, the rather disagreeable picture, now in Berlin, of an avaricious old man counting his money by candlelight “records Rembrandt’s fascination with hoarding.” It thus alludes to “satisfactions which Rembrandt shared.” His encyclopedic collection of minor works of art and antiquities becomes evidence of his capitalist instincts to accumulate; the collection suggests to her an aesthetic version of the great seventeenth-century warehouses of Amsterdam. When he bids up prices of works at auction he does so in order to increase the value of art in the market economy.

Indeed, so complete is Rembrandt’s involvement with the market that he even created himself as a commodity, viewing his studio’s products as extensions of himself, sent out into the world to earn money. In this, Alpers writes, Rembrandt was different from Rubens:

It was the commodity—the Rembrandt—that Rembrandt made that was new. And it is he, not Rubens, who invented the work of art most characteristic of our culture—a commodity distinguished among others by not being factory produced, but produced in limited numbers and creating its market, whose special claim to the aura of individuality and to high market value binds it to basic aspects of an entrepreneurial (capitalist) enterprise.

It is this “invention,” Alpers argues, that gave Rembrandt both freedom and control. What she seems to be saying is that Rembrandt’s enterprise is found not just in his paintings, but in his refusal to limit his enterprise to those paintings he actually created. He marketed Rembrandt.

Alpers thus takes a radical view of Rembrandt’s art. She can be eloquent about individual paintings; the picture she presents of studio life is lively and vivid; and the account of Rembrandt’s having his own independent sense of the painter’s vocation is fresh and often convincing. The book is always suggestive, even when it is most extravagantly speculative.

But many of the virtues of the book are diminished by the drive to reduce Rembrandt’s work to illustrations of Alpers’s two principal theses: the theatricality of his paintings and his workshop procedures, and his “commodification” of works of art. In her earlier work Alpers was too sensitive to the visual qualities of pictures to be satisfied with explanations in purely historical or economic or symbolic terms; but in Rembrandt’s Enterprise there are times when the explanatory drive serves only her thesis, rather than the paintings themselves.

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    Viking, 1985.

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