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The God of Realism

He came from the lower middle class of Holland. His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (circa 1568– 1630), owned a half-share in a flour mill in Leiden, and his mother, Cornelia van Zuytbrouk (1568–1640), was a baker’s daughter. He was the second-youngest of ten children, and although big families were commoner then than now, the effort of raising such a brood must have placed an exhausting strain on his parents; it is written all over the seamed, lined face of his mother, whom he frequently painted in her old age. Nevertheless they were able to send him to Leiden’s Latin school, where he would have studied Latin, classical literature, and history. In later life he would not show a great enthusiasm for painting subjects from classical mythology—or at least the patrons of Leiden and Amsterdam did not commission many from him—but this would certainly not have been from ignorance.

He was a singular connoisseur of ordinariness, and some of his self-portraits are eloquent proof of this. His first self-portrait in particular: it is the artist as a young dog, an etching of himself snarling at the mirror, rejecting the viewer’s (and by implication, society’s) gaze. We see the same rebarbative snarl in other self-portraits and (most tellingly) in an etching which is not identified as being of Rembrandt, an image of a seated peasant glaring at anyone who might be self-satisfied enough to pity him. The expressions seem no less intense when you realize that he was testing out dramatic expressions—acting for the camera which was himself.

Nor did he ever treat the human form as a means of escape from the disorder and episodic ugliness of the real world. Reality was always breaking into celestial events. How many other painters of his time would have been likely to show the soles of the bare feet of an angel as it flies up and away from the family of Tobit? Not for Rembrandt the refinements of the female body one often sees in late Mannerism—the smooth tapering, the swan-like necks, the preposterous elongations of torso and thigh. Women’s bodies in Mannerist painting had the same relation, or lack of it, to reality as the bodies of today’s runway models do: that is, they are absurd, hyperstylized goddesses who have nothing to do with experience.

Rembrandt’s own lack of interest in refinement and smoothness in the Italian manner—his rejection, in short, of the abstract—would cost him the loyalty of some connoisseurs, such as the “German Vasari” Joachim von Sandrart, who complained that for all his talent Rembrandt hadn’t grasped “our rules of art, such as anatomy and the proportions of the human body,” partly because he “always associated with the lower orders, whereby he was hampered in his work.”

This Dutchman just wasn’t officer material, and didn’t belong in the officers’ mess, still less at court. And when you see some of the plebeian and aging bodies of women that Rembrandt painted, and then designated as goddesses or biblical heroines, you know immediately what Sandrart meant. Nevertheless, these were the bodies generally available to him, and they had a documentary truth.

But of course, that is not the whole story. To see why it is not, you need only look at that imperishable masterpiece in the Louvre, the Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, his portrait of his wife Hendrickje Stoffels, naked except for a wisp of fabric hiding her pubis. A maidservant is washing and perfuming her feet, because she has just received a letter from the libidinous King David, summoning her to his bed. She is not entirely unadorned: she wears a necklace, there is a bracelet on her right arm, and hanging over her collarbone, a mere visual caress, is a madder-colored ribbon. If Rembrandt had tried to turn her into a glamour girl all’Italiana, the image would have failed. But it succeeds because he portrayed a woman thinking while naked—an almost unheard-of achievement in the art of the nude. Bathsheba clearly has an internal life, not merely an external beauty. She is engaged in moral reflection—the fact that she is no longer reading the letter makes that clear—and her pensive expression has a gravity beyond that of any other Bathsheba. Will she? Won’t she? Does she want to? If so, how much?

The questions are left hanging in the air, but we are left intensely conscious of them—of the ambiguity, so to put it, that hangs over all beauty, all desire. But then, her beauty is of a different order from the conventional; those broad hips, those sturdy hands, connect her to the actual world we live and feel in. And what lends a further dimension to the subject is that we know, if we are biblically literate, something that Bathsheba, inside the Bible story, does not: that the amoral King David wants her so much that he is going to murder her husband, get him out of the way by putting him in the front line of battle.

Sometimes Rembrandt’s subjects are too connected to the commonplace world for everyone to like them. There is an extremely vulgar side to Rembrandt. This in itself is no surprise, given the bawdry for which seventeenth-century Holland was notable. It may well be that giving vent to it was Rembrandt’s compensation for the anal obsession with neatness and cleanness that characterized Dutch domestic life. He did etchings of a man peeing and a woman defecating. A dog, tensely extruding a large turd from its backside, appears in the foreground. And his large painting of the infant Ganymede snatched up into the sky by Zeus in the form of an eagle shows the child uncontrollably pissing in terror, which must be about the most anti-classical rendering of a scene from the classics ever given by a major artist—though it is certainly what you would expect a baby boy to do under the circumstances.

Cognate with this is Rembrandt’s capacity for conveying unvarnished, unedited pain. In that he had something in common with the as-yet-unborn Goya, and with his own contemporary the great Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). Probably the most fearsome example in Rembrandt’s work was that enormous canvas The Blinding of Samson, a monument of sadistic fury which the painter sent as a gift to Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Stadtholder and author of the first memoir to heap praise on the then-young painter. It is a perfect horror show of a painting, fully in accord with Jacobean taste. “Tear up his lids,” cries a villain in one of the English revenge tragedies,

And let his eyes like comets shine through blood—

When the bad bleed, then is the tragedy good!

Such is the spirit of The Blinding of Samson, except that the good, or at least the not bad, are doing the bleeding. There are soldiers pinioning the helpless strongman; there is Delilah, escaping with scissors in one hand and his mat of hair in the other; and there is another soldier, like some gleaming and malignant beetle in his armor amid the confused tangle of limbs and weapons, pushing the dagger into Samson’s eye socket. There is no record of whether Huygens liked this repulsive and enormous present, or hung it in his house; it remains a striking example of the diplomatic ineptitude which, in combination with Rembrandt’s personal extravagance and his general financial incompetence, would eventually lead him to bankruptcy.

Rembrandt had a strange way of acting, sometimes, as though he were alone in the world, but the popular idea of the artist as solitary genius does not fit him at all; in fact it represents the opposite of the way he worked. He identified with “the people,” from whose midst he knew very well he had come. He never for a moment seems to have shared the desire for nobility that had been such a theme in the careers of artists like Diego Velázquez or Sir Peter Paul Rubens. His life was crowded, rather than peacefully isolated, and certainly never of an Olympian detachment, even though he was capable of quite deranged gestures of show-offy extravagance—such as buying an enormous house, more suitable for a banker than a painter, on the fashionable Sint Antoniesbreestraat, for 13,000 guilders, a sum he must have known he could never pay off, no matter how many bread-and-butter portraits he turned out. His working days were full of people, crammed with pupils and assistants, not because he wanted selflessly to give away his time to the young, but because he badly needed their time and money; at the height of his career he had twenty-five young people working for him and being taught by him, which, at the relatively high fee of 100 guilders a year—not all parents could afford so much for a son’s apprenticeship—brought him in 2,500 guilders annually. He actually had to rent a house on the Bloemgracht in 1637 to give them all working room. What did they do? They learned the trade: grinding colors, stretching and priming canvases, and then on to drawing the human face and body from models. They had the benefit of his sprawling Kunstkammer-like collection of art objects, curios, costumes, and studio props. The inventory of his possessions made in 1656 lists dozens of paintings by others, folios of prints, scrapbooks, a dozen busts of Roman emperors, scores of “specimens of land and sea creatures,” pieces of armor, old weapons, numerous musical instruments including “a wooden trumpet”—what on earth did that sound like?—and, rather touchingly, “two little dogs done from the life by Titus van Rhyn,” his son.

Such things were collected, in quantity, to be used as sources for quotation and examples in an age that did not, as yet, know photographic reproduction. All this was tremendously valuable for young talent, as were the living models he hired—one need only consider how difficult it would have been for a student to get the opportunity to draw a naked woman: young Dutch painters tended not to be married, for obvious reasons of poverty, but respectable unmarried girls did not pose naked, an activity which in seventeenth-century Amsterdam was considered fit mainly for prostitutes. Add to this the obvious prestige of working, even as a studio dogsbody, for a painter of Rembrandt’s reputation, and one can see why the master was never short of assistants, and why they would pay top guilder to work for him.

They came from all over the Netherlands: Samuel van Hoogstraten, Govert Flinck, Gerard Dou, Gerbrand van den Eckhout, Gerrit Willemsz, Horst, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius, Nicolaes Maes, Aert de Gelder, and perhaps a dozen others. Some of these had no clear relation to Rembrandt except that they picked up some professionalism in his studio—Gerard Dou being the clearest example, since there seems to be no possible link between his ultra-detailed, nitpicking miniaturist’s realism and Rembrandt’s broader and more dashing brushwork. Some were mediocrities but others were remarkably good, due in part, no doubt, to what rubbed off on them from Rembrandt himself. Moreover, Rembrandt would hardly have wanted to take duffers on, since he profited from their work and had standards to uphold. If one of them did a painting he liked, he was quite capable of signing it with his own name, keeping it and selling it as an autograph work by “Rembrandt.” Criteria of originality and authorship were much more relaxed in the seventeenth century than they are now. If the mighty Rubens could touch up student work, there was no earthly reason why Rembrandt should not.

But this, of course, raises problems for the modern picture-lover, which begin with the supposed supremacy of “handwriting” as a test of authenticity. Beginning with the pseudo-scientific physiognomist Giovanni Morelli, on whose work Bernard Berenson based his own criteria for identifying Italian artists of the distant past, it was assumed—often correctly—that a painter will reveal who he is in those very parts of the painting over which he takes the least conscious control: the “handwriting,” the squiggles and tweaks with which he semiautomatically draws an earlobe, a nostril, an eye. This is all very well, and it is useful much of the time, but the curious thing about Rembrandt’s disciples is that they so often managed to reproduce the characteristic hooks and crotchets of their master’s line with astonishing and, it seems, convincingly unconscious fidelity. Hence the sharp and even embittered character of arguments about Rembrandt attribution. There can be few people left who believe he painted the Berlin Gemäldegalerie’s Man with the Golden Helmet, which was once not only accepted without demur but revered as a touchstone of Rembrandt’s work by such authorities of yesteryear as Jakob Rosenberg, W.R. Valentiner, and the much-feared Wilhelm Bode, and also by a huge public.

Today the focus of Rembrandt insecurity is the Frick Collection’s The Polish Rider (see illustration on page 6), which has been “questioned” (as the ominous term has it) by the much-feared Rembrandt Research Project, an independent group of experts whose mission is to construct an unassailable corpus of genuine Rembrandts out of the welter of attributions inherited from earlier days. Personally, I love The Polish Rider and I am certainly not the only one who does. But it is in certain respects unlike other Rembrandts—starting with the fact that Rembrandt’s equestrian paintings are few and far between; in all the body of his work, there is only one other portrait of a man on horseback, the portrait of Frederick Rihel (1663) in London’s National Gallery, and this prosperous-looking civic guardsman astride his baroque rocking horse is a world away, both in looks and in feeling, from the bony, Rocinante-like nag that bears its young rider across the canvas on his urgent, inscrutable errand.

The picture was found in a castle in Poland, hence its entirely gratuitous title; but nobody knows who the rider was, or even whether he was, in fact, Polish: probably he is wearing these clothes because Rembrandt had them in the heterogeneous clutter of costumes in his studio. The art historians, from Julius Held to Kenneth Clark, who have argued that the starting point of the painting was actually (or “possibly,” or “probably,” or “very likely,” or “almost certainly”) a skeleton man mounted on a skeleton horse which Rembrandt saw and drew in the dissecting room of Leiden University may very well be right. Or not. There can be few paintings of comparable quality of which less is known for sure than The Polish Rider. But the doubts cast on it by the RRP are also guesswork. The efforts to reattribute it to one of Rembrandt’s pupils, Willem Drost, about whose life and work very little is known, are quite inconclusive. They are like attempts to “prove” that Hamlet was really written by someone other than William Shakespeare—but someone who was still as good a writer as Shakespeare, for whose existence there is no actual evidence. Until such a phantom turns up, to imagine Rembrandt without The Polish Rider is rather like trying to imagine Wagner without Parsifal.

But there have often been doubts about the authenticity of Rembrandts—not just the obvious fakes or the minor pictures, but about works which were once (and perhaps, given the changes of fortune that reattribution brings, should be again) placed among the best of his work. The Mauritshuis’s David Playing the Harp before Saul is to me a most moving painting, with that remorse-crazed eye of the king and its unideal but beautifully realistic-looking, concentrated young harpist. Why did the art historian Horst Gerson take it away from Rembrandt in 1968? Because he found the gesture of Saul drying his tears on his cloak (or perhaps hiding his face from David, whom he planned to murder) too theatrical.

But Rembrandt is often theatrical. Indeed, his frequent nearness to theater is implicit in his lighting and the concentrated eloquence of the way his figures pose and gesture. Theatricality doesn’t disprove Rembrandt: it is one of the things that makes him a great Baroque artist, as well as a great realist. Few gestures, after all, could be more theatrical than the marvelous one of reconciliation in the Hermitage’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (circa 1668), where the delinquent boy kneels, burying his face in his father’s bosom, while the old man’s hands rest on the lad’s back with such extraordinary tenderness. And the theatricality is heightened by the fact that the prodigal has fallen on his knees before his father with such emotional haste that his left shoe has come off, just as it might in real life, so that the sole of his foot is as bare as any foot in a Caravaggio—a none-too-subliminal image of the stripping of the spirit, of humility and repentance, in the soul’s progress toward God, which is what the parable of the Prodigal Son is about. Indeed one may, without stretching things, see in the conjunction of foot and empty shoe a small figuration of the humble soul casting off the husks or coverings of the material world.

Rembrandt often used Jewish models, which is hardly surprising given that he illustrated so many biblical scenes. He does not, however, seem to have immersed himself in the (mainly Sephardic) Jewish community of Amsterdam; as the art historian Gary Schwartz observes, his Jewish contacts “were limited to a few of the figures who ventured the furthest into the Christian world,” chiefly the scholarly rabbi Menassah ben Israel (1604– 1657), who ran the leading Jewish press in northern Europe and must, one presumes, have shown Rembrandt how to correctly write the Aramaic inscription Mene mene tekel upharsin on his painting of Belshazzar’s feast.

What Rembrandt’s own feelings about Jews may have been is difficult to guess. Certainly, however—since nothing resembling the “ignoble Jew” has ever been detected in his work—he was not anti-Semitic, and he made no effort to dissimulate the obvious fact that the Old Testament heroes, apostles, and prophets he was so often called upon to paint were Jewish. Moreover, since it is fairly clear from his work that he regarded the artist as an outsider, one may fairly suppose that the Jew-as-outsider in the otherwise solidly Christian communities of Leiden and Amsterdam would have engaged his sympathy as well.

He never enjoyed the institutional security of, say, Rubens. He was not totally reliable when it came to turning out big official paintings and satisfying the needs and vanity of major patrons, though he could certainly perform impressively when required to: one striking piece of evidence for this is his masterpiece The Nightwatch, that extraordinary rethinking of the genre in which Dutch painters were expected to excel, the group portrait of members of a board, a club, or a profession. The Nightwatch does not, as has often been noted, take place at night—it acquired the name in the eighteenth century, when it was dark with grime. Actually it is quite evenly lit, for the good reason that everyone depicted in it felt entitled to be well seen and recognizable. What it depicts is one of the militia companies which, in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, had lost most of their military functions but retained their role as semimilitary social clubs for the prosperous. Typically, they had about two hundred members each. There were twenty or so of these companies, divided into three types: archers, crossbowmen, and the musketeers, or kloveniers. Each had its headquarters, the doelen—a clubhouse, with shooting range and armory. Rembrandt painted the men of one such musketry club, whose chief officer was a rich young man of thirty-seven named Frans Banning Cocq, marching about and ceremonially preening themselves, deploying their banners, pikes, and halberds, and firing off their guns, just for show. It is a curiously disordered scene—art historians have shown that not even the uniforms and costumes of the militiamen are consistent, some apparently dating back to the sixteenth century, which suggests that they came not from the storage rooms of the doelen but from some costume cupboard of Rembrandt’s own. Pink, well-fed, self-satisfied, all leather, feathers, steel, and swagger—the kloveniers do not look all that dangerous, but Rembrandt has done a wonderful job of memorializing their playful self-importance, which may be the point of the picture.

We think of him, primarily, as a great topographer of the human face, his own and others’, Jewish and Gentile, male and female, young and (especially) old. And so he was. Nowhere else in seventeenth-century art is there a more beautiful and respectful portrait of a woman in old age than Rembrandt’s Margarethe Trip, with that starched white ruff like an immaculate millstone about her neck. Nowhere will you see a more decorous but intimate loving couple than in the painting conventionally called The Jewish Bride, even though we don’t know their names (it may, in fact, be a theater scene with actors rather than an image of real betrothal). Nor would it be easy to find a wiser and more thought-immersed sage than Rembrandt’s vision of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. (Why should Aristotle have been doing that? The answer points to Rembrandt’s sometimes underrated familiarity with classical literature: he knew, as most men in the street certainly did not, that Aristotle did in fact think long and hard about the Iliad and the Odyssey, and composed a lost commentary on them. Moreover, Aristotle was the “official” philosopher of Dutch Calvinism, and was believed to have taught the young Alexander the Great about the art of war, based on his study of the Iliad.)

Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Rembrandt would be remembered as an extraordinary self-portraitist if he had died young at, say, forty-five. But he lived much longer and it is the work of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined, and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt. Life, and his own mismanagement of life, has bashed him but no one could say it has beaten him. Such is the message of a work like the late Kenwood House self-portrait (1661–1662). By now Rembrandt was the supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought, whether it is the self-reflection of Bathsheba or the meditation of Aristotle. He had done pictures of himself that fairly radiate a gloating success, but the deepest was saved for the last decade of his life, when he painted himself as a painter at work, holding brushes, palette, and maulstick. He has his back to a wall, or perhaps a large canvas. On the canvas are two large arcs, incomplete circles. What are these abstract forms doing there? They are not underpainting of anything. They come from Rembrandt’s reading of a well-known and indeed exemplary story in Pliny. The great Greek painter Apelles, so Pliny’s story goes, went to visit an equally famous ancient master, Protogenes, on the island of Rhodes. But Protogenes was out, and so Apelles, rather than leave him a note, drew on his studio wall a perfect circle, freehand. Protogenes would realize that only an artist of Apelles’ skills could possibly have done this. So Rembrandt places himself before the message that compares him to Apelles, king and ancestor of his art. Old age has at last freed him to make an incontrovertible, utterly simple proof of mastery. The circle has closed.

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