• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Rembrandt—The Jewish Connection?

Rembrandt’s Jews

by Steven Nadler
University of Chicago Press, 250 pp., $25.00; $20.00 (paper)

De “joodse” Rembrandt: De mythe ontrafeld [The “Jewish” Rembrandt: The Myth Revealed]

an exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, November 10, 2006–February 4, 2007.
Catalog of the exhibition by Mirjam Alexander-Knotter, Jasper Hillegers, and Edward van Voolen.
English translation and pub. info. Waanders/Joods Historisch Museum, 96 pp., €19.95;

Rembrandt in de propaganda 1940–1945

an exhibition at the Resistance Museum, Amsterdam, June 30, 2006– December 3, 2006

J’aime les juifs!” Holland’s foremost painter shouts as he moves through seventeenth-century Amsterdam’s busy streets. The scene, in Charles Matton’s 1999 film Rembrandt, unwittingly recalls another, from the film of the same name made fifty-eight years before by German director Hans Steinhoff. Already well known for his Hitlerjunge Quex, about a Hitler Youth murdered by Communists, Steinhoff had arrived in Amsterdam in 1941, bringing with him the German actors, set designers, cameramen, and costume directors supplied by Propaganda Minister Goebbels. No expense was spared. Rembrandt’s purpose, after all, was nothing less than to show the freshly conquered “Land of Rembrandt” that the artist who represented its highest achievement was, in Hitler’s words, “a true Aryan and German.”

There were two problems. First, Rembrandt was not German. Second, he was famously associated with Jews. An emphasis on the essential “racial” unity of the Dutch and the Germans could take care of the first. The second was trickier. Three centuries later, Rembrandt’s friendships with Jews caused uneasiness in the highest circles of the Reich. Steinhoff’s script therefore directed “drei Männer jüdischen Aussehens“—three men who looked like greasy, greedy Semites— to ruin the heroic Aryan, causing his bankruptcy and plunging him into the oblivion in which he died.

Still, as Goebbels and Steinhoff found, the problem with turning Rembrandt into an emblem of Germanic racial superiority was that he, more than any other artist, was popularly and enduringly remembered as a friend of the Jews. Nobody cared what Vermeer or Rubens thought of the Jews, or whether Velázquez or Caravaggio were covert anti-Semites. But the issue was central to the legend of Holland’s greatest artist, which was fully formed by the early nineteenth century, and according to which he painted them; he lived among them; he befriended their great figures.

Even rabid anti-Semites took this for granted. France’s leading nineteenth-century Jew-baiter, Édouard Drumont, editor of La France Juive, claimed that “one must look at Rembrandt if one really wants to see the Jews.”

Erwin Panofsky, the German-Jewish art historian, took a special interest in Rembrandt’s connection to Jews. About a picture thought to be painted from a Jewish model, he commented, “the way Christ gestures with his arm undoubtedly has something Jewish about it.”1 During the Holocaust, which they called the Great Sadness, Dutch Jews also clung to the memory of the artist. In a wartime poem, a deportee described the country he was leaving: “Farewell, good land, our thoughts strengthen us/of our ancestors’ old havens,/of the proud city where Rembrandt’s friends worked/ and of the quiet town, where Spinoza once thought.”2

This long tradition makes “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” a recent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam—and the accompanying catalog, which is to be released in an English translation this spring—all the more noteworthy. The curators of the show systematically examined every aspect of the legend, and found almost all of it open to doubt. Scholarship rarely triumphs over deeply rooted myths. Even so, it was hard to imagine, upon exiting the exhibition, that anyone will ever again film Rembrandt on the Jodenbreestraat saying “J’aime les juifs!

That street itself, it turns out, is a central part of the legend. The name means “Jewish Broad Street,” and it was here, in 1639, that Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the city’s most successful young artists, bought the mansion now known as the Rembrandt House Museum. “Much of what we think about Rembrandt and his art stems, ultimately, from his decision to live there,” in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, Steven Nadler writes in his book Rembrandt’s Jews.

Yet Rembrandt’s move to the neighborhood was in no sense a decision to live among Jews, according to the curators of “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt.” When he arrived, the area was new, and thus attracted many new residents, including Jewish immigrants. The street was then called the St. Anthoniesbreestraat, or Breestraat for short: Jodenbreestraat came later, after Rembrandt’s time. It was, among other things, a painter’s quarter, in which important artists such as Paulus Potter, Govaert Flinck, and Bartholomaeus van der Helst lived and worked. Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt’s early teacher, was a neighbor, and Rembrandt’s relative the art dealer and painter Hendrick van Uylenburgh lived there too. Like Rembrandt, none of them was Jewish.

So Rembrandt didn’t come to be near Jews. He came for the art world: for the painters, patrons, and dealers. Yet despite the presence of all these other artists, according to the catalog, “only in Rembrandt’s case is it emphasized that he lived in the Jewish Quarter.” The reason, however, is easy enough to understand. To take the examples the catalog cites, Paulus Potter was a painter of animals; Flinck and Van der Helst portraitists; Lastman a specialist in mythological and historical scenes; and Van Uylenburgh mainly a merchant. Only Rembrandt, a tireless observer of the world around him, might have been expected to portray Jews, just as he painted dogs and jesters and beggars and cattle, people arguing and people asleep and people making love. Besides, Rembrandt was drawn to the exotic. The strange people recently arrived from locations as far-flung as Podolia and Pernambuco, with their odd dress and colorful rituals, might have caught the master’s eye.

But did they? The exhibition’s organizers coolly appraise the many Rembrandt pictures reputed to depict Jews. “What these paintings almost without exception have in common,” they dryly write, “is that their subjects possess a beard and a head covering.” In fact, among the paintings that have been identified as Rembrandt’s Jews are some that are neither by Rembrandt nor of Jews. Take the Head of a Jewish Rabbi, a work in Dublin traditionally attributed to Rembrandt. It bears the signature of his pupil Willem Drost—and the “rabbi’s” necklace has two large crucifixes in its chain.

Abraham Bredius’s 1937 catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s work included 140 portraits of men. Of these, no fewer than 37, or 26 percent, purportedly showed Jews. Not all are as easily discredited as the crucifix-wearing rabbi. But improved research techniques have discarded many earlier attributions to Rembrandt. And even those he surely did create do not often picture Jews. For example, a painting formerly thought to picture Saul Levi Morteira, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, turns out to show the Czech Protestant Jan Amos Comenius. The curators, like so many others, also raise questions about The Jewish Bride, the well-known picture at the Rijksmuseum—not dismissing the possibility that it shows a Jewish couple but also noting the suggestions of other writers that it may depict an episode from Golden Age drama.

Following their meticulous examination, the curators conclude that no more than three male portraits by Rembrandt are pictures of Jews. And they even have their doubts about two of these. A single picture stands unchallenged, the only one whose sitter has been identified: a small oil sketch of Ephraïm Bueno, a prominent Sephardic doctor, preserved in the Rijksmuseum. The work shows just how easily art historians have been misled by their eagerness to spot a Jew behind Rembrandt’s beards or odd costumes. There is nothing in Bueno’s countenance or clothes to separate him from any number of Rembrandt’s Christian sitters. There is, however, much that separates him from Rembrandt’s Jewish neighbors: namely, the very existence of the portrait, in at least two and possibly three versions.

In Rembrandt’s Jews, Steven Nadler notes that members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community, who were largely of Portuguese origin, were notably reluctant to have themselves painted. There are only seventeen known portraits of Jews dating from 1620 to 1680, the height of the Golden Age. When we consider how many thousands of Dutch portraits have come down to us from that period, and how many Portuguese Jews belonged to the wealthy, cultivated class that was a source of clients to Amsterdam’s painters, it seems odd that so few of them commissioned portraits. The reason seems to be an interpretation of the Second Commandment, which forbids the manufacture of images that could be worshipped as idols.

Strict interpretation of this law, and others, was especially important to the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam. This was because, paradoxically, most of them had settled in Holland in order to openly become Jews. When they arrived from Portugal in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they were frequently uncircumcised, knew little or no Hebrew, and had only a vague knowledge of Jewish law and ritual. What they had was an awareness of themselves as Jews, and a desire to practice their ancestors’ faith undisturbed.

This awareness had been secretly preserved in Portugal since 1497, when its Jews were forcibly baptized. This was in marked contrast with Spain, from which the Jews had been expelled in 1492, and where a vigorous Inquisition kept watch on the religious practices of large numbers of people. In Portugal there was no effective Inquisition until the 1580s, which meant that the country’s “New Christian” population could discreetly practice their religion, as long as they remained publicly professing Christians. Rembrandt’s neighbor Spinoza (it is uncertain that the two ever met) pointed out that in his ancestors’ Portugal, unlike in Spain, Jewish converts were barred from honors and offices. This had the effect of strengthening the Jewish identity of the group the Portuguese state wanted to eliminate, which chafed at this discrimination.3 When Portugal was annexed to Spain in 1580 and the more robust Spanish Inquisition arrived, many New Christians began to depart.

Lacking a rabbinate, an educational system, or Jewish books, they came to Amsterdam to learn. But even as these Portuguese émigrés were becoming Jews again, they did not lose the habit of fraternizing with Christians, among whom they had lived as Christians in Iberia, not only in business affairs but in their relations with the upper echelons of learned society. An important argument for admitting Portuguese Jews to Holland was their usefulness as teachers of Hebrew. Although the Reformation was viciously anti-Semitic (especially in its Lutheran version), Protestant theologians also emphasized the close study of the Bible’s original texts. And for that, it was hard to avoid Jews.

In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, there was, then, considerable contact between Jews and Christians. Steven Nadler’s engaging book gives a succinct overview of these relations, and the Amsterdam Jewish community in Rembrandt’s time, from its origins at the end of the sixteenth century through the construction of the two great synagogues at the end of the Breestraat a century later. One of these, the Ashkenazic synagogue, today houses the Jewish Historical Museum; the other, the Portuguese, was for many years the largest and most opulent synagogue in Europe. In the late seventeenth century, services were attended by curious Christians and attracted tourists, the brazen practice of Judaism contributing to the city’s reputation for loose morals rather as the red-lit prostitutes and the weed-peddling “coffeshops” do today.

  1. 1

    Rembrandt und das Judentum (1921), p. 79.

  2. 2

    Quoted in: Meyer Sluyser, Voordat ik het vergeet. Amsterdam, 1957, p. 9. (“Vaarwel, goed land, het denken geeft ons sterkte/aan de oude havens van ons voorgeslacht,/ de stoere stad, waar Rembrandts vrienden werkten/ en ‘t stille dorp, waar eens Spinoza dacht.”)

  3. 3

    Jonathan Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750, 1985, pp. 24–25.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print