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Rembrandt & The Jews

In response to:

Rembrandt—The Jewish Connection? from the August 14, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I appreciate Benjamin Moser’s thoughtful and informed review of my book, Rembrandt’s Jews [NYR, April 14]. But Mr. Moser seems to have misread some of my central claims about Rembrandt and the Jews of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, leading him to believe that I was out to shore up the old romantic myth of a philo-Semitic Rembrandt when in fact I was trying to bring a dose of reality to it.

First, contrary to what Mr. Moser suggests, I nowhere claim that Rembrandt moved onto the Breestraat in the Vlooienburgh neighborhood because it was populated by Jews; indeed, I argue explicitly against that idea and point to the fact that the neighborhood was, when Rembrandt first lived there, the center of Amsterdam’s art world.

Second, I do not argue that the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam were “notably reluctant to have themselves painted”; on the contrary, I argue that these Sephardim appear to have been much less worried about the Second Commandment than the city’s Ashkenazic population. We know that they collected art, including paintings, although perhaps not on the same scale as their picture-loving Dutch neighbors. And as the research of Mirjam Alexander-Knotter and others into the estate inventories of Dutch Portuguese families has shown, they seem to have commissioned (or at least owned) quite a few portraits, although few are (as far as we know) extant.

Steven Nadler

Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Madison, Wisconsin

Benjamin Moser replies:

Steven Nadler’s Rembrandt’s Jews is, as I wrote, an admirable introduction to the world of the Dutch Jews of the seventeenth-century Golden Age, and Professor Nadler is right to say that his book is far more balanced than some of the more uncritically enthusiastic authors I also quoted in my essay. It is also a valuable counterbalance to the exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which, in its revisionist élan, went too far in dismissing any connection at all between Rembrandt and the Jewish community.

Yet if the JHM threw the baby out with the bathwater, Nadler is often straining, as in this letter, to keep at least a little bit of the bathwater. Nadler does claim that Jewish subjects were intriguing to non-Jewish artists, though paintings of contemporary Jewish individuals and monuments—rather than the biblical subjects Nadler erroneously, in my judgment, sees as “Jewish”—are extremely rare. And strictly speaking it is correct that there are more portraits of Portuguese Jews than of Ashkenazic Jews.

But according to the evidence Nadler himself presents, there are only seventeen portraits of Jews from the entire Dutch seventeenth century. Considering how many tens of thousands of portraits have survived from that era, and even allowing for the (distant, in my opinion) possibility that there are many more portraits of Jews out there that have not been identified as such, there just isn’t any convincing case to be made that the Portuguese Jews were “much less worried about the Second Commandment” than their Ashkenazic brethren.

The salient fact, when discussing Jewish involvement in the Dutch art of the Golden Age, is how surprisingly limited and rare it was, an odd phenomenon for a wealthy and educated community amid a culture obsessed by art and producing it in such great quantities.

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