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.
Perhaps some crude statistics may help us to see the meaning of these fluctuations from a different angle. Born in 1606, Rembrandt was about nineteen when he set up an independent studio. His active life thus comprised some forty-four years. Painting a picture every month on an average, he could have done 528 paintings, fitting the etchings in between. Naturally some of the monumental paintings and some of the etchings must have occupied him for a long time, but there are also authentic items in his oeuvre that he may well have thrown off in a few hours. From this purely numerical point of view, therefore, the restrictionist’s case is perhaps not so strong as one would expect, if one remembers the incredible creativity of composers such as Bach, Mozart, or Schubert.
Here we come back to the elusive problem of the “studio,” which alone can explain the discrepancies in the size of the oeuvre attributed to Rembrandt. That Rembrandt’s conception of art was not so individualistic as ours, we know. In his early years he shared a studio with Jan Lievens, and the two worked so closely together that collectors at the time described certain paintings as being “by Rembrandt or Lievens.” After he had moved to Amsterdam, eyewitnesses tell us that he was surrounded by pupils whose work, they allege, he sold as his own—as indeed he was perfectly entitled to do under the law. We know something about his teaching activities, for we have several drawings by students which he can be seen to have corrected with a heavy stroke. The fact that such intervention cannot so easily be shown in paintings does not mean that it did not occur.
Moreover it is generally agreed that his students sometimes worked out Rembrandt’s ideas and inventions. Could he not then have guided the work even further by word of mouth or even by active collaboration? It was in this way, no doubt, that he impressed his personality and his outlook to a greater or lesser degree on a host of young painters. Indeed, as Jakob Rosenberg and Seymour Slive put it in their excellent chapter on the Rembrandt School in the Pelican History of Art, “He was able to teach his best students naturalness, sympathy and human warmth, as well as drawing and coloring.”
For good or ill, such a term as “human warmth” is not frequently encountered in the type of art historical literature that hopes to “debunk” the mystique of art. But who can deny that there is such a thing and that it colors our response to Rembrandt’s works? He stands for more in the history of art than for “drawing and coloring.” Like many other great artists, he conquered a new province of expressiveness, and articulated a world of feeling that had never been given shape before. We are no longer so much used to seeing painters as discoverers of psychological states and attitudes for we still have a lingering fear of the “anecdotal” in art. For anyone dealing with Rembrandt’s achievement this fear is debilitating. What Rembrandt taught his students and indeed mankind was not only how to see the visible world in a novel way, but also how to reveal the inner life.
We do not have to rely on guess-work here. For though Rembrandt was certainly not fond of theoretical discussions, we have one remark from his pen which bears on this central aim of his artistic explorations. At the height of his success, at the age of thirty-two, he wrote to Constantijn Huyghens, the secretary to the Governor of the Netherlands, for whom Rembrandt was painting a series of the Passion of Christ. He apologized for the time he had taken over the Entombment and the Resurrection, and added that he hoped these paintings would give pleasure because in them “the greatest and most natural movement had been expressed, which was also the main reason why they had taken so long to execute.” The phrase “de meeste ende die naetuereelste beweechglickheit” has been turned and squeezed by modern scholars to bring out the last ounce of what Rembrandt may have meant.
Literally the term means mobility, but could it not also mean expressiveness? In interpreting terms of criticism, particularly those used unself-consciously, it is always advisable that we start at the negative end. Clearly what Rembrandt wanted to say most of all is that his paintings are not stiff and lifeless. To paint a stiff and lifeless painting may take a journeyman little time, but what he wanted to do and achieve needed profound study and thought. The painting of the Resurrection shows indeed almost an excess of movement. The soldiers guarding the tomb are hurled into the air as if the liberating angel had burst open the coffin with an explosive charge. One of them is seen falling head over heels, another is rushing away in terror, dropping his sword.
The Entombment on the other hand shows no violent gesture. All is quiet as Christ’s body is lowered into the tomb, and only one of the women is raising her hand gently, as if to soothe the grief of the mourning Virgin. One can imagine Rembrandt, having started to write “the greatest movement,” remembering his second picture and inserting the other qualification which was dear to him, “the most natural.” The opposite of natural is unnatural, artificial, or affected. His pictures live but they are not theatrical. They are, to exploit the possibilities of the English language, “moving,” in every sense of the term. It is not impossible that the word used by Rembrandt carried similar overtones. When the early collectors of medieval art in Cologne, the brothers Boisseré, brought home a Gothic painting, they were pleased to report that their mother had called it “ein bewegliches Bild.” She was speaking low German rather than Dutch, but the connotation of “moving” may well belong to the word in both languages.
It happens that we can even guess why Rembrandt, in his apology for the delay, mentioned this quality at which he was aiming. Some ten years earlier Constantijn Huyghens had visited the young artist, whose Repentance of Judas had deeply impressed him precisely for its expressiveness.
The gesture of this one despairing Judas…who rages, moans, implores for mercy…the twisted arms, the hands clasped so tightly that they bleed…his whole body rising in desperate lamentations…this figure I place against every elegant work of art the ages have brought forth…
The picture has come down to us, and it is certainly “moving,” but it is also theatrical. It is rhetorical rather than “natural.” Many of Rembrandt’s early works show the same interest in dramatic gesticulation and facial expression. It is well known, however, that he gradually sheds these more obvious devices as he learns to convey the inner life of his figures by the slightest nuance. It is the difference between the barnstorming actor and the mature master whose very stillness can “speak volumes.”
What makes Rembrandt’s utterance so precious to us is that it shows how much this process of search was a conscious one. In a sense his oeuvre is a record of this search and its success. Who would dare to plot the path along which he found the means toward this end? His earliest biographers attributed his skill merely to his power of observation and to his retentive memory for gestures and movements. But there is more to it. Perhaps we do well to remember that Rembrandt was not only an illustrator but also a portrait painter. As such he had the opportunity of exploring the human figure at rest and of discovering the expressive power of the nuance.
Moreover, there was one area in which he could combine observation and introspection for the exploration of expressiveness—the painting of selfportraits. It is well known that some of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits are studies of expressions he tried out in front of the mirror. But clearly such grimacing would never give him the insight he searched for, the knowledge of the way a real mood marks and molds the face. The intensive self-scrutiny of his mature self-portraits must have shown him precisely this, for here he was the privileged observer who could watch both his mind and his face. Many have felt that he thus learned to watch and represent the minds of his sitters through their faces. As Christopher White puts it in discussing the etched portraits:
By intensive study and experiment, he finally succeeded in penetrating the outer mask of the face, the place where so many lesser artists stop, and he created before our eyes a living and thinking being, with whom the spectator is immediately able to establish intimate rapport. The limited nature of portraiture…does in the final result make it impossible for the artist to record the actual details of the sitter’s thoughts and character. But if Rembrandt was unable to label the innermost feelings of his sitters, he went as far as possible in suggesting something of their character.
Michael Kitson, in his equally perceptive essay, meditates more critically on this claim, but in the end he comes to a similar formulation:
…it is evident that Rembrandt’s depiction of character is far from being the total disclosure that it is sometimes made out to be…. What Rembrandt achieves is all that a painter can achieve, namely to show, by artistic means, certain qualities in the sitter’s character that we might be able to recognize in his face if we knew him in life. It is in the nature of things that we cannot specify or label these qualities very exactly and that our understanding of them is subjective….
It is, no doubt, but what else could our response to other human beings be? Whatever the advocates of objective tests may say, the “feel” of a person, what we sense to be uniquely peculiar to his presence, his voice, his bearing, would not be individual if it could be objectively categorized. It is interesting that both authors stress that Rembrandt’s “characters” cannot be labeled. Precisely. If they could they would be character masks rather than human beings.
Indeed we may here come a little closer to the secret of Rembrandt’s discovery. The emotions and expressions of his Repentance of Judas could easily be described and labeled, much to the pleasure of Constantijn Huyghens. But those distinct emotions which figure in the ancient manuals of painting and acting as the “passions,” remorse, contempt, anger, love, or joy, are only simplified abstractions out of the infinite gamut of fluctuating and ambivalent emotions that make up the life of the soul.
Hence Rembrandt came to reject these stereotypes and to explore the whole range of expressiveness which indeed far transcends what can thus be “labeled.” Just as great music can be infinitely expressive precisely where it eludes the fixed stereotypes of joyful or mournful moods, so Rembrandt entered into an uncharted region of the soul where these descriptive terms lose much of their meaning. The small gesture of the woman’s hand in the Entombment is infinitely touching in the tragic context of the scene precisely because it cannot be translated into words. Rembrandt learned how to be indefinite without being vague. Indeed his pictorial explorations of the chiaroscuro, the darkness broken by luminous reflections, the mysterious glow in a pool of shade are the perfect metaphor for his expressive means. And just as his light clarifies a spacial situation by the most unexpected stroke, so his pen or brush may bring out the expressiveness of a face not through the conventional signs of a smiling mouth or a wrinkled brow, but by the way the cheekbone indicates the structure of the head.
Few of these means have as yet been analyzed, and there must be limits to what such an analysis could achieve. But one aspect of Rembrandt’s artistic method is gradually coming into view: his use of the tradition. Far from looking only at nature, this ardent collector studied and used the works of others as any discoverer and inventor would study and use the results of his predecessors.
Christopher White illustrates such a telling example, the obvious derivation of Rembrandt’s etching, The Return of the Prodigal Son, from a woodcut by the sixteenth-century artist Heemskerck. The similarity extends to the position of every limb of father and son. But the sixteenth-century woodcut is a pictographic illustration of repentance and forgiveness, Rembrandt’s etching a human drama that eludes description; the father is not only dignified and forgiving, he shares the sorrow of the son, who is not only a petitioner, like Heemskerck’s figure, but a man who has suffered and has come home at last. The way Rembrandt enriches the old composition by making the posture more supple and expressive reminds us again of his qualities as a teacher. The tool with which he probed life was art. It was the critical scrutiny of images, those he found in the tradition, those he had created himself, and those of his pupils, which brought him closer and closer to the springs of expression.
One of the few other utterances of Rembrandt about which we know points in this direction. Samuel van Hoogstraten, who was his pupil, tells that once when he had irritated Rembrandt by asking too many “whys,” he was told: “Once you have learned properly to apply what you already know, you will soon also discover the mysteries which are still hidden from you.” You discover through painting, not through talking; provided, of course—and that Rembrandt took for granted—that you can step back from the canvas and scrutinize it with that critical gaze with which he scrutinized his own face in the mirror.
Did the David and Saul in the Mauritshuis pass this test? Gerson would want us to believe that it did not, or should not have done so. It would be cruel but not quite inappropriate to ask him in what way exactly Rembrandt might have improved it. He would have the right to retort, of course, that to answer this question he would have to be Rembrandt, but at least such a discussion would get us away from the mystique of connoisseurship.
There is an early painting by Rembrandt of the same subject which is acknowledged by Gerson to be from the same period as the Repentance of Judas. It shows Saul in regal splendor facing the spectator and fiercely gripping his javelin. His brow is wrinkled as he glances sideways at the half-hidden figure of the youth with the harp. The change of conception between this early work and the Mauritshuis picture, as Rosenberg has remarked, is away from the conspicuously obvious to a very different reading. There is a striking lack of “decorum” in the type chosen for the later David and even more so in the gesture of Saul, who wipes his eye with the curtain. He does not grip the javelin, he fingers it. It is this rejection of the obvious rather than any memories of Israels that has convinced so many lovers of Rembrandt that the master’s spirit is here at work. “Studio picture” or not, this is surely true.
It used to be thought that Rembrandt’s voyage of discovery away from the obvious also determined his outward fate, in other words that the more he grew as an artist, the less success he had with the public. The legend of Rembrandt’s rejection by the philistines has been dear to all artists who have felt themselves similarly misunderstood, but the facts are certainly not quite so simple. We now know that Rembrandt never lost his reputation and that he remained an international celebrity to the end.
And yet there may be something in the story that Rembrandt’s tragic fate was bound up with his conception of art. His view of his calling certainly differed from that of the Dutch middle classes. Most of the painters of that milieu were specialists, some were portrait painters, such as Frans Hals, others specialized in landscapes, seascapes, genre pieces, still lifes or architectural interiors. Rembrandt served notice from the outset that his aspirations aimed higher. Nor did he have to look very far for a model of an artist of a different kind. Peter Paul Rubens across the political border was then at the height of his career. The same Huyghens who had admired Rembrandt in Leyden wrote of Rubens at that time that “no one could compare with him in the abundance of creative ideas and the range of themes, encompassing every sphere of painting.”
Rembrandt had a right to feel that he was Rubens’s equal and he probably hoped that his situation in wealthy Amsterdam would come to match that of Rubens in Antwerp. There were years when this comparison would not have seemed out of place. At the age of twenty-eight he had married Saskia, a rather wealthy heiress, and lived in style, surrounded by pupils and bidding at auctions for expensive works of art. But however great his success, the narrower world of Protestant Holland could not possibly provide the same sphere of activity that the courts of Catholic Europe offered Rubens. The detailed causes of Rembrandt’s financial failure are more complex and still partly obscure. He had raised a large sum to buy an expensive house, and was not in a hurry to repay it, nor was he pressed to do so. But when his wife Saskia lay on her deathbed, she made a will to which many of Rembrandt’s subsequent troubles can be traced.
Not that she was not a loving mother and trusting wife. She left half of her considerable fortune to Rembrandt and half to their son Titus, saying explicitly that she trusted her husband to administer the whole. But if he married again, his portion was to go back to her family. This involved Rembrandt in difficulties first with the nurse of Titus, who threatened him with action for breach of promise and whom he finally got confined in a workhouse, and then with Hendrickje Stoffels, who became his mistress and was officially admonished for living in sin. Moreover, when credit became scarcer in Holland the loan on the house was recalled and he was forced to sell his precious collection of art and of curiosities at the most unfavorable moment when it realized much less than he had spent on it. He could not touch the portion which belonged to Titus and which was perhaps artificially enlarged to remove it from the creditor’s grasp.
Indeed from that period on, Rembrandt had to appear as a pauper in the eyes of the law in order to protect his belongings from execution. There is a pathetic document according to which Hendrickje had to perjure herself and swear that the valuable contents of a certain wardrobe in their house were her personal property, to save them for Rembrandt. How destitute Rembrandt really was at his death we do not know. The inventory drawn up at the time covers only his few personal effects and not the collection and paintings stored in three rooms which were sealed by the notary.
As might be expected, Gerson is particularly anxious that Rembrandt’s biography and personality should be freed from sentimental accretions, and it must be admitted that some of the documents might bear a rather unfavorable interpretation; but the truth is that they do not tell us enough to form a judgment. Even the rather unpleasant incident with the nurse of Titus may be less damaging than Gerson implies, for after all she may indeed have been mentally deranged. We shall never know.
The book by Bob Haak bears the title Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, His Time, and deals most fully with the biography. Occasionally the figure of the artist all but disappears in the mass of background material. This applies in particular to the illustrations in which many of his masterpieces are sacrificed to facsimiles of documents, portraits of contemporaries, and other extraneous matter relating to Rembrandt’s sitters or to local history. As a supplement to monographs on the artist this material is welcome, but standing by itself the compromise between Life, Work, and Time is not very successful.
Even less convincing in this respect is the book by R. H. Fuchs, Rembrandt in Amsterdam, which deals with a number of selected aspects of the subject but less successfully, it appears to me, than the earlier book by Christopher White, Rembrandt and his World (London, Thames and Hudson, 1964). The way in which Joseph-Emile Muller tries to make life and work interpenetrate has been illustrated above. His book certainly does not supersede Rosenberg’s masterly monograph. We may well ask whether there was a need to translate it. What we need is rather the detailed study of individual works and problems.
Here we have every reason to be grateful to Julius Held for having collected his specialized studies on Rembrandt (including a new essay) in a handsome volume. To look at Rembrandt’s Aristotle, his Polish Rider, his Juno, or his treatment of the Tobit story, under Held’s very expert guidance is to penetrate more deeply into the problems of Rembrandt’s oeuvre than if we plough through the bulkier monographs. The reason is plain: this type of intensive study allows us to see a particular work in the round, and even where we may not agree with an individual interpretation, we never have the feeling of arbitrariness and the awareness of gaps which the other books may give us.
At the other end of the scale we have a considered essay on Rembrandt’s art, Michael Kitson’s Introduction to the Phaidon volume, an effort at criticism of the kind more frequently practiced in literary studies. All the other books take the oeuvre to pieces in order to reassemble fragments. Where the topic is a technique, as in White’s book on the etchings, the result is still coherent. Where it is merely a medium, as in Gerson’s two books on the paintings, the reader is left with the feeling of conventional classification. The feeling is enhanced by the tendency of so many books on Rembrandt (including those of Rosenberg and White) to slice up the oeuvre according to the categories of portraits, landscapes, Biblical illustrations, etc., each of which is traced through the artist’s career, thus breaking the subtle threads that lead from one to the other. Admittedly it is easier to criticize these principles of arrangement than to replace them.
Ideally, no doubt, we would like to follow the master’s development chronologically as he alternated between the media of his choice and moved from one subject to another. But even if we could know the sequence we would have to face the fact that he must have worked at many things concurrently and that any linear arrangement would be misleading. The one attempt at such a chronological arrangement of the oeuvre of a well-documented artist, the Dürerkatalog by Hans and Erica Tietze, has not encouraged imitation. No one book on Rembrandt can serve every purpose, but it is doubtful whether we need any more anthologies of indifferent reproductions.
The impression with which one is left in dealing with this crop of books about a great painter is certainly the woeful inadequacy of our techniques of reproduction. To explain the range and subtlety of Rembrandt’s art by means of these illustrations is like trying to demonstrate the virtuosity of a master of instrumentation on an old upright piano. The black and white pictures of the new Bredius are particularly disappointing. Those in Gerson’s large folio volume are much better, but how much of those miracles like the Polish Rider, in the Frick Collection, or the Jewish Bride, in Amsterdam, is preserved in these shadows? The shadows are particularly black in the large folio by Bob Haak, but for those, at least, who know the originals, some of the details, such as the sleeve from the Jewish Bride, offer some compensation.
Unfortunately most of the color reproductions are even worse, for here the “upright” turns out to be badly out of tune. It is instructive but depressing to compare the same painting as it appears in the various books under review. The inexpensive Phaidon volume, oddly described as having “fifty plates in full colour,” shows the Polish Rider mounted on a blue-green horse, and the schoolboy Titus in Rotterdam with such a greenish complexion that one is glad to be reassured by the plate in Muller that shows a much healthier tan and by Gerson’s volume which gives him quite a ruddy face, the red extending from the lips into the corners of the mouth as if he had carelessly applied lipstick.
The Mauritshuis Presentation happens to figure in all four volumes, and here the plate in Gerson easily comes out on top. On the whole the plates in that work are probably the best, despite an excess of yellowish tones, which is preferable to the reds of the Abrams plates and the greens and blues of the Phaidon ones. One wonders what Rembrandt would have said about it all. He certainly would not have minced words. We know how much he cared about the exact tone of reproductions when he worked at his etchings.
Here the centenary has brought a most welcome addition to the literature—the two volumes by Christopher White, Rembrandt As An Etcher, in which this aspect of the master’s oeuvre is illustrated with sensitivity and love. It is supplemented by the exhibition catalogue, entitled somewhat modishly Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher, where, for once, the disadvantages of the centenary rush were not allowed to operate; the Preface to this pleasant volume acknowledges the cooperation of Mr. White.
But even these useful publications only serve to underline the obvious fact that no illustration can replace the study of the original. One of the subjects of Rembrandt’s experiments was precisely the effect of different papers. He was fond of Japan paper, which has a yellow tone, while the tone of all the plates in these volumes is uniform. Here the book by Bob Haak scores, for some of the etchings are at least produced on a toned background.
In some respects the trickiest medium for reproduction is that of drawing, precisely because it looks comparatively easy. No book exclusively devoted to this aspect of the master’s oeuvre has appeared since Phaidon’s seven-volume corpus by the late Otto Benesch, but naturally all general books on Rembrandt illustrate some drawings. Once more Bob Haak’s volume with its selected facsimiles may least disappoint the art lover who seeks to recapture one of the great pleasures of the recent Amsterdam exhibition—those slight sketches of landscape motifs where a sense of light and distance is evoked by the merest shade of difference in the pressure of the pen.
How did Rembrandt do it? We have no studies yet attempting to answer this simple-minded question—least of all when it comes to the pictorial effects of his paintings—yes, and those of his studio. We remember that when his pupil asked him how and why he did it, the pupil was sent back to work. No wonder the late Fritz Saxl, who had devoted much of his life to Rembrandt, used to say that if we had gone to Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam with such questions the old man would have thrown us down the stairs. Those of us who have stood in front of the self-portrait in the Frick Collection in New York will know exactly what he felt. Indeed when it comes to “debunking,” that formidable presence is more likely to debunk us than the other way around. The question is not really “How do we stand with respect to Rembrandt?” It is “How do we stand up to him?” Thanks for asking, not very well.
March 12, 1970