“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.
For example, in arguing that Rembrandt was a stage director in his studio, painting the world only as it could be created on the stage, Alpers invokes his Lucretia, now in Minneapolis. She begins by contrasting the painting with a pair of drawings of a woman on the gallows that she claims to be among the very few that Rembrandt drew from life outside his studio. According to her, they are unusually descriptive, at least for Rembrandt. In this sense they are quite different from the dramatic image of Lucretia, “who had made a public display of her own death.” Here the rough paint itself “calls attention to the kinship between pigment and human flesh,” turning the death into a sort of painterly performance. In his studio, as Alpers puts it, “death becomes an event.” One might ask, she says “what it took for the artist to elicit a performance such as this.”
Indeed one might. There is nothing in the soft sadness of Lucretia’s face, or in the intense working and reworking of white, gold, and crimson paint that calls for such a description of the picture in terms of “event” and “performance.” It is hardly surprising that Alpers feels obliged to go on to assure her readers that she will not “suggest that Rembrandt staged a death in the studio in order to paint it.” But her assessment of the painting as a “fiction of enactment,” in which the “fictional suicide was the painter’s act,” is not illuminating, since these are terms that could just as well apply to any number of paintings. She uses them all the same, since they have the usefully theatrical connotations her argument needs.
Alpers, in fact, often seems deliberately to confuse the world within the painting with events that may or may not have occurred within the studio. The 1654 portrait of Jan Six, a patron with whom Rembrandt had a long and difficult relationship, is made to exemplify the tension between exigent patron and demanding artist. Noting that Six is shown putting on his gloves, and commenting on the extraordinary freedom and speed of the brushwork, Alpers suggests that this demonstrates how Six was trying to get away from Rembrandt. Six “refused to play the part assigned to him,” she claims. In asking her reader to think of Rembrandt swiftly applying paint as Jan Six puts on his gloves in anxious haste to depart the studio, Alpers proposes a reading that is both implausible and forced. Not even Rembrandt painted pictures in this way.
If Alpers had simply characterized Rembrandt’s works as theatrical in the broad and mildly metaphorical sense, then we would be hard pressed, in most cases, to object. But she moves from the loose sense in which we daily use verbs like “to act,” “to play a role,” “to perform,” and adjectives like “theatrical,” to a highly specific sense. There are, of course, painters like Jan Steen, who did pictures of commedia dell’arte characters and of the amateur playwrights known as rederijkers (“rhetoricians”); and there are undeniable connections between many painters—including Rembrandt himself—and playwrights like Jan Harmensz Krul, Joost van den Vondel, and Jan Vos. We also know that theater critics like Andries Pels later were to make influential attacks on Rembrandt for his infringement of the rules of art. But none of this justifies the way in which Alpers turns virtually every broad use of the words like “performance” and “enactment” into a description of what actually happened in the studio or how his pictures looked. The trouble, in short, is that she makes loosely symbolic usage literal.
This is even true of her descriptions of events that did take place in the studio. Houbraken tells a story of a pupil painting a nude woman in one of the private cubicles Rembrandt devised for his assistants in the studio. Since it was a very hot day, the student also took off his clothes, and one thing led to another. Houbraken is quite explicit about this comedy, as he calls it, which the other students observed through a crack in the wall. “Here we are,” said the student to the model, “naked like Adam and Eve in Paradise.” When Rembrandt went to check on the student’s work, he caught them in the act, as we might put it, and shouted: “But because you are naked you must come out of Paradise.” And so, chasing the embarrassed couple out of the studio, he turned the comedy into a tragedy. For Alpers, this episode is a “little performance [that] is almost too good to be true.” What Houbraken saw as “comedy” is turned by Alpers into a play with Rembrandt playing the role of God. She goes on to note the performance of a Latin school play about Adam and Eve in ‘s Hertogenbosch in 1591, and she reflects on the subject of such plays in the seventeenth century; but the relevance of the school plays to Rembrandt’s studio practice is, at best, remote.
When she comes to the core of her argument—Rembrandt’s manipulation of the market—Alpers also goes too far, asserting that he deliberately left his works unfinished so as to get more money for their revision and completion. She implies that Rembrandt actually wished the Council of Amsterdam to refuse the great Claudius Civilis which they had commissioned for their new town hall; and she argues that he “must have calculated that he would be able to get more money by retouching a painting.” Certainly the picture is painted with very broad strokes; but there is no evidence that it was deliberately left unfinished.
The fact is that the look of works such as the Lucretia, the Jan Six, and the Claudius Civilis must also be understood as the consequence of Rembrandt’s powerful and profound meditations on painting itself, and of his early reflections on the techniques of his teacher Pieter Lastman, or on those of Moses van Uyttenbroeck or the painter-printmaker Hercules Segers. Instead, Alpers takes the look of the pictures to be the consequence of deliberate economic strategies. They are that too; but not wholly so. She makes no mention of the pictorial dialectic that can be discerned between, say, the lessons Rembrandt absorbed from the Haarlem school of painters and the styles of his native Leiden. None of these factors has any part in the unfolding of Alpers’s arguments; to her they would seem too internal.
No doubt there is some truth in the view that Rembrandt’s aesthetic decisions were made on the basis of what he knew the market wanted; but here that view is used to account for too much. Alpers asserts that the “repeated reworkings of his plates and the resulting series of states were deployed as a marketing device which gained him great success.” This is to be crudely reductionist about the complex, persistent, and aesthetically heroic experiments Rembrandt made with the burin, dry point, and needle. They are heroic in their persistent readjustment of his own pictorial ideas, as he moved from one new state of a print to the next, and untiring in the self-criticism that every change, large and small, reveals. It is as if Rembrandt subjected each new image, as it emerged from the press, to the most rigorous of trials. He changed details and switched techniques and mediums; so that by the time one comes to the later states of his prints one has the impression of an artist never entirely satisfied with his own results, but in full and brilliant mastery of the means of change. Alpers simply claims that “by creating a demand for his works in progress, Rembrandt as an etcher established a remarkably successful marketing operation.” This is to tell a poor story—since the story is richer and the facts on which it rests are by no means certain. In fact, we know next to nothing about the marketing of Rembrandt’s prints in his lifetime.
The result of these overstatements is that Rembrandt seems to stand alone as a pictor economicus, bearing little relation to the rest of artistic culture of his time or to the practices of his colleagues. In Alpers’s book The Art of Describing the distinctive traits of Dutch art were emphasized too strongly at the expense of its similarities with other art. This book does the same with Rembrandt, and thus misses what he had in common with his fellow painters. To come to the conclusion that Rembrandt cannily devised representations adequate to the values of the marketplace is neither to say something new nor to account for his distinction from other artists of the time. What is lacking is any sense of the many ways in which his handling of paint is akin to that of his Dutch contemporaries and his immediate predecessors, whether Segers or Lastman or even his own pupil Carel Fabritius. Alpers hardly mentions the many contemporaries who also stood apart from the world of patronage and who also turned to the public market. She thus passes over all the other pictores economici of his time. Rembrandt may indeed have been even more obsessed with money-making than most of them; but to omit the similarities is strangely to remove him from the setting in which he worked.
The same applies to Alpers’s surprising silence about the works and practice of other European painters. In all the discussion of the way in which Rembrandt is supposed to have brought beggars into the studio, there is not a single reference to the peasants and beggars of Le Nain or La Tour, who are even more likely to have performed their role in the studio. Nothing is said about the relationship between La Tour’s works and theatrical performances, and almost nothing is made of the fact that Poussin, whose painted gestures may more certainly be described as theatrical, is known to have staged his scenes with the aid of maquettes. Alpers makes a large case for the fact that Rembrandt deliberately obscured his source for the Bathsheba in the Louvre (it is usually said to be an illustration of a classical sculpture by François Perrier); but the obscuring of sources for the female nude had by now become commonplace in European art. One has only to think of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus.
Alpers’s book is very clear in arguing that Rembrandt’s art is best explained by the concepts of theatrical performance and the market. But the argument leads to a considerable sacrifice of historical and psychological subtlety. No doubt one of Alpers’s purposes is to offer an account of those aspects of Rembrandt’s art about which the more recent art-historical positivists (whether social historians of art or scientific connoisseurs) have little to say, and which older generations of art historians have clouded in effusion and enthusiasm. The explanations themselves will certainly not satisfy those who see in Rembrandt’s paintings the hand of genius and the working of an intelligence that transcends causal explanations of the kind Alpers puts forward. But this is unlikely to cause Alpers much concern. She has written a provocative book that shows her to be one of the most daring historians of Dutch culture writing today. The trouble is that while Rembrandt’s artistic enterprise may indeed not be reducible to the works he painted, it is not reducible to marketing practices and theatrical performances either.
January 19, 1989