Abraham Casteleijn, a middle-aged newspaper publisher, holds up his right hand as if he might address us. But the roll of his eyes and his slack-shouldered slouch on the dining chair deprive the gesture of any energy. It resolves into a fond, resigned welcome, inviting us into the urbane muddle of his Haarlem mansion: his globe, the Turkish rug on his table, his hat slapped down on a loose stack of bound folios, a paper or two—perhaps some 1663 copy of the Weeckelycke Courante van Europa—dangling beneath them. The bust of a long-dead local worthy looms over his shoulder, po-faced, rectitudinous, dour. It sets a note of severity that Abraham and his wife Margarieta dutifully observe in their garb of black satin—good, serious folk, adherents to the Mennonite confession.

Yet Margarieta has snatched at Abraham’s left hand, confident of luring his gaze away from the viewer. Where will she lead him? Toward a garden of fruitfulness, in Jan de Bray’s initial sketch for this dual portrait; but when it came to composing the canvas, the painter scrubbed his allegory. Here her outstretched palm simply hovers, by parallax, over the background knob of a pilaster, as if she might fondle it. Beneath her skirts, a flash of red velvet petticoat underlines that little hint of mischief.

Elsewhere in the exhibition “Dutch Portraits” (just finished at London’s National Gallery, shortly to open in The Hague’s Mauritshuis), de Bray’s own eyes gaze out at us, their cast less comic than artistically melancholic. He has given himself a bit part in a family charade, in which his father and mother flaunt their African slave and their Chinese porcelain while posing as Antony and Cleopatra in an episode from Pliny. De Bray senior was himself a painter, an architect besides, and something of a scholar; his wife belonged to a family of poets; three of their sons worked in the portrait business: swanky literati, this Haarlem dynasty, as cultured and refined as feathered tulips in a crystal vase.

The flowering of such civility in mid-seventeenth-century Holland is largely what the exhibition and catalog celebrate, besides the individual visions advertised in its subtitle: “The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals.” It documents a remarkable historical episode, for, as an earlier husband-and-wife portrait—painted by Jan Claesz at the century’s beginning—suggests, the sophistication was a novel implant in the northern Netherlands rather than an indigenous growth. Claesz’s couple, burghers of the city of Hoorn, are draped like Abraham and Margarieta in virtuous black; indeed, the way the man uncurls his fist foreshadows the former’s bleary bid for attention. In 1602, however, all is crisp and archaically immutable. The likenesses and the lace, the coat of arms and the galleon in a window, the cartouches giving the sitters’ ages—everything declares itself as sign. Conceptually, this proud provincial heraldry feels closer to ancient Egypt than to a world where newspapers circulate.

But the inset galleon stands as a harbinger of oncoming revolution. The Zuyder Zee on which Hoorn lies was already becoming the world’s greatest shipping pool. From 1585 the Netherlanders of the north, fighting for freedom from Catholic Spain, blockaded enemy-controlled Antwerp, and both trade and skilled labor leached away from Flanders, for centuries northern Europe’s heartland of high artistry. Two generations later, Haarlemmers could draw on slave transports from Guinea and ceramics from Jindezheng because their city of cloth and beer lay only ten miles from Amsterdam, which had become the global hub of commerce—home, moreover, to the world’s first major stock market, pulsing out disposable wealth to cities and estates throughout the new United Provinces. The predominantly Protestant republic that these formed had little use for the church decor that had been the mainstay of art production in Italy and Spain. And yet its citizens were obsessively interested in painting. A collecting craze spread from noblemen’s courts to the homes of butchers and tailors, spurring the growth of many new genres during the century’s first decades.

Among these, portraiture caught on as a ready certificate of social arrival. Sitters’ attitudes changed. If Claesz’s couple posed as if for all eternity, that was at least in part a feint—they were, after all, paying for an immediate upgrade in the regard of those around them. Drop the dissembling, a new generation reasoned. Or at least swap such marmoreal hauteur for the blithe and fluid playacting that we now associate with the Baroque. The brewer posing as a general, the silversmith as a standard-bearer; the preacher, scholar, medic; their goodwives, indeed their children: all pitched their swagger at their own here-and-now, setting forth their stalls in the market of mutual admiration. Look at us, do! is the collective clamor of this exhibition’s sixty pictures—only incidentally directed at the public of posterity.


Yet from this perspective, what a strange forcing frame the evolving mores of the Dutch present. All that braggadocio surges through the constriction of black cloth—a sixteenth-century idiom of godly severity that had first come into fashion, ironically, among the Spanish enemy. Dazzling, creamy cartwheel ruffs and embroidered cuffs, the work of Flemish immigrants to Haarlem, are the interstices where the burghers’ expressive energies seem to burst forth, while their black carapaces subtly seethe with a busyness of stitchings and shimmers, disclosing an entire spectrum in monochrome. But then, progressively, Spanish proprieties give ground, as partisan orange (proclaiming allegiance to the eponymous royal house) is joined by the pinks, azures, and golds of French ostentation. Gentlemen’s hair lengths increase and ladies’ décolletages descend, while the chromatic temperatures rise. By 1663, the Casteleijns in their puritanical black are making a positive anti-fashion statement.

That statement is tempered, of course, by the flare of red that the painter gives to Margarieta—love’s color, audacity’s color. De Bray registers clashing signals. Nuance and ambivalence are his own manner of stating things, as his demure brushwork responds to the breezes that waft through a marriage. Perhaps this is an epochal cultural moment: perhaps works such as this mark the advent of novelistic values in painting? Figments of allegory and heraldry may still hover behind the composition like ghosts, but in substance they have now been superseded. Signs have been swathed in so much supplementary information that we engage with them as with realities—as “realism,” in fact, in a nineteenth-century sense.

At so many points in “Dutch Portraits” the textures of feeling seem to slide into those of that more recent past. Emanuel de Witte portrays a notary’s wife busy haggling with a fishmonger at a market stall, her little daughter peeking from a corner of the canvas at the viewer. Bright skies and moving crowds flicker behind the awning; sails flap in the harbor beyond. The sharp-focused outdoor lighting and ingratiating infant feel Pre-Raphaelite, while the close-up, off-center mise-en-scène could almost have been devised by Degas. Just as de Bray’s pressman could be cast as grandfather to that champion of the triumphant bourgeoisie, Ingres’s Monsieur Bertin….

Except that the comparatively diffident demeanor de Bray gives to the Casteleijns would prove well founded. The Dutch public’s passion for picture-buying was not quite as febrile as their notorious “tulip mania,” the bubble of speculation that spectacularly burst in 1637; but it too reached a tipping point in the mid-1650s. Thereafter the market for new art inexorably contracted. The erudite de Bray parents who had posed for their son Jan succumbed to the plague that swept through the Netherlands in the winter of 1663, as did nearly all his siblings. He himself went on to survive the disasters of 1674, when the Dutch broke their own dikes as a last-ditch defense against a French-led invasion: his career, however, would end in bankruptcy in 1689. By that point Dutch painting—Dutch society, maybe—had lost its distinctive impertinence.

Two portraits in the exhibition done by Nicolaes Maes in the late 1670s—a half-length gentleman and a family group—play out its exit music. Maes’s lighting, obeying a trend common to the whole of Western Europe, has moved on from the bright March chill of his parents’ generation to a warm September lushness. He softens and blunts his edges; he dapples and he charms. Both pictures show periwigged poseurs against backdrops loosely suggesting Roman antiquity. It turns out that there is a perfect match to be made between such classicizing elegance and the ultimate must-have of the Amsterdam fop, the imported silk kimono. (The Dutch being the sole European nation that the Japanese were willing to trade with until the mid-nineteenth century.) But with this turn toward genteel parkland pastoral, the France of Louis XIV has effected by cultural stealth the invasion that had been physically stopped by the smashing of the dikes. From here onward the future will get more distant—more resistant, that is, to our contemporary empathy: the proto-modern will morph into the ancien régime.

It would take more than one revolution to bring Holland’s so-called Golden Age back into focus. Two centuries later, two vital components of our present-day image of it were set in place by a single groundbreaking French critic. In the 1840s—not long after the advent of photography—the eyes of Théophile Thoré were alerted to the flawless verisimilitude of the hitherto unregarded Jan Vermeer, a specialist who falls outside the present exhibition’s scope. Then during the following decade, Thoré turned his attention to Frans Hals, born half a century earlier and in some ways Vermeer’s polar opposite. Hals had not suffered from quite such oblivion: but the reputation that he had retained was, in a word, bad. The prolific portraitist who had taken on a half-century of Haarlemmers from the 1610s to his death in 1666 was reckoned a lush, a spendthrift, and a slob. Night after night, his pupils had to carry him home from the tavern, where he had pissed away monies vouchsafed to him by well-wishers concerned for the welfare of his poor unfortunate children.


So claimed Hals’s first biographer, Arnold Houbraken, writing in 1718, and subsequent critics tended to read back those vices onto his canvases. Hals came across as an artistic chancer, latching on to whatever was brash and angular in people, whether they were ragged reprobates or glitzy scions of the aristocracy such as Jaspar Schade, whose portrait is included in the exhibition. One can imagine Hals hunched on his studio stool, peering up at this tall, prickly peacock and hurtling down the evanescent highlights of his gold brocade and tumbling locks onto the canvas’s dark ground, in a brusque scurry of swipes of the hog brush. If art required any kind of reflective distance, it was entirely lacking here. Hals slapped and he dashed because he was constitutionally negligent—all instinct and no staying power: altogether a textbook example to prospective academicians of how not to do things.

Thoré, affected by the incipient creed of bohemianism, held on to the notion that the art was of a piece with the life, but drew from it a contrary moral. For him, free-living Hals was a painter whose brushwork spelled liberty. He thrilled to the Dutchman’s “reckless” touch: “Hals painted as if fencing.”1 He commended Hals’s full-hearted “sincerity”2 to the up-and-coming artists of the 1860s and indeed found virtue in his readiness to be “vulgar.”3 Like his latter-day compatriot Johan Jongkind—a bold-brush pleinairist—Hals belonged to a “frank race” who could show a thing or two about immediacy and naturalness to the all-too-sophisticated Paris Salon with its “patient knitters of long-ruminated images.”4 Thoré’s exhortations combined with Baudelaire’s celebrated essay “The Painter of Modern Life” to steer the attitudes of progressive Parisian artists—above all, Manet.

This is to say that if we reach for the word “modern” in responding to the jittery, quickfire facture of Portrait of Jaspar Schade, the quality we invoke has a certain period flavor. One impassioned engagement with the look of being looked at and the shock of the chic in 1860s France shines back on another in 1640s Holland, having itself been colored by it. Anachronistically, Hals’s portraits come to resemble those of society painters who actually worked in Manet’s wake, such as Sargent and Boldini. And this double image proves rather persistent. It is hard to push Hals right back into the three-and-a-half-centuries’ distance where he belongs—for all the efforts of scholars, who have long rummaged through the primary documents in Haarlem, attempting inconclusively to deconstruct his bad-boy aura.

In fact Hals’s impressionistic renderings—for instance, that of Schade’s brocade—cleave closer to the object’s structure than comparable passages in Manet; and yet at the same time he is a more aggressive breaker-up of pictorial illusion. He does indeed jab like a swordsman: his slashed and broken paintwork stimulates and jangles, bristling against the mind’s eye. How did this picking apart of vision emerge, and how does it relate to the equally radical use of light that Velázquez—Manet’s other great mentor—was developing at much the same time in Seville? No one’s exactly sure. Quite simply, as far as we can tell, Hals was an authentic original. He was nearing thirty by 1611, the date of his first recorded work, a portrait whose handiwork already points toward the course he would hold for the next fifty-five years. Most likely he had been somehow affected by visiting Rubens in Antwerp. The shadow of that flamboyant Flemish father figure hangs over much in the “Dutch Portraits” exhibition, but never more so than in Hals’s 1622 marriage portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen.

The wealthy newlyweds have been persuaded to pose much as Rubens himself had done with his bride in a self-portrait painted thirteen years before. Only here, the maestro’s suave self-satisfaction has been turned up a pitch: this close-linked couple sport broad smiles, as if they had recently risen from their marriage bed and might any moment return there. Hals asserts his own louder, gutsier voice. Not for him the elegant tremulous sigh that so often accompanies the portraiture of Rubens’s star pupil Van Dyck. The contrast in rhetorical style with the darling of the English court may well have been a conscious aspect of Hals’s persona.

Behind his Isaac and Beatrix lies a fresh and sunny allegorical garden. It’s the kind of prop that de Bray would subsequently discard, and it’s not one that Hals himself tries often; but then, a take-it-or-leave-it attitude does seem integral to his career. By the time of Jaspar Schade he had left an unholy hullabaloo in his wake in the metropolis of Amsterdam, refusing to finish a gigantic group portrait of the members of a crossbowman’s guild because its strutting, fashion-conscious subjects would not make the journey to his humble Haarlem studio. The remaining seven sixteenths of the so-called Meagre Company had to be completed by a slighter talent, with the result that this imposing exercise in harmonizing black, white, orange, and blue—the exhibition’s largest piece—rather lacks for a heart.

But unrepentantly, Hals pushed on, his energies quickening at the sight of whatever sitter came to hand. Even at eighty his attack remained unerring: a devastating little panel from around 1660 shows him pinning down the quick of a world-battered old preacher with ferocious compassion. The studded glints in the man’s eyes catch the light, and one succumbs to an age-old mirage: it is he that truly sees, while we merely look on. And in terms of quality, that is the nearest we get to a stepping-stone to raise us up to the exhibition’s higher level.


It is an awkward business, the relation between Dutch painting in general and Rembrandt. The “Portraits” show, offering a compact survey of one of the principal genres of the Golden Age, demonstrates how inventive and how extravagantly cocksure that transient splurge of visual curiosity could be: there’s plenty that’s delightfully absurd, and not much that’s dull. (Another, much larger survey of the same territory, simply entitled “The Age of Rembrandt,” is due to open at the Metropolitan Museum just as this review is printed.5 )

Yet the exhibition currently relocating from London to The Hague is marked by a certain lopsidedness. It demonstrates how a host of ingenious specialists can become dwarfed by a single squat genius. Rembrandt is a larger world than the world around him—Amsterdam’s one real European celebrity in his own lifetime, and at no time forgotten since. It is unfair to hang an anatomy lesson painted by the dependable plodder Nicolaes Pickenoy next to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, that matchlessly intense investigation into living heads and lifeless flesh. It is no favor to Hals, unfortunately, to hang his admirable committee-table of philanthropists, The Regents of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, alongside Rembrandt’s presidium of cloth assessors, The Syndics; for the latter is one of the most viscerally powerful experiences ever conjured up on canvas, six larger-than-life inquisitors looming down on the observer, human beings who are somehow stronger, deeper, and stranger than the fellows among whom we walk.

In the gallery where various polite mid-seventeenth-century professionals (including de Bray) accompany Rembrandt’s twin portraits of Jacob Trip and Marguerite de Geer, the disjuncture is almost intolerable. Suddenly a completely different imaginative space cracks open, as if the panels of a cosy front parlor parted to reveal a cavernous temple. In other words, these dark and ancient presences jolt the viewer from early modern secularity onto a plane that is somehow numinous.

How, exactly? How does one translate such experiences of Rembrandt into terms that belong properly to the culture around him and that are not flounderingly sentimental? It’s a problem confronted by Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing, for more than twenty years the most influential book about Dutch painting.6 Alpers convincingly delineates a model of a culture obsessed with the optical investigation of appearances—an account that could encompass both the confrontational Hals and the contemplative Vermeer—only to concede that this model breaks down when it comes to the greatest Dutch artist of all. She posits Rembrandt as a magnificent loner, reaching out to invisible realities in diametric opposition to all the surface-surveying that occupied his fellow countrymen.

Can this formula stick, when throughout the 1630s—the height of the painting boom—Rembrandt’s studio was the heart of the Amsterdam art scene, taking on the most commissions and turning out the most pupils? The far closer focus which Gary Schwartz provides in The Rembrandt Book goes a long way toward embedding the artist’s achievement in its natural environment. Schwartz is an American art historian who has been based in the Netherlands for four decades. He previously produced a book on Rembrandt in 1985; the present compendium of his researches was published for the quatercentenary of the artist’s birth in 2006. Its presumptuous-sounding title is perfectly legitimate, for it is hard to imagine a richer or more readable survey of current information on this endlessly fascinating subject. (Its hundreds of image reproductions are also excellent, if of necessity rather small.)

Schwartz is a garrulous, genial writer, at once relaxed and infectiously enthusiastic. At one moment he can slap The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp on the back and call it “smashing,” at another a flicker of light in a landscape panel can make him think of “the penetrating sound of an oboe in a composition for dark strings and brass.” He provides a brief, prefatory artist’s life, but his researches spill way beyond biographical confines. Focusing on Rembrandt’s patrons, he shows how much their own outlooks contributed to the mentality of the oeuvre. He offers illuminating minutiae about seventeenth-century art materials and the seventeenth-century art market; he compiles informative graphs showing, for instance, how the numbers of paintings attributed to the master in catalogs have swelled and then contracted between 1836 and the present. In which connection, among various spats with scholars, Schwartz fires little barbs at the Rembrandt Research Project, the self-appointed group of referees whose reluctance to authenticate cherished canvases has dismayed many a museum. He digresses, he opinionizes, he sprawls.

All of which is entirely fitting. Rembrandt is the great complicator: his art, with its endless varieties of textures and markings, outflanks any principle of order. As Schwartz describes it, the documentary evidence on Rembrandt is of a similar nature: it is characterized by “powerfully suggestive connections of which the pieces stubbornly refuse to fall neatly into place.” And thus cut-and-dried attributions to the master’s hand prove the exception rather than the rule. The paintings, typically, are “hybrid products,” shuttled around a busy studio: indeed “there is a certain innate instability in Rembrandtness itself.”

We are not, then, presented with a solitary genius on a pedestal; rather, we are pointed toward the zone of greatest density in a galaxy of convergent references—including the images of forebears, peers, and pupils, and the opinions of patrons, poets, and preachers. The determining principle informing Schwartz’s presentation is his belief that the incessant self-portraitist working away at the system’s hub was doing his utmost to become, like Saint Paul, “all things to all men.” That is what his costume-parading before the mirror was all about; that is how we have come to see our humanity reflected in it.

Schwartz marshals evidence to show that empathy was Rembrandt’s crucial mental exercise. He claims that Rembrandt’s emotional imagination even stretched to “something like a seventeenth-century version of feminism.” His Bathsheba in the Louvre, for instance, counters previous depictions where the biblical story of a lovely woman ill-used by a king had merely offered fodder for male ogling. Rather, Rembrandt’s heavy-hearted female nude evokes not “sexuality itself” but “its tragic effects”: the focus is “on the feelings of the woman and the woman only.” This extension of emotional curiosity does not mean, however, that Schwartz’s Rembrandt is entirely cut out for contemporary sympathy. Schwartz argues provocatively against the old and fondly held belief that Rembrandt was a philo-Semite. He claims that he bought a mansion in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter simply because this was the newbuilt faubourg to which the upwardly mobile painters of the 1630s were all aspiring, and that his use of Jewish models was for its time entirely unexceptional. They were being co-opted for the image schemes of a dedicated evangelical Christian.

In fact the “unstable” Rembrandt that the book accumulates turns out to have all kinds of sharp angles. It is standard biographical tradition to marvel at the uncouth “miller’s son” from Leiden who quickly flowers into a youthful prodigy, commanding an Amsterdam studio by the age of twenty-five. In Schwartz’s closer reading of the evidence, that means a well-educated middle-class youth who actually turns toward art rather late—at fifteen—in comparison to the average studio apprentice of his day.

The revision is consequential. This Rembrandt, it follows, comes to the world of mark-making from a background in book-learning, and will always keep an ear open to the ideas of poets and rhetoricians. (His compassion for Bathsheba, for example, may well have been spurred on by the writings of his patron Jan Six—subject of a famous portrait that will appear only in the Mauritshuis exhibition, as it may not leave the Netherlands. Six had written a tragedy in which he urged the audience to pity the detested, child-murdering Medea.)

What is more, a certain wonder at the foreignness of the terrain that the book-reared artist has entered is continually expressed in the driven restlessness of his handiwork, which jumps to an unparalleled degree from one mode and code to another. For all his dexterity, he is bound to no groove; for all his sharp sight, he is reaching beyond the limits of the visible, groping for what words might do. It turns out that Alpers, from the outside, and Schwartz, from the inside, are describing the same singular phenomenon.

The Rembrandt house that Schwartz makes his home within is a large mansion indeed. To spend time in his company is to learn how its many cluttered and winding corridors hang together: how legitimately to describe Rembrandt’s rhetorical ambitions and his religious intentions; how, in fact, he makes sense as a man and an artist. Can one, though, keep too long behind doors? It would be perverse to complain that Schwartz overfamiliarizes his subject: yet one returns from reading him to confront a canvas such as the portrait of Marguerite de Geer, and at once the book’s informative notes on her old-fashioned attire and on her husband’s mercantile networks, tying her into a certain phase of early modern history, are blown aside as a jolt of sudden, uncanny presence assails you.

Can prose rise up to meet such Rembrandt experiences? Michael Taylor makes a bold grab for their essence when he entitles his book-length essay Rembrandt’s Nose. “Rembrandt’s noses” would more exactly represent his procedure, which is to come at some fifty of the master’s images, whether portrait or narrative, by what juts from their faces. Perhaps the miracle by which paint becomes flesh that seems to quiver, sniff, and breathe will be caught in its very emergence if we close in on these promontories. Taylor’s tactic of frontal assault is a little mischievous: but then, a strand of absurdity runs through the weave of the art in question, and he can adduce a kind of poetic hypothesis. “If,” he argues, “the sitter is the lead actor of a performance (which is what a portrait is, in essence), then the nose is his understudy on the stage of the face.” “A peacockish actor,” he goes on to call it—“it upstages the rest of the face.”

Taylor proves a joy to read. Hitherto a translator of French poetry, he has made himself thoroughly at home with the art historical evidence (he proclaims a debt to Simon Schama, whose 1999 biography Rembrandt’s Eyes rivals Schwartz’s for capacious enthusiasm) and he deftly unfolds a life story in précis around the self-portraits and such pictures as the Bathsheba. Taylor’s eye seems to keep pace with Rembrandt’s brush, here brusque, there punctilious; his diction is chunky and sensual; he loves to imagine, to cast similes, to surf whatever breakers of emotion the picture rolls his way. For him, the skin of a certain Amsterdam matron

has the coloring and substance of suet pudding laced with a drop of cherry brandy—the complexion of a woman who doles out small luxuries to her families with a teaspoon, sleeps soundly, and has nothing about which to reproach herself. Her nose, long and regular and as straight as a broom handle, with the merest hint of rose outlining the “wings,” shines softly like polished wood and metal. There is even a tiny highlight glinting from the wall of one of her nostrils, as if it had been deposited there by a lifetime of smelling soap and wax, though it is in fact the reflection of the light glancing off her ruff.

Peering so keenly, Taylor does indeed touch on the quick of the art, and yet the mystery of its relation to the culture around it stays intact. One can only paraphrase that disjuncture. As presented in the exhibition currently en route for The Hague, Dutch portraiture seems to engage with the viewer in three main modes: admiration, attack, absorption. “Look my way, feast your eyes on my surface—my satins! my gorgeous locks!”: so runs one habitual pictorial refrain. “I am a surface that projects, I shall bear down on you,” other canvases insist; such noises come principally from bands of braggart burghers, elbowing one another for preeminence. By contrast, de Bray’s Abraham and Margarieta stage, from left to right, the slide from would-be attack to its converse, the alluring invitation to the viewer’s imagination: “Imagine what we are saying to each other: guess our minds.”

In such terms, Rembrandt, with his bias toward the aged, is an uncertain purveyor of pleasing surfaces. Rather, he seems to unite the most daunting projective attack and the most irresistible absorptive allure within a single quivering handiwork. His membranes of ochres, white leads, and vermilion hover over a darkness as big as the expanses of a Rothko or the eternities of premodern eschatology. In those depths, one registers the unseen inner world to which the eyes are windows. In the fury of fretted-over paint that overlays them, the head is revealed as the world’s single most fathomless object.

This Issue

October 11, 2007