Rembrandt—The Jewish Connection?

Rembrandt's Jews

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

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

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

Rembrandt in de propaganda 1940–1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

This long tradition makes “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” a recent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam—and the accompanying catalog, which is to be released in an English translation this spring—all the more noteworthy. The curators of the show systematically examined every aspect of the legend, and found almost all of it open to doubt. Scholarship rarely triumphs over deeply rooted myths. Even so, it was hard to imagine,…

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