Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 1998
Ernst van de Wetering Rembrandt: The Painter at Work Exh. cat. Amsterdam University Press, 1997. 340 pp.; 201 color ills.; 134 b/w ills. Cloth €72.50 (0520226682)
Albert Blankert, ed. Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1997. 462 pp. Cloth $59.00 (9040099812)

For a snapshot of the dominant directions of current Rembrandt research, particularly under the leadership of senior Dutch scholars, two recent publications provide a sensitive vision. Their very titles signal the degree of adulation accorded to the painter Rembrandt, a solitary “genius,” whose wide-ranging influence, or “impact” diffused outward to a circle of talented but lesser painters who followed in his wake. Emphasis is on distinctive, individual artistic production in both books, though van de Wetering makes claims to “demythologizing” the artist’s techniques, because of the scientific investigation of works themselves. The exhibition catalogue from Australia essentially reprises the outlook and organization of the most recent major exhibition in Europe: the large production of Berlin/Amsterdam/London in 1991–92, which juxtaposed The Master and His Workshop.

Blankert’s catalogue provides a primer of Rembrandt historiography, emphasizing the vicissitudes of painting attributions, particularly over the past century. In some ways, these catalogue essays provide more of the received wisdom or consensus on the artist rather than breaking new ground, especially in matters of identifying themes or offering new interpretations. Along the way, useful cautionary notes are sounded. For example, Blankert’s own essay rightly debunks the nineteenth-century biographical tendency to project hypothetical identities of Rembrandt’s parents or partners onto unknown but repeated models. And he criticizes the excesses of Christian Tümpel, who disambiguates a number of Rembrandt single figures as identifiable biblical actors, excerpted from their fuller narratives. The principal contribution of new material in this essay section consists of the combined orientation of both Blankert and Jaap van der Veen of the Rembrant Research Project toward tronies, those bust or head studies of figures, usually in exotic costume, to suggest the very excerpt status that Tümpel discerned. In fact, these heads are more often building-blocks for constructing a variety of possible biblical themes, rather than excerpts from distinct subjects, and Rembrandt also produced larger-scale versions of the same figure and costume studies, such as the so-called Noble Slav (New York, Frick Collection) of a standing bearded man in a turban.

Nonetheless, from the point of view of discerning Rembrandt’s larger participation in either the Dutch golden age or the broader issues of European seventeenth-century history, for example, his own outlook toward religion, which played such a large part in his output, or toward myth and allegory in relation to larger artistic currents elsewhere, we are still a long way from looking past form and function to content in these pictures and their entries. The basic point of most analyses in the catalogue seems increasingly to consider the subjects of these images as ambiguous, albeit related to other images, either earlier or contemporary. The point of this exhibition, like the 1991–92 exhibition, seems to be that fame and virtuosity, especially sorted out from imitators and fakers and wannabes, remain the real subjects of Rembrandt scholarship in our current age of celebrity. Blankert, who authored the monograph on Ferdinand Bol, is one of the best-qualified experts to distinguish today between Rembrandt and non-Rembrandt, between “master” and “pupils” (as the language used to term these artists a generation ago).

Indeed, Rembrandt’s fame amid contemporaries is the very subject of the exhibition essay by Ernst van de Wetering, who rose from the role of an assistant three decades ago to a position as chairman of the ongoing Rembrandt Research Project and a professorship at the University of Amsterdam. Along the way, he worked as a staff member in the technical study of works of art at the pioneering center of the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science. Van de Wetering and the Rembrandt RRP have long been noted for their exposition of scientific examinations of panels and canvases, using techniques ranging from x-ray and infrared examinations of artworks to meticulous inspection of tree rings and thread counts of each support, respectively. Relatively few scholars of art history (one thinks of Gridley McKim-Smith on Velázquez, Melanie Gifford on Dutch seventeenth-century works, Molly Faries or Maryan Ainsworth on early Netherlandish panels, or the team of investigators, headed by David Bomford, Susan Foister, and Ashok Roy at the National Gallery in London on Rembrandt and Holbein) are as comfortable with considerations of painterly technique as a criterion of evaluating artistic production—and, of course, authenticity, which has always been the elusive grail of the Rembrandt Research Project, amid increasing criticism from museums and academics alike.

The new book by van de Wetering makes an extended claim for the understanding and critical evaluation of Rembrandt’s pictures through their techniques of production. Some of these chapters have appeared previously as articles or elaborate on arguments developed within the introductions to the previous volumes of the “Corpus,” the publications of the RRP, which—after a full generation of research, and support—is still only half-way (three large and expensive volumes, the last of which appeared in 1989) through its publication of the artist’s accepted pictures. One could cavil at the fact that this book bases much of its argumentation on works that the author or the RRP collective has already published: besides a discussion of visible brushwork (from the 1991–92 catalogue) only a lone chapter specifically tackles the late paintings as such, and it does so only after returning to the RRP’s centerpiece of its last publication (and of the spectacular restoration by the Rijksmuseum, partially published in the museum’s bulletin in 1976 by van de Wetering and others), the Nightwatch (RRP, no. A146).

Topics of individual chapters include painting materials, drawing functions, palette (both pigment selection and their board support for the hand), brushwork, varnish (and aging), and even “the search for Rembrandt’s binding medium,” which attempts to go beyond chemical analysis to consideration of the emulsion properties (like mixing egg and oil for mayonnaise!) of Rembrandt’s medium. Generously illustrated with details, cross-sections, and x-rays, the book forces close looking at the dynamic aspects of paintings’ creation. Along the way, children’s and apprentices’ drawing exercises receive attention, along with the argument that artists of all ages used erasable supports in the form of parchment tablets with paste (Chapter 3). This has considerable implications for the study of portrait sketches in general as well as other note-taking, such as Rubens’s pocket-book, fragments of which survive in the form of later copies (a study of which is being prepared by Arnout Balis for the Corpus Rubenianum). In addition, the chapter on how Rembrandt used drawings in the “creation of the pictorial idea” reattaches the studies of drawings to paintings and pentimenti on paintings, as it argues that drawings, usually by pupils, preserve earlier compositions of paintings that altered in the process of their production; moreover, it associates Rembrandt with the proposition advanced by Hoogstraten that a painter ought to have his composition in his imagination before picking up his brush. In similar fashion, the disposition of color application to achieve relative spatial effects (houding) provides the analysis for Rembrandt’s palette technique (Chapter 6). One of the virtues throughout, besides the close inspection of details, is van de Wetering’s use of contemporary manuals, theories, and anecdotes about art making as further documentation. Also stimulating is his suggestion (222) that the later Rembrandt began to work on paintings as he worked on etchings, evolving them in stages, like the states of the prints. In some respects, it is Rembrandt’s adjustments, a combination of spontaneity and calculation as well as cumulative experience, that lie at the heart of van de Wetering’s appreciation of his talent (summarized, 276, in a personal peroration: “I am convinced that it is the power of imagination and the dream-like spontaneity with which the image is grasped, that provide the key to Rembrandt’s art”.)

Of course, in this book by the current head of the RRP, there are “sneak previews” of Corpus opinions to come, as the concluding concordance shows, but for the most part, there are not too many surprises among the works accepted as exemplary of Rembrandt’s late style. One should note particularly, however, that some late works, previously under a cloud in some quarters, are noteworthy for their inclusion here: Portrait of a Boy (Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum; fig. 265, “unfinished”), and, especially, the widely rumored Polish Rider (New York, Frick Collection; fig. 271, “possibly finished by a later hand”). Two other later works occur in both the Melbourne catalogue and the van de Wetering monograph: Melbourne’s own Portrait of a White-Haired Man (signed and dated, 1667, cat. no. 27), and Portrait of an Elderly Man (signed and dated, 1667; cat. no. 28, England, Cowdray Estate), a work that bears a striking homage to the types, costumes, and even the techniques (note the hands, considered “half finished” by van de Wetering) of the late Frans Hals (d. 1666; the work was even ascribed to Hals as late as the late eighteenth century). Van de Wetering also (as RRP attributions so often do) made world headlines by newly accepting as genuine a self-portrait in a private collection; meanwhile the head of an old man previously rejected from an earlier Corpus volume (C22) is now authentic in the opinion of Blankert in the Melbourne catalogue (no. 4; monogrammed). Along the way, some more or less solid previous Rembrandt attributions are debunked in the Melbourne catalogue—from public collections (Philadelphia Museum, Victoria and Albert, Bredius Museum, Boymans-van Beuningen).

Other conceptual convergences emerge upon reading these two works together. In particular, the formative importance for Rembrandt of the example of Titian and his stylistic evolution is something that both van de Wetering (162–69) and Blankert (32) endorse, especially in considering the shift from a meticulous to a broad manner. Along with the admiration for Titian by Rubens, van Dyck, and Velázquez, as well as Perry Chapman’s observations about similar models for Rembrandt’s self-portraits, there are rich implications in this conscious art historiography and modeling after prior masters for the entire period of Rembrandt’s lifetime (which is reminiscent of the model of Vergil’s development for European poets of the same period). Indeed, Blankert reminds us (with Chapman) of the diversity of artists whom Rembrandt emulated, including Dürer (36f.). But this kind of contextualizing lies at the periphery, not at the core, of current Dutch scholarship on Holland’s most famous native painter.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania