Rembrandt in Amsterdam
Edited by Stephanie S. Dickey & Jochen Sander
Yale University Press//384 pages
Städel Museum, Frankfurt, October 6, 2021- January 30, 2022
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Every time I visit the Frick Collection in New York City, I make a point to "check-in" with Nicolaes Ruts (1573-1638). This somber-faced merchant lived in Amsterdam, with trading contacts extending all the way to Russia via the North Sea, around the Arctic coast of northern Norway and then down to the ice-free port of Archangel. The letter in his hand might bring news of a safely-landed cargo of precious furs from Siberia or a ship lost in the storm-tossed seas.
The magnificent likeness of Nicolaes Ruts which we see at the Frick was the first significant portrait painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. The year of its creation was 1631.
So successful was Rembrandt's image of Ruts, and other portraits executed soon after, that the trajectory of the young painter's life changed forever. Rembrandt had just purchased a sizable plot of ground, with garden, in his home town of Leiden. But commissions to paint wealthy merchants like Ruts were glittering opportunities which could not be forsaken. Rembrandt relocated his studio - and his life - to Amsterdam.
Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition tells the story of how Rembrandt ventured to the rising center of trade and commerce of the Netherlands during the mid-1600's. The exhibition is currently on view at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Earlier, it appeared in a Covid-19 interrupted presentation at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
The superbly illustrated catalog to Rembrandt in Amsterdam was edited by the curators of the exhibition, Stephanie S. Dickey & Jochen Sander, with contributions by a team of scholars. Dickey wrote the opening, biographical essay and several studies on important aspects of Rembrandt's oeuvre, including the way he treated the life of Jesus in several powerful works. Sander focused on how Rembrandt created his own distinctive style or "brand" according to twenty-first century usage.
However, Rembrandt in Amsterdam is not a story exclusively dealing with Rembrandt. Paintings by other notable Dutch "Golden Age" artists are also presented, making for a "crowded canvas" in the exhibition galleries and the pages of the accompanying catalog.
Gerard van Honthorst, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius and Jacob Backer are some of painters who share the stage in Rembrandt in Amsterdam. They proved to be worthy competitors, especially in the portrait trade.
From the 1640's, these rivals gained lucrative commissions, many of which would otherwise have gone to Rembrandt. In some respects, this was a case of being victimized by his own success. Rembrandt had trained a number of these artists, including Flinck, Bol and Fabritius, in his own studio.
These younger artists benefited mightily from Rembrandt's teaching and example. They kept an eye on changes in taste among the art-buying public, as can be seen in Jacob Backer's elegant, bejeweled Portrait of a Woman, painted around 1647.
This shift to an easier-on-the-eye mode of painting became known as the "bright style." Flinck, as noted in the exhibition catalog, was a pioneer of the lighter tones and close attention to surface detail which soon "supplanted Rembrandt's earthy palette and rough brushwork as the choice of a newly sophisticated clientele."
Rembrandt ignored these fickle alterations of taste. He took his teaching duties seriously, working so closely with his students that it is often difficult to ascertain who was the primary painter of some of the most celebrated works attributed to him. One of the "icons" of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., A Girl with a Broom, was almost certainly completed by Carel Fabritius around 1651.
Rembrandt's willful, heedless character also played a significant part in his undoing. Boldly signing his canvases with his first name only, Rembrandt claimed a place at the pinnacle of the Dutch cultural elite. It was a rarefied, vulnerable position for a miller's son, with a steep drop and no safety net should he fail and fall.
One of the principal themes of Rembrandt in Amsterdam is the process by which Rembrandt established his "brand" to use modern terminology. His successful transition to Amsterdam was based on his evolution from being primarily a "history" painter to embracing "the ideal of the universal master, proficient in all aspects of his craft."
Though a recognizable brand, a Rembrandt painting was never a standardized, "pre-fab" production. As Stephanie Dickey notes, Rembrandt's "approach was disruptively fluid: group portraits became action scenes, lofty historical figures were brought down to earth and the flat Dutch landscape gained a numinous mystery through nuanced effects of light."
Rembrandt's life-sized portrait of Andries de Graeff (1611-1677) is a notable example of his "disruptively fluid" approach to painting. What appears to be a forthright likeness of anc imperious, worldly gentleman is loaded with complex, contrarian details.
De Graef came from a very prominent, powerful family. His austere black garments proclaim his wealth, as the color black was difficult and expensive to dye on to cloth. His simple, linen collar (as opposed to an elaborate neck "ruff") shows de Graef's allegiance to the populist political faction who were opposed to granting too much power to the central government led by the Stadtholder.
Likewise, de Graef's glove, fallen to the ground, might represent a nonchalant disregard for formality. Or, it might suggest a gauntlet thrown down as a challenge. De Graef, who rose to be finance minister of Holland, 1652-57 and mayor of Amsterdam, 1657-1672, was certainly a man to be reckoned with. Rembrandt's bravura portrait clearly asserts this, even as he leaves us to ponder some of the puzzling details of the painting and its protagonist.
The exploration of character, of the man or woman behind the mask of facial features, is the supreme attribute of Rembrandt's portraits. The work from Rembrandt's early career which best exemplifies this is Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat (1637).
The skillful interplay of light and shadow on the garments of this unknown man is matched by the duality of Rembrandt's handling of his face. The competing aspects of human character, of our capacity for good or evil, are here delineated in portrait painting at the very summit of artistic skill.
Rembrandt's productivity as a portrait painter began to lapse in the 1640's. Instead, he continued with character explorations, increasingly of family members or of himself. These now rank among the greatest glories of world art.
However, portraits of his wife, Saskia, or later of his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, were not commercially viable works of art. This was especially true of paintings of Hendrickje, by then Rembrandt's common-law wife, who was denounced in 1654 by Dutch Reformed Church officials for living as a "whore."
As Rembrandt rose in the world, so did his taste for the finer things of life and for the money to pay for them. This led him to make a serious miscalculation, centered on one of the major works on view in Rembrandt in Amsterdam.
In January 1639, Rembrandt wrote to Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), the secretary to the Statholder, Frederik Hendrik, announcing that he had finished an official commission of two paintings depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus. Huygens had been an early admirer of Rembrandt and had done much to advance his career. In the letter, Rembrandt mentioned that he was sending a major work of art by way of thanking Huygens for his patronage.
The gratis painting was The Blinding of Samson, created in 1636. It is a spectacular work of art, as can be seen in the exhibition gallery at the Städel Museum. It is also a singularly unpleasant painting, graphically depicting one of the most notorious acts of betrayal and cruelty in the Bible.
Although technically brilliant, The Blinding of Samson is so repellent that Rembrandt's reason for selecting it as a gift to Huygens needs to be questioned.
Was Rembrandt's motive in sending the painting really a demonstration of gratitude? Or was he aiming to add Huygens to the list of influential patrons with a "Rembrandt" in their collection? Rembrandt actually had the temerity to advise Huygens how to hang The Blinding of Samson on the walls of his home. Once installed, bragging-rights and enhanced sales would be insured.
Huygens, in fact, declined the gift, most likely because it could be interpreted as a bribe. Yet Rembrandt insisted that he accept the painting. It is not certain that Huygens did so, though Christopher White, one of Rembrandt's most knowledgeable biographers, believes he did. If so, it was a costly victory for, as White notes, Huygens completely ignored Rembrandt "for the last thirty years of his life."
This unfortunate incident occurred in the same year that Rembrandt purchased a palatial house in Amsterdam. To do so, Rembrandt secured the first of many loans to pay the 13,000 guiders needed to buy his new home. If Rembrandt considered the idea that he should trim his personal expense account or paint more portraits to stay out of debt, he soon brushed the thought aside.
Rembrandt clearly was tempting fate by offending Huygens and by living beyond his means. But such foolhardy conduct needs to be considered in light of his incredible artistic output and the awesome level of achievement which occurred as he began edging toward financial and personal disaster in the years before his 1656 bankruptcy.
Although his portrait production diminished over the course of the 1640's, Rembrandt created some of the most awesome paintings of his career during this decade, including The Night Watch (1642) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1644). The magnitude of these works need to be considered alongside Rembrandt's investment of time, talent and effort in the wide-ranging sketching and printmaking of these years.
Not since Albrecht Dürer had any artist attempted to create prints of such profound beauty and technical sophistication. No artist, since Rembrandt, has even come close to the measure of the Dutch master's success in works on paper.
It is one of the many virtues of the exhibition catalog, published to the highest production values by Yale University Press, that Rembrandt's drawings and etchings are given equal prominence to his paintings. The selection of these works on paper and the detail and clarity on the pages of the catalog is superlative.
The Three Trees, 1643, deserves special consideration, as it unites several strands of thought and study regarding Rembrandt as his troubles continued to mount. It is an elaborate work, an etching with drypoint and engraving on laid paper. Does it represent an actual location visited and sketched by Rembrandt?
Rembrandt is known to have gone on walking/sketching rambles but the hundreds of drawings he made as strolled along the streets of Amsterdam or hiked about its suburbs rarely served as direct sources for commercial works like his etchings. The thatched cottages is this pen and brown ink drawing, now in the Getty Museum collection, almost certainly were on-the-spot depictions of humble dwellings.
Rembrandt most likely did see and sketch a copse of trees, similar to these cottages. These drawings were stored in binders - and in his memory - for future reference. But Rembrandt's landscapes, whether The Three Trees or the earlier oil painting, Landscape with Stone Bridge, are imagined spaces, typical rather than topographically accurate landscapes.
As Rembrandt sketched from nature, he likely communed with the spirit of his beloved Saskia, or at least brooded on her passing in 1642. The catalog includes a very poignant drawing of Saskia Asleep in Bed, dating to the time of her last illness. It may, indeed, show Saskia on her deathbed.
The Three Trees is an "imagined" landscape, a place of emotional solace as Rembrandt grappled with Saskia's death and his other woes.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Introductory image: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Self-portrait in a Velvet Beret,1634. Oil on oak panel: 58.3 cm (22.9 in) x 47.4 cm (18.6 in). Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie #810.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) Nicolaes Ruts, 1631. Oil on panel: 46 x 34 3/8 in. (116.8 x 87.3 cm). Purchased by The Frick Collection, 1943. #1943.1.150
Gallery view of the Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibition at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Städel Museum.
Jacob Backer (Dutch, 1608-1651) Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1647. Oil on canvas: 95.3 × 74.9 cm (37 1/2 × 29 1/2 in.) Getty Museum. Gift of J. Paul Getty. #71.PA.18
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) A Girl with a Broom, probably begun 1646/1648 and completed 1651, possibly by Carel Fabritius. Oil on canvas: 107.3 x 91.4 cm (42 1/4 x 36 in.) National Gallery of Art. Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Accession Number 1937.1.74
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Landscape with Stone Bridge, 1638. Oil on panel: 29.5 cm × width 42.5 cm × depth 5.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased 1900 SK-A-1935
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of a Standing Man (Andries de Graef), 1639. Oil on canvas: 200 cm (78.7 in) x 124.2 cm (48.8 in). Hessen Kassel Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister. #GK 239.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat, 1637. Oil on panel: 31 5/16 x 27 5/16 in. (79.5 x 69.4 cm). The Armand Hammer Collection, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, AH.90.59
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, ca. 1654-56. Oil on canvas: 101.9 x 83.7 cm. National Gallery, London. Bought with a contribution from the Art Fund, 1976. Inventory number NG6432
Gallery view of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, showing The Blinding of Samson (left) and Venus and Cupid Lamenting the Dead Adonis by Cornelis Holsteyn, 1655. Photo courtesy of the Städel Museum.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Blinding of Samson, 1636. Oil on canvas: 219.3 x 305 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Inventory # 1383.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Three Trees, 1643. Etching with drypoint and engraving on laid paper: 21.8 x 28.7 cm; plate: 20.8 x 28 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 1939.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Two Thatched Cottages with Figures at a Window, ca. 1640. Pen and brown ink, corrected with white gouache: 13.3 × 20.2 cm (5 1/4 × 7 15/16 in.). Getty Museum. Object # 85.GA.93.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Three Trees, 1643. (Detail from the version of the etching in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.