A Rembrandt for the Twenty-First Century

by Alix Finkelstein

Rembrandt van Rijn, Woman with a Child Frightened by a Dog, c. 1635–36, Foundation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

In 1628, Constantijn Huygens, a poet, scholar and diplomat for the Dutch government, visited the workshop of an ambitious young painter in the university town of Leiden. The courtier instantly recognized the superiority of Rembrandt van Rijn’s art, writing, “I maintain that it did not occur to Protogenes, Appeles or Parrhasius, nor could it occur to them were they to return to earth that (I am amazed simply to report this) a youth, a Dutchman, a beardless miller, could bring together so much in one human figure and express what is universal.”1 Huygens’s exaltations are among the earliest critical observations of Rembrandt, and his astute assessment of the burgeoning artist’s genius laid the cornerstone of the foundation for the painter, draftsman and etcher’s illustrious career. Four centuries have passed since Rembrandt’s birth in 1606, yet interest in his oeuvre and achievements remains unabated. The artist’s recent quatercentenary inspired major exhibitions both here and abroad, sharing rich new areas of scholarship with a keenly interested general public. More Rembrandt exhibitions open this year: at the Frick Collection, “Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks of the Frick and Lugt Collections,” through May 15, 2011, www.frick.org; at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” August 3–October 30, 2011, www.philamuseum.org; at the North Carolina Museum of Art, “Rembrandt in America,” October 30, 2011–January 22, 2012, www.ncartmuseum.org. However, like the boundaries of Rembrandt’s authenticated works, knowledge of the master remains incomplete and susceptible to contemporary agendas. As twenty-first-century scholars challenge and confirm the efforts of their predecessors, the question arises: what does the future hold for one of the history of art’s greatest figures?

Each fresh look at Rembrandt’s oeuvre reinvigorates our understanding of the nature of his achievements and deepens our connection to this complex personality. The artist’s almost 100 extant self-portraits, housed in collections around the world, operate as pictorial emissaries, keeping the artist vividly present and provoking further efforts to comprehend his life’s work. Scholars have investigated just about every aspect of Rembrandt’s career, from his preference for light falling over his left shoulder while painting to the relationship between the economic calamity of the Anglo-Dutch War and the artist’s personal bankruptcy. But the content of Rembrandt’s art conveys the artist’s prevailing concern for the human condition. From the quotidian moments of daily life to the pageantry of the public persona, Rembrandt, as he wrote to Huygens in 1639, wanted to achieve “die meeste, ende die naetuereelste beweechgelickheijt,” which approximately translates to “the greatest and most natural effect of movement.”2 Exactly how this declaration relates to Rembrandt’s oeuvre has been a continuous subject of discussion since his death in 1669, an analysis influenced by both the gradual accumulation of historical knowledge and the subjective responses of Rembrandt’s admirers and detractors. “Recent scholarship is less divisive than that of the past and there is less of a need to define Rembrandt’s art as a rebellion against what preceded him,” observes Margaret Iacono, assistant curator of the Frick Collection’s current exhibition on Rembrandt. “We now have an image of an artist who was a master of humanity, who deftly describes both the exterior shell and the interior self of his subjects. This is his gift.”

For the artists who knew him, including some who were his students or rivals, Rembrandt’s presumed disinterest in the classical values of the High Renaissance was problematic—and blamed on the artist’s antagonistic personality. Joachim von Sandrart, a German painter who worked in Amsterdamin the 1640s, published a commentary on Rembrandt’s art and practices shortly after the master’s death. In his book, von Sandrart complained that the artist believed that “one should bind oneself solely to nature and follow no other rules,”3 a statement that was both an acknowledgement of Rembrandt’s commitment to the realistic depiction of light sources, space and the human body, and an indictment that the artist did not share von Sandrart’s aesthetic principles gleaned from his studies in Italy. Throughout the eighteenth century, art treatises repeated von Sandrart’s description of Rembrandt as uneducated and stubborn, and some added to the disapprobation by labeling Rembrandt as slovenly and antisocial. Rembrandt’s reputation continued to suffer until the generation of artists who ushered in the era of Romanticism embraced the master as the “anti-Raphael.” The image of Rembrandt as a bohemian individualist answering to a standard of art beyond the conventions of academicism was bolstered by the appreciation of his “free” hand in drawing and his imperfect nudes with their sagging bellies and doughy thighs. In an 1851 diary entry, the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix expressed the growing distrust of academic standards of beauty that was taking root in nineteenth-century France: “Perhaps it will be discovered that Rembrandt is a far greater painter than Raphael. I write this blasphemy—one that will make every school-man’s hair stand on end—without coming to an absolute decision on the matter; but the further I go in life the more I feel within me that truth is what is most beautiful, and most rare.”4

In just a few decades, the tenets of classicalism gave way to the mandates of realism, and Rembrandt’s art accordingly rose in esteem and value. Interest in Rembrandt crossed the Atlantic, where collectors competed and paid extravagant prices for his portraits and history paintings. The growth of the Rembrandt market became the driving force for the development of connoisseurship in Dutch art and the emergence of Rembrandt specialists: a small, but influential group of scholars who devoted their efforts to recognizing the subtle differences between the hand of the master and those of his students. The desire for genuine Rembrandts resulted in an almost doubling of the number of authenticated paintings. The collectors were not only wealthy individuals, but also museum curators who avidly sought to expand their holdings. The first monographic museum exhibition of Rembrandt took place in 1898. Over the course of the twentieth century, Rembrandt connoisseurship all but dominated the conversation, culminating in the formation of the Rembrandt Research Project in 1968. Controversies ensued as many masterpieces, such as The Polish Rider (c. 1655), lost and regained their attribution.

As twentieth-century historians dug deeper into the lacuna of Rembrandt’s biography, new information surfaced that challenged the hagiographic writings of his nineteenth-century proponents, particularly the lingering Romantic notion of Rembrandt as an isolated genius. A landmark, but controversial, biography of Rembrandt written by Gary Schwartz in 1985 laid out a wealth of new material concerning Rembrandt’s clients and the political and economic forces that may have influenced the artist’s practice. A clearer picture of the early successes of a young Rembrandt emerged, particularly of his creative partnership with the painter Jan Lievens, with whom Rembrandt shared a studio, and his first dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who is believed to have brokered Rembrandt’s numerous portrait commissions in the 1630s. It is now understood that, despite his personal and financial difficulties in his later years, Rembrandt was the consummate art insider: a major figure in the contemporary art scene of seventeenth-centuryAmsterdam—dealing, teaching and marketing his work to private and public patrons acrossEurope. The 1656 inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions related to his bankruptcy proceedings shows the artist owned an impressive art collection that included prints of works by Dürer,Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck, many of them bought at the height of the market. Profligate spending may have cost Rembrandt his home and possessions, but the artist continued to operate a thriving studio, and his personal and financial crises did not deter his efforts to push himself in new stylistic directions.

The new biographical data also rekindled assessments of Rembrandt’s canon of self-portraiture, once viewed as inspired by the artist’s need to investigate his inner nature, using his palette and pen to confront the vagaries of aging and the unexpected turns of the wheel of fate. Current thinking espouses a far more pragmatic reading of Rembrandt’s self-depictions. These images were a critical part of Rembrandt’s practice from his earliest days in Leiden, when the easiest and least expensive model could be found in his own mirror. Many were studio exercises for Rembrandt’s pupils to copy; others became inventory for buyers keen to own portraits of famous artists. In his later years, however, the scale of Rembrandt’s self-portraits increased. The Frick Collection’s 1658 example of the artist resplendent in a yellow jerkin with gold brocade, vibrant red sash and fur cape, was created shortly after the artist’s bankruptcy. Knowing, however, that Rembrandt emerged from the proceedings with his reputation intact, scholars view the monumental portrait as a powerful statement of his artistic authority and prestige. The costume and iconic presentation of the body consciously evoke portraits of his predecessors, most notably Dürer. And yet, he also subjects himself to unsentimental scrutiny, rendering the pockmarks and wrinkles that show his advancing age. These historical references and passages of unsparing realism, as well as the innovative handling of paint, color and brushwork, are now believed to be a deliberate assertion of Rembrandt’s rightful place in the pantheon of great artists.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1658, The Frick Collection, New York CityRenewed attention to Rembrandt’s awareness and promotion of his extraordinary gifts coincides with the wealth of technical information related to his art-making, which became available as the twentieth century drew to a close. The ongoing scientific investigations of Rembrandt’s painting materials and methods distance the artist from the social and cultural environment that both nurtured and thwarted his ambitions and return him to the immediate, and far more absorbing, world of studio. Here, Rembrandt confronted the praxis of painting and evolved his own theories of art, bringing along and sometimes shedding followers who could not adhere to the master’s precepts. While the drawings of Rembrandt demonstrate the artist’s profound commitment to observing from life to invent dramatic and highly original compositional motifs, the technical analysis of his canvases and panels reveals the extraordinary visual effects Rembrandt extracted from his paint sources. Using commonly available pigments and a limited range of colors, the artist exploited both the various grounds he created and the paint’s material and chromatic properties to achieve convincing spatial effects in which perception of near and far—and the intervening spaces between figures—are bound together in subtle gradations of tone and hue. Among the findings of the Rembrandt Research Project was the orderly method of Rembrandt’s painting efforts. Starting from the rear of the image, such as the sky or a wall, the artist worked forward in planes until finally adding the foreground figures. Autoradiographic investigations reveal that passages of Rembrandt’s painting are built from a complex layering of pigments of various consistencies to obtain both descriptive truth and visual drama. Many of Rembrandt’s portraits dated to the 1630s show the artist’s early interest in subtly combining areas of impasto with finer brushwork, the texture of the whites giving liveliness and glinting highlights, while the smoothly painted shadows of the face create a sense of recession. X-rays also reveal the structural underpinnings of Rembrandt’s brushwork, showing how he amassed different touches of paint together to form the mouth, nose, eyes and chin of the sitter.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Jewish Bride, 1667, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Ernst van de Wetering, chairman of the Rembrandt Research Project and editor of the fourth and fifth volumes of its corpus, characterizes Rembrandt as “a searching artist” and suggests his low level of painting activity during the 1640s was a period of “artistic crisis,” as the artist sought to reinvent himself stylistically.5 When, in 1650, Rembrandt once again increased his output, he began to paint in a Titianesque manner, with looser handling of the paint and more visible brushstrokes. Later works, such as the painting known as the Jewish Bride (c.1665), present surfaces of such intricacy that Rembrandt’s manner of execution remains unknown. Clear marks of a brush or palette knife are indiscernible, and form appears to emerge from chaos. But while drippings of paint suggest that a certain amount of chance played a part in the process, other areas—such as the furrows created by the hairs of Rembrandt’s paintbrush to capture the light—show the intensity and refinement of the artist’s efforts. If younger critics, particularly those who were influenced by the encroaching stringency of classicism imported to the Netherlands from France, viewed Rembrandt’s canvases as too freely painted and far removed from the traditional norms of beauty, they were nevertheless mistaken in their beliefs that Rembrandt completely excused himself from meaningful dialogue with the art of the past and its theoretical mandates.

A superb investigation of Rembrandt’s depictions of the female nude recently published by the Dutch historian Eric Jan Sluijter argues that the artist was both cognizant of and inspired by classical imagery created by both Dutch and Italian artists. Sluijter also suggests Rembrandt deliberately chose subject matter for his history paintings that would provoke comparisons between himself and his rivals, both past and present. For one of his earliest compositions of a mythological subject, the 1630 painting Andromeda Chained to the Rock, there were several templates that Rembrandt would have been aware of, including Titian’s rendering and Rubens’s fresco of the enchained princess painted on the façade of his home in Antwerp. Foremost in Rembrandt’s mind, however, would have been the numerous prints devoted to the subject, many of which interpreted the Ovidian tale of Andromeda’s rescue by Perseus as a political allegory symbolizing an imperiled Netherlands’ liberation from tyranny. The renowned engraver Hendrick Goltzius created no less than four different engravings of the subject, and the motif was one of the most popular among Dutch printmakers. The presentation of Andromeda with upraised arms and exposed nakedness was an ideal means for an artist to demonstrate his skillful representation of a beautiful nude woman. Toward that end, early seventeenth-century artists typically created a figure that emulated the smooth contours and graceful contrapposto of the Renaissance, in keeping with contemporary theory that revered the disegno of Italian art. Rembrandt, however, chose to radically repictorialize this conventional interpretation of Andromeda’s plight. Removing Perseus and the monster from the composition, he transformed the heroic narrative into a disturbing confrontation with “a frightened naked girl,” writes Sluijter.6 Rembrandt also created a conception of the female body that was far removed from the rules of classical art. Ideals of grazia give way to the realities of the human form and the pathos of human experience.

A larger inventory of specific pictorial investigations, a widening sphere of knowledge of Rembrandt’s patrons and influences, and a keener empathy for his engagement with his art; in the end, time has only deepened our appreciation of Rembrandt’s artistry. He enters the twenty-first century as he undoubtedly began his own practice, as a visionary whose faith in his own ideals of art never wavered.


1. Quoted from “Autobiography of Constantijn Huygens (1629–1631),” published in Out Holland, 1891, trans., Benjamin Binstock. http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/arthumanities/ pdfs/arthum_rembrandt_reade.... Accessed March 23, 2011.

2. Quoted in Ernst van de Wetering, ed., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings V (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), p. 133.

3. Ibid., p. 130.

4. Quoted in Alison McQueen, The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003), p. 102.

5. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: Quest of a Genius (Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2006), pp. 79, 108.

6. Eric Jan Sluijter, Rembrandt and the Female Nude (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), p. 93.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2011, Volume 28, Number 2