Aug 162020
Rembrandt’s Character
This is an attempt to show how my discoveries alter our assessment of Rembrandt’s character in major ways. Truly horrid things have been said about Rembrandt in the press as a result of recent scholarship. For instance in the New York Times. “Rembrandt was a money-changer in the temple of art”, followed by a whole paragraph of hostility. In  the same year 1991, when the 3 major exhibitions were taking place to establish the new scholarship he was compared more times with Andy Warhol than with any other artist, for his business procedures based on the erroneous idea that he ran a huge workshop churning out his recently dismissed works, signing them and selling them as his own. In fact though such practices were normal in Rembrandt’s time, he was determined to paint every stroke of The Night Watch himself. As after that success he fell from demand in the market-place so there was no temptation to do otherwise.
The whole idea of Rembrandt’s Workshop is a recent invention, you will find no reference to it before 1968 when the RRP started work, its a fabrication. Rubens had a workshop of a few very gifted assistants because he was catering for the whole Catholic world in a post Reformation crisis. He was amazingly gifted and with an enormous market gasping for his painting. Rembrandt a contemporary, was the other side of the picture altogether. He would have love to be in Rubens’ position but the protestants had no use for “idols”, they were busy breaking them up. He sold more self-portraits than religious subjects but his ambition to be a history painter and special gift for seeing how we humans express ourselves could not be denied. The Bible was his main source of inspiration throughout his life. But I guess when the “experts” finally revise their ideas about the dates of his drawings, fewer group subjects will be found after his peak popularity c1642.
On the one occasion when he was asked for a landscape he had only a student’s example in stock and he answered the request in a straightforward manner saying with a few touches from me it could pass for a Rembrandt. He himself rarely if ever painted still life or landscape though he made many beautiful drawings of the landscape around Amsterdam. Otherwise, his landscapes were nearly always just as a background for human subjects.
Rembrandt spent half his creative energy on a subject matter which from a market point of view was a non-starter in protestant Holland. He painted what he wanted not what the market demanded. We don’t even know to what protestant sect he belonged. He got involved with the Calvinists because Hendrijke, his girl friend for 17 years, was accused by them of living with Rembrandt in concubinage. He did not show up at her trial, maybe he had become a Mennonite by then. We can surmise that he was a believer of some kind but there are good reasons for him to be involved with Biblical subjects other than belief:
The Bible was the best known book of stories of every kind, read throughout Christendom. It had recently been translated into most of the languages of Europe from Latin, Greek or Aramaic and so was hot news for most Christians. The sheer richness of the human subject matter was a gold-mine for Rembrandt or anyone else interested in investigating the human psyche. The only other possibility for the same mining was classical mythology, which he used occasionally. But it did not have the same popular following. Ovid was for the scholarly few.
Rembrandt does not compete with Rubens, Van Dyck or Hals in swiftness of execution; he goes his own way at his own pace, remarkably slowly in fact but almost without ceasing. A true artist seeing life as truthfully as he could, without embellishment. He is nonetheless very much a man of his time insofar as he is following the example of the great scientists who refused to take Aristotle’s word for how the physical world works, they too observed for themselves. That is why many artists regard Rembrandt as the one old master who speaks to us moderns directly. Other old masters we can admire but there is not that feeling that we are in the same business. Rembrandt is the beginning of the modern era in art as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton are in science.
The scholars want him to be the same as the older masters; he is not. They seem to have no idea of his originality. To read recent scholars is to get no guidance as to why the rest of us admire him so much, its as if they want to down-grade him and rob him of his unique position in art. They are looking with a narrow focus without understanding or illumination; they want to know which works are his without any discrimination as to which is better or worse. Rembrandt is the most varied of all artists; his works vary from the sublime to the ridiculous and each generation of artists will take a different view of which they admire the most. I offer a rational explanation for his variability – the scholars seek to explain it by the development of his style. They are talking in special jargon to put their folly beyond common sense criticism.
Scholars are afraid of making judgments that will not last. Nothing lasts in man’s restless view but its necessary to make judgments that will guide our own effort. Panowski recommended art historians should not fall in love with their subject; reasonable advice that has been followed to the annihilation of any kind of appreciation. I regard Rembrandt as the most important artist ever and I am fully prepared to tell you why.
Rembrandt was following Caravaggio’s example in a general way, there were several Caravaggists in Holland at the time. In this he was merely following a trend. When he set up studio in his home town of Leyden with his younger but more experienced partner Jan Lievens, he was clearly the junior partner in quality but from those inauspicious beginnings he rose rapidly. He acquired the technical mastery of Lievens and surpassed him in vision in 2 or 3 years. His painting of “Judas Returning the 30 pieces of Silver” was noticed and praised by Huygens      as better judgment and taste than Lievens. It is highly dramatic and set Rembrandt on his way towards the expression of human emotion which was to drive his art for the rest of his life. Interestingly it is the first of his paintings that we can recognise immediately as the Rembrandt we know from his subsequent output. His earlier work is quite different and amazingly inferior.
I am going to describe Rembrandt’s originality in somewhat different terms to the usual praise of his mastery of light or his broad brushwork which are admirable but not crucial. Rembrandt bought and studied no fewer than 30 Roman portraits. They were much sort after and therefore very expensive. He filled two books of studies of them. Kenneth Clark finds his lack of taste in doing so alarming because Roman work has been consistently disparaged  by art historians since Winckelmann. This is a huge mistake. In my view half the artists of Europe use the three dimensional geometry found in Roman portraits as the form base of their work: Masaccio, Mantegne, Hobein, Rembrandt, Degas and Van Gogh to name but a few. Most use it as the method of suggesting the three dimensional nature of solid objects, Rembrandt went further and used it to  define the space between the objects as well. This means that he has a control over space relationships which is uniquely precise. It is the way in which he conveys drama or psychological relationships; his particular gift.
Normally artists use perspective to define space, and if you are constructing space this is the only way. But Rembrandt was observing space from tableaux vivant he set up for himself and his students to work from. The creation of the tableaux was an important part of his art. His student Hoogstraten tells us as much yet the experts think its more exciting if the artist imagines it all. Alas, artists never make so good a job of intimate space by construction as Rembrandt did from observation. It is another of his original insights that space needs to be observed. I am sure he would not have described it that way himself, consciousness of space perception is a recent 20th C notion, Rembrandt was the the best practitioner. Giacometti introduced me to space, the most important visual insight in my life-time. It has driven my approach to criticism.
Perspective is useless for depicting intimate space, just about OK for theatrical space. This is the foundation of Rembrandt’s genius, The experts continue to deny the existence of the tableaux now 40 years since I prove them by pointing out that Rembrandt not only drew them direct but on many occasions made drawings from their mirror image. This is another embarrassment for scholars who have filled library shelves with books on the iconography of Rembrandt and his school; where I see the differences of interpret ion largely as simply different points of view of the same group subject, student and master working together looking at the tableaux from individual viewpoints.. The scholars’view that students worked from Rembrandt’s drawings is totally impracticable – Rembrandt himself never did it but scholars are determined that Rembrandt imagined and his students followed after. Rembrandt used his drawings to feel his way into a subject in a general waythere are no preparatory drawings such as one finds in Renaissance masters. Rembrandt is capable of making over 20 versions of the Hagar story and then a painting which has almost no relation to the drawings. I would date all around 1637 the date he wrote on the copper of the etching; the scholars refusing to take note of Rembrandt’s use of mirrors and chose to believe he turned to the same subject throughout his life! Rembrandt explicitly rejected as “worthless” anything that was not observed. All the evidence favours the fact that the group was assembled in 1637 and may have been present in the studio for several months or even years as his students made big important painting from them. (see video)
In my explanation of the National Gallery’s version of The “Adoration of the Shepherds” a small painting of a large, varied group of humans, animals and architecture seen from a different point of view and reversed by the mirror.(see YouTube). This is a proof as clear and beyond dispute as checkmate. Yet the experts take no notice, they continue their destruction as if all was as they believe. Furthermore, their belief flies in the face of all the contemporary witnesses who tell us over and over again that “Rembrandt would not attempt a single brushstroke without a living model before his eyes”, or words to that effect.
My work has been endorsed by quite a few scholars. Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich insisted that it got published and his name appears on the original article in The Burlington Magazine (Feb 1977) as having helped me to formulate it. The maquettes from my exhibition at Imperial College were reviewed by Prof.Bryan Coles with the words “ some of which compel assent”…. “it would be a pity if scholarship did not profit from his imaginative researches” but alas, these proofs  also make the scholars look foolish.
There is but one episode which reflects nastily on Rembrandt and undoubtedly leads feminists to frown upon him. But even that is not entirely clear cut. After Kinshasa’s death he had a brief affair with Titus’ nurse Geertje Dircz, she said he promised to marry her. Certainly he gave her some of Saskia’s jewellery. Who knows what really happened it ended very messily with Rembrandt paying for her custody in a madhouse. After 20 years women came to say she was no longer mad but Rembrandt would not listen. I don’t think Rembrandt can be exonerated but there are some really mad women around and wise men sometimes do very foolish things.
Rembrandt lived contentedly with his next girl-friend Hendrikje Stoffels. She died after 17 happy years posing for him consistently. His Bathsheba in the Louvre and many paintings and drawings of her suggests he had most tender feelings for her. He never married her because the terms of Saskia’s will would have meant he would have lost half his inheritance from her if he remarried. I do think his second liaison somewhat mitigates his behaviour in the first. There is nothing else in his life or work that suggest he was brutal. On the contrary we assume from his works he was warm and very human. I do not have to believe he was a perfect human-being in order to venerate him as an artist.
One of the most endearing features of his work is his total acceptance of life as it happens. There is nothing of the hubris that led Michelangelo to destroy his preliminary studies or his misadventures. Rembrandt has left us an entirely unedited version of his production. I know of no other artist who went out of his way to show how anything not observed “was worthless in his eyes”. Most of his flying angels are drawn with a deliberate worthlessness. No worries about his inability to imagine the scene of Jupiter’s visit to Philemon and Baucis. He is practising what he preached – his valuation of truth above all – see also the etching of Diana, a truly hideous version of the virgin goddess from a young man out to make a point about truth.
Was Rembrandt Reliable? – for Gary Schwartz and others
Was Rembrandt reliable? It is worth asking this question because scholars have assumed that Rembrandt was by nature consistent. Otto Benesch, the cataloguer of his drawings claimed that he could recognise the date of Rembrandt’s drawings  “to within one or two years, three at most”. If Benesch was right, Rembrandt must have been consistent to a very rare  degree. I find him unreliable, I agree with Gary Schwartz “the study of Rembrandt has much to gain from the serious consideration of the negative criticisms voiced by his contemporaries.” and they do not find Rembrandt at all reliable or consistent. Benesch’s error is pure wish-fulfilment that has alas, resonated with his heirs and followers.
By his study of the documents Schwartz brings into question many aspects of Rembrandt’s character that suggest his untrust worthiness. He was struck out of his sister’s will and his wife’s will, he was never asked to be godfather to a child, “he himself sabotaged his career” says Schwartz  – I take all that on board. I think you will find below good reason to view Rembrandt’s behaviour as highly erratic.
Supreme self-confidence does not sit well on the shoulders of an artist. Though his confidence in his own judgement contributed to his ability to push art in the direction of truth before conventional beauty; it has earned him everlasting fame for very good reason but it caused no end of trouble in his life-time.
Von Sandrart tells us that Rembrandt “had no understanding of the importance of social rank…. it is certain that had he been able to keep on good terms with everyone and look after his business properly” he would have made a fortune. Baldinucci writes that “not even the foremost monarch on earth could gain an audience” but would be sent away until Rembrandt had finished his work. The Prince of Orange had to wait fourteen years for the last of his Passion series. The painting arrived still wet and the Prince paid only half the asking price. The Sicilian nobleman for whom Rembrandt painted several portraits sent back two complaining that he had bought work from Italy’s most famous painters and never paid so high a price nor received work so ill completed (his portrait of Alexander the Great was sown together from four pieces of canvas).
Rembrandt’s dealings with commoners took a similar pattern. His quarrels with his first mistress and with Saskia’s family after her death show us a man who was deeply lacking in diplomacy to say the least. There are stories of him painting the corpse of his dead monkey into a commissioned family portrait and keeping the painting rather than removing this nasty, unwanted addition. There are constant complaints from his contemporaries such as “he did not finish his paintings properly – it is rare to find in Rembrandt a well painted hand – his female nudes were such pitiful things that they are hardly worth mentioning”  etc. Rembrandt answered these criticisms with “a picture is finished when the artist has expressed his intentions in it”. It is this clarity about his intentions and their revolutionary nature that makes Rembrandt such an important example to artists. His female nudes are not idealized as was expected at that time. They were shockingly true to life.
All this evidence needs airing. On occasion I think Schwartz has taken an over-negative view of the evidence. For instance he says of Rembrandt’s relations with his students “the few stories that have found their way into the sources are not heart-warming at all.” He also finds Rembrandt humourless and miserly. Houbraken tells stories which suggests quite the opposite to me: Rembrandt comes upon a scene where his students are eavesdropping on another student and his model locked together in the student’s room. He overhears him say “here we are naked like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” at this point Rembrandt bangs on the door and shouts “Because you are aware of your nakedness you must come out of the garden” and then chased them down the stairs with his stick, I guess as theatre, because “they scarcely had time to dress as they fled”. On other occasions students painted coins on the floor in order to see him stoop to pick them up. This suggests to Schwartz that Rembrandt was over attached to his money.  To me It confirms that he had a playful relationship with his students some of whom stayed with him for many years though he charged twice as much for an apprenticeship as his rivals. There are many references to Rembrandt’s generosity in lending objects from his theatrical wardrobe to painters who needed them, in paying over the odds for works by his contemporaries to boost their value and paying extravagantly for works of art generally. When he had money he certainly threw it about. His great house proved much more than he could afford but that was as much bad luck as bad judgement; he lived through a severe recession caused by war with England.
Rembrandt changed the course of art. He seemed so completely immune to criticism that it might help us to understand him better to take these aspects of his character into consideration. If scholars realized they were dealing with a man who exhibits many of the symptoms of Bipolar behaviour, they might treat him more kindly and abandon their efforts to normalize him. They want him to be consistent, he was not; and we cannot understand him unless we take his inconsistencies into account. Some were psychological and some were physical. The difference between Rembrandt’s drawing direct from life and when he relied upon a dim reflection in a polished metal surface, or even worse when he relies on imagination, is very obvious but at present overlooked by the experts. (for examples, see my ebook www.nigelkonstam.com)
These stories and complaints should surely alert us to the fact that Rembrandt, great painter as he is, was not an entirely reasonable human being. As George Bernard Shaw noted – “The reasonable man adapts….All progress depends on the unreasonable man”
I am no psychologist I would like to hear what professionals thinks of this evidence. Rembrandt’s behaviour, his output, his charisma and his supreme self-confidence all seem to me to point to manic-depression

This is an attempt to show how my discoveries alter our assessment of Rembrandt’s character in major ways. Truly horrid things have been said about Rembrandt in the press as a result of recent scholarship. For instance in the New York Times. “Rembrandt was a money-changer in the temple of art”, followed by a whole paragraph of hostility. In  the same year 1991, when the 3 major exhibitions were taking place to establish the new scholarship he was compared more times with Andy Warhol than with any other artist, for his business procedures based on the erroneous idea that he ran a huge workshop churning out his recently dismissed works, signing them and selling them as his own. In fact though such practices were normal in Rembrandt’s time, he was determined to paint every stroke of The Night Watch himself. As after that success he fell from demand in the market-place so there was no temptation to do otherwise.

The whole idea of Rembrandt’s Workshop is a recent invention, you will find no reference to it before 1968 when the RRP started work, its a fabrication. Rubens had a workshop of a few very gifted assistants because he was catering for the whole Catholic world in a post Reformation crisis. He was amazingly gifted and with an enormous market gasping for his painting. Rembrandt a contemporary, was the other side of the picture altogether. He would have love to be in Rubens’ position but the protestants had no use for “idols”, they were busy breaking them up. He sold more self-portraits than religious subjects but his ambition to be a history painter and special gift for seeing how we humans express ourselves could not be denied. The Bible was his main source of inspiration throughout his life. But I guess when the “experts” finally revise their ideas about the dates of his drawings, fewer group subjects will be found after his peak popularity c1642.

On the one occasion when he was asked for a landscape he had only a student’s example in stock and he answered the request in a straightforward manner saying with a few touches from me it could pass for a Rembrandt. He himself rarely if ever painted still life or landscape though he made many beautiful drawings of the landscape around Amsterdam. Otherwise, his landscapes were nearly always just as a background for human subjects.

Rembrandt spent half his creative energy on a subject matter which from a market point of view was a non-starter in protestant Holland. He painted what he wanted not what the market demanded. We don’t even know to what protestant sect he belonged. He got involved with the Calvinists because Hendrijke, his girl friend for 17 years, was accused by them of living with Rembrandt in concubinage. He did not show up at her trial, maybe he had become a Mennonite by then. We can surmise that he was a believer of some kind but there are good reasons for him to be involved with Biblical subjects other than belief:

The Bible was the best known book of stories of every kind, read throughout Christendom. It had recently been translated into most of the languages of Europe from Latin, Greek or Aramaic and so was hot news for most Christians. The sheer richness of the human subject matter was a gold-mine for Rembrandt or anyone else interested in investigating the human psyche. The only other possibility for the same mining was classical mythology, which he used occasionally. But it did not have the same popular following. Ovid was for the scholarly few.

Rembrandt does not compete with Rubens, Van Dyck or Hals in swiftness of execution; he goes his own way at his own pace, remarkably slowly in fact but almost without ceasing. A true artist seeing life as truthfully as he could, without embellishment. He is nonetheless very much a man of his time insofar as he is following the example of the great scientists who refused to take Aristotle’s word for how the physical world works, they too observed for themselves. That is why many artists regard Rembrandt as the one old master who speaks to us moderns directly. Other old masters we can admire but there is not that feeling that we are in the same business. Rembrandt is the beginning of the modern era in art as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton are in science.

The scholars want him to be the same as the older masters; he is not. They seem to have no idea of his originality. To read recent scholars is to get no guidance as to why the rest of us admire him so much, its as if they want to down-grade him and rob him of his unique position in art. They are looking with a narrow focus without understanding or illumination; they want to know which works are his without any discrimination as to which is better or worse. Rembrandt is the most varied of all artists; his works vary from the sublime to the ridiculous and each generation of artists will take a different view of which they admire the most. I offer a rational explanation for his variability – the scholars seek to explain it by the development of his style. They are talking in special jargon to put their folly beyond common sense criticism.

Scholars are afraid of making judgments that will not last. Nothing lasts in man’s restless view but its necessary to make judgments that will guide our own effort. Panowski recommended art historians should not fall in love with their subject; reasonable advice that has been followed to the annihilation of any kind of appreciation. I regard Rembrandt as the most important artist ever and I am fully prepared to tell you why.

Rembrandt was following Caravaggio’s example in a general way, there were several Caravaggists in Holland at the time. In this he was merely following a trend. When he set up studio in his home town of Leyden with his younger but more experienced partner Jan Lievens, he was clearly the junior partner in quality but from those inauspicious beginnings he rose rapidly. He acquired the technical mastery of Lievens and surpassed him in vision in 2 or 3 years. His painting of “Judas Returning the 30 pieces of Silver” was noticed and praised by Huygens      as better judgment and taste than Lievens. It is highly dramatic and set Rembrandt on his way towards the expression of human emotion which was to drive his art for the rest of his life. Interestingly it is the first of his paintings that we can recognise immediately as the Rembrandt we know from his subsequent output. His earlier work is quite different and amazingly inferior.

I am going to describe Rembrandt’s originality in somewhat different terms to the usual praise of his mastery of light or his broad brushwork which are admirable but not crucial. Rembrandt bought and studied no fewer than 30 Roman portraits. They were much sort after and therefore very expensive. He filled two books of studies of them. Kenneth Clark finds his lack of taste in doing so alarming because Roman work has been consistently disparaged  by art historians since Winckelmann. This is a huge mistake. In my view half the artists of Europe use the three dimensional geometry found in Roman portraits as the form base of their work: Masaccio, Mantegne, Hobein, Rembrandt, Degas and Van Gogh to name but a few. Most use it as the method of suggesting the three dimensional nature of solid objects, Rembrandt went further and used it to  define the space between the objects as well. This means that he has a control over space relationships which is uniquely precise. It is the way in which he conveys drama or psychological relationships; his particular gift.

Normally artists use perspective to define space, and if you are constructing space this is the only way. But Rembrandt was observing space from tableaux vivant he set up for himself and his students to work from. The creation of the tableaux was an important part of his art. His student Hoogstraten tells us as much yet the experts think its more exciting if the artist imagines it all. Alas, artists never make so good a job of intimate space by construction as Rembrandt did from observation. It is another of his original insights that space needs to be observed. I am sure he would not have described it that way himself, consciousness of space perception is a recent 20th C notion, Rembrandt was the the best practitioner. Giacometti introduced me to space, the most important visual insight in my life-time. It has driven my approach to criticism.

Perspective is useless for depicting intimate space, just about OK for theatrical space. This is the foundation of Rembrandt’s genius, The experts continue to deny the existence of the tableaux now 40 years since I prove them by pointing out that Rembrandt not only drew them direct but on many occasions made drawings from their mirror image. This is another embarrassment for scholars who have filled library shelves with books on the iconography of Rembrandt and his school; where I see the differences of interpret ion largely as simply different points of view of the same group subject, student and master working together looking at the tableaux from individual viewpoints.. The scholars’view that students worked from Rembrandt’s drawings is totally impracticable – Rembrandt himself never did it but scholars are determined that Rembrandt imagined and his students followed after. Rembrandt used his drawings to feel his way into a subject in a general waythere are no preparatory drawings such as one finds in Renaissance masters. Rembrandt is capable of making over 20 versions of the Hagar story and then a painting which has almost no relation to the drawings. I would date all around 1637 the date he wrote on the copper of the etching; the scholars refusing to take note of Rembrandt’s use of mirrors and chose to believe he turned to the same subject throughout his life! Rembrandt explicitly rejected as “worthless” anything that was not observed. All the evidence favours the fact that the group was assembled in 1637 and may have been present in the studio for several months or even years as his students made big important painting from them. (see video)

In my explanation of the National Gallery’s version of The “Adoration of the Shepherds” a small painting of a large, varied group of humans, animals and architecture seen from a different point of view and reversed by the mirror.(see YouTube). This is a proof as clear and beyond dispute as checkmate. Yet the experts take no notice, they continue their destruction as if all was as they believe. Furthermore, their belief flies in the face of all the contemporary witnesses who tell us over and over again that “Rembrandt would not attempt a single brushstroke without a living model before his eyes”, or words to that effect.

My work has been endorsed by quite a few scholars. Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich insisted that it got published and his name appears on the original article in The Burlington Magazine (Feb 1977) as having helped me to formulate it. The maquettes from my exhibition at Imperial College were reviewed by Prof.Bryan Coles with the words “ some of which compel assent”…. “it would be a pity if scholarship did not profit from his imaginative researches” but alas, these proofs  also make the scholars look foolish.

There is but one episode which reflects nastily on Rembrandt and undoubtedly leads feminists to frown upon him. But even that is not entirely clear cut. After Kinshasa’s death he had a brief affair with Titus’ nurse Geertje Dircz, she said he promised to marry her. Certainly he gave her some of Saskia’s jewellery. Who knows what really happened it ended very messily with Rembrandt paying for her custody in a madhouse. After 20 years women came to say she was no longer mad but Rembrandt would not listen. I don’t think Rembrandt can be exonerated but there are some really mad women around and wise men sometimes do very foolish things.

Rembrandt lived contentedly with his next girl-friend Hendrikje Stoffels. She died after 17 happy years posing for him consistently. His Bathsheba in the Louvre and many paintings and drawings of her suggests he had most tender feelings for her. He never married her because the terms of Saskia’s will would have meant he would have lost half his inheritance from her if he remarried. I do think his second liaison somewhat mitigates his behaviour in the first. There is nothing else in his life or work that suggest he was brutal. On the contrary we assume from his works he was warm and very human. I do not have to believe he was a perfect human-being in order to venerate him as an artist.

One of the most endearing features of his work is his total acceptance of life as it happens. There is nothing of the hubris that led Michelangelo to destroy his preliminary studies or his misadventures. Rembrandt has left us an entirely unedited version of his production. I know of no other artist who went out of his way to show how anything not observed “was worthless in his eyes”. Most of his flying angels are drawn with a deliberate worthlessness. No worries about his inability to imagine the scene of Jupiter’s visit to Philemon and Baucis. He is practising what he preached – his valuation of truth above all – see also the etching of Diana, a truly hideous version of the virgin goddess from a young man out to make a point about truth.

Was Rembrandt Reliable? – for Gary Schwartz and others

Was Rembrandt reliable? It is worth asking this question because scholars have assumed that Rembrandt was by nature consistent. Otto Benesch, the cataloguer of his drawings claimed that he could recognise the date of Rembrandt’s drawings  “to within one or two years, three at most”. If Benesch was right, Rembrandt must have been consistent to a very rare  degree. I find him unreliable, I agree with Gary Schwartz “the study of Rembrandt has much to gain from the serious consideration of the negative criticisms voiced by his contemporaries.” and they do not find Rembrandt at all reliable or consistent. Benesch’s error is pure wish-fulfilment that has alas, resonated with his heirs and followers.

By his study of the documents Schwartz brings into question many aspects of Rembrandt’s character that suggest his untrust worthiness. He was struck out of his sister’s will and his wife’s will, he was never asked to be godfather to a child, “he himself sabotaged his career” says Schwartz  – I take all that on board. I think you will find below good reason to view Rembrandt’s behaviour as highly erratic.

Supreme self-confidence does not sit well on the shoulders of an artist. Though his confidence in his own judgement contributed to his ability to push art in the direction of truth before conventional beauty; it has earned him everlasting fame for very good reason but it caused no end of trouble in his life-time.

Von Sandrart tells us that Rembrandt “had no understanding of the importance of social rank…. it is certain that had he been able to keep on good terms with everyone and look after his business properly” he would have made a fortune. Baldinucci writes that “not even the foremost monarch on earth could gain an audience” but would be sent away until Rembrandt had finished his work. The Prince of Orange had to wait fourteen years for the last of his Passion series. The painting arrived still wet and the Prince paid only half the asking price. The Sicilian nobleman for whom Rembrandt painted several portraits sent back two complaining that he had bought work from Italy’s most famous painters and never paid so high a price nor received work so ill completed (his portrait of Alexander the Great was sown together from four pieces of canvas).

Rembrandt’s dealings with commoners took a similar pattern. His quarrels with his first mistress and with Saskia’s family after her death show us a man who was deeply lacking in diplomacy to say the least. There are stories of him painting the corpse of his dead monkey into a commissioned family portrait and keeping the painting rather than removing this nasty, unwanted addition. There are constant complaints from his contemporaries such as “he did not finish his paintings properly – it is rare to find in Rembrandt a well painted hand – his female nudes were such pitiful things that they are hardly worth mentioning”  etc. Rembrandt answered these criticisms with “a picture is finished when the artist has expressed his intentions in it”. It is this clarity about his intentions and their revolutionary nature that makes Rembrandt such an important example to artists. His female nudes are not idealized as was expected at that time. They were shockingly true to life.

All this evidence needs airing. On occasion I think Schwartz has taken an over-negative view of the evidence. For instance he says of Rembrandt’s relations with his students “the few stories that have found their way into the sources are not heart-warming at all.” He also finds Rembrandt humourless and miserly. Houbraken tells stories which suggests quite the opposite to me: Rembrandt comes upon a scene where his students are eavesdropping on another student and his model locked together in the student’s room. He overhears him say “here we are naked like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” at this point Rembrandt bangs on the door and shouts “Because you are aware of your nakedness you must come out of the garden” and then chased them down the stairs with his stick, I guess as theatre, because “they scarcely had time to dress as they fled”. On other occasions students painted coins on the floor in order to see him stoop to pick them up. This suggests to Schwartz that Rembrandt was over attached to his money.  To me It confirms that he had a playful relationship with his students some of whom stayed with him for many years though he charged twice as much for an apprenticeship as his rivals. There are many references to Rembrandt’s generosity in lending objects from his theatrical wardrobe to painters who needed them, in paying over the odds for works by his contemporaries to boost their value and paying extravagantly for works of art generally. When he had money he certainly threw it about. His great house proved much more than he could afford but that was as much bad luck as bad judgement; he lived through a severe recession caused by war with England.

Rembrandt changed the course of art. He seemed so completely immune to criticism that it might help us to understand him better to take these aspects of his character into consideration. If scholars realized they were dealing with a man who exhibits many of the symptoms of Bipolar behaviour, they might treat him more kindly and abandon their efforts to normalize him. They want him to be consistent, he was not; and we cannot understand him unless we take his inconsistencies into account. Some were psychological and some were physical. The difference between Rembrandt’s drawing direct from life and when he relied upon a dim reflection in a polished metal surface, or even worse when he relies on imagination, is very obvious but at present overlooked by the experts. (for examples, see my ebook www.nigelkonstam.com)

These stories and complaints should surely alert us to the fact that Rembrandt, great painter as he is, was not an entirely reasonable human being. As George Bernard Shaw noted – “The reasonable man adapts….All progress depends on the unreasonable man”

I am no psychologist I would like to hear what professionals thinks of this evidence. Rembrandt’s behaviour, his output, his charisma and his supreme self-confidence all seem to me to point to manic-depression