Oct 222015

To become a Rembrandt scholar you need to pass out top of a prestigious course in art history. They are the crème della crème; but they are gravely mistaken about Rembrandt and resist correction no matter what the evidence for revision. This article is designed to convince you they need to be replaced. They will not renew themselves.

They have in fact stood Rembrandt on his head. Reversing his significance of perhaps the world’s most perceptive observer. They seek to persuade us that he worked largely from imagination. I believe that I have demonstrated this to be a fundamental mistake, yet they will not budge. As a simple example see my “Isaac Refusing to Bless Esau” on YouTube. I expect you will agree with me that Rembrandt was at his best as an observer.

Esau and Isaac

Click to play video

This disagreement as to whether Rembrandt relied on observation or invention is a fundamental error, which invalidates large areas of recent scholarship. An error from which Rembrandt scholarship is suffering and has suffer since 1922 at when this important drawing was dismissed – important because it shows us Rembrandt’s strengths and weaknesses. Because I accept the weakness I can believe in over 2,000 drawings by Rembrandt but the scholars’ refusal leads them to accept only 500! His position as a culture hero has fallen proportionately in my life time.

I find it very easy to win the observation argument, so I well understand why the scholars refuse to debate the point in public. Choosing instead to undermine my examples in their private world of scholarly publications so they can continue with their folly undisturbed. I have described the scholarship of Rembrandt drawings as “an unmitigated disgrace” for the following reasons:-

1. My paradigm changing discovery of Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors in 1974 has been neglected. These findings were published in the Burlington under that title in Feb.1977 (two eminent art historians, Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich and Dr J. Montagu were thanked for their help in presenting my findings in that article). A similar article was published in Rembrandthuiskroniek vol.1 1978. In both I believe I proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rembrandt used groups of live models for himself and his students to work from. This idea is anyway corroborated by contemporaries of Rembrandt; what was all that theatrical wardrobe for if not to produce his groups? (an extensive wardrobe and props is seen in the inventory of his belongings taken in 1656.)
2.Recent Rembrandt scholarship has neglected the historical record, indeed reversed the known facts.
3. Over a period of 90 years they have apparently unanimously accepted this reversal, neglecting an abundance of evidence that should have warned them off. They do this in order to maintain their mistaken ideas of Rembrandt’s development as a draughtsman and his relationship with the school production; they have  substituted theoretical iconography where practical observation explains the school works better. These sins have suffocated the educational atmosphere of art history. The Rembrandt catastrophe could not have happen without unquestioning acceptance of the professor’s dictate.
4. The scholars refuse to discuss and continue with the destruction of Rembrandt in the face of overwhelming evidence of their folly – or worse.
5. As a sculptor of 60 years experience, I find their judgments often outrageous.

Sep 242015


Aug 212015





Aug 192015


Enlargement of newspaper column

Aug 192015


Mar 182015

It is the centenary year of the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s “The Principles of Art History” often described as epoch-making. It is worth trying to assess to what extent it is responsible for the most devastating decline in artistic standards ever recorded. I would suggest – to a very great extent. I would be interested to know what others feel. Read more

By 1915 revolutions in art were well underway starting with the Impressionists, then more violently with the Post Impressionists and the Fauves. By 1915 Cubism had come and nearly gone. So Wolfflin was not the leader but he was the leader of the critics trying to catch up with revolutionaries.

In his Preface he writes “The Principles arose from the need of establishing on a firmer basis the classifications of art history – not the judgment of value – there is no question of that here”. Nonetheless, his choice of examples and the way he writes about them cannot hide from us the fact that he was no connoisseur himself.

His first example: Durer’s preparatory drawing for Eve, I would probably place as number one among the worst drawings genuinely attributed to an old master. The pose is in itself feeble and expresses nothing of her desire. But it is in the limbs that qualifies his drawing as first in my category. There are no bones in either arm. The one that dangles the apple is particularly disgusting, a mere string of sausages. The leg that bears weight passes muster, no more; from the knee done the other leg looks like the work of a diligent beginner. Yet Wolfflin seems carried away by the beauty of it all. “each single line seems to know that it is beautiful and combines beautifully with its mates.” How could anyone take such a critic seriously? Yet the book is in it’s 6th edition and is ‘a must’ for all students of art history.

Durer’s horrid drawing is compared with one of Rembrandt’ most appealing, individualized, female nudes – Wolfflin writes “Durer is based on tactile, Rembrandt on visual values.” I have made a homage to the Rembrandt in sculpture. I would not dream of such a homage to the Durer, I would be left with a cripple.

Many complain of the loss of connoisseurship while others despise the very idea of it. Surely “The Principles” have delivered the death blow to the whole idea of discerning quality in art. Yet to artists of the past, quality of observation is all that truly matters. Instead of comparing works of art with the phenomena they represent, critics since Wolfflin look at lines as if they have a more important, aesthetic quality in themselves, that they alone can discern.

By 1922 Otto Benesch had embarked upon his devastation of Rembrandt’s drawings, claiming that he could date Rembrandt’s drawings by style “to within a year or two, three at most”! If drawings failed to comply with his pigeon-holes they are discarded. This destructive policy continues under Benesch’s followers at an accelerated rate today. We are left with less than 50% of Rembrandt’s drawings. We have left the fate of Rembrandt, the world’s foremost observer of humankind, in incompetent hands. Are our critics of modern art any better? No wonder the Art World is in turmoil.

Nov 292014

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, resounded with his heirs and followers.

By his study of the documents Schwartz brings into question many aspects of Rembrandt’s character that suggest his untrustworthiness. 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.

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.

Oct 022014

Prof. Van der Wetering, recently leader of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) enthusiastically told The Guardian (May 24th’14) that the deattribution of “Old Man sitting in an armchair in the National Gallery was “a vast mistake…it is of wonderful quality and revolutionary in a sense…a very important painting”. As one who had written to the RRP in 1988 about this very painting asking if I could come to Amsterdam or preferably invite them to my collection of Rembrandt maquettes with mirrors in Tuscany to dissuade them from this sacrilege, I was all agog. In 1988 they had refused my offer twice; Prof. Van der Wetering was a member then.

What had produced this Pauline conversion? I have just read his article in the June Burlington and have to admit myself somewhat disappointed. The same pointless and misleading art historical nonsense about style, fitting this painting neatly into a pigeonhole for 1652. If you can believe it, one of the reasons for the deattribution in the first place was that the hands of the Old Man do not match.

While the Old Man’s right hand on which he leans is fairly standard, his left hand rests on the arm of a chair, and is painted with a first-time breadth and accuracy that takes ones breath away. I and many painters of my generation regarded it as the holy grail of painting along with “The Wading Woman” (Hendrickje in1654) also in the National Gallery. That hand was so felt, it had  that loss of muscle-tone, the bones fell about the chair arm as only such an old hand could do. It could not have been further from an idealized hand by Van Dyck for example. No wonder he was criticized “ it is rare to find in Rembrandt a beautifully painted hand” (Houbraken). This is a masterpiece of observation and empathy.

The X ray (seen in the Burlington) shows that the initial sketch needed but the slightest touches to adjust the top of the hand to balance it perfectly on the knob of the chair. (If Auerbach had achieved such fluency he would be dancing on cloud 9.)

Well, Van der Wetering uses the unmatched hands of the Old Man to compare with the unmatched hands of “The Girl Sitting in a Window” in Stockholm, which happens to have been painted in 1651. Such bathos! Of course her hands do not match. One is tucked so deep under her chin that what we see is her wrist not her hand. The other under her elbow, could well be sited as a badly painted hand by Rembrandt.

I no longer look forward to Van der Wetering’s completion of the RRP’s promised 6 volumes. Nonetheless I salute his courage in changing his mind, thereby undermining confidence in his and the RRP’s work. In fact many years after my initial invitation he came to me with a group of students for a whole day of instruction on the art of drawing and Rembrandt. At the time (perhaps 2008) I thought nothing had penetrated.

Nigel Konstam 24 8 14

Jul 212014

May I congratulate Prof.Van der Wetering on recognizing Rembrandt’s prime quality, that of responsiveness, which we see wonderfully displayed in “The Old Man Sitting on a Chair” and which he has finally allowed to be considered “a very important painting” and by Rembrandt.

I have put on my blog www.nigelkonstam.com

a letter I wrote to the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) in 1988 offering to visit them in Amsterdam in order to discuss the damage they were inflicting on our culture, specifically a  letter to the Guardian in response to their article “Call to bring Old Man out of the Shadows” 24 May ‘14 ioning “The Old Man Sitting in a Chair”. I was refused once (by Dr. Bruyn) but was not satisfied so got a second refusal “on behalf of all my colleagues” dated March 30th 1988. (Prof. Van der Wetering was a colleague.)

He and his colleagues have been trying to impose consistency on an artist who artists value for his responsiveness: almost the opposite to consistency. The RRP de-attributed this important painting and in so doing may be held partially responsible for the decline of modern, observed painting since.

May we dare hope that Prof Van der Wetering’s U turn marks the beginning of a return to realism in Rembrandt studies. I have ample evidence for the re-attribution of nearly 1000 drawings now distributed among his students. The principles on which I work can be found in my e-book on Rembrandt on the same website or in my article ”Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors” Burlington Feb. 1977.

Nigel Konstam 4. 7. 14

Jul 022014