Back to Archive

Four Hundred Years Young by Larry Silver

             Close inspection of the paintings and etchings of Rembrandt during this series of exhibitions does reveal particular qualities of his religious art.  For one thing, he has a keen interest in, and an unprecedented number of images from, the Old Testament.  Many of these show close reading of the Bible, which was a quality of Dutch religious culture.  Not only were Dutch Bible translations readily available, but a new, authorized Calvinist translation appeared after twenty years of preparation in 1637; it held a similar centrality in Dutch religious life to the new King James Bible in contemporary England.   Rembrandt’s interest in Jewish patriarchs, particularly Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph was both extensive and knowing.  But it also had a Christian perspective, seeing these figures as the leaders of an earlier phase of divine revelation, prior to the advent of Jesus, thus as holders of a partial revelation in an ongoing covenant that was supposed to culminate in Christ as the promised messiah.  In this respect, some modern scholars, most of them Jewish and advocates from the twentieth century of a tolerant attitude towards minority cultures, have wanted to fashion a Rembrandt like themselves.  However, a close exami-nation of Rembrandt’s New Testament subjects quickly reveals that the tormentors of Jesus in the Passion scenes are clearly marked as Jews both with costume, Hebrew letters, and stereotype features.  Those who blithely want to see the seventeenth-century artist as a good neighbor, even a sympathetic learner or fellow-traveler, alongside Amsterdam’s Jewish community are missing something important about Rembrandt’s religious beliefs.

             It is equally important to note that for Rembrandt, the teaching Jesus was a major figure, who is featured in a number of images as a preacher and in others as a miracle worker.  Either way the mission of Christ on earth takes precedence in his art over the Christian heritage of Nativity or Crucifixion.  When Rembrandt shows those scenes, he carefully uses his inimitable sense of lighting to suggest the contrast between light-as-revelation to the faithful in the new Christian community and darkness-as-ignorance or obstinacy in clinging to the old ways of the Jewish Temple.  This very contrast can be seen in the artist’s careful, almost archeological presentation of the Temple spaces and costumed figures within his stagings of New Testament events.  Christ is thus explicitly contrasted with the high priests and the Pharisees and Sadducees--his teachings and miracles surpass their rituals and traditions.  Some of this insight into Rembrandt’s religion has never been published, but a book is now in press by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver, and some of the same insights have been reached by Gary Schwartz in his comprehensive new study of the all the paintings and the career of Rembrandt.

            In the midst of all these inquiries into the content of Rembrandt’s art, several other thematic interests have surfaced, including one recent inquiry into his personal reading list by Amy Golahny.   The artist’s own collection of art has been reassembled and carefully studied, chiefly on the basis of the bankruptcy inventory of 1656.  Several good studies of his portraits, including a recent book on the portrait etchings by Stephanie Dickey, have been amplified by good studies of the self-portraits of the artist by Perry Chapman, Harry Berger, and a 1999 exhibition, Rembrandt by Himself.  Studies of Rembrandt’s women in this feminist era have focused on his biography—both his wife and his later common-law wife—as well as on women as subjects in his art, particularly biblical or mythic heroines, largely in the form of articles (although an integrated analysis is in preparation by a Dutch scholar, Eric Jan Sluijter).   This Rembrandt year even brought an entire exhibition dedicated to the old woman model or type who was known to early scholars as “Rembrandt’s Mother.”

            What all of these particular topics and general studies of the artist suggest is that the fascination for his art remains undiminished.  The big blockbuster exhibition in Amsterdam this summer juxtaposed Rembrandt with that other old master celebrity of our day, Caravaggio (d. 1610), but not to show connections or influence (which might have happened in any case due to Dutch “Caravaggist” painters in Utrecht, but which might just have been the result of some generalized notion of fame that brought reports of Caravaggio to the Netherlands).  Instead, the point of this crowded exhibition (which was a popular success but a critical disappointment, like summer movies) seemed to be to show how each of these artists tackled a pictorial problem, such as dramatic lighting, presentation of a single female model, or dramatic action and reaction.  What it accomp-lished was to remind an observer how much these two artists could range in their works from theatricality to close observation.  Caravaggio was not the portrait specialist that Rembrandt became, and some of the comparisons were so abstract in their relationships that their connections must have remained obscure. 

Next                                                Previous


Per Contra Non-Fiction - Fall 2006