Here’s the latest blog on the R to R course. This time we’re in Rembrandt's studio In Amsterdam.
Like many I was shocked to hear of the sudden and tragic death of the Met’s Walter Liedtke, one of the world’s leading authorities on Dutch & Flemish art. So I guess it’s appropriate to use this post as a modest tribute to him.
Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art by Richard Verdi, Yale University Press, 2014.
"...only learned Rabbis are so profoundly versed in Jewish history and literature as she [George Eliot] is- and this will not only make a more Rembrantish background to her dramatic presentation...without disguising the ludicrous and ugly aspects- so marvellously present the ideal side of that strange life."
G. H. Lewes
Richard Verdi is a product of the Courtauld where his doctoral dissertation on Poussin’s reception in England and France was supervised by Anthony Blunt; he has also published books and articles on both Poussin and Cézanne. After the Courtauld, Verdi migrated to York University for a short spell, but he is probably best known for his tenure as Director of the Barber Institute at Birmingham University. Once established there he lost no time in enthusiastically staging a number of fine exhibitions at the Barber and national venues on Poussin, Van Dyck and the virtually unknown Matthias Stom, to name a few. After a decade or so, Verdi left this stellar department, and retired. During his sequestration, he clearly has been working on Rembrandt’s Themes, though the origins of his project can be traced back to nearly thirty years to 1986 when he gave a series of public lectures on Rembrandt’s etchings at York:
“This book began as a series of public lectures given at the University of York in 1986 to accompany an exhibition of etchings by Rembrandt. Faced with the task of interpreting such diverse group of works to a general audience, I opted to take the easy way out and focus on their content. As a non-specialist, I felt free to attempt such an overview and to survey the entire body of Rembrandt’s work from a more distant vantage-point than usual- one that regarded the artist’s choice of subject matter as central to his creative personality.”
Verdi is right to search for Rembrandt’s artistic persona in his etchings since it was the culture associated with Rembrandt that tried to undergird its connoisseurship of the artist’s prints with biographical material drawn from the archives in Amsterdam. A consequence of this was that during the nineteenth-century, interest in Rembrandt’s life and family grew until it was inevitable that the artist’s personal circumstances would be read out of his art. Parallels would be consciously and enthusiastically drawn between the life of Rembrandt and that of biblical counterparts like Samson and Tobit. Nothing strange or unexpected there. But more significantly, the desire to read life into art would burgeon at a time when scholars, artists and writers were developing greater interest in Rembrandt’s knowledge of religion, Christianity, Judaism which, as G. H. Lewis said in the epigraph to this review, inspired George Eliot in her research for the novel Daniel Deronda. Religious faith has proved a durable theme judging by the number of scholarly books and articles that have been published by art historians in recent years. Rembrandt’s Themes takes the same tack since the “themes” in the title of Verdi’s book seem to refer to biblical or devout subjects like the “Presentation in the Temple” and the “Flight into Egypt.” Putting “themes” in scare quotes here is advisable since frequently during his pilgrimage, the author uses motif and other terms interchangeably with theme. In Greek, themata means something put or set down, a proposition which is closer to a title or a topic, but in Verdi’s book, the use of the term is confusing. In this book theme could indicate a variety of things: a topic, a motif, a visual feature; a pictorial characteristic; even a structural unit in a composition; or indeed all of these elements combined. During the course of this book Verdi alludes to “themes” such as “marriage and fidelity” in relation to such pictures as the so-called Jewish Bride, or in the case of the Syndics, the “theme” of “disturbance around a table.” In the preface Verdi points out that Rembrandt’s creative faculty owes much to his themes, but if this was the stimulus to creative genius, and the subtitle of the book, Life into Art implies this, the author has a duty to the reader to show how the thematic dimension illuminates and supports his claims about Rembrandt’s inventive processes which he fails to do throughout this book. One of the problems is that Verdi refuses to create a structure, argument or framework that would enhance the presentation of his ideas. Instead, in the introduction we are presented with this stern magisterium:
“The book draws no conclusions and propounds no theories. Its purpose instead is to gain a deeper insight into the workings of Rembrandt’s own mind through the exploration of some of his favourite subjects. That he is among the most profoundly human and personal of his creators has never been disputed. But what is less often acknowledged is that the universality of Rembrandt’s art finds one of its chief well-springs in that of his themes.”
Arguably, Verdi’s unquestioning treatment of themes owes something to the discursive, meandering nature of this book, which considerably weakens its effectiveness as a scholarly tool. What we have here instead is an elliptical excursion with an emaciated apparatus of endnotes, a bibliography blithely indicated in the main body of text, and a sequence of chapters abounding with images on subjects such as the “Flight into Egypt,” “Presentation in the Temple,” “Christ Disputing with the Doctors” accompanied by a commentary, mainly intuitive, intermittently insightful, sometimes idiosyncratic, but overwhelmingly speculative than evidentiary. It’s customary to allow some conjecture in the game of art history exegesis, but to proclaim in his first chapter on Rembrandt’s Leyden years that the painting known as the “Musical Allegory” is a “concoction” “prefiguring” many of Rembrandt’s later themes such as group scenes, illicit love, and the passing of the generations seems dubious. More plausible is Verdi’s claim that a drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin ( (also known through a copy in the British Museum, reproduced below) shows the Holy Family returning from Egypt: a haggard, aged Mary and a bearded Joseph are shown with an exhausted ass. If this is the terminus of the return journey, then it illustrates Rembrandt’s invention since no other artist- to my knowledge- has attempted this rare event. That is, no artist apart from Poussin, the only other painter who was interested in depicting the return trip from Egypt. There is reason to believe that in a number of his paintings Poussin may have shown the Holy Family returning from Egypt; in the Dulwich version the Christ child is older; and there are hints at Christ’s predecessor, Moses, who led the people out of Egyptian captivity in the version at Cleveland. But Poussin never showed the Holy Family at the end of their weary journey from Egypt like Rembrandt, assuming Verdi is right about the subject.
At one point in this book Verdi declares that like Poussin, Rembrandt originated his own compositions. With Poussin we are dealing with a richly allusive painter, but, paradoxically Rembrandt proves more elusive because he embedded the esoteric within everyday life; he managed to balance the miraculous and the mundane, the ugly and the ideal, that “Rembrantish background” to recall Lewis’s language. But wether this reflects Rembrandt’s ingenium, his creative genius remains to be seen. One of Verdi’s aims in writing this book is to show how the uniqueness of Rembrandt’s treatment of themes like the “Flight into Egypt” in his etchings emerges from his encounter with printmakers and artists like Lucas van der Leyden. By studying the biblical themes in the work of his Dutch ancestor, Rembrandt was inspired to produce fresh and challenging readings of religious narratives far beyond the limited capabilities of Lucas. We are encouraged to view Rembrandt’s admixture of transcendental mysticism and vulgar realism in the etchings, the “holy” and the “homely” to use Verdi’s well-chosen antithesis, as a manifestation of the artist’s genius. On the face of it this seems credible, but Verdi disregards the problem of genius in the context of the religious and cultural background from which Rembrandt’s interpretation of the bible and the styles associated with it emerged. Could the stylistic ordinariness in some of Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings, the inelegance and humbleness, reflect the Protestant literalist treatment of the Bible in which the poverty and unworldliness of Christ and his parents is stressed? And should this rugged realism, this plain style, including the emphasis on the rigours of the arduous journey of the “Flight,” link Rembrandt with the Protestant tradition in which the humility of Christ plays a major part; or should we regard the work as the product of solely Rembrandt’s own responsive emulation of predecessors like Lucas? Unfortunately, these are questions Verdi chooses not to consider; but they are central to the topic of Rembrandt’s etchings of biblical subjects which have been connected with the artist’s treatment of beggars and the socially marginal, disenfranchised by the unforgiving “capitalist” culture of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Some scholars have even seen this creative genius arising from Rembrandt’s encounter with the outsiders in these social circumstances, such as the Jews in Amsterdam, as much as his conversation with contemporary and past masters. A book published by Shelly Perlove and Larry Silver in 2009, Rembrandt’s Faith, showed how nineteenth-century critics like the anti-Semitic Charles Blanc, though disapproving of Rembrandt’s portrayal of Jews in his graphic work, marvelled at how Rembrandt’s inventive representation of these peoples, caricatured in the early period, reflected his artistic genius.
With his decision to play down the cultural, religious and sociological background in the formation of Rembrandt’s genius, Verdi aligns himself with a conservative tendency in the field which hasn’t been entirely welcoming towards the spate of recent contextual studies. For Verdi, inspiration comes from Rembrandt scholars of yesteryear such as Kenneth Clark, Julius Held, and Max Friedlaender who sought for Rembrandt’s genius in his emulation of previous masters. Though all these scholars’ contributions are indeed valuable and earnest- and it should be mentioned that Held’s study of Rembrandt’s Tobit pictures considerably influenced Rembrandt’s Themes- there have been many recent fresh and in-depth books on the subject of Rembrandt’s religion, his relationship with the Jews in Amsterdam, and the Calvinist culture of 17th century Holland. One of these, the previously mentioned Rembrandt’s Faith is tersely signposted in one of Verdi’s endnotes, but the author makes little attempt to incorporate the ideas and arguments in this book into his discussion of Rembrandt’s religious affairs and attitudes. In his chapter on “Christ among the Doctors” Verdi divines Rembrandt’s interest into how a crowd of spectators react differently to a central speaker not in the preaching culture of 17th century Amsterdam, but in Rembrandt’s practice of teaching his students in demonstrations in his studio, scenes we only know from drawings purporting to show the artist instructing. This is hardly concrete evidence. Thus crowd scenes with such activities as preaching and teaching such as the stunningly inventive grisaille of the sermon of John the Baptist preaching to a large and diverse crowd, probably done as a study for an etching, evolved from Rembrandt’s workshop situation rather than his interpretation of the bible stimulated by his relationship with the various faiths found in early modern Amsterdam. There is much invention on display here, especially in some associated drawings- heads of men and women of different dispositions, listening, falling asleep, bored and so on- but Verdi is content to limit Rembrandt’s invention to his teacher Lastman’s lost painting of the subject. This, the author declares was the model for the St John Preaching, although the authors of Rembrandt’s Faith maintained it derived from Brughel’s version of the subject. But leaving the question of influences aside, a key question that Verdi should have posed is this: does the diversity of humanity originate in Rembrandt’s artistic practice, or does the heterogeneity of the crowd which contains all manner of different faiths from the Jews to new converts to the Gospels symbolised by the exotic Indian who stands behind the Baptist, reflect Rembrandt’s knowledge of different cultures and faiths? If Verdi was really seeking to explain how universality emerges from Rembrandt’s biblical subjects, his themes in all senses, there could hardly be a better example than the John the Baptist Preaching. Sadly, the opportunity for a really important discussion about how religious learnedness, in the form of preaching, exegesis, and homiletics directed Rembrandt’s creative themes is lost.
Rembrandt studies can be divided into two main categories. The first is the work of connoisseurs and scholars dealing with technique, the studio, and attribution; this painter is the most expensive old master on the market and there are many interests at stake here as the flood of catalogues and exhibitions demonstrate. And the second is the contextual arm which can be subdivided into such classifications as the family, economic and money matters, and religious topics. The last of these has flourished in recent times, especially on the problem of Rembrandt and Judaism, seeming more relevant at a time when assimilation amongst religious faiths in Europe is a prevailing issue. On the Venn diagram of Rembrandt studies, Rembrandt’s Themes might be seen as a small shaded section, but that reflects the author’s decision to place a quietus on intellectual debate, and stay aloof from the field’s concerns and ideas. This is a pity; one wishes that the readers of the manuscript (one an expert on Rembrandt’s prints, and the other, a non-specialist and one of Verdi’s colleagues) had persuaded the author to strive for a study grounded in scholarly debate rather than the curious, literally inconclusive account rendered here. Verdi actually ends Rembrandt’s Themes with a question!
Rembrandt’s Themes will appeal to some readers; it is a lavishly illustrated book with a pleasing look, and a crystalline, elegant prose style. For readers immune to these blandishments, and craving more meat on the bones, i.e., generous references and footnotes (the kind of book Yale usually publishes), and a structured argument with a real sense of a stake in the affair, Rembrandt’s Themes will inevitably disappoint since it fails to provide that Rembrantish background, to invoke Lewis’s phrase. Verdi is a first rate curator, and this project would have worked better as an exhibition with a comprehensive catalogue compiled by him and Rembrandt experts. It’s clear that this venture has evolved far beyond its original modest intentions which accounts for some of the problems here, such as the banishment of recent scholarship to its meagre endnotes which really needed to be integrated into the author’s discussions. Due to this, Rembrandt’s Themes should be seen merely as hors d’oeuvre; those with greater appetites should proceed directly to the main course.