Recovering Rembrandt

John Haber
in New York City

Rembrandt, His School, and His World

Few stories in art have the grip of Rembrandt's decline and fall into greatness. However, one can tell another story as well, of Rembrandt's rise in popularity since the mid-nineteenth century. Now the Frick hopes to tell both, with its paintings and with a private collection. Meanwhile another private collection, at the Morgan Library, describes the Dutch art that both stories overlook.

The first story tells of the virtuoso from Leiden who mastered every genre and classical composition. He set a standard for portraiture, and his influence extended well beyond his prolific Amsterdam workshop, which turned out some of the finest painters of its time. The story tells of the devastating loss of his wife and a descent into bankruptcy, only to find a second life with a less-fashionable darker style, an earthier female companion, an unparalleled self-examination, and the sensuality of paint itself. Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, c. 1658)The story has some holes, including the changing tastes of the late Baroque well apart from Rembrandt. It overlooks the loyalty of family, powerful admirers, and remaining students. They helped him secure commissions and navigate his sloppy finances.

The story has plenty of truth to it all the same. Rembrandt rarely used drawings and prints as studies for paintings or as works to hit the market after paintings. They were independent explorations, and he was a serious explorer. I have encountered the story often in Rembrandt exhibitions. And nothing tells it as well as his self-portrait in the Frick Collection. His largest and richest, it reflects his weariness but also his pride.

The second story involves the changing tastes of wealthy collectors. It involves the boasts and intrigues of dealers and scholarly advisers like Bernard Berenson, along with the expectations that led to mistakes in sorting out Rembrandt from his followers. As it happens, the Frick tells that story, too. Across from the self-portrait hang two other works in its collection not so often on view, because not by Rembrandt. A study room has the Frick's prints by Rembrandt, and downstairs are eleven more prints and fifty-five drawings from the Lugt collection in Paris. This story, too, has a lot of holes, which is all part of the game.

Changing times

Fresh from conservation, Rembrandt's self-portrait holds pride of place in the Oval Room at end of the long garden court. To one side hangs the 1631 portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, probably his very first commission, if not Rembrandt's first masterpiece. To the other hangs the Frick's third Rembrandt, The Polish Rider, perhaps the ideal of a Christian warrior and perhaps his greatest mystery. No one may ever account for the man in Polish dress with a quiver of arrows, against a dark and massive rock. No one may account for his gaunt horse whose feet barely touch the ground, although alterations over the years have tried to anchor it more firmly. People have even questioned its attribution to Rembrandt.

But nothing quite matches the seated self-portrait of roughly 1658, the very year of his bankruptcy. His weary pride shows in the exotic costume, including a broad cape and beret, which casts a shadow just above his eyes. It shows in the unblinking stare, massive hands, and regal pose, with the painter's stick for a scepter. It shows in the brushwork that converts paint into mass and near monochrome into golden light and color. Each of these speaks to the artist as a humanist and to Rembrandt as an artist. He may look like a king, but the pose in fact derives from earlier artist portraits.

The Frick calls the show "Rembrandt and His School," but one might well call it Henry Clay Frick, Frederik Johannes Lugt, and changing times. It has a room for what the Met called "The Age of Rembrandt," but not exactly his workshop. It has two drawings by Nicolaes Maes, nothing by Gerrit Dou, and only one by the most important student of all, Carel Fabritius—and that one disputed. It has several by Lambert Doomer, who closely copied Rembrandt but never studied with him, and Philips Koninck, a landscape artist who came just after. It has a stylish Standing Mercury by Rembrandt's teacher, Pieter Lastman, who trained him in history painting and exposed him to Italian art. It even has a drawing by Jacob Pynas, a minor forerunner very much in Lastman's style.

It is revealing all the same. It is revealing in part for the prints. Frick himself seems to have snagged one each of Rembrandt's most majestic, like the line of three trees in perspective beneath a gathering storm. The crucifixion with three crosses uses nothing but a few downward scratches against the whiteness of vellum to create heavenly illumination. The ambitious sheet hides a frenzy in the uncanny darkness to either side, including riders, two clusters of grievers, and a figure dropping to his knees. More bare white in another print creates the imposing architecture on which Jesus stands for his mocking.

All these prints exist in multiple states. Rembrandt almost always mixed media in a single print, taking an etching in one state, rubbing it down in another, adding free marks in drypoint and burin in another. The states of a single print can trace his thought all to itself. Frick clearly just wanted masterpieces, and he got them. It says something that one, of Jesus preaching, has the conventional title The Hundred Guilder Print.

Lugt's prints focus on self-portraits, a reminder that Rembrandt's self-examination hardly began with bankruptcy. At age twenty-four, he looks very much like a scraggly college student on his way to Silicon Valley. Already obsession always meant obsession over his art. Self-portraiture was posing, in more than one sense of the word. In almost every one, he is dressing up, in a variety of hats and costumes. One can see how he spent himself into bankruptcy.

Wealth and bankruptcy

The show is revealing, too, for what others made of him. Frits Lugt found most space to Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Samuel van Hoogstraten, and Govert Flinck, all rather stiff and all students of Rembrandt's late years—just when others were discovering Jan Vermeer or Frans Hals. The first skillfully picks up every one of his genres, including a likely self-portrait of the student's own at age twenty-six. A youth smoking looks more smooth than introspective, and the centurion kneeling before Jesus seems to be praying to a ghost. Flinck has real insight and command of a twisting pose with a boy asleep, while a lumpy nude on blue paper anticipates the slicker and stodgier Rococo. The possible Fabritius has just enough loose, heavy strokes to make attribution difficult and just enough to make it reasonably convincing.

Of course, the nineteen drawings by Rembrandt are particularly revealing. Some seem literally to pour out of him. A leaning woman emerges from a puddle of ink and a woman's hair out of a larger tangle of curls. He plays the virtuoso, much as in paint, daring one to mistake density for shortcuts or confusion—and more than one naive writer has. The Frick borrows an almost exact copy of a farmhouse, by Dormer, from the Met's Lehman collection. One can see the copyist trying to firm up and to pin down everything, right down to the sketchy style.

Rembrandt lingers over those scenes from everyday life, with special love for his young son, Titus. He copies Titian, although his compositions owe more to northern Europe. He seems to want to observe and absorb everything. He also shows his love for the exotic, including dress-up and Biblical anecdotes that only he seems to remember. In practice, his faith and his art do not distinguish between parable and observation. They are two sides of human understanding.

He also does not distinguish sentiment from objectivity. He pays attention to dogs and children, like the girl in a portrait from the Dulwich Picture Gallery at the Frick in 2010—because he likes them and because they do not know how to hide. He becomes most detached when his own feelings are at stake. He draws his wife, Saskia, in bed, but almost entirely in shadow. He gives equal attention to her maid, lost in sewing, and to an empty chair, his chair. Nothing else says that this bed will become her deathbed. Perhaps he returns so often to Biblical tales of angels and late childbirth because they hold out hope.

The final revelation is, again, about the rediscovery of Dutch painting, although Lugt also collected French drawings from the Classical age. One can see the wheeling and dealing, as Frick traded up, including selling two Rembrandts to obtain another. The dealers and Berenson, quoted in a catalog essay by Esmeé Quodbach, would be right at home in the high-end art market today. One can see what the wealthy sought most, and it sounds suspiciously like an image of themselves. Frick wanted class, style, and moral virtue, but definitely not religious art. In other words, he found in an earlier age a model for capitalism and patronage in America.

That model inspired serious mistakes in attribution. It led to the upgrade of Portrait of a Young Artist, one of the two paintings here not by Rembrandt. The actual painter cut corners, but his panache shows in the sweep of the subject's hat and the pages of a sketchbook, and I wish that I could give them both a name. Frick's demands led, too, to the more dreadful purchase of Old Woman with a Book, by Carel van der Pluym. Her hands look like moldy loaves of bread, but her stern, sober piety reminded the financier how the middle class ought to behave. Perhaps he appreciated the irony that his greatest purchase shows an artist in bankruptcy.

An age without Rembrandt

It is hard to imagine "the age of Rembrandt" without Rembrandt, but try. It might be a more mundane age, but an active one—in the coastal waters, farms, and towns that defined an independent nation. It would be an age of work and play, more often than not side by side. It would be an age with a soft heart for animals, to the point that dogs and cows alike have sharply etched faces and a quiet domesticity. It would increasingly be an age of survivors, taking pride in real estate battered by weather and economic storms. In art, it would be an age of specialists, to reflect all of these, although their genres can be hard to tell apart.

Aelbert Cuyp's Windmill by a River (Morgan Library, Clement C. Moore collection, c. 1640)In other words, it would be an age not unlike the present, which helps explain the appeal of Dutch painting to this day. It is also the age of "Rembrandt's World," drawings from Clement C. Moore, with little time for Rembrandt. That comes with the territory, for a collector who entered the market perhaps twenty years ago, but it complements the Morgan Library's own strengths when it comes to Rembrandt and his circle. Moore could still snag one or two by landscape artists as prominent as Aelbert Cuyp and Jan van Goyen, with the skill to treat the weather as an actor. van Goyen's fishing scene also serves as a reminder that women played no small part in a family's commercial success. Mostly, however, one encounters unfamiliar names and what they saw.

They saw a nation and an art form taking shape side by side. Philips Koninck maps the terrain early on, with a bird's-eye view, while Hendrik Hondius dwells on space from the ground—with a measured succession of shore, lake, farm, and clouds. Roelant Roghman still prefers two-point perspective, for the corner of a castle overlooking ducks and still waters, his broad washes capturing the light on its walls. Pieter de With's moon-lit woods in oil looks back as well, to Adam Elsheimer in Germany. By the end, though, Herman Saftleven takes pleasure in the specifics of people sustaining themselves as best they can. Saftleven shows children skating, where one has fallen face down between the varied grays of ice and sky, and he even dates his majestic ruins to a storm on precisely August 1, 1674.

Abraham Bloemaert becomes something of the show's star, as he works his way out of Mannerism and into the Baroque. His Danaë follows Titian, as an old servant reaches for Zeus's insemination in the form of gold coins, but the nude appears less sensual or even asleep than bored out of her mind. The drawing has the same arch tone as Hendrick Goltzius, whose smiling boy might be gloating about his misdeeds. But Bloemaert also studies the interior of a barn as the collision of its light and dark planes, and his shepherd, no doubt for an Adoration, looks closely to Peter Paul Rubens. Bloemaert anticipates the rationality of Jan van der Heyden, for whom the courtyard of the stock exchange becomes a mere backdrop for architecture and the tools to maintain it. He looks forward, too, to the almost religious wonder of a girl reading a letter by Frans van Mieris the Elder—the candle's light coloring her face, the shadow of another sheet half rumpled on the table, and the richly textured walls.

Pieter Aertsen reflects the same crossing of boundaries between human and divine, as John's supporting Mary at the crucifixion becomes a stately dance. So does Ferdinand Bol, when the angel in the house of Tobias seems to be taking lessons in household chores. Bol studied with Rembrandt, as did Flinck and Eeckhout, but the collection has little even from them—although Isaac van Ostade sketches an anonymous artist's unbelievably busy studio. Rather than Carel Fabritius, it has his brother Barend. It also may settle the question of whether Barend studied with Rembrandt, too, since his girl at a window may adapt that painting in the Dulwich. In contrast, Rembrandt's four drawings stand out because, unlike his pupils, he never simply worked like Rembrandt.

The Morgan sees a sick woman's fervent prayers as a study for the Hundred Guilder Print. If so, it shows Rembrandt's restless thought process, for he would have had to turn her more than half way around. Two drawings show another side of the artistic process, for they date to his Leiden years. In one, a beggar's tattered cloak lends mass to his gaunt face, as he leans into the impulsive scribble of his shadow on the ground. Still, it makes sense that the artist here with the most work dwells on variety, in scenes from a set of the twelve months by Esaias van de Velde. Not even Rembrandt can erase this unfamiliar picture of so familiar a century.

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"Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections" ran at The Frick Collection through May 22, 2011, "Rembrandt's World: Drawings from Clement C. Moore Collection" at The Morgan Library through April 29, 2012. For related articles, see a complete list of my reviews of Rembrandt exhibitions.


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