Reviews
Karen Lang
Tatiana Senkevitch
Daniel J. Sherman
Peter de Bolla
Fiona Anderson
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iews
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Book Reviews
Modernism and Rembrandt
Karen Lang
Jonathan Bikker and others, Rembrandt, the Late Works (London and
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: New Haven and London: National Gallery,
2014), 253 colour and 10 b&w illns, 304pp., ISBN 978-1-85709-557-9,
hardcover £19.95.
Richard Verdi, Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 2014), 60 colour and 170 b&w illns, 308pp.,
ISBN: 978-0300201536, hardcover £45.
# The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved
OXFORD ART JOURNAL 38.3 2015 427 –451
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Art history situates the artwork within categories of time,
place, and style. In special cases, works of art exceed these
categories. The masterpiece is the work which surpasses
categorisation. The work of art of universal significance is
another. Rembrandt has been positioned and repositioned in
the history of art. Today, Rembrandt resides in the firmament
alongside those other (mostly Renaissance, mostly male)
artists we know by their first names. The Rembrandt Research
Project has ended its long, rather contentious labour of
authenticating the paintings and Ernst van de Wetering’s
monumental survey, Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited (Springer,
Dordrecht, 2014), has presented substantial reattributions and
perhaps more importantly for art history, it has helped to shift
the focus from connoisseurship to ‘processes’ of artistic
creation, the evidence of contemporary texts and the analysis
of painting technique.1 The exhibition in 2014 of Rembrandt’s
late works organised by the National Gallery, London, and the
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, of approximately ninety paintings,
prints, and drawings from the early 1650s to the artist’s death
in 1669 (more were included in the second venue in
Amsterdam), and the publication in the same year of Richard
Verdi’s monograph, Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art,
present an artist of the first rank. They focus on the artist’s
themes, including elemental themes of life and death, to
argue for the universal significance of Rembrandt’s art.
As much as our inner critic may want to crush the claim for
universality beneath the boot of intellectual criticism or theory,
Rembrandt’s art would no doubt have the last view. The status
and appeal of Rembrandt’s art courts the danger for the art
historian of falling into the trap of the myth of artistic genius
and its corollary, the universality of art. At their best, these
publications concentrate on what we see in the artwork (in the
exhibition catalogue, the scientific techniques of x-radiography,
and infra-red imaging expand our view), they show how seeing
turns into meaning and they make a claim for universal
significance based on these findings. In this way the authors
stake a claim for the appeal of Rembrandt’s art across time,
and, extending their claim to the present context of this
review, across art-historical specialism. Precisely on account
of this claim an art historian with a research focus in modern
art may be permitted to comment on these publications, not
as a specialist of course but as an interested beholder and
reader. The research vantage of the twentieth century raises
the questions of appeal across time and universal significance
and it adds to these the relation of Rembrandt to the artistic
tradition of what follows, namely, to modern art. How modern
artists have responded to Rembrandt’s art is therefore raised
as a legitimate question. This may come as a surprise to
modernists, since the theory of the avant-garde, which
underpins modern art history, puts the artist ahead of his or
her time. Simply put, modern art history’s reliance upon the
theory of the avant-garde has thwarted the study of the artist’s
engagement with the art of the past.
After two centuries of neglect, Rembrandt was rediscovered
in France in the mid-nineteenth century. His biography was
shaped to fit the myth of the modern artist, misunderstood,
and penniless, and his style was viewed as a forerunner to the
latest impulses in art. Significantly, the artist’s etchings were
included in this revival. The impressive technical innovations
of Rembrandt’s prints facilitated the acceptance of etching as
an art form in its own right.2 The Rembrandt revival reached
Germany soon afterward. Wilhelm von Bode acquired major
paintings and graphic work for the Berlin museums and he
also played a key role in Rembrandt connoisseurship.3
Rembrandt became a household name when Julius Langbehn
declared him the artist of the Volk in his runaway bestseller of
1890, Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator). Yet
Rembrandt also appealed to the modern artists Langbehn
despised, namely, to Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, and Lovis
Corinth, the founding members of the Berlin Secession.
Where Langbehn had fit Rembrandt into the Procrustean
bed of a reactionary nationalism, Liebermann, Slevogt, and
Corinth considered Rembrandt’s art vital, and contemporary.
They admired Rembrandt’s individual solutions to artistic
problems – problems such as how to set the figure in space,
how to invoke emotion and create mood and how to achieve
a sense of time passing in a static composition – and they
understood their modern art in living relation to his. For these
modern German artists, artistic tradition is neither static nor
fixed; it is relative and variable – the artist’s relation to the art
of the past is made and remade in time and it is open to the
individual ways in which each artist perceives the past.4
Rembrandt’s art affected Liebermann especially. After viewing
the Nightwatch for the first time in 1871 at the Treppenhuis in
Amsterdam, he is reported to have said, ‘When one sees Franz
Hals, one is inspired to paint; when one sees Rembrandt, one
had better give it up’.5 And yet for Liebermann, as for artists of
the later twentieth century, such as the Philip Guston, Francis
Bacon, and Frank Auerbach, Rembrandt’s art proved an
enduring inspiration.
If Rembrandt’s art exceeds its category, this is testament to
the artwork’s complexity, to what we might call its magnificent
trouble. In the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt’s art
resisted its single, designated theme. Not only that, the work
impressed in spite of the somewhat cramped and windowless
spaces of the Sainsbury Wing (where this reviewer saw the
exhibition). To see the show at its second venue in the recently
reopened Rijksmuseum, in spaces suffused with natural
lighting, would have surely rewarded the effort. Liebermann
would have agreed. In 1885, fourteen years after his first
glimpse in the Treppenhuis of the ‘magnificent Rembrandt’,
Book Reviews
430 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 38.3 2015
Kenwood Self-Portrait, Rembrandt has transferred his tools to
his non-painting hand. As our attention is turned from ‘from
the action of painting’ to ‘the likeness that has been created’,
‘we recognise Rembrandt as the creator of this work’, listen
closely to the catalogue, ‘not because we see him in the act of
painting, but because in this figure, drawn with utmost skill
and supreme confidence, we find unmistakable evidence of
his signature handiwork’ (p. 52). In the Self-Portrait with Two
Circles, the artist’s likeness is a vehicle for the painting’s
subject. Rembrandt’s artistic skill extends beyond the
depiction of self to the depiction of the two circles at the upper
right. In contrast to Giotto’s perfect circles, Rembrandt’s
incomplete circles, which are composed of short, overlapping
lines, pit his ‘rough’ manner against the ideal.
Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple of about 1669,
a large, commissioned painting left unfinished at the artist’s
death, was one of the magnificent loans from the Stockholm
Nationalmuseum and it hung in the final room, under the
theme of ‘reconciliation’ (Fig. 1). While the subject of the
Stockholm painting certainly hews to the theme of
reconciliation, Simeon’s blindness, the radical reduction of
depiction to its essentials and the profound evocation of inner
touch call to mind the theme of contemplation. The painting
not only invokes the contemplation of Simeon and of Rembrandt
at the end of his life, it also beckons the viewer to contemplate
its depicted and suggested themes. Indeed, Simeon’s apparent
blindness works together with Rembrandt’s radical reduction of
Fig. 1. Rembrandt van Rijn, Simeon in the Temple, 1669, oil on canvas, 98.5 ×
79.5 cm. Nationalmuseum Stockholm. (Photo: Hans Thorwid/Nationalmuseum.)
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the Nightwatch was moved to the newly opened Rijksmuseum
and hung in an unfortunate location without natural lighting. In
the Rembrandt show of 1898 at the recently opened Stedeljik
museum in Amsterdam, the exhibition commemorating
the inauguration of Princess Wilhelmina as Queen of the
Netherlands and the first temporary exhibition dedicated to a
single Old Master, the painting was literally brought out of the
darkness and into the light. For Liebermann, who had
travelled to Amsterdam for the show, the opportunity to behold
the painting in natural lighting conditions again was nothing
short of marvellous. This history of display brings a glow of
historical irony to the National Gallery exhibition, calling
to mind once more the lamentable decision to create
underground gallery spaces without natural lighting.
In the exhibition catalogue, Rembrandt is introduced as the
artist ‘who bucked all trends [and often debilitating personal
circumstances] to produce powerfully engaging works of
unparalleled individuality’ (p. 13). We discover that the artist
‘remained undaunted in the pursuit of his radical technical
innovations, his naturalistic depiction of the world, and his
portrayal of the most powerful human emotions’ (p. 32) and
that these qualities are especially evident in the late
self-portraits. The fundamental human theme of death is
certainly apparent in the late self-portraits. The landscapes
and scenes from daily life share the claim for universal
significance, however, since these works also strike a deeply
human chord. One of the outstanding features of the
exhibition was the presentation of lesser-known prints and
drawings of landscapes and genre scenes. In the language of
the time, observational studies were termed ‘naer het leven or
nae’t leven’ (from life) and Rembrandt used this term to
describe his studies.6 These works are from life and they have
a life of their own, reminding us of Rembrandt’s break with
custom to depict low-life subjects in an unidealised manner
and his remarkable ability to imbue art with a sense of form
living and powerful enough to warrant the claim for
universality. In the artist’s landscapes and genre scenes, the
fundamental human theme of life is revealed to be death’s
other face.
Rembrandt: The Late Works succeeded in its aim to
re-evaluate the art and it did so in part by providing a view of
Rembrandt’s work across media. The show’s emphasis was
visual rather than art historical or critical. The thematic
approach highlighted the artistic and emotional concerns of
the late work and it facilitated the grouping together of
paintings, prints, and drawings under the exhibition themes
of self-scrutiny, light, experimental technique, emulation,
observation of everyday life, artistic conventions, intimacy,
contemplation, and reconciliation. Works on display often
exceeded their assigned category, as we have mentioned. On
a positive note, this set the viewer in search of related work in
other rooms; on the downside, the artwork could appear either
confined or stranded in its display. The Kenwood Self-Portrait
with Two Circles of about 1665 –1669, a painting which has
been the subject of endless critical debate, was placed under
the theme of ‘experimental technique’. While this hanging
forfeited the chance to gauge the work in relation to the
self-portraits in the first room, it struck the right note. In the
Book Reviews
in Self-Portrait, drawing on an Etching Plate, a diminutive print
of the following year.
Rembrandt also took heed of audience response and in
this, he proved himself a master, as Svetlana Alpers argued in
1988.9 Verdi underscores the role of audience response,
arguing for it as the arena in which ‘the scope for invention lay’
as well as the catalyst of the transition from dramatic action
to the burgeoning suspense of the artist’s mature work (p. 84
and p. 91). The author’s attention to the depiction of
‘thresholds’ – the open doorway, the positioning of the figure
at an actual or a dramatic threshold, or seemingly insignificant
moments of coming or going – provides new insight into the
artist’s themes and the ways Rembrandt includes the viewer
in the artwork.
Verdi contends that Rembrandt’s ‘self-chosen themes . . .
meant most’ to him. In a letter to Constantijn Huygens of 1639
regarding two paintings of the Passion for the stadholder
Fredrick Henry, Rembrandt’s confessed ‘his intention in these
to depict “the deepest and most natural emotion”’ (p. 29).
Rembrandt’s self-chosen themes spring from the Bible and yet
in the artist’s hands they take on the guise of a human story.
Neither purely sacred imagery nor entirely ‘from life’, Rembrandt
developed a way of working which circled around the Calvanist
interdiction on sacred imagery. These works bring the Biblical
story down to earth and they elevate the purely human to
universal significance. The centre of gravity is always the earthly,
even when the earthly is transcended.
Rembrandt could reduce the biblical subject to its essentials,
providing little in the way of iconography or clues to the figure’s
identity. This leads Verdi to suggest that in the artist’s work ‘the
most purely human and universal aspects of a theme often
override the particular’ (p. 3). We could also argue the reverse. I
would wager that Rembrandt achieves the universal through
the particular, which leads us to the second meaning of the
author’s subtitle, Life into Art. Rembrandt not only brings the
circumstances of his life to bear upon his art, he also creates
art that is imbued with life. The artist achieves this feat by
imbuing the particular with an inescapable vivacity.
In the drawing of 1654, A Young Woman Sleeping, line
opens the space for the appearance of form (Fig. 2). Here,
form arises in time, through each movement of the brush. The
sleeping woman, most likely Rembrandt’s common-law wife,
Hendrickje Stoffels, is palpably rendered yet emotionally far
away. The artist has captured her form yet she has eluded his
grasp. The viewer shares what must have been the artist’s
astonishment at this appearance of form, delicately made
present through drawing in ink yet so complete in itself as
to be merely the suggestion of everything not revealed.
The catalogue pays wonderfully close attention to artistic
technique and we learn how this drawing was created.
Rembrandt drew A Young Woman Sleeping ‘with the brush
alone, which he handled as if he were a Japanese
calligrapher’. To indicate shadows, he ‘dipped his brush deep
into the ink and then dragged it sideways across the paper.
For the half-tints he allowed the almost dry brush to just graze
the surface’ (p. 171). Brown wash and white body colour
heighten the relation of figure and ground and yet, since the
female form appears to exist for its own sake, these touches
OXFORD ART JOURNAL 38.3 2015 431
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Biblical iconography and historical trappings to draw the viewer
towards the inner reaches of the painting. The catalogue states
that the painting’s ‘poor condition does not allow us to draw
any conclusions about the figure of Mary in the background;
Rembrandt probably only sketched the outline, to be completed
by another artist’, we read.7 Mary does appear a later addition.
Given the compositional structure and dramatic emphasis, we
could even conjecture that Rembrandt conceived the painting
without her. Without the figure of Mary, Simeon and the Christ
Child float free of the Biblical theme to become a universal
depiction of old age and young life, a theme underscored by the
painting’s strong diagonal and its contrapuntal movement from
Simeon’s sightless eyes to the newborn child’s unfixed stare to
Simeon’s open hands, which feel what Simeon cannot see.
Rembrandt’s reversal of the typical depiction of Simeon
‘looking towards heaven with his eyes open’ to Simeon’s
blindness in the Stockholm painting lend the figure a new ‘timid
attitude’ and ‘introspective look’, as the catalogue rightly says
(p. 267). Even more noteworthy, perhaps, is the paradox of
the viewing experience of the painting: on the one hand, the
beholder cannot help but see the artist’s hand at work in the
dabs and collisions of thick impasto, the scratching into wet
paint, and the ushering forth of an inner light source; on the
other hand, the sense of inner touch overrides the painting’s
obvious manufacture. This transposition from exterior to interior
is a signature of Rembrandt’s late work and it carries the
beholder into the feeling world of the picture.
In Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple, Rembrandt
brings the movement of the diagonal to rest in the space
between the figure’s open hands. For the beholder au fait with
the Biblical story, Simeon’s gesture recalls the space between
the old and the new convent and with it, the theme of Simeon’s
reconciliation. Just as powerfully, however, the painting calls to
mind the fundamental human theme of time’s passing and of
the time remaining. The gathering drama of Simeon’s hands
in Rembrandt’s last painting echoes the gesture of Mary
Magdalene in Donatello’s polychrome wood sculpture of
1453–1455 in Florence. In both, the artist newly focuses the
drama on the space between the open hands. This space
measures the time remaining.8 It also invokes the theme of
contemplation.
Life into Art, the subtitle of Verdi’s book, rings true both
ways. On the one hand, Verdi courts the pitfalls of the mimetic
argument when he claims ‘an emotional deepening of
Rembrandt’s art that mirrors the course of his own life
between 1636 and 1642’ (p. 207). If the danger here lies in
the collapsing of life into art, Verdi also points to the artist’s
own qualities of ‘humility and humanity’ and he successfully
shows how these qualities weave through the artist’s work,
becoming, in this way, part of the tapestry of the image rather
the biographical explanation for it (p. 160). Rembrandt is
presented as ‘the most psychologically inquisitive of artists’
and this quality accounts for his fascination with ‘human
behavior in all its quirks, pretenses and guises’ (p. 83). The
author notes the inconsequential moments when the artist
has captured the ‘abiding humanity’ of his subjects (p. 7),
such as the reclining child doodling in Christ Preaching, an
etching of c. 1657, or the artist looking up from his own work
Book Reviews
seem extraneous to the form. Perhaps Rembrandt added the
brown washes and white body colour to give a touch more
artistic convention to so unusual a drawing. Be that as it may,
it is the drawing which has the last view. In A Young Woman
Sleeping, we see, to our astonishment, that Rembrandt has
not depicted living, human form at rest so much as he has
captured living form at rest.
Around the time he drew A Young Woman Sleeping,
Rembrandt painted the National Gallery’s A Woman Bathing in
a Stream. The depicted scene is thought to revolve around
voyeurism, for the woman bathing may be the Old Testament
heroine Susanna, who was spied on by the Elders as she
bathed alone. Although ‘this has been considered simply a
genre painting in the past’, according to the catalogue, ‘the
robe of rich brocade in the background indicates that the
woman is more likely to be a mythological, allegorical or biblical
figure’ (p. 199). As in the later Simeon with the Infant Christ in
the Temple, here Rembrandt’s earthy colour palette and his
omission of extraneous details fix the eye on the figure. In A
Women Bathing in a Stream, this heightens the sense of
voyeurism and the painting’s erotic charge. Yet these artistic
reductions also make way for the presence of a female figure
that seems to feel from the inside out. Where Rubens paints an
impassive female figure with a living sense of skin (The Hermit
and the Sleeping Angelica of 1626–1628 is a good example),
Rembrandt captures the living sense of the figure in a
432 OXFORD ART JOURNAL 38.3 2015
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Fig. 2. Rembrandt van Rijn, Young Woman Sleeping, 1654 (circa), Brush and
bistre, wash, The British Museum, London. # The Trustees of the British
Museum.
technique that announces its manufacture. The enduring power
of Rembrandt’s art lies in this transposition.
The searching realism of the female form in A Woman
Bathing in a Stream, the depiction of her unaware, pulling up
her shift as she wades into a stream, casts the viewer into the
role of the voyeur, as the catalogue observes (p. 199). The
white shift, which is set in contrast to the painting’s dark
surroundings, is also of visual significance, however. Built up
in swift strokes of the loaded brush and applied highlighting,
the figure’s visibly rendered garment switches the gears of
voyeurism at the painting’s visual centre: instead of the viewer
imagining to spy on Susanna, the viewer cannot help but
notice that Susanna is painted form. Rembrandt’s paintings
raise their own question: how can liveliness of form be borne
through this tension?
The liveliness of Rembrandt’s form relates to a Dutch
artistic context of recording nature directly and to a Protestant
religious context of inwardness, and art historians have
studied these relations. Yet Rembrandt has also gone his own
way to create what the catalogue aptly describes as ‘an
evocation of a more profound realism’ (p. 43). Modern artists
have responded to Rembrandt’s ability to harness a sense of
realism profound enough to surpass the ability to create form
from life (naer het leven or nae’t leven) to suffuse form with
life. Liebermann recognised this quality when he remarked, ‘It
is art which lives’ . . . ‘Whether old art or new, what abides
forever is the living in art’.10
Rembrandt’s art arises from the magnitude of an artistic
gift. It also makes manifest the mystery of the gift of artistic
talent. Liebermann called this gift ‘die Phantasie der Malerei’
(imagination or fantasy in painting, the German word
encompasses both) and he remarked on how it brought
painting to life by giving painting a life of its own. In this
way, painting has the capacity to surprise the artist. In this
way, too, painting retains its charge across time. This review
has argued that the mystery of the gift of Rembrandt’s artistic
talent, the ‘Phantasie’ in his painting, printmaking, and
drawing, lies in the transposition of the artwork’s obvious
manufacture and its positing of living form. In Rembrandt’s
art, this transposition never seems to settle.
The exhibition catalogue and the monograph suggest this
transposition when they note the way Rembrandt paints what
Verdi felicitously terms ‘the non-subject’ (p. 7). In the Kenwood
Self-Portrait with Two Circles, for instance, Rembrandt paints
the painter’s tools – palette, brushes and maulstick – but not
the hand holding them. And yet Rembrandt paints in such a
way that the viewer ‘sees’ or imagines (recall Liebermann) that
holding hand. How does paint become form and form become
paint in Rembrandt? This was the question Guston and Bacon
pondered, and it could be extended to Rembrandt’s work in
other media.11 The question moves the discussion beyond
Gombrich’s notion of the beholder’s share, for it is not so much
our share that is required in viewing as it is our experience of
the way the work invites and confounds us.12 In the end, it
remains unclear whether the finishing comes from the beholder
or from the painting.
Guston understood that ‘pre-imaging’ was no longer possible
for the modern artist.13 By ‘pre-imaging’ he meant the patron’s
Book Reviews
10. ‘Die Kunst ist Leben und das Leben Kunst geworden. Alte Kunst oder neue
Kunst, das ewig Bleibende in ihr ist das Lebendige!’ Stückelberger (p. 76) cites
Ostwald, pp. 248– 9.
11. See Philip Guston, ‘Interview with David Sylvester (1960)’ Philip Guston.
Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations, ed. Clark Coolidge (Berkeley and
London: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 21– 22 and David Sylvester,
Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).
12. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial
Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), part III, ‘The
Beholder’s Share’.
13. Philip Guston, ‘Philip Guston’s Object: Conversation with Harold
Rosenberg’ (1965), in Coolidge, Philip Guston. Collected Writings, 54.
doi:10.1093/oxartj/kcv016
Advance Access Publication 20 October 2015
Between the vrai and the beau
of Institutional History
Tatiana Senkevitch
Christian Michel, L’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. La Naissance de
l’école française (Geneva: Droz, 2012), 422pp., ISBN 9782600015899,
hardcover 63 euros.
Notes
Tomas Macsotay , The Profession of Sculpture in the Paris Académie (Oxford,
UK: Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, 2014), 90 illns, 380pp., ISBN
9780729410793, paperback £65.
1. See the editorial by Christopher White, ‘The Rembrandt Research Project
and Its Denouement’ The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVII, February 2015,
pp. 71–3. This is not to suggest that Wetering’s 2014 publication is first to move
beyond connoisseurship. Innovative studies have considered the role of studio
practice and explored the question of gender, to cite only two of the avenues
explored in recent years.
2. Alison McQueen, The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt. Reinventing an Old Master in
Nineteenth-Century France (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003). In
the 1840s, copper plate engraving was taught at the Academy but not etching.
3. Catherine B. Scallen, Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship
(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), provides the full context of
Rembrandt connoisseurship. Charlotte Klonk, ‘Angespannte Verhältnisse.
Universitätsprofessoren und ihre Kollegen an den Berliner Museen um 1900’, In
der Mitte Berlins. 200 Jahre Kunstgeschichte an der Humboldt-Universität, eds Horst
Bredekamp and Adam S. Labuda (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2010), pp. 191–
206, offers a fascinating glimpse of how the museum, the university, and the
cultural sphere were interwoven through Bode’s activity.
4. Johannes Stückelberger, Rembrandt und die Moderne. Der Dialog mit Rembrandt in
der deutschen Kunst um 1900 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1996).
5. ‘Wenn man Frans Hals sieht, bekommt man Lust zum Malen, wenn man
Rembrandt sieht, möchte man es aufgeben’. Stückelberger (p. 67) cites Hans
Ostwald, Das Liebermann-Buch (Berlin: Franke, 1930), p. 217.
6. Gregor J. M. Weber, ‘Observation of Everyday Life’ Rembrandt. The Late
Works, p. 57. Rembrandt used this term ‘in the inventory of the contents of his
house on Jodenbreestraat, made at the time of his bankruptcy in July 1656’.
7. Gregor J. M. Weber, ‘Reconciliation’, in Rembrandt. The Late Works, p. 267.
Weber is citing C. Tümpel and A. Tümpel, Rembrandt (Antwerp, 1986), p. 398.
8. On the Donatello, see Eric Fischl, ‘Notes from the Field: Time’, The Art
Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 3, September 2003, pp. 357– 9.
9. Svetlana Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise. The Studio and the Market (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1988).
It is said that Leo Tolstoy created 160 characters for his epic
novel War and Peace; Christian Michel’s magisterial book
L’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture: La naissance de
l’école française probably exceeds that number in its account of
the history of one of the most influential art institutions through
its 150 years existence. This history begins in 1648 when a
group of artists petitioned the young king, Louis XIV, asking him
to take painters and sculptors under royal protection against the
Maı̂trise, a remnant of the medieval guild economy. The new
institution was baptised an académie royale, a name that
inscribed the arts of painting and sculpture in France to the
tradition of the liberal arts, while simultaneously linking them to
the concurrent system of power. The story ends in August 1793
when a decree of the National Convention dissolved the
Académie de peinture et de sculpture along with other royal
academies of the Ancien Regime. During this period, the
Académie counted more than five hundred artists of different
professions, numerous officers, and secretaries, along with their
royal protectors, directors, and the Académie’s lay supporters,
grouped under the rubric of ‘amateurs’. In addition to this
weighty human constituency, the history of this institution
included an innumerable quantity of painted, sculpted, and
printed objects produced by artists, of which only a small fraction
have secured a distinct place in the art-historical canon of today.
The more ephemeral but no less crucial part of this history
resided in discourses, lectures, and other forms of critical
thinking produced in the name of or in opposition to the
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giving of themes to the artist, or the patron or artist’s finding of
themes in sacred or textual sources. If these themes were not
known, they were at the very least recognisable to the artist and
the members of the court, society, confraternity, and so on who
were the work’s intended audience. Modern artists had to find
their forms. These forms were often new to the artist and the
audience. Working under the sign of the loss of the known
image, it would make sense that modern artists would seize on
the vivacity of the artwork, on its making and effects, rather
than on iconography. Liebermann, Guston, and Bacon, to name
a few of the modern artists, remarked on the vivacity and
mystery of Rembrandt’s art.
Modern artists not only charged ahead, they also looked
back. While many wanted to break with artistic tradition, as
the theory of the avant-garde has taught us to expect, others
found inspiration in the art of the past, even though what they
created may look nothing like what they saw. Art history’s
reliance on style and iconography has promoted comparison
based on visual and textual resemblance. In the case of
modern art, these methods have hindered the discovery of
deeper, less visually apparent, links between the old and the
new. Perhaps we might finally allow modern artists their own
estimation of Rembrandt, and of the art of the past. Art history
would surely be the richer for it. These two books, which invite
us to see and evaluate the artist’s work, also help us to think
about modernism and Rembrandt.
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revie iews Reviews Karen Lang