Searching for Truth in Rembrandt’s Myths
On a trip to Amsterdam during the city’s most nebulous season last month, I found myself lost in treacly thoughts. I was there to take in the many “Year of Rembrandt” exhibitions organized by the Dutch government to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the towering artist’s death.
The legendary nature of love life was at the forefront of my mind. His heart-rending reaction to his beloved first wife Saskia van Uylenburgh’s early death—the grief-stricken artist gave up painting for seven years—quickly turned from sentimental to schadenfreudian. I’m getting married this year, to a painter, and the thought that my fiancé might follow Rembrandt’s example in the event of my premature death was enticingly poetic.
My sincere intention for the trip was to glory in the passionate artworks of this art-historical crush and to walk in Rembrandt’s shoes, to uncover the man behind myths of my own making. This should have been a simple task considering the numerous primary documents the artist left behind and the depth of breathless scholarship that’s been written in the wake of his death. Instead, even before I stepped on the plane, I found myself lost again in a curious collision of conviction and reality.
Right before I left, my father excitedly shared with me his own late father’s belief that Rembrandt was secretly a Jew. Why else would the great painter have spent his costly pigments on lowly Jewish models, or turned to Old Testament subjects so often and with such respect? This false persuasion was not unique to him; it’s been tightly clung to by disenfranchised Jews for centuries.
I’m convinced: Rembrandt has fully ceased to be a man—he’s become a state of mind.
I wondered why my grandfather, whom I never once spoke to about art, cared about Rembrandt’s Jewishness in the first place. There’s a deep skepticism to his belief—that any form of empathy toward the Jewish people must be scrutinized for an ulterior motive—but I also recognized the same proud sense of myth and personal ownership over Rembrandt that had permeated my own artist-muse fantasies.
I returned from Amsterdam a few weeks ago; my experiences there strengthened my love for Rembrandt, and complicated his legacy. I’ve been flipping through the Polaroid photographs I took on the journey, over-exposed snaps of the artist as he appears in 21st-century Amsterdam. I’ve been gestating on them, but as the first night of Passover loomed, it all came together. Rembrandt devoted his life to an insistence on truth—emotional, physical—in his art, with a mission to involve viewers in the subtle narratives of his works. He married sacred myth and profane reality to achieve heightened, universal feelings. Today, as the artist is studied and celebrated, the attribution of his works picked apart, he remains shrouded in legend and projection. I’m convinced: Rembrandt has fully ceased to be a man—he’s become a state of mind.
When he lived in Amsterdam, from 1631 until the end of his life, in 1669, Rembrandt enjoyed—and directly contributed to—a Golden Age in the Netherlands. It was a period of economic prosperity and scientific and artistic innovation driven by the energetically independent Dutch Republic. The port city teemed with middle-class merchants, scholars, artists, and immigrants of all shades. It was an exciting and diverse place to be.
The Amsterdam of today retains much of its Golden Age vivacity and infrastructure, and when the sun sets on a clear day, the city still glows with the same pale light immortalized by Dutch masters like Rembrandt and
When I landed at Schiphol in the early morning, I got in a cab and headed straight to the Rijksmuseum in the city’s center. The largest repository of the artist’s work, the museum had mounted “All the Rembrandts”—an exhibition of literally every painting, etching, and drawing by the artist in its collection. I walked into the imposing building, a 19th-century castle, under the banner of Rembrandt’s face—a national statement of cultural pride.
The museum had organized an interview with curator Jonathan Bikker, author of a new book on the artist, Rembrandt: Biography of a Rebel. Bikker mercifully allowed me to slurp several cappuccinos at the café as we engaged in a free-flowing conversation about Rembrandt, before joining the crowds to see the show. I mentioned my mawkishly romantic ideas on the artist and my grandfather’s conviction. “When you look at his work,” Bikker simply said, “you’re experiencing your own humanity.”
In the first exhibition halls, painted drab gray and my grandpa’s beloved Brooklyn Dodgers royal blue, I felt as if I was experiencing, for the first time, Rembrandt’s true self. Dense throngs of people of all kinds lingered over thumbnail-sized etchings—self-portraits of the artist made as a young man and as a seasoned one. They show him laughing maniacally, frowning, open-mouthed; in a beret, bare-headed; sword drawn or in retreat, contemplative.
Rembrandt’s elderly parents peer out from other works, wrinkled and grotesque; the artist’s young son Titus smiles from behind a crop of his father’s curly hair; quick sketches capture Saskia’s serene face, over and over, on a single page. Then there are endlessly funny and empathetic urban scenes of food vendors, scampering children, beggars, foreign travelers, Jews, and other exotic street creatures he encountered. Rembrandt the man is most present in these commission-less drawings and etchings, in which he was free to train his eye on whatever he pleased, without the painterly guises of allegory or religious narrative.
His mischievous sense of humor is often most moving in these drawings. In the swift pen-and-ink sketch The Pancake Woman (ca. 1635), a few strokes render a boy digging desperately in his pocket for change as the impatient, withholding old pancake-maker regards him suspiciously from behind her griddle. A tumble of pen marks indicate tussling youths, and the straight-lined lip and puffed-out cheek of an even younger boy show at least one character’s pancake satisfaction. The scene calcifies in the final, more detailed etching, produced after the drawing in the same year.
Rembrandt’s Impressions of Dutch Street Life
The humanity inherent to one of the artist’s most popular and magisterial religious etchings, however, is deepened by an appreciation of the studies that led up to it. Christ Healing the Sick (ca. 1648), also known as The Hundred Guilder Print, is a quintessential show of Rembrandt’s great skill in utilizing the dramatic effects of light and shadow. In typical fashion, Jesus radiates from the center of the picture as he opens his arms to the huddled masses encircling him.
At his feet, a frail woman feebly raises her hand to beg Christ for a miracle. Nearby, studies for this character show the woman growing progressively weaker. Her posture and delicate hand are lowered in each iteration, until the artist arrived at the wan but attention-grabbing gesture in the final print. Made only a few years after Saskia’s death, I wondered—tragically, pathetically—if these changes to the sick woman occurred as Rembrandt dug into his own memory for reference. That’s often how it was with Rembrandt—street scenes, real life, permeated his biblical narratives.
Early on in our conversation, Bikker railed against the tendency of art historians to overly read Rembrandt’s work through the lens of the artist’s biography, but even the curator couldn’t help but mingle the two in his own impassioned talk. Bikker spoke at length about The Jewish Bride (ca. 1665–69)—the work he considers “the greatest love story in painting of all time.” As we stood before this supremely modern masterpiece, it seemed to eloquently clarify every legend and sentimental feeling I was trying to make sense of at that moment.
Made during the experimental, rejuvenated period toward the end of the artist’s life, The Jewish Bride shows a tender moment between Isaac and Rebecca from the Book of Genesis. When he moves to a foreign Philistine land, Isaac fears that the king, Abimelech, or his men, will murder him for the chance to sleep with his young, beautiful wife. So he lies and pretends that they’re siblings. After a good amount of time has passed, their lie undetected, the king catches them in a caress, acting quite unlike a brother and sister should.
Rembrandt chose to depict this oddly tense moment of discovery, when the reader is sure that the couple is doomed. Isaac, dressed in glittering gold, the thick paint of his sleeve wonderfully scratched with the end of Rembrandt’s paintbrush, looks at his pearl-adorned wife with love as he fondly touches his hand to her breast. She, in turn, reaches over her red gown to skim her fingers against his probing ones. It’s a completely unstudied pose—the pair is still, for another fleeting moment, unaware of the intruding king and their imminent danger. But Abimelech is nowhere to be found in this picture. He is us—purveyors of judgment, witnesses to a profound love.
It’s a stunning work of art, for its expressionistic brushstrokes and sense of color, but more so for the compassionate and personal look at a genuine moment of affection. Across the whole history of art, it’s rare to encounter unaffected sincerity, and this genuineness is underscored by the exceptional artistic freedom Rembrandt took in its composition. It’s unclear who commissioned the painting, but it was presumably the models, probably a well-to-do couple. Basking before it, Bikker couldn’t help but suggest a resonance between this painting and Rembrandt’s life.
The greatest love story in painting of all time seemed to eloquently clarify every legend and sentimental feeling I was trying to make sense of at that moment.
In 1649, almost a decade after Saskia’s death, a despondent and cantankerous Rembrandt began a relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels, his housekeeper. The artist was in his forties and she in her twenties—an age gap that mirrors Isaac and Rebecca’s. Bikker offers as further evidence of Rembrandt’s amorous state his typically contrary decision to depict a scene infrequently chosen from the story. Usually, artists portrayed Isaac when he met Rebecca, who is shown as the consummate subservient wife, on wedding pamphlets. Otherwise, Dutch artists would play up the sexuality in the scene of their embrace, perhaps exposing Rebecca’s breasts. Rembrandt, my good man, chose to make his version far more profound.
Rembrandt’s Portraits of His Lovers
This is a calling the artist took up again and again, to subvert the sacred to the personal and profane. Rembrandt was the preeminent painter of the Old Testament; his penchant for depicting these stories, a marked departure from Christian European artists’ almost myopic focus on narratives from Jesus’s life, had much to do with the artist’s generally rebellious attitude. His feeling that their grander themes lent themselves better to depicting the “passions of the soul,” as Bikker described it, seems especially endearing in light of his somber, 17th-century world of starched white collars and buttoned-up black silk. Surely no artist has better understood, as Saul Bellow has written, that in the Old Testament “all the strength and all the radiance of the world are brought to bear upon a few human figures.” There’s a fitting parallel here to my own projections on the artist—his biography has made him an unwitting conduit for our most universal, deeply felt emotions.
I thought again about my grandfather’s belief. To me, it’s clear that Rembrandt’s quest for authenticity, to replace the theatricalism of the
Out of the museum and on the street, I walked over the canals and stopped into a coffee shop in search of sustenance. Behind well-dressed twentysomethings sipping coffee, I was stunned to see a tacky reproduction of The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (1662). The work, commonly known as The Syndics, had been sketchily brushed over with bright colors in what I imagine to be a “contemporary art” effect.
Despite the strangeness of seeing this serious painting—which shows the sober male guild members as they peer up, startled, by the interloper (us), who has interrupted their business—in such a fashionable setting, I found myself drawn again into the work. I had just encountered the original at the Rijksmuseum. As in The Jewish Bride, Rembrandt seemed to delight in creating compositions where we’re made to rudely interrupt. It was this attitude toward the viewer—his insistence on pushing them into the scene—I realized, that was paramount to his success in achieving emotional timelessness in this work.
These intrusions also helped Rembrandt transform a usually staid genre into explosive history paintings. Far removed from religious ecstasies, the artist enlivened his group portraits with similar implied narratives. As in The Syndics, in his master paintings produced for Amsterdam guilds, like The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and The Night Watch (1642), the subjects acknowledge the viewer, who has cut in on their important activities. I had to spend one of my Polaroids on the scene in the café, and felt embarrassed—as if I were in the painting—as the hip set looked up in reaction to my flash.
Back on the streets, in the gray, soupy weather, I wound my way toward the house where Rembrandt lived from 1639 to 1658. Now preserved as a museum, Rembrandthuis is in a posh neighborhood on the Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Broad Street), adjacent to the city’s Jewish quarter. My grandfather’s isolated interest in Rembrandt, his conviction about his identity, followed me down these cobbled streets, considered a haven for oppressed Jewry throughout Europe and North Africa during the artist’s lifetime.
In the Rembrandthuis, I saw the at-the-time lavish quarters where the artist slept most nights—alone, in a small canopy bed, because that’s what people did back then. I walked through his sun-lit studio, his printing press, his wunderkammer (snakeskins flying from the ceiling, alligators on the wall, so many bones). Rembrandt was known as a generous teacher; he organized his students’ workspaces into little cubicles in the attic space, where his apostles churned out attendant works under his watchful tutelage.
In the modern exhibition galleries, a show called “Rembrandt’s Social Network” contends with another Rembrandt myth: the cherished idea of the solitary artist struggling alone with his genius and late-in-life debts, largely caused by his prolonged grieving period, when he forwent lucrative commissions. Throughout his life, Rembrandt proved to be strong-willed and largely uninterested in kowtowing to wealthy tastemakers. He preferred instead to socialize with family and friends, especially those who he felt understood art. His best pictures feature these personal figures, their intimate informality startlingly unique to the time.
I ventured back outside, where a diner’s red neon sign dubbed the area “Rembrandt Corner,” and crossed the street to stand on a bridge overlooking the Amstel river, my mind again on Gothic romance. I imagined Rembrandt out on his walks through the city following Saskia’s death, when he took up an interest in landscape. A pastiche stretched out before me, some of the scenery perfectly preserved from his era, other parts unerringly modern.
I sensed his presence all over Amsterdam, a city that is historically preserved and reverent of Rembrandt, his ideals heroized and flouted. But most of all, I saw a world shaped by the artist, in which the fire and brimstone of the Baroque—the experiences of the few—gave way to the simplicity and sincerity of his emotional approach to his work, his cultivated obsession with veracity, even in biblical legend.
Today, in New York, I’m thinking about the Passover seder, which suggests divine punishment for those unwilling to insert themselves into the story of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt. It is imperative to understand, the Haggadah intones, that God didn’t only save your ancestors—God saved you. In this directive, I recognized the same feeling from Bikker’s words about Rembrandt’s work, and the artist’s frequent decision to push the viewer into his narratives. Perhaps this is the heart of his “Jewishness.” The stories we tell ourselves about the past are one thing; our willingness to enter the scene, quite another.
All of us are contending with the friction between facts and feelings—the disrespect between the two—especially in the political sphere. In this way, Rembrandt fits our current moment well. Despite historical record, his life and work remain wide open; historians and viewers alike can’t help but insert themselves into his story, a tumultuous one that glistens with all the contradictory feelings essential to life, and to great art.
Julia Wolkoff is an Editor at Artsy.
Header and Thumbnail Image: Personal Polaroid and notes from the writer; Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait (c. 1628). Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.