235 Willem Bloemena’s Great Rembrandt Book

The Rembrandt Year 2006 is upon us. At work on a new book on Rembrandt, Schwartz reminisces about the book he edited for the Rembrandt Year 1969. As a publishing project, Horst Gerson’s Rembrandt paintings was a great success. Such successes do not come out of the blue. Schwartz pays tribute to the man who conceived and sold the project, Willem Bloemena.


Behind the scenes, the museums of the world are tooling up for Rembrandt’s 400th birthday next year. In contrast to the Rembrandt years 1956 (350th birthday) and 1969 (300th deathday), when the Rijksmuseum mounted large survey exhibitions, next year’s celebrations will be focussed on specific themes. The results promise to be far more interesting. More of that to come over the next year. (In the meanwhile, see www.codart.nl/rembrandt_2006.)

In addition to exhibitions and their catalogues, there will also be a spate of new books on Rembrandt. My own contribution is underway. The project brings to mind my work as editor of Horst Gerson’s blockbuster book on Rembrandt’s paintings of 1969 (published in 1968). That publication remains the single most successful art book ever to come out of the Netherlands. The large original printings in Dutch, English, German and French have been followed in the course of the years by countless reprints, attesting to the scholarly and graphic quality of the book.

As a publishing project, Rembrandt paintings was the brainchild of D.W. (Willem) Bloemena, co-director of Meulenhoff at the time. Bloemena took his inspiration from the commercial successes achieved by Italian publishers with coffee-table books on Leonardo and Michelangelo for the American market. If they could sell monster books in astronomical print runs to the Book-of-the-Month Club, why couldn’t he do the same with Dutch artists? Bloemena cultivated the American publisher who had placed the Italian books with BOMC, Eugene Reynal. Working in tandem, they sold Rembrandt paintings to the club as a main feature while spinning off a trade edition for Reynal & Co.

On the Dutch side, Bloemena put together a powerful consortium that he called Meulenhoff International. Proost & Brandt came in for paper and binding, Van Leer for lithography, and Van Boekhoven Bosch for printing, while Meulenhoff provided the editorial capacity. As I recall, the contract for Rembrandt was signed in New York in spring 1967, before there was a word on paper, and the finished books were on the boat in fall 1968. Bloemena immediately followed up with an even more ambitious book on Van Gogh, a new edition of the catalogue raisonné by J.-B. de la Faille. The sheer bulk of this book made it impossible to translate Рit appeared only in English Рbut it is still a standard source internationally.

Bloemena’s life ended in tragedy. In 1971 his nine-year-old son was abducted and – as the world learned only later – killed by a child murderer who was not captured until after he killed a little girl in 1974. (Peter R. de Vries traces his fascination with crime to this case.) Bloemena never recovered from this unendurable trauma; he entered a downward (alcoholic) spiral that ended in early death.

Bloemena was not just a businessman in books. He was a publishing visionary. Not unrelated to this – he was a true lover of culture and the good life. Meulenhoff International was not only a profit center to him. It was also a pleasure center, a vehicle for the enjoyment of art and travel. This force operated in both directions. True, Bloemena indulged himself to an extent that did not always charm his partners. But the drive behind his brilliant projects came not from bottom-line fetishism but from love of life. Would that life had loved him more.

¬© 2005 Gary Schwartz. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 4 June 2005


For the non-Dutch reader: Peter R. de Vries is a TV crime reporter who is parlaying his public image into a post-Pim Fortuyn political career.


Horst Gerson’s book on Rembrandt was rivalled in content and brilliance by that of Bob Haak, published by Andreas Landshoff for Abrams. Haak was a wonderful art historian, museum man and person. He died last month, on May 15th. At his funeral, Landshoff spoke movingly about their collaboration on Haak’s Rembrandt book (1969) and his standard work on the Dutch painters of the Golden Age (1984).


The story of my own involvement with Willem Bloemena and his projects will have to be told another time. One high point came at the end of a long lunch in Hotel Polen in Amsterdam, at which we finished a bottle of Bloemena’s favorite lunch red, Saint Amour. I was working on Gerson’s Rembrandt book as editor, the kind of non-academic paid work that scholars can do without feeling that they have sold their souls to the devil of commerciality. Bloemena looked at me intently and asked whether I would consider coming to work in publishing. He did not realize that he had just taken on the guise of the devil in my eyes. I did not realize that job offers of that kind do not come your way very often in life. I said no, but not too long thereafter I went into art-history publishing first with a partner and then on my own. I’m sure this was for the better. Meulenhoff has since turned into a monster media corporation called PCM. Had I become a publisher there and had I rode out the reorganizations and power struggles of the last decades I might have become a millionaire captain of industry, God forbid.


A few days ago I rose to the top of the Gary Schwartz heap on Google. When the Schwartzlist went on line at the beginning of 2004, the search term “Gary Schwartz” delivered four whole pages of other guys with that name before getting to me. My main competitor is a psychologist at the University of Arizona who has gained notoriety for his book The afterlife experiments, in which he lends the reputation of a serious academic to the claims of mediums who make contact with the dead. I should ask him to get in touch with a late mutual friend, the brilliantly acerbic medical scientist Al Shapiro, to find out what he thinks of the other Gary Schwartz’s ideas.


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