In a fraught discussion about Rembrandt’s motivation for making so many self-portraits, the leading Rembrandt expert of the day, Ernst van de Wetering, let himself be misled by a faulty publication of 1887, uncritically recycled in 1906 and 1979, into making an incorrect argument to which he attaches fundamental importance.
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The only way art historians ever look at Rembrandt bibles is down their noses. We Rembrandt specialists have bibles of our own. To begin with, the three Bs – the catalogues of Rembrandt’s etchings by Adam Bartsch (1797), the paintings by Abraham Bredius (1935) and the drawings by Otto Benesch (1954-57). Each had successors, conveniently with the same numbering, which are being replaced in slow, excruciating stages by
- the unaffordable (€3,255), unwieldly (lacking even a concordance to Bartsch numbers [untrue – see comment below]), seven-volume New Hollstein catalogue of the etchings by Erik Hinterding and Jaco Rutgers
- Martin Royalton-Kisch’s FREE – thank you, Martin – online catalogue of so far about one-fourth of the drawings, mercifully by Benesch number
- and the so-called “complete [but wildly inconsistent] survey” of the paintings in vol. VI of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings ($1499 in hardcover, $109 in softcover – huh?? – with W numbers, for Wetering, Ernst van de.
I wouldn’t call the post-B catalogues apocryphal, but they no longer fill the function of a Bible. This may be an accurate reflection of our ongoing uncertainties with regard to so much about Rembrandt, but it means that we no longer have handy, standard editions of the work of Rembrandt to make clear to each other which objects we’re talking about. Taschen Publishers are rumored to be bringing out complete new catalogues by top specialists of all his work next year, in the Rembrandt year marking 350 years since his death. That would (could – we’ll see) be a blessing.
Then there are the bibles of Rembrandt documentation. In 1906, Rembrandt’s reported 300th birthday (it might however be the 299th or 301st; the indications are contradictory), the all-time giant of Rembrandt scholarship, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, published Die Urkunden über Rembrandt (1575-1721) (The Rembrandt documents), more than 400 items from archives and published sources. I call him the all-time giant because in the same year Hofstede de Groot also brought out a catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings, and in 1915 a catalogue of his paintings, which to this day is unrivaled for its information on the ownership of Rembrandt’s paintings. In 1979, the Urkunden was superseded in part (because it only goes up to 1669 and does not have all the information offered in the Urkunden) by Walter Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen’s The Rembrandt documents, with translations into English of documents that to Hofstede de Groot’s audience were perfectly readable in Dutch, German, French, Italian and Latin and did not have to be translated. These venerable books too are being replaced, in a seemingly endless process, by a more ambitious but nonfinito Radboud University-Huygens Institute facility called Remdoc.
One of the prize Rembrandt documents is the first record to speak of him as an artist. It comes from a handwritten sheet in a portfolio of notes catalogued in the Utrecht University Library as “Notes concerning mainly Dutch painters and works of art.” The notes were written by the learned Utrecht attorney and antiquary Aernout van Buchell (1565-1641), who Latinized his name to Arnoldus Buchelius. What he wrote (in Latin) was “Also, the son of a Leiden miller is made much of, but [as far as I’m concerned] before his time.” As unsystematic as Buchelius’s notes are, this line can be placed in a certain context. They fit into observations he jotted down on a visit to Leiden in the first half of the year 1628. On one of two visits in that time, Buchelius dropped in on Dirk Schrevel (1571-1653; Theodorus Schrevelius), the head of the Latin school Rembrandt had attended. The assumption is that Schrevelius, who prided himself on his art collection, had just shown Buchelius a painting by Rembrandt, who was still just twenty-one years old. Upon his death, Schrevelius indeed owned a painting by Rembrandt of a type that could have been that early work that did not impress Buchelius: “A small panel in an ebony frame being a fat face by the famous painter Rembrandt of Leiden.”
The first publication of this splendid find dates from 1887, by G. van Rijn in the journal Oud Holland. Among the other tidbits he publishes, jotted down by Buchelius in the same ink, are these two:
“Esaias van de Velde is an elegant, though frivolous painter, now living in The Hague.”
“Rector Schrevelius showed me his portrait, painted vividly on panel, by [Frans] Hals, a Haarlem painter who also painted [Petrus] Scriverius, [in a portrait that was] put into print by Jan van de Velde, an impression of which he gave me.”
These quotations were reprinted, in the same sequence, by Hofstede de Groot in 1906 and Strauss and van der Meulen in 1979. That is unfortunate, because the link between those two remarks is misleading. In the actual manuscript, the relevant page of which I illustrate here, with thanks to the Utrecht University library, Buchelius writes first that the rector gave him “his portrait,” and only after three other snippets does he make his dismissive comment about the (terrific, if you ask me) painter and etcher Esaias van de Velde, who in 1628 was living in Haarlem, not The Hague. See the paragraph from the third line on, until the ink grows lighter.
Aanteekeningen betreffende meest Nederlandsche schilders en kunstwerken
Utrecht University library, ms. 1781, fol. 17
Why am I telling you this, you may well have asked yourself by now. It has to do with a major issue in Rembrandt studies. That is the rationale behind Rembrandt’s practice of self-portraiture. The casual conversation between two Dutch humanists in 1628 is seized on, in the biggest and most authoritative book ever written on Rembrandt’s self-portrait paintings, as the basis for a very far-going claim about Rembrandt. In volume IV of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings (2005), Ernst van de Wetering writes:
When the Utrecht advocaat and art lover […] Arnoldus Buchelius (Aernout van Buchell, 1565-1641), came to Leiden in 1628, he visited the rector of the Latin school in that city, the art collector Theodorus Schrevelius, and the two talked about art and artists. Van Buchel made notes of this discussion which he later filed away between the sheets of his Res Pictoriae, his notes on the art of painting. One of these notes concerned the painter Esayas van de Velde, to which Van Buchel added: ‘the rector Screvelius showed me his [Van de Velde’s] portrait very lifelike on a panel by the Haarlem painter Frans Hals’.
This vignette illustrates the way, in the communication between art lovers, the portrait of an artist could function; if there was an opportunity to show a portrait of the artist under discussion, the chance would apparently not be passed up. The small scene involving Buchelius and Schrevelius makes it clear that there was a demand among art lovers for portraits of artists, whoever they were made by. … The role of the collecting art lovers like Van Buchel and Schrevelius must be considered to be one of the most important factors in any explanation of (the greater part of) Rembrandt’s production of self-portraits.
Van de Wetering marshals this as powerful evidence that Rembrandt created his self-portraits not out of inner pressure, as many other art historians have assumed, but in answer to the external pressure of the market. It comes as the climax to a long diatribe against Perry Chapman (Rembrandt’s self-portraits: a study in seventeenth-century identity, 1990) and anyone who agrees with her that Rembrandt’s self-portraits have an important self-examinatory dimension.
Although all of us rely on Hofstede de Groot and Strauss and van der Meulen, van de Wetering should have been on his guard before going as far as he did – in a polemic, no less. His bracketed insertion “the rector Screvelius showed me his [Van de Velde’s] portrait … by Frans Hals” is speculative in itself and soars past the simple fact that no portrait of Esaias van de Velde by Frans Hals – or by anyone else, for that matter – has ever been recorded. On the other hand, there is a very nice Frans Hals portrait of Theodorus Schrevelius, which was moreover engraved in 1617 in an engraving by Jacob Matham, as a superior calling card.
Frans Hals, Theodorus Schrevelius, 1617. Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum
Frans Hals, Petrus Scriverius, 1626. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jacob Matham after Frans Hals, Theodorus Schrevelius, 1618, with a Latin verse by Scriverius. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Jan van de Velde after Frans Hals, Petrus Scriverius, 1626. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This matches to a tee Schrevelius’s linking in the same sentence of “his portrait” by Frans Hals to that of Petrus Scriverius by the same master. Can there be any doubt that the portrait by Frans Hals that Schrevelius showed to his friend from Utrecht was not of the frivolous Esaias van de Velde, but of himself, that it was the above painting (left) and prints (below) they were looking at?
Van de Wetering is not the kind of scholar to rush to Utrecht to check a piece of evidence like this. He doesn’t have to be. However, he could have gone so far as to consult the edition of Buchelius’s notes on art published in 1928 by G.J. Hoogewerff and J.Q. van Regteren Altena, who transcribed the relevant document correctly. With this vital element in van de Wetering’s argument disallowed, I submit that discussion of Rembrandt’s motives for making self-portraits should resume, more open-mindedly than in the Corpus.
© 2018 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 14 September 2018.
The substance of this column comes from a class that I gave at the School for Continuing Education at Zürich University in the course Die Sprache der Kunst, The Language of Art. I treated them to a detailed, technical discussion of this issue, on the grounds that it has much to do with Rembrandt and the word. I will be forwarding this column to the indomitable course leader, Bernd Roeck, and his wonderfully capable administrator Janina Gruhner, for their dedicated students.
With a day to spare in Zürich, Loekie and I spent a rewarding afternoon in the Kunsthaus. We were struck by the many donations of Dutch paintings by the Koetsers. Here is a Dutch family art dealership in Switzerland that plays a big role on the Zürich museum scene and who knows where else? I always visit the Koetser stand at TEFAF, and was hoping to go to the gallery itself. I was disappointed that it was not behind a welcoming ground-floor storefront with great paintings in the window, but on an upper story in an office building where moreover no one answered the doorbell or telephone.
Here are two details of crustaceous body parts from a Liberation of St. Peter by Matthias Stom, 1632, donated in 1986 by the Betty and David Koetser Foundation.
Another closed door met me when I found my way to the grandiloquently named Jüdisches Museum der Schweiz. Arriving at 2 minutes past 4 at a distressing entrance inside a parking garage, I saw that the museum closed at 4 and was open only from 1 to 4. Something is wrong there.
I don’t know if I have mentioned it before, but this month Loekie and I are celebrating our second 50th wedding anniversary. The first was on 26 April 2018, fifty years after our civil marriage in Brooklyn Borough Hall. Above a photo taken at the garden party given by my mother Renee for us in Far Rockaway. Our second wedding, under the chupah, took place in Manhattan in September 1968. In April this year we were too exhausted to do anything, but this Sunday, 16 September, we’re throwing a proper golden anniversary party in our own garden.
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