For Peter Hecht, who following his retirement from a celebrated professorship in art history at Utrecht University, entered the fray of interpreters of Rembrandt’s notoriously treacherous Leiden History Painting. Schwartz reviews the state of the question, especially with regard to the emotions of three of the figures, and reintroduces into the discussion a neglected piece of pertinent evidence.
In 1626, the twenty-year-old Rembrandt painted a large panel showing a helmeted commander with a sceptre standing above three men in expressive poses. Expressive – but of what? Before reading on, may I kindly request you to go through the seventeen linked explanations of the condition and state of mind of the three figures as interpreted in the literature of art history and decide for yourself if there are any with which you agree.
|1||RELIEF (Son being forgiven by father after father condemned him to death)||INDIGNATION (Protester against death sentence of A)||INDIGNATION (Protester against death sentence of A)|
|2||PRIDE (Being honored by his king)||AMAZEMENT ([An impressed legionary])||APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])|
|3||CONSTERNATION (Being condemned to death on false accusations)||SHOCK ([Shocked legionary])||APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])|
|4||DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Swearing he was B, in order to save B from being sacrificed)||DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Swearing he was A, in order to save A from being sacrificed)||SELF-SATISACTION (Captor of A and B)|
|5||COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets)||COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets)||COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets)|
|6||SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die)||SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die)||SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die)|
|7||GUILT – REMORSE – DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father for insubordination)||DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father by association with A)||APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])|
|8||GUILT – REMORSE – DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father for insubordination)||SHOCK (Shocked comrade-in-arms of condemned A)||APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])|
|9||SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle)||SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle)||SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle)|
|10||DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Taking blame upon himself for assassination plot of brothers, B & C)||DESPAIR – SELF-ABASEMENT – IMPLORING (Brother B begging for mercy)||CONFIDENCE – SELF-SATISFACTION (Brother C defending himself successfully against charge of assassination plot)|
|11||DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal on suspicion of having murdered B)||DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal for being the cause of the sentencing of A)||DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal for having failed to kill B when apprehended)|
|12||GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils)||GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils)||GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils)|
|13||RELIEF (Unfaithful legionary being pardoned by commander)||RELIEF (Unfaithful legionary being pardoned by commander)||APPROVAL (Faithful legionary agreeing to pardon of unfaithful comrades-in-arms)|
|14||APPREHENSION (Conspirator being warned to abandon his plot)||APPREHENSION (Conspirator being warned to abandon his plot)||APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])|
|15||RELIEF (Rebel being reconciled with ruler)||RELIEF (Rebel being reconciled with ruler)||APPROVAL ([Legionary seconding reconciliation])|
|16||SUBMISSION ([Demonstrating subjection to magnanimous ruler])||IMPLORING ([Begging for mercy from magnanimous ruler])||ALLEGIANCE ([Swearing loyalty to magnanimous ruler])|
|17||RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”])||RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”])||RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”])|
As you will have guessed, these readings of the feelings being undergone by the figures are not based primarily on their facial expressions or body language. They are attributions of feelings thought to be appropriate to persons in stories that have been seized upon by the researcher as the subject of the painting.
A remark made by Kurt Bauch in his book of 1960 on the young Rembrandt remains undiminishedly apt sixty years later: “Keine der bisherigen Deutungen passt auf alles gleichzeitig.” None of the interpretations advanced to date covers everything concomitantly. To which we may add that this knot of discrepancies supports the idea that emotions are not so much read out of the facial expressions of painted figures as read into them, once we know, or think we know, the story.
So here are the stories on which the above readings are based, and the authors who broached them. (The characterizations in square brackets in the table above means that the figure is not named in the source; these are attributions to attributions.) I have put the stories in rough chronological order. The authorities cited are not always the only ones to maintain a given identification.
1 Saul forgiving Jonathan after having condemned him to death (1 Samuel 14:45). Werner Sumowski, 1957
2 Saul clothing David with his own cloak and armor (1 Samuel 17:38). Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, 1905
3 Agamemnon condemning Palamedes to death on a trumped-up charge (Diverse post-Homeric sources; Vondel’s play Palamedes of 1625). Maarten Wurfbain, 1976
4 Orestes and Pylades before King Thoas (Cicero, Laelius; Pacuvius, play based on Euripides, Iphigenaia in Tauris; Karel van Mander, Schilder-boeck). Peter Hecht, 2018
5 “The readiness of the Horatians” (Myriad Roman historians; Reynier Olivier van Zonhoven, Der dry Horatien ende Curiatien, 1616). Jeroen Stumpel, 2001
6 “The three Horatii facing King Tullus” (Livy, History of Rome; Reynier Olivier van Zonhoven, Der dry Horatien ende Curiatien, 1616). Pierre Tuynman, 1999
7 L. Junius Brutus condemning his sons Titus and Tiberius to death (Livy, History of Rome, 2.4-5). Wolfgang Stechow, 1929
8 Coriolanus victorious (Livy, History of Rome, 2.33). Egbert Pelinck, 1949
9 Manlius Torquatus sentencing his disobedient son to death (Livy, History of Rome, 8.7.19-22). Wilhelm Valentiner, 1934
10 The magnanimity of Alexander the Great (Quintus Curtius Rufus, Historiae Alexandri Magni Macedonis, 7). Josua Bruyn, 1987
11 The injustice of Gnaeus Piso (Seneca, De ira, 1.18.3-6). Paul Taylor, 2011
12 The magnanimity of Claudius Civilis (Tacitus, Histories, 4.17). Benjamin Binstock in Simon Schama, 1999
13 Consul Cerialis pardoning the German legions (Tacitus, Histories, 4.72). Kurt Bauch, 1960
14 The clemency of Emperor Titus (Suetonius, Life of Titus, 9.1). Frederik Schmidt-Degener, 1941
15 The reconciliation of Ludolf and Conrad the Red with King Otto (Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons). Klaus Demus, cited in 1976 by Wurfbain
16 Emperor Charles V extending mercy to the German cities (Print by Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1556). Bob van de Boogert in van den Wetering and Schnackenburg, 2001
17 The magnanimity of Emperor Ferdinand II ([Only secondary sources cited]). Roel van Straten, 1991
This listing, for which I made grateful use of the entry on the painting in RKD Explore, is not complete. Two unpublished theories that have been submitted to me over the years would come in the first and last positions of a revised list: Joseph recognizing his brothers in Egypt and The revolt of the Huguenots in La Rochelle in 1625.
However we look at it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is either something wrong with us or something wrong with Rembrandt. If the problem lies with us, we have not yet found the incident being depicted. Considering the great breadth of the possibilities, covering a good 2500 years and several civilizations from east to west, there remains a chance that a completely convincing interpretation is still out there to be found, or that someone succeeds in ironing out the counter-indications in one of the existing ones. The alternative is that Rembrandt has failed so completely in capturing the emotions of his figures that only misinterpretations or self-contradictions are possible.
My own published preference, based more on circumstantial than intrinsic evidence, has gone to Agamemnon condemning Palamedes to death. Right now I will let the matter lie. But not without bringing once more into the discussion a piece of visual evidence that I published in 1984 and that as far as I know has been totally and completely ignored by all writers before and since. Below Rembrandt’s painting, look at one from the preceding or the same year by the obscure Dutch painter Reyer van Adelo. They are illustrated in approximate ratio to their actual size.
Rembrandt van Rijn, History painting with disputed subject matter, signed and dated R[L] 166. Oil on panel, 90 x 122 cm. Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal (on loan since 1948 from the Netherlands Agency for Cultural Heritage)
Reyer van Adelo, History painting with uncertain subject, said (unconvincingly to me) to be Joseph before Pharaoh, signed and dated R. van Adelo fecit 1625 (according to earlier sources) or 1626 (according to Turin art dealer who owned it or still does)
Oil on panel, 123 x 163 cm. Turin, Galleria Luigi Caretto
All the elements in this painting, which seems to precede Rembrandt’s by not more than a few months, have close correspondences to Rembrandt’s: Both show a ruler with a sceptre exercising judgment over a kneeling young man with the same scraggy hairdo.
In both paintings the ruler is accompanied by two main figures: a dashing, bearded youngish man in flamboyant silks and a plumed hat and an older man, bearded and bare-headed. Behind the ruler in both paintings are armed men. A particularly striking correspondence concerns the presence of an artist in the ruler’s entourage.
Reyer van Adelo’s painting shows a young, beardless man in a cap with a slashed rim who closely resembles the model for a print after Lucas van Leyden published after his time as a self-portrait. Rembrandt famously put a self-portrait into his own history painting. This would not be the only time he compared himself to his great Leiden forebear.
Hendrick Hondius after Lucas van Leyden, Young man with a skull, in later printing of 1610 identifying the model as the painter himself
Etching and engraving, 22.0 x 13.1 cm
Why none of the seventeen cited writers on Rembrandt’s history painting in Leiden – and many more uncited here – is interested in this, is beyond me. What it suggests to me, if the two paintings have the same subject, is that the main action concerns only the ruler and one kneeling young man, looking much like a victim. The other figures in Rembrandt’s painting are reacting to whatever the ruler is saying, but are not being judged themselves. They will have been added to give context to the incident. Why the kneeling man is undressed in the van Adelo and fully armed in the Rembrandt – the only significant difference between any of the figures – may turn out to be a vital clue in identifying the subject.
And even if the two paintings have different subjects, isn’t it interesting that Rembrandt at the very start of his career should have borrowed so many features from a painting by an artist as obscure as Reyer van Adelo?
Peter – this is surely not the tribute for which you might have hoped, in response to your well-wrought, reasonable and clever article in Simiolus. But the question mark in the title – “Could this be it?” – shows that you did not expect discussion to come to a halt.
© Gary Schwartz 2019. Published on the Schwartzlist on 15 June 2019
P.S. 18 June: In response to the queries below concerning the column in the background of Rembrandt’s painting, here are details of the animal on top and the men at the base. (Images cannot be posted in the query section.) I must agree with Dingeman van Wijnen that the animal looks more like a sheep than a calf (sorry Baruch) or a she-wolf (sorry Jean-Marie), though with an unnaturally highly curved back and a too long tail. With thanks to Museum De Lakenhal.
21 June: In response to Roel van Straten’s comment about the resemblance of the animal on the column to the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece, this picture of the insignia plucked from Internet. The fleece is taken from a ram, which Rembrandt’s animal is not. Are we ready to concede this additional inconsistency?
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My main media contribution to the Rembrandt year 2019 so far is this interview on Turkish English-language television. TRT flew me to Istanbul for two-and-a-half days, an offer I would never refuse. I didn’t even mind when they told me that it was cheaper to bring me to Istanbul and put me up in a hotel than to hire a studio in the Netherlands for a remote interview.