378 “The mother’s eye reveals the son”

A splendid documentary on the ownership of and trade in Rembrandt paintings prompts Schwartz to ask questions not posed in the film. What went on behind the scenes in Paris to allow the Rothschild family to sell abroad a treasure of French cultural heritage? And could the Duke of Buccleuch’s painting of an old woman reading not be the mother of Jan Six?

Oeke Hoogendijk makes beautifully filmed documentaries of great fascination. Her newest creation, “My Rembrandt,” had its premiere at IDFA 2019, the extraordinary International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, on November 24th. Being abroad that day, Loekie and I missed the first screening. The rest were all sold out, and it was only thanks to a chance meeting with the producer that I was able to get two tickets to the last showing, on November 30th.

The title is well chosen. It captures the spirit in which people involved with Rembrandt in one way or another – inheritor, collector, dealer, museum director, art historian, restorer – take possession of him. Hoogendijk achieves such trusting rapport with the people she films that they let her camera keep rolling in moments of high tension or when they are not behaving their best. Because the events she documents are interesting in themselves – high-stakes doings in the art trade, diplomatic maneuvering, museum acquisitiveness – we get to witness events that otherwise do not come out into the open.

Rembrandt’s portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit as they hung in the bedroom of Eric de Rothschild before being sold to the Louvre (Oopjen) and the Rijksmuseum (Marten) in 2015

There are two things I would add to her revelations, one gossipy and one scholarly. The gossip concerns the famous sale in 2015 by Baron Eric de Rothschild to the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum of the life-size, full-length pendant portraits by Rembrandt of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. (The footage in “My Rembrandt” concerning this historical event is taken from Hoogendijk’s earlier tv documentary “Marten en Oopjen: portret van een huwelijk.”) Baron de Rothschild told the camera that he only sold the paintings out of his bedroom – for a tidy 160 million euros – because his brother Robert needed money to pay “gift taxes.” Robert is a younger brother of Eric’s. There is another sibling in the family, their older sister Béatrice. She is not mentioned in the film, and from online sources I was unable to find out whether she shared in the Rembrandt revenues. What makes this more than a matter of mere curiosity is that Béatrice is married to the honorary (and former sitting) president-director of the Louvre, Pierre Rosenberg. (Rosenberg was elected in 1995 to seat 23 of the Académie Française.) Could the Rembrandts have been bought by the Louvre and, with a quickly issued export license, the Rijksmuseum, without the involvement of Rosenberg, the most powerful French museum official of our times? No way, if you ask me, which no one did. That his name and that of Béatrice have stayed out of the publicity concerning the sale I see as the outcome of a successful conspiracy of silence. I cannot blame Hoogendijk for not being an investigative journalist, but I would have liked to learn whether Rosenberg was involved in the granting of an export license for paintings in which his family, and perhaps he himself, had an interest, a license that doubled or tripled their value.

The star Rembrandt of “My Rembrandt” is however not those show-off society portraits but the intimate painting of an elderly woman reading. The fortunate person who can call the Rembrandt his is the Duke of Buccleuch, in whose family the painting has been since the 1760s. He has competition. The director of the Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, tells us frankly that he would like to call it his, for his museum.

Rembrandt, An old woman reading, signed and dated Rembrandt f. 1655
Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 66 cm
Drumlanrig Castle, collection of the Duke of Bucchleuch and Queensberry

I may have missed this, but no mention seems to have been made of the occasion for Dibbits’s visit to Drumlanrig Castle, in its 90,000 acre estate. That must have been to arrange for the loan of the Old woman reading for the National Gallery-Rijksmuseum exhibition Late Rembrandt in 2014-15.

It was touching to see the devotion paid to the old lady by the duke. He said that he feels her presence, as if she were in the room with him. This brought to mind a theory I launched thirty-five years ago, in which I identified the sitter as a woman who had died the year before the painting was made. This would give her the kind of spooky presence that the duke experiences. My candidate: Anna Wijmer, the widowed mother of Rembrandt’s friend and patron Jan Six. In a book on Rembrandt published in Dutch in 1984 and English in 1985, I wrote the following (typed out below):

Left: Rembrandt’s drawing in Jan Six’s art album, Pandora, signed and dated Rembrandt f 1652. Amsterdam, Six Collection
Right: The portrait in the Six collection, dated 1641, that is identified as Anna Wijmer at the (unlikely) age of 57. Whether it is or not, I propose that Vondel’s poem on a painting of Anna Wijmer refers not to that painting but to the one in the Buccleuch collection, showing Anna after her death at 70.

There is evidence, albeit inconclusive, that Rembrandt painted the mother of Jan Six, Anna Wijmer (1584-1654). In Hollantsche Parnas, Vondel wrote poems on painted portraits of the mother and son that are taken to refer to paintings by Rembrandt, although the artist is not named. In the Six collection is a painting dated 1641 that is usually identified as that work, but both the identity of the sitter and the authorship of the painting are questionable.

As an alternative, I would suggest that the painting in the Buccleuch collection is a posthumous portrait of Anna Wijmer. Rembrandt’s second drawing in Six’s art album is probably an allegorical depiction of Anna as Athena, reading a book. Vondel’s poem, which is otherwise obscure, becomes a bit clearer if we assume that the portrait it describes shows a literary mother reading a book by her son:

Anna Wijmer, who did give
Life to Six, here seems to live.
She hides the breasts he sucked upon
The mother’s eye reveals the son.

As Christopher Brown has pointed out, the device of illuminating the sitter’s face with light reflected from an open book was first used by Rembrandt in the etched portrait of Jan Six.

Vondel’s poems on portraits of Anna Wijmer and Jan Six in my copy of Hollantsche Parnas, Amsterdam (J. Lescaille) 1660

In the catalogue to the Late Rembrandt exhibition, Jonathan Bikker relates the image to notions of piety, saying that the book being read is the Bible. But is it a Bible? It doesn’t look like one. To my eye it looks more like the bound copy of Jan Six’s play Medea (1648), for which Rembrandt etched a frontispiece, that I saw once in the Six Collection.

Jan Six, in Rembrandt’s etched portrait of 1648, and – as here proposed – his mother Anna Wijmer being illuminated from the printed page.

To my earlier idea I would add that the opening words of Vondel’s poem – that Anna seems to live – are particularly appropriate for a posthumous portrait. The theory calls for an explanation, which I cannot offer, of how the painting ended up not with the Sixes but with the Buccleuchs.

Whatever the merits of this proposal, which no one seems to have considered since 1984, it would have worked beautifully in “My Rembrandt,” in which most attention is given to the art dealer Jan Six, the eleventh heir of that name to be descended from Anna Wijmer’s son.

© Gary Schwartz 2019. Published on the Schwartzlist on 6 December 2019. For my ideas about the link between Jan Six’s Medea and Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, see Gary Schwartz, “‘Though deficient in beauty’: a documentary history and interpretation of Rembrandt’s 1654 painting of Bathsheba,” in: Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reading King David’s letter, ed. Ann Jensen Adams, Cambridge, England (Cambridge University Press) 1998, pp. 176-203

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11 thoughts on “378 “The mother’s eye reveals the son””

  1. There is one more piece of circumstantial evidence to link the Buccleuch painting to Jan Six, and that is the fact that it was painted around the same time as the famous Portrait of Jan Six in the Six house, that is, in the mid 1650s. The paintings are not pendants, but if they were intended to hang in the same room, this might explain why the Portrait of Jan Six unexpectedly lacks a signature and date.

    1. Indeed, I think my identification opens up new possibilities for looking at all of Rembrandt’s work for Jan Six.

  2. Dearest: Wonderful to recollect your own earlier brilliance, in the style of Rembrandt. Art History is salvation.

    1. From your mouth into the ear of if not the Almighty, then at least the presidents of universities. Thank you, my love.

  3. I agree with Benjamin. Great insights indeed!

    The idea that anyone would say that a portrait vividly evokes the presence of the individual portrayed is perhaps the greatest tribute one can give to a portrait. That’s what they’re for, right?

    Zijn leven, zijn schilderijen is still an important book, Gary!

  4. I agree with Benjamin. Great insights, Gary.

    The idea that anyone would say that a portrait vividly evokes the presence of the individual portrayed is perhaps the greatest tribute one can give to a portrait. That’s what they’re for, right?

    Zijn leven, zijn schilderijen will always be an important book!

  5. Thank You Gary for this brilliant post – as for me, it has arrived the best time it could and helped me a lot, since I have been working on an essay exactly on the Anna Wijmer-portrait (actually on the difference between the ways she and prophetess Hanna in the 1631 piece are ‘reading’ …

    1. Sounds great, András, I’m looking forward to reading your essay. Also looking forward to seeing you again in Budapest in the third week of April, if plans work out.

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