379 Whitewashing Rembrandt, part 1

This is a two-part series about archive researchers, one in 1852 and one in 2019, who were incapable of accepting that Rembrandt was manipulative, no more trustworthy than he had to be, tricky with money, capable of great cruelty and downwardly mobile. Both of these researchers added significantly to our knowledge of Rembrandt’s life, and both coupled their archival findings to the tendentious claim that the documents absolve Rembrandt of all stigma.

The first is Pieter Scheltema (1812-85), city archivist of Amsterdam from 1848 until his death. In 1852 he was called upon to deliver an oration on the eve of the unveiling of a statue of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, in the presence of King Willem III. The appeal to Scheltema was not like your everyday scholarly call for papers. It was virtually an act of state. In 1843 the Belgians, newly seceded from the Kingdom of the Netherlands over which Willem’s grandfather had ruled, celebrated their new nationhood with the elevation of the internationally famous Peter Paul Rubens to the status of a national, Belgian hero. The vehicle was an over life-size statue of Rubens on the Groenplaats cemetery in Antwerp, in the shadow of the venerable Cathedral of our Lady, one of the most prestigious locations in the country.

The Dutch were thrown into turmoil. Their kingdom, even in its truncated form, was three times the size of Belgium and three times richer, and they were not about to cede cultural superiority to the Belgians. They found themselves in acute need of a national hero to vie with Rubens. Rembrandt was the inevitable choice. He too was internationally famous. But what he was famous for did not all redound to his credit. Linking his name and fame to the Nation could bring down ridicule on the Kingdom of the Netherlands, especially in the comparison with Rubens. As the two were seen at the time, Rubens consorted with high and mighty European rulers and aristocrats, Rembrandt with proletarian commoners; Rubens was a financial as well as artistic success, Rembrandt a bankrupt; Rubens was noble in his dealings with others, Rembrandt was a miser who practiced cheap scams to rake in extra cash.

Frontispiece and title page of Scheltema’s book, published in 1853. Rembrand. Oration on the life and merits of Rembrandt van Rijn, with a myriad of historical appendices largely drawn from authentic sources, by Dr. P. Scheltema, Archivist of the Capital City of the Province of Noord-Holland, Honorary Member of the Arti et Amicitiae Society. Scheltema spells the artist’s name without the t “by current fashion, without prejudice against those who spell it differently.” That includes Rembrandt.

And so the city archivist of Amsterdam was called upon to remedy this imbalance by, in his own words, “paying Rembrandt the respect that had been bestowed a few years ago on Rubens in Antwerp, Belgium [and] clearing his character from the blame that has unworthily been cast upon it.” Scheltema had exonerating explanations for everything. Concerning Rembrandt’s social class: If he sought the company of common folk, it was by way of research, to learn their ways for the benefit of his art. His friendship with the famous surgeon Nicholas Tulp, the patrician Jan Six and the poet Jeremias de Decker proves that he did not seek happiness among ordinary people.

As for Rembrandt’s so-called miserliness, this is disproved by his letters to Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange. Rembrandt was painting pictures of the Passion of Christ for Frederik Hendrik, for which, he wrote, he would accept any amount deemed sufficient by the prince, even if he knew it to be less than the paintings were worth. And to Huygens he presented a painting by his hand as a token of heartfelt affection. “Behavior that in no way corresponds to the nature of a self-interested person.”

Scheltema forgives Rembrandt for bending over to pick up fictive coins painted on the studio floor by his pupils. “Even the least selfish among us could fall victim to such deception.” About his scams: How could anyone say that a loving father would send his son out to sell his etchings at a bargain price, claiming to have stolen them? What husband would let his wife spread the rumor that he was dead, in order to raise the price of his paintings? That was in any case impossible because everyone recognized Rembrandt from all those self-portraits. The idea that he printed numerous states of an etching plate only to milk collectors was sheer libel. He did so only to improve the compositions.

An even greater proof that Rembrandt was no miser was that he got into such deep financial trouble later in life. His detractors blame this on his profligacy, which is a lie. He sold his art widely, earned very well, and lived simply. If he went into bankruptcy it was only because times had turned. In 1653 fifteen hundred houses in Amsterdam – some say 3000 – stood empty, and in 1655 the Dutch state had to lower the interest on its bonds. Rembrandt was forced to sell his valuable collection at a low point in the market.

What about the story that he invested in the alchemical projects of Menasseh ben Israel and Ephraim Bueno? True, he knew the former as a learned theologian and the latter as a physician, but for the idea that they practiced the preposterous art of alchemy there is not a shred of evidence.

Why are such slanderous stories told about Rembrandt? For no reason except jealousy. “If virtue is the most beautiful crown of true merit,[…] we hereby restore to Rembrandt the possession of his honor, stolen from him through envy and professional jealousy. We do not hesitate to add to our admiration for his talent respect and esteem for his person.”

Scheltema was right about there being no evidence for the scams and the alchemy. But when it came to proof of Rembrandt’s generosity through his letters and gifts to Constantijn Huygens and of his high social standing through his friendships with respected individuals, he twisted the evidence to the point of falsification. For Rembrandt to write that Frederik Hendrik was paying him less than his paintings were worth was not an act of beneficence, it was a chutzpah. And Huygens was incensed that Rembrandt offered him a large painting as a gift and refused to accept it.

Rembrandt was not befriended with Nicholas Tulp, and his friendship with Tulp’s son-in-law Jan Six ended abruptly shortly before Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, just when he could have used support. Jeremias de Decker was a pretty good poet, but his social standing was lower than Rembrandt’s.

With this pumping up of authentic documents and ridiculing red herrings, Scheltema proclaims the Dutchman Rembrandt to be as noble a soul as the Belgian Rubens. Evidence to the contrary could be safely ignored, since it could not be true. There is therefore no mention of the following:

– Aspersions on Rembrandt’s low social status and his neglect of highly-placed patrons originated with a writer who knew Rembrandt quite well personally: Joachim von Sandrart, who had no reason to be jealous of Rembrandt.
– His arrogant personal manners were commented on by the Italian biographer Filippo Baldinucci, on the basis of first-hand testimony of a former pupil of Rembrandt’s.
– The origin for the smears on Rembrandt’s moneygrubbing comes from a pupil of a Rembrandt pupil, Arnold Houbraken. In all three volumes of his lives of the Netherlandish painters and paintresses, Rembrandt is the only one who is accused of this fault.

“These pages about their great countryman, the immortal Rembrand, are reverently dedicated by the author to his countrymen.” Scheltema left no one in doubt about the nationalistic purpose of his publication.

These authentic testimonies were the source of those later defamatory judgments of Rembrandt. Not a single nice word about Rembrandt’s character was published until deep in the nineteenth century. In 1852, then, Pieter Scheltema launched modern Rembrandt studies in a defensive mode, with a chip on his shoulder, and in deliberate denial of contemporaneous opinion about the man. We are still living with the consequences, as we shall see in part 2 of this series, in which a 21st-century researcher does Scheltema one better.

© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 14 February 2020

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15 thoughts on “379 Whitewashing Rembrandt, part 1”

  1. Political beginning specially welcome because so much of Rembrandt mythic history is classism, varying with century – and including the democratic rebel genius proto-Beethoven.

    1. Yes, it’s fascinating that Rembrandt should at one and the same time, in the mid-nineteenth century, be elevated to a higher social status by some, and lauded by others for his disdain for the haute bourgeoisie and the court.

      1. The effort to conjure a bourgeois Rembrandt rightly makes us cringe today, but the question of Rembrandt’s attitude toward the powerful of his day remains open and fascinating. I wonder what he would have thought of his friend Thomas Asseleyn’s 1668 play about Masianello, the prominent rebel figure of his age. He would probably have approved of Asseleyn’s plea for originality, as opposed to the translation of existing works (i.e. Nil Volentibus Arduum), in the introduction to the play.

  2. Thank You! It was and is indeed remarkable the abuse of artists in the name of politics.
    Rembrandt cast a shadow over my years at the (original) Rijksacademie. It was him and him only, we were taught.
    What a relief after the ‘spell’ lifted to discover the energy of Rubens.

  3. Monica, I’m sorry to hear that Rembrandt was used to bully you and glad that you rose above the ordeal. But you won’t find me putting down Rembrandt’s art because he became a patriotic fetish!

  4. Gary, If you haven’t seen the wondrous film, “Phantom Thread”, then do so: a plea that we should forgive artists a great deal because of what they give us! Of course, that is not the same as distorting or obfuscating history. But like all incredibly talented figures (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Turner, Bobby Fischer, Angela Gheorghiu…) they become exceptional by developing one part of the brain, but often at the expense of others, and the parts that control social skills and emotions (the limbic system) are often the first to suffer neglect…Psychiatrists know this very well.

    I am looking forward to Part 2, it should be fun….

    Best wishes,

    PS: Marina thinks she can excuse Rembrandt’s bad behaviour and choice of models because he himself was so ugly!

    1. Dear Martin,

      I am relieved if not altogether pleased to say that my doubts about Rembrandt’s character have not yet affected my love for and absorption in his art. Nor have they affected my appreciation of the artists you name.

      Biography has however interfered with my ability to enjoy the work of Bill Cosby and Anthony Bourdain. That the pater familias whose show warmed my heart has turned into a rapist, and that a life-lover put an end to an existence that was a kind of model to me induce reactions that I cannot reason away on general principles. I cannot enjoy their work with the same looker’s surrender that I could before. Kevin Spacey is a borderline case, as is James Levine and even to a degree Picasso.

      So this issue is not capable of categorical resolution for me one way or the other. I will however look out for “Phantom Thread” to see whether it can pull me over the line.

      As you note, though, in this column and the one to come the object of my disquiet is not the artist but the scholar, who to my mind has clearer ethical responsibilities. My framework is not artistic creativity and its psychology but scholarship and its demands.

      Your old friend,

      P.S. I never thought Rembrandt was ugly, but from now I will have to think of Marina’s judgment whenever I look at his face.

  5. I second MR-K’s recommendation of Phantom Thread, which also has a beautiful score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

    You are right though, Gary, the main point isn’t really about Rembrandt, but how we as scholars deal with evidence, and what questions we ask. Looking forward to your perspective in part II.

    All the best,


  6. Gary my Love: Your research takes you to the damndest places, always to our benefit. But Bill Cosby never was an artist. xo

    1. Maybe not, dearest Marilyn, but what I was worrying about was how response is affected by what you know about the maker of a work. For example, my awed admiration for Journey to the End of the Night is somehow not affected by what I know about Céline, but I get annoyed with myself for liking Roald Dahl so much. In the case of Bill Cosby, I guess it was not only his rapacious behavior that now upsets me as a viewer but also the sheer hypocrisy that allowed him to act Cliff Huxtable on camera and prey on girls behind the scenes.

  7. To add to your discussion of Scheltema, here is a quote from Marten Jan Bok, who argues (in “Rembrandt’s Fame and Rembrandt’s Failure,” in “Rembrandt and Dutch History Painting in the 17th Century”, Tokyo 2003; citing the exh cat “Het Rembrandtbeeld,” Amsterdam Museum 1977) that Rembrandt’s contemporaries would have viewed his financial dealings as dishonest: “Rembrandt’s disgrace was such that it was still remembered by Amsterdam patrician families in the nineteenth century, when art historians stated to promote Rembrandt as a national hero. It turned out to be impossible to raise enough money to commemorate him with a bronze statue, and as a result Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam is adorned today with a much less expensive, cast-iron statue, painted over with bronze-coloured paint.”

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. That is one of the recurring issues that takes on different meanings in different times. Machiel Bosman (see part 2) argues that the cessio bonorum did not affect Rembrandt’s repute with his contemporaries. I too have my doubts.

  8. Late to this discussion. Very interesting, and not in the least surprised that some Dutch historians continue to have a vested interest to redeem Rembrandt’s character alongside his artwork. Few things are as embarrassing to the Dutch as bankruptcy, even though there were attempts (much later than Rembrandt’s lifetimes) to recalibrate the shamefulness of bankruptcy. (See James Q. Whitman, “The moral menace of Roman Law and the Making of Commerce: some Dutch evidence” in Yale Law Journal, for a fascinating study of how moral sentiments changed in Dutch society over time, and became increasingly disentangled from notions of public shame and shaming.)

    As to Gary Schwartz’s great points above, I think it’s intellectually correct to separate the question of the moral worth of an artist’s character from the historiographically immoral act of hagiography.

    Psychologically, however, there’s a very serious temptation for inferior historians to move from one to the other. Suppose you study a beloved artist or intellectual figure for a life time. Then, years later, you find out he or she was actually a horrible person and not in the least deserving of you having dedicated so much of your lifetime to that figure. In this moment of shock and disbelief, you can either face up to reality or resort to hagiography. Hagiography, here, is not so much a redemption of the figure studied as an apologia sua pro vita. (“I am a good person, thus I cannot have dedicated this much of my life to a person of bad character.”)

    This is especially so where the separation of art and artist is not that easy to make, as Gary Schwartz pointed out a propos Bill Cosby. Imagine you’re the curator of Cosby’s records for 30 years and then the news hit. You can now either dedicate your life to write the one biography that redeems Cosby, or you face reality and some hard questions.

    My favorite example of a historian standing above hagiography at this moment of shock comes not from the arts but their sibling, philosophy.

    The late Michael Dummett, the leading historian and defender of Gottlob Frege’s philosophical ideas, was incidentally also much involved in fighting racism and anti-immigration in Britain, even taking a sabbatical from academic duties to work for racial justice causes. Here’s how Dummett concludes one of his last works:

    “There is some irony for me in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a fragment of a diary which survives among Frege’s Nachlass, but which was not published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and preferably, expelled from Germany.
    “When I first reread that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a very likeable one. I regret that the editors of Frege’s Nachlass chose to suppress that particular item. From it I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe, also.”

    1. These are important considerations, Stefan, and I’m very grateful to you for putting them down. With the rise of movements like Occupy, Yellow Vests, MeToo and Black Lives Matter, it is clearer all the time that nothing in history and in our own consciousness and behavior can ever be completely exempt from reproach. In scholarship, we can think of the Historikerstreit when in the 1980s German intellectuals anathemized each other for wrong-thinking about Nazism. In the Netherlands in the 1970s the Leiden professor of criminology, Wouter Buikhuizen, was hounded out of his chair for suggesting that there might be a genetic element in criminal behavior.

      It’s a question of shifting boundaries – where are the new red lines for this, the unnegotiable demands for that, and how do I stand in relation to them? In the reactions to Schwartzlist 383 (“Ä victim of police murder I knew,” originally titled, insensitively, “You don’t have to be black”) I found myself placed on the wrong side of a moral border. It’s a good thing to question ourselves and to be questioned by others, it’s good not to think of yourself as being in possession of ineffable integrity, and it isn’t even bad to be on a constantly shifting table of values. But it demands an ongoing balancing act and awareness that you are always going to look bad to some perfectly sincerely and responsible others.

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