This is a two-part series about archive researchers incapable of accepting that Rembrandt was manipulative, no more trustworthy than he had to be, tricky with money, capable of great cruelty, and about whom in his century few people had a nice word to say. Both of these researchers added significantly to our knowledge of Rembrandt’s life, and both coupled their archival citations to tendentious claims that the documents absolve Rembrandt of all stigma.
If in 1852 Pieter Scheltema undertook to whitewash Rembrandt out of patriotism, in 2019 Machiel Bosman did so not for love of country but in order to aggrandize himself by belittling other researchers. Here is the blurb for his (Dutch-language) book Rembrandt’s plan: the true history of his bankruptcy, written on his authority.
Rembrandt van Rijn was a difficult person with little consideration for others. He was a spendthrift and engineered a deceitful bankruptcy. And he had a turbulent love life with among others Geertje Dircx, whom he cruelly had incarcerated in the Spinhuis in Gouda. Right?
No. These are “alternative facts.” This is what scholars have made of things in a kind of grapevine game: they parrot each other. Machiel Bosman follows Rembrandt’s life through the later years, including his bankruptcy, the years that define his image. And he performs fact checking: what did the experts write, and how does this relate to the sources? It then turns out that there is little we can say with assurance about Geertje Dircx, and that Rembrandt’s bankruptcy had a different complexion than has been assumed until now – which sheds a different light on his character. In the Rembrandt Year 2019 Machiel Bosman revises our picture of Rembrandt. Not only that, but he also shows that writing history has a lot to gain when one returns to the source.
Being one of the expert scholars targeted, I objected about this text to Bosman, with whom I had been engaged in discussion and correspondence for a year before the appearance of his book. The only change he made was to the sentence about parroting, which now reads: “These are ‘alternative facts.’ They are post hoc constructions for which there is no proof.”
For a critic with so much attitude, Bosman is remarkably imprecise, in addition to being wrong-headed and nasty. The objects of his scorn are straw men. Speaking as one of those under attack, I can say that my opinion of Rembrandt’s character has a wider base than an interpretation of his behavior toward Geertje Dircx or his conduct during his bankruptcy. (See below.) These episodes fit into lifelong patterns that I signaled in my books on Rembrandt of 1984 and 2006, which I moreover laid out to Bosman in correspondence, and which he pointedly ignores. Neither I nor anyone else ever said that Rembrandt had a turbulent love life, only that his ditching of Geertje Dircx in favor of Hendrickje Stoffels had fateful consequences for Geertje. And as for Rembrandt’s bankruptcy being deceitful – Bosman himself is the chief author of a theory of this kind. The main new piece of evidence he adduces is a court finding that he says proves that Rembrandt lied about the size of his fortune upon the death of his wife Saskia in order to divert as much of the bankruptcy proceeds as possible to their son Titus (and thereby to himself), at the expense of other claimants.
The tone of the blurb carries over into the book, which is full of deriding comments on earlier writers on Rembrandt. Throughout, Bosman blatantly applies a double standard. Of his predecessors, he mocks the qualifications they employ: “this one has to, another should, the third can – but where is the proof? It isn’t there,” suggesting that their reconstructions of events are irresponsibly speculative. In fact, his own reconstructions are even more so. He brings into the discussion an abundance of judicial, administrative and notarial sources and then, with as little proof as anyone else, proceeds to read the minds of all concerned. He tells us why the actors behaved the way they did, what the alternatives were and why they did not adopt them. At every turn he dishes up a dizzying new mix of laws, regulations and practices that no reader can possibly judge without redoing his research. (Which is made additionally difficult because his book lacks a list of sources and even an index. Most of his source material comes from the same compendiums we all use.) He writes this up with great aplomb, as if privy to the thinking of all involved. Earlier interpretations that do not agree with his, he dismisses as “lacking a single shred of evidence.”
But when in the second section of his book he anatomizes earlier historiography more systematically, the burden of proof is reversed by 180 degrees. From then on, we are told that “there is no evidence to disprove” an assertion of his. These assertions are all guided by the desire to extol his own scholarship by whitewashing Rembrandt. If there is a way, however convoluted, to interpret a document in Rembrandt’s favor, Bosman promotes it to the status of a fact. Even direct, first-person criticisms of Rembrandt, made under oath, are dismissed by Bosman. Rembrandt’s own statement to the bankruptcy court, under the scrutiny of his creditors, is called a fiction. Whenever it serves his case, he claims to know that a given statement is boilerplate cliché and therefore lacking in truth value, that the person making the deposition has a hidden agenda and is not to be trusted, or that there are outside circumstances that should make us believe the exact opposite of what it being sworn to.
What Bosman does not tell the reader is that the critical view of Rembrandt’s character he attempts to subvert is not that old. Between 1852 and the 1960s, Rembrandt stood on a pedestal as a model of humaneness and understanding. The turning points can be dated to 1964 and 1965, when H.F. Wijnman and Dirk Vis raked Rembrandt over the coals for his treatment of Geertje, and 1984, when I integrated that story into a biography of Rembrandt, finding other evidence as well for his contentiousness and virtually none for that famous sympathy. Because Bosman has turned this into an issue, let me tabulate the documents concerning conflicts in which Rembrandt was involved. The references are to Walter Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt documents, New York (Abaris) 1969 and the website Remdoc.
|Lawsuit against Albertus van Loo and wife, in the name of Rembrandt and his brother-in-law Idzert Ulenburch, concerning the estate of his father-in-law. Judgment in their favor.|
|1637/7||Deposition of Samuel d’Orta, suspecting Rembrandt of cheating him by printing for himself and for sale impressions of an etching plate he had sold to Orta, with exclusive rights. Upshot unknown.|
|1638/3; remdoc/e4448||Lawsuit against Dirck Alberts, in the name of Rembrandt and others, including Idzert Ulenburch, concerning sale of a farm. Judgment in their favor.|
|1638/7; remdoc/e13700||Rembrandt sues Albertus van Loo for slandering Rembrandt and Saskia. Loses the case, has to pay costs.|
|1639 1659/21; remdoc/e12837
|As attested in 1659 by Hendrick Uylenburgh, in 1639 Rembrandt took Andries de Graeff to arbitrage to force acceptance of delivery and paying for portrait. He wins the case.|
|1643/1; remdoc/e4518||Lawsuit in Rembrandt’s name against Dirck Alberts. Judgment in his favor.|
|Rembrandt sues Cornelius Heermans and Dirck Alberts. Judgment in his favor.|
|1647/1||Burgomasters of Leiden request burgomasters of Amsterdam to collect inheritance taxes from Rembrandt, implying attempt to evade collection.|
|1649/3; remdoc/e4574||Amsterdam Chamber of Marital Affairs fines Rembrandt for failing to answer a summons to appear at a suit brought against him by Geertje Dircx for breach of marital promise. (In 1647 Geertje had drawn up a testament making Rembrandt’s son Titus her universal heir.)|
|Troubled negotiations between Rembrandt and Geertje.|
|1649/8; remdoc/e4580||Chamber of Marital Affairs fines Rembrandt for failing to answer a second summons in the case.|
|1649/9; remdoc/e4581||Final settlement of Geertje’s claim, in her favor, on more advantageous terms than in the mutual negotiations. Rembrandt attends the session. He denies having promised to marry Geertje and says it is up to her to prove that he ever slept with her.|
|1650/5||Document lost, but on the basis of 1656/4 it can be inferred that Rembrandt initiated the gathering of statements by neighbors of Geertje concerning her conduct and her commitment to a house of correction, the Spinhuis of Gouda.|
|1652/1; remdoc/e4596||Rembrandt pays assessment tax on house purchased in 1639, after being in arrears.|
|1653/2; remdoc/e4623||Rembrandt summoned, in his absence from his house, to pay the transfer tax on the deed of his house, which had been advanced by the seller, Christoffel Thijsz.|
|1653/3; remdoc/e4624||Rembrandt summoned for the second time to pay the transfer tax.|
|1653/6; remdoc/e4628||Statement of long overdue payments to Christoffel Thijsz for purchase of house, advances, taxes, expenses and interest.|
|Christoffel Thijsz presents his bill to Rembrandt. Rembrandt refuses to accept it on 4 February 1653, allows it on 10 December 1654.|
|Disagreement between Rembrandt and his neighbor Daniel Pinto over jacking up a shared wall.|
|1654/4; remdoc/e1661||Patron who ordered a portrait of a young woman from Rembrandt requests repayment of advance out of disappointment with likeness. Rembrandt refuses, also refuses to retouch the painting until full purchase price is paid.|
|1654/8; remdoc/e4653||Rembrandt in conflict with neighbor Daniel Pinto about noise in cellar.|
|Rembrandt demands payment from Dirck van Cattenburgh, receives it the next day.|
|1656/2; remdoc/e4694||Pieter Dircx, Geertje’s brother, a ship’s carpenter, asks Rembrandt to drop a restraining order against him, in order to be able to sail on a ship where he had been engaged. Rembrandt refuses.|
|1656/4; remdoc/e4696||Cornelis Jans attests upon Rembrandt’s behalf that she aided in 1650 in bringing Geertje Dircx to the Spinhuis.|
|1656/5; remdoc/e4698||Trijn Outger testifies that when in 1655 she went to Rembrandt to tell him that she was trying to get Geertje released, he threatened her, telling her she would be sorry if she did.|
|1656/20; remdoc/e12739||Hiskia Uylenburgh, Saskia’s sister, initiates a court case against Rembrandt, for unknown reasons.|
|A debt of one thousand guilders that Rembrandt had incurred with Jan Six had been guaranteed by Rembrandt’s friend Lodewijk van Ludick. In 1657, after Jan Six sold the claim to Gerbrand Ornia, Ornia, seeing that Rembrandt could not come up with the cash, demands payment from van Ludick. The debt went from hand to hand, building up interest, to the detriment of van Ludick.|
|1659/18; remdoc/e12788||An agreement between Rembrandt and Jan Six dating from 1652 is declared null and void. Rembrandt claims to have lost the contract. No further contact between the two is recorded, after a friendship and patronage relationship that had lasted some ten years, until about 1655.|
|Rembrandt’s Sicilian patron Don Antonio Ruffo complains about Rembrandt’s faulty assembly of a commissioned painting, asking for either a replacement or repayment. Rembrandt’s response, preserved only in an Italian translation, is that “credo che vi sono pochi amatori a Messina” – I don’t think there are many cognoscenti in Messina – and he stonewalls about payment.|
|Titus recommended Rembrandt to a Leiden publisher for execution of a portrait engraving. Rembrandt delivers an etching, leading to complaint by the publisher and embarrassment for Titus.|
|Frustrated attempts by Harmen Becker, the last holder of the Jan Six debt, to get payment from Rembrandt in the form of paintings. Rembrandt fails to deliver papers relating to the agreement and falls short in meeting agreed-upon obligations.|
|1666/2; remdoc/e13039||Rembrandt in arrears on rent.|
|1666 (not in either source)||Commissioned to submit models for an altarpiece of the Annunciation of the Virgin in Genoa, Rembrandt increases his asking price by 250 percent and delays so long that the ship on which the oil sketches should have gone is iced in for the winter. “He is an unpredictable man,” wrote the captain to his principals, “but that doesn’t surprise me at all, because he is a painter and by nature they generally do not keep their word.”|
Over and against this cocktail of litigiousness, untrustworthiness, recalcitrance, mendacity, arrogance and vindictiveness – and there is more like it, in less outspoken form – there is a single document among the 500 or so in The Rembrandt Documents that shows Rembrandt behaving nicely. Why we don’t know, but on 1 November 1642 he guaranteed the payment of 1200 guilders pledged by two Edam dignitaries for the ransom of two fellow townsmen who had been captured from shipboard on the Barbary coast (1642/8; remdoc/e4513). Since the principal guarantors pledged “their persons and possessions, both present and future, nothing excluded, and subjecting themselves to law and justice,” Rembrandt wasn’t taking much of a chance. But give him credit where credit is due. Too bad we cannot also give him credit for making a loan, witnessing a document, being a godfather, helping a friend or colleague, conducting an appraisal, serving on a board, volunteering service, giving charity, or for any of the other kinds of cooperativeness and mutual respect that many other Dutch artists displayed. True, everyday goodness did not find its way into the archives as readily as disputes, but its absence in 45 years of Rembrandt’s adulthood is a disturbing fact.
And that’s where Machiel Bosman comes in. Believe it or not, he looks for innocence in Rembrandt’s heinous behavior toward Geertje and goodness in his stiffing of people who lent him money! For each and every document in these cases he finds a different possible explanation than what was sworn to by the deponents, explanations that make Rembrandt look good. The other documents listed above, which establish a pattern in his behavior and reflect on his character, Bosman simply ignores. This allows him to claim triumphantly that he has succeeded in rehabilitating Rembrandt’s character against the charges brought against him by all those purveyors of alternative facts who moreover do not bother to read the documents.
This is really too bad, because Bosman has performed prodigious research, his findings give grounds for fresh thought, and he has indeed put his finger on some misunderstandings and mistakes of other scholars. With his rebarbative manner and tendentious argumentation, though, his pose as possessor of the truth, and hitching his wagon to Rembrandt’s reputation, he sheds more light on his own character than on Rembrandt’s. Admitting that I am a special case in this regard, Bosman has ruined all his good work for me.
© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 1 March 2020.
Dejected as I am about the US elections, I derive some solace from the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren. Not only for her unparalleled intellectual qualifications, impressive achievements in the Senate, and for professing the kind of progressive politics that are my own, but also for her civility and good humor. America paid itself an undying compliment in 2008 and 2012 with the election and re-election of Barack Obama. As little hope as is allowed right now that it will do the same again by electing Warren, her race stands out as a model that in some bright future may carry the day.
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