388 Convention and uniqueness in Rembrandt’s response to the east

On 29 and 30 October 2020, the ceremonial openings were to have taken place of an exhibition in Kunstmuseum Basel of which I am guest curator: Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century. Because of the pandemic, no openings are being held. Today, I am pleased to say, 31 October, the exhibition is open to the public. Travel restrictions have kept me from being in on the hanging or seeing the exhibition at all for the time being. I can only hope that I can see it before it closes on 14 February 2021 and that by the time the exhibition moves on to Museum Barberini in Potsdam in March 2021 there will be an opening at which I can speak. The catalogue includes an essay of mine on Rembrandt. It had to be shortened, but I have permission from the museums to publish the complete version on the Schwartzlist. The essay is a review of oriental motifs in Rembrandt’s art, which tend to be conventional, and an argument concerning the nature of one group of works that is entirely unique.

To entice you into reading the essay, this column shows only the illustrations. To find out what I have to say about them, click here.

Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg, The Siege of Bethulia, ca. 1615 | Oil on canvas, 101 x 125.5 cm | Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal (S 5189)

Pieter Lastman, Laban Searching for the Lost Idols, 1622 | Oil on panel, 110 x 152 cm |Boulogne-sur-Mer, Musée Boulogne sur Mer (147.13)

Ornamental Lotto carpet with cartouche design in border, early seventeenth century, thought to be made in Turkey | 123.8 x 175.9 cm | New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The James F. Ballard Collection, gift of James F. Ballard, 1922 (22.100.112)

Sebastiano del Piombo, Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary, and Two Geographers, 1516 | Oil on panel, 121.8 x 150.4 cm | Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection (1961.9.37)

Pieter Lastman, The Adoration of the Magi, 1608 | Oil on canvas, 97.5 x 132 cm | Prague, Národní Galerie

Pieter Lastman, Bileam’s Ass Balking at the Angel, 1622 | Oil on panel, 41.3 x 60.3 cm | Jerusalem, Israel Museum, Gift of Lila and Herman Shickman, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum (B97.0069)

Rembrandt, Bileam’s Ass Balking at the Angel, 1626 | Oil on panel, 63 x 48.5 cm |Paris, Musée Cognacq-Jay (J 95; following a spectacular cleaning)

Renier Persijn after Joachim von Sandrart after Titian, Ludovico Ariosto, ca. latter 1630s | Engraving, 26.0 x 19.6 cm. End of inscription: E. Titiani Prototypo in aedibus Alph: Lopez | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-60.201)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill, 1639 | Etching, 20.6 x 16.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-37)

Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1621 (detail, in mirror image) | Engraving after a painting now in Lyon, 55.8 x 73.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-70.341)

Rembrandt, David Presenting the Head of Goliath to Saul, 1627 (detail) | Oil on panel, 27.4 x 39.7 cm | Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel (G 1958.37)

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, Mulay Ahmed, ca. 1535-36 | Etching on paper, 46.4 x 37.7 cm | Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (L 1959/51 (PK))

Peter Paul Rubens, Mulay Ahmed, ca. 1609 | Oil on panel, 99.7 x 71.5 cm | Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (40.2)

Pieter Lastman, Baptism of the Eunuch, 1620 (detail) | Oil on panel, 70 x 104 cm | Munich, Alte Pinakothek (10735)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1609 | Oil on canvas, 355.5 x 493 cm | Madrid, Museo del Prado (P001638)


Geuzenpenning, 1570 | Cast silver. ca. 35 mm, with texts LIVER TVRCX DAN PAVS and ENDESPIT DELA MES, “I’d rather be a Turk than a Catholic” and “In defiance of the Mass” | Private collection


Jan Lievens, Man Dressed as an Oriental Prince, ca. 1629 | Oil on canvas, 135 x 100.5 cm | Potsdam, Bildergalerie Sans Souci (GK I 884)

Rembrandt, Man in Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”), 1632 | Oil on canvas, 152.7 x 111.1 cm | New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (20.155.2)


Rembrandt, Bust of an Old Man in a Turban, ca. 1627-28 | Oil on panel, 26.5 x 20 cm | The Kremer Collection

Jan Gillisz van Vliet after Rembrandt, Bust of an Oriental, ca. 1634 | Etching on paper, 22.8 x 18.8 cm | London, British Museum (F,6.151)

Jan Lievens, Old Man With Skullcap, ca. 1630-32 or 1635-44 | Etching, 16.4 x 14.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1952-367) Jan Lievens, Old Man With Headscarf, ca. 1630-32 | Etching, 16.4 x 14.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.559) Jan Lievens, An Oriental With Beard and Headscarf, ca. 1630-32 | Etching, 16.0 x 14.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.553) Jan Lievens, A Young Man With a Velvet Beret, ca. 1631-32 | Etching, 14.6 x 12.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-12.570)
Rembrandt, The First Oriental Head, 1635 | Etching, 15.1 x 12.4 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-581) Rembrandt, The Second Oriental Head, ca. 1635 | Etching, 15.1 x 12.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-582) Rembrandt, The Third Oriental Head, 1635 | Etching, 15.4 x 13.0 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-583) Rembrandt, The Fourth Oriental Head, ca. 1635 | Etching, 15.8 x 13.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-585)

Rembrandt and workshop, A Bearded Old Man in Middle Eastern Dress, signed and dated Rembrandt f. / 163[6 or 7] | Oil on panel, 74.7 x 54.5 cm | Knowsley Hall, The Earl of Derby


Rembrandt, Self-portrait in Oriental Dress, 1631 | Oil on panel, 63 x 56 cm | Paris, Musée du Petit Palais (PTUD925)

Costanzo da Ferrara after Gentile Bellini, Turkish Man Standing, ca. 1495 | Pen and ink on paper, 30.1 x 20.4 cm | Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques (4655 recto)

Bernardo Pinturicchio, Pope Pius II arriving in Ancona, ca. 1502-07 (detail) | Fresco | Siena, Cathedral, Biblioteca Piccolomini

Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1621 (detail) | Engraving after a painting now in Lyon, 55.8 x 73.3 cm |
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-70.341)

Peter Paul Rubens, Nicholas de Respaigne, 1620 or earlier | Oil on canvas, 205 x 119.5 cm | Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GK 92)

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Raised Sabre, 1634 | Etching on paper, 12.5 x 10.3 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1961-987)

Extract from Tijdinghe uyt Verscheide Kwartieren, March 15, 1621

Rembrandt, Samson Posing a Riddle to the Wedding Guests, 1638 | Oil on canvas, 126 x 175 cm | Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (1560)

Jan Gerritsz or Jan Lucasz van Hasselt, Group Portrait Historié of the Wedding Feast of Grietje Hermans van Hasselt and Jochum Berntsen van Haecken, 1636 | Oil on canvas, 102.1 x 135.5 cm | Utrecht, Centraal Museum (10046) 

By or after Philips Angel, Return from the Hunt, mid-seventeenth century | Wall painting, tempera on plaster, 71 x 111 cm | Isfahan, Chihil Sotun

Philips Angel, Title plate and first two avatars of Vishnu, Matsyāvatāra and Kūrmāvatāra, from manuscript Deex-Autaers (Ten Avatars), 1658 | Postel Abbey, Mol, Belgium (with thanks to Pater Ivo Billiaert)

Unknown Indian artist, Four Mullahs (Sheikh Husain Jami, Sheikh Husain Ajmeri, Sheikh Muhammad Mazandarani, and Sheikh Miyan Mir, 1627-28 | Watercolor on paper mounted on wood | Vienna, Schloss Schönbrunn (SKB002606)

Rembrandt, Four Mullahs Seated Under a Tree, copied after a Mughal miniature resembling fig. XX, ca. 1656 or earlier | Pen and wash on Asian paper, 10.4 x 12.4 cm | London, British Museum (1895.0915.1275)

Rembrandt, Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, 1656 | Etching and drypoint, 16 x 13.2 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1954-135)

Peter Paul Rubens, Aletheia Talbot, Lady Arundel, 1620 | Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 266 cm | Munich, Alte Pinakothek (352)

Rembrandt, Joannes Wtenbogaert, 1639 | Etching, 25.2 20.5 cm | Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1938-692)

Rembrandt, Woman Standing, Wearing an Oriental Costume, ca. 1638 – or April 1639? | Pen and wash on prepared paper, 20 x 14.2 cm | Stockholm, Nationalmuseum (2076/1863)

Rembrandt, A Deccan Nobleman Standing (Muhammad ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur), 1667-68 | Ink and wash on Asian paper, 19.6 x 15.8 cm | London, British Museum (1895.0915.1280)

Attributed to Bichitr, Akbar and Jahangir in apotheosis, ca. 1640 (detail) | Watercolor, ink and gold on paper, 48.4 x 33 cm (sheet) | Private collection

Rembrandt, The Emperor Akbar and Jahangir in Apotheosis, After a Mughal Miniature, 1667-68 | Ink and wash on Asian paper, 21.2 x 17.6 cm | Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (R 36 (PK))

Willem Schellinks, Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants, ca 1660s (detail) | Oil on canvas, 78 x 83.8 cm | London, V&A (IS.30-1892)

Willem Schellinks, Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants, ca. 1660s | Oil on canvas, 78 x 83.8 cm |London, V&A (IS.30-1892)

© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist 31 October 2020.

4 November 2020: The location of Musée Boulogne-sur-Mer is not, as I first copied from RKD Explore, Boulogne-Billancourt, but Boulogne-sur-Mer. The inventory number of Lastman’s painting is not 147 but 147.13. With thanks to reader Bernard Allien for calling the error to my attention.

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6 thoughts on “388 Convention and uniqueness in Rembrandt’s response to the east”

  1. Wish I could give you an authoritative answer, Christopher, but in carpet matters I rely entirely on the classifications of the experts. If I ever have reason to delve into the differences between carpets in 14th- and 15th-century paintings and the ones of the 16th and 17th centuries called Lotto carpets, I will get back to you. But I’m pretty sure the difference is not about whether the carpets are on a table or on the floor.

  2. Dear Gary,

    How marvelous to read this. I recall your telling Helen and me about the then-new find concerning the Arundel album over a birthday dinner with you and Loekie at the Rijks restaurant what now seems like eons ago; so it’s a special pleasure to have the whole story unfolded at last like a richly woven carpet.

    Allow me one small frayed end? You wonder about the possible motivation for the Third Oriental Head. For what it’s worth, this touches on a hobby-horse of mine that I haven’t yet had the chance to explore fully and get down in writing. The impression of this print in the Rijksmuseum has a watermark of a single-headed eagle with Basel crozier found also in the Washington impression of the Great Jewish Bride (see Hinterding II 106). Rembrandt had previously used the same paper, however, in two drawings of old men from 1631: the one in Haarlem (Benesch 40, dated) and the one in Berlin (Benesch 41, undated, but clearly collateral); those who wish to check this out can compare the images in Hinterding III 171 and Bevers, Rembrandt. Die Zeichnungen im Berliner Kuperstichkabinett 219 (I see that Martin Royalton-Kisch has since noticed this as well, although not the concordance with Haarlem – a photo of which I’d include but seem unable to paste here; anyone curious, however, can contact me).
    So this paper wasn’t new in 1635 but must have been sitting around as remnants in a folder Rembrandt had brought with him from Leiden. Although it would take me too far afield to go into it here, there are other indications, in fact, that he was rummaging around his Leiden past at this juncture. So could the motivation for the Third Oriental Head be less a matter of this particular subject in this particular Lievens than something broader going on at that moment in Rembrandt’s life? (On the other hand, what’s the same paper doing in the Great Jewish Bride? On second thought, let’s not go there …)

    1. Many thanks for this intriguing enrichment of the discussion, Joshua. But – even if the paper of the Third Oriental Head was around in the studio for a while, it is dated 1635, after all. So I cannot really put any concrete meaning to the concepts you advance – rummaging around in his Leiden past, something broader going on in Rembrandt’s life in 1635. Allow me to encourage you to follow the second thought and third ones as well. I am fascinated and a bit disturbed by the whole phenomenon. It fits into the discourse of Rembrandt eclipsing the early Lievens, who preceded him in some vital ways. In this case Rembrandt puts the rivalry into words, claiming to “retouch” etchings that were every bit as good as his. What could he have meant? And why those incidental changes? Like giving the Fourth Head a beard? If anyone can figure out what’s going on, it’s you.

      1. Thanks, Gary, for the vote of confidence, even if I’m not sure I can live up to it.

        Of course, the dates on the Third Oriental Head and the Great Jewish Bride are real. But the confluence of pulling out that old Leiden paper at the same time he’s “retouching” his old Leiden buddy is provocative, no? And as long as you mention the Fourth Oriental Head, let me go out a bit further on this limb. This print doesn’t quite belong with the other three, not least for the absence of Rembrandt’s name and the “retouched” notice (Gersaint in fact recognized the others as a trio but didn’t count this as one of them); and although the earliest watermark in the third state indeed comes from 1635, impressions presently known of the two previous states both lack watermarks. Moreover, one could see Rembrandt’s seemingly fragmentary signature – the letter R followed by a flourish conceivably, but not definitely, meant to indicate t – as bringing it closer to the RHL monograms of the years before 1632. And as long as I’m talking about prints on paper from 1635 that seem evocative of Leiden, let me throw in Old Bearded Man in a High Fur Cap, with Eyes Closed (B. 290/NHD 148), an etching that also has signature issues, and which Hinterding has pointed out “is also at home among the numerous old men that Rembrandt etched around 1631” (Lugt catalogue 2008, vol. 1, p. 530) – along with which one would obviously include the drawings of that year on the paper Rembrandt pulled out for the Third Oriental Head and Great Jewish Bride.

        So conceivably there’s some sort of return to the past going on here. Connected to a new house and studio? To the appearance of drawings after Lastman (assuming the estimated dating to 1635 holds up)? All wild speculation, of course! But if not fire, is there perhaps a whiff of smoke here?

  3. Dear Gary, Congratulations! I imagine this is a very bittersweet moment, though, not being able to see the exhibition go up or in Basel. Thank you for offering us the opportunity, though, to read your essay and to catch a glimpse of the show. I look forward to sitting down with this very soon. A balm in these stormy times! Lieve groet, Claudia

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