On popular demand, Schwartz returns to the vexed question of Rembrandt’s character. A new article disputes the archival basis for Machiel Bosman’s aggressive defense of Rembrandt as a man driven by love of family to bankrupt himself.
As you may recall (if you don’t, see Schwartzlist 380 Whitewashing Rembrandt, part 2), the Amsterdam historian Machiel Bosman, armed with a new interpretation of the documents concerning Rembrandt’s insolvency, disputes my character sketch of the artist as a shifty and unreliable operator. The essence of his argument is in the title of his book: Rembrandt’s plan: the true history of his bankruptcy. Rembrandt had a strategy that he put into effect out of loving concern that his family not go under on account of the mountain of debt he had piled up. When his finances went terminally sour, he did all in his power to save the expensive house on the Breestraat, on which he had been failing to make payments for fifteen years, for his son Titus. Bosman is touched by this display of paternal caringness.
Rembrandt took the initiative for his own insolvency [p. 11]. It was a way for him to get ahead of the game [een vlucht vooruit]. It has been suggested that it was forced by his creditors, but well considered there is no proof whatsoever for this [p. 31 …] Take the house – it was never the intention that it would be sold. That was the whole idea behind the insolvency: that they would always keep the house. It was quite intentional that Rembrandt had assigned it to his son [p. 59].
The arguments he brings to bear involve detailed readings of dozens of documents in numerous sections of the Amsterdam archives, interpreted through speculation concerning the motives of all involved. Few people are well enough informed about the bureaucratic and judicial intricacies involved to judge Bosman’s conclusions on their merits. I am not one of them. I was therefore particularly interested in an article in the new issue of Oud Holland, vol. 134 (2021), nr. 1, pp. 9-24: Dave De Ruysscher (legal historian and lawyer) and Cornelis in ‘t Veld (Ph.D. candidate and legal historian), “Rembrandt’s insolvency: the artist as legal actor.” This article too takes me into depths in which I can only tread water, so I must reserve judgment about the substance of the authors’ conclusions. Which are these:
Machiel Bosman reassessed Rembrandt’s bankruptcy and interpreted it as being part of a scheme that purported to shield his house from his creditors. Bosman stresses that Rembrandt was taking care of his family and contrasts this view to the traditionally negative approaches to evaluating the artist’s actions. [Our] analysis leads to the conclusion that Rembrandt could not in fact have brought his house outside the reach of his creditors. Moreover, the filing for “cessie van goede” [voluntary bankruptcy] was not part of a masterplan but, rather, a last straw that allowed for retaining some control within a context of imminent legal actions from frustrated creditors [p. 9].
I gladly leave it up to Bosman to fight it out with De Ruysscher and in ‘t Veld about the legal proceedings. It is enough for me that this new twist contests the major premise in Bosman’s title – Rembrandt’s plan – and knocks the chip off the shoulder of his subtitle: the true history of his insolvency.
Where I do enter the fray is when Bosman contends that Rembrandt’s behavior in this affair is what led art historians like myself to criticize his character. Concerning my own writings, this is simply not true. In my books on Rembrandt I report on the creditors he stiffed, but I do not need that as evidence for his pattern of bad behavior to his fellow man. Allow me to quote from an article of 2006, “Yes, but: Rembrandt as an unstable medium”:
That Rembrandt had a […] personality problem speaks clearly from the documents. In preparation for a Rembrandt website, I inserted into a database the basic facts in the known documents referring to Rembrandt and his works. Of the 509 documents in the system at the time of writing, 157 relate to twenty-five different conflicts. The other parties, in alphabetical order, were agents, art dealers, artists, craftsmen, creditors, debtors, merchants, neighbours, nobility, officials, patrons, professionals, regents, relatives, servants and tradesmen. The many colleagues of mine who refuse to admit that Rembrandt had an abrasive personality do not care to look this record in the face. Personally, I am sufficiently impressed by it to offer a reward to anyone who can show a matching record in the biography of any other Dutch or Flemish artist.
As of now, fifteen years later, no one has claimed the reward. Perhaps because I did not say what it is. Well, it will be a bottle – or two, depending on the quality of the submission – of Giovanni Morelli’s favorite wine, Gattinara, plus a humble admission on the Schwartzlist that the successful claimant was right and I was wrong.
Concerning Machiel Bosman’s second body of proof of Rembrandt’s good character – that the way in which he participated in the sentencing of his rejected lover Geertje Dirckx to incarceration in a penitential institution is less incriminating than it seems – the less said, the better.
The article of 2006 is available online on the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL; Digital Library of Netherlandish Literature – highly recommended). I have now placed it on the Schwartzlist as well.
© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 June 2021
At 5 p.m. of 15 June I will be conducting an online guided tour to the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, of which I was guest curator. I will be seeing the exhibition for the first time next week, on July 2nd, in Museum Barberini in Potsdam, the day after the quarantine requirement for unvaccinated, untested visitors to Germany is withdrawn. I will place a link on this page when it is made available.
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