400 Rembrandt in the garbage

Half a year ago I missed an anniversary. 10 May 2021 was 25 years to the day since the appearance of the pilot of the Schwartzlist. It was an article in the Cultural Supplement of the daily NRC Handelsblad, with the title “Rembrandt bij het grofvuil” (Rembrandt in the garbage). On the basis of that publication, the newspaper offered me a bi-weekly column for a year. I wrote the columns in English, to be translated into Dutch by the paper. Starting with the first of the columns, “Vermeers razernij” (Vermeer’s frenzy), on the 5th of July 1996, I mailed the English version to my 50 or so email correspondents of the time. For the milestone installment 400, I am publishing the pilot.

In 1987 the Wageningen historian Ad van der Woude shocked the world with his statement that of all paintings made by the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, fewer than one percent are left today. Van der Woude exaggerated grossly – even more than a factor of ten – but compared to older ideas, he was essentially right.

The most unexpected part of his calculations has held up. That is his estimate of the art production at the time. No art historian initially wanted to believe that, as van der Woude claimed, between five and ten million paintings were produced in the Northern Netherlands during the Golden Age. However, this hypothesis seems to be correct. The high figure of ten million may even turn out to be on the low side.

Van der Woude was mistaken about the number of paintings that currently exist. It is far more than the 100,000 which, according to his statement, still would have to be in circulation if the survival rate was less than one percent. But there are photos of about three quarters of a million paintings from that time in the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD). My own feeling is that there are more than a million canvases and panels from the Golden Age still out there.

Even in a weakened form, van der Woude’s position continues to shock. Thinking of a “mere” 80 or 90 percent of our nation’s pride being gone is difficult to deal with. Calamities such as fire and shipping disasters, which are the first causes one thinks of, can only explain a small part of the loss. Van der Woude looks for other forms of physical ruin. He talks about damp walls and about mold that munches a Vermeer just as happily as an old piece of bread. I fear the truth is much worse. Most of those lost paintings have simply been thrown away.

How could such an enormity take place? It’s easy. A picture goes out of fashion and out of sight. It hangs in the maid’s room or is stacked with ten others against a wall in the attic. The varnish is darkening and no one can read that RHL in the corner anymore. The grandchildren of the original owners die childless and their belongings are inherited by a niece with no interest in art. Once you have come this far, all that has to happen is a move of house before another Rembrandt is dumped into the dustbin. The odds that something like this will happen once over the centuries are greater than that it never happens. Once is enough.

The Rembrandt & van Vliet exhibition in the Rembrandt House reinforces this depressing scenario. Among the more than one hundred (extraordinarily fascinating) prints by the etcher Johannes Gillisz. van Vliet there are eighteen plates that reproduce compositions by other masters. (One of these is no longer attributed to van Vliet, but I’ll  include it in the count, as do the curators of the exhibition.) In all cases where the original is known, it turns out to be a painting or oil sketch. The assumption that this also applies to the others seems inescapable to me, although one of the authors of the catalogue takes into account the possibility that van Vliet may have made one or more of his copies after a (lost) drawing. Fourteen of these eighteen prints reproduce compositions by Rembrandt. Only eight of the originals from which they were made are known today. Of the four prints after paintings by other masters – Jan Lievens, Joris van Schooten and (with a question mark) Pieter Fransz. de Grebber  – no original has been preserved. The survival rate of the group as a whole is only 44.4%, with all the survivors being Rembrandts. The work of the other masters has a survival rate of zero. The small sample discussed here concerns a very privileged group of works. These are certified originals by well-known masters that were reproduced – a rare distinction in itself – in prints bearing the master’s name, prints that were present in every major print collection. At the time the prints were published, the paintings were owned by people who knew very well what they were worth. If even more than half of such a group eventually ends up in the garbage, what to expect of the large mass of ten million pieces, more than half of which were copies anyway?

Reader, take care of your stuff.

© Gary Schwartz 1996 and 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 31 October 2021.

In subsequent writings I returned to this issue. Concerning the survival of art in general, see “Ars moriendi: the mortality of art,” and for a possible (I believe likely) ninth survivor in the Rembrandt set, see “The Rákóczy identity.”

The event at which Ad van der Woude (1932-2008) dropped his bombshell was a symposium at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities on 30 April-2 May 1987. There, he spoke of 25 million paintings having been made, a figure he later toned down. His publication remains a foundational contribution to art history by an intruder into our field. Ad van der Woude, “The volume and value of paintings in Holland at the time of the Dutch Republic,” in Art in history / history in art: studies in seventeenth-century Dutch culture, ed. David Freedberg and Jan de Vries, Santa Monica (The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities), distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 285-330

In 1958 I came to Jerusalem in the second year of the study program of the American Friends of the Hebrew University. For our ulpan – a Hebrew crash course that filled our summer, along with excursions and lectures – our group of about 30 was divided into sections, depending on how much Hebrew we knew. Having endured ten years of New York yeshivas, I was put in the upper class. We had a number of teachers, of whom I remember the poet Adi Tsemach, with whom we read the difficult text of the Book of Job as literature, and the friendly, schoolmarmly Esther Hagar. Towering about them was Shaul Shaked. That a man who was to become one of the premier scholars of our age in Persian studies should have had to teach Hebrew to American undergraduates may have been an historical injustice, but to me it was a blessing. Not only because Shaul was such an outstanding teacher, but even more because he, his wife Miriam, and their children Idit, Yonatan and Michi, became dear friends for life. To my deep sorrow and everlasting loss, his life ended on Friday morning, 29 October. See an early memorial.

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12 thoughts on “400 Rembrandt in the garbage”

    1. Larry, maybe you can tell me how it happened that the buyer and underbidder at that auction were both Paris art dealers who had never seen the painting. Something else – your mailing of last week was blocked as suspect. Try again? Thanks, Gary

    1. I do wonder whether it’s such a good thing that I haven’t changed my mind about this over the last 25 years, but with your encouragement I’ll keep thinking and keep writing.

  1. Gary, I am sorry to hear about Professor Shaked’s passing. He sounds as a great human being and scholar.

  2. This is not exactly on topic – not a Rembrandt, alas,
    but I grew up in a household with a painting given to my parents by an artist friend who literally plucked it from his friend’s garbage. My fascination with the Impressionist style painting led me to art history. The artist, Allen Tucker, b. 1866, d.1939, painted in many different styles and his works are in the Met and in Wash. DC .

    1. This is exactly on message, dear Lola, and it adds a wonderful personal touch to the phenomenon. What a great story to hear from you after all these years!

      In September in Aachen, where Loekie and I went to the marvelous Dürer exhibition, we picked up a painting from the street, an oriental town view. Not by a master, but I like it a lot.

    1. I’ve looked into those two versions, Michael, and have not come to a definite conclusion. Thanks for reminding me. I should get in touch again with Fred Kline.

      1. Thanks Gary.

        Sadly, Fred passed away. He was a wonderful man , a Sir Martin Conway of sorts, and a fine friend. We’ll all miss him terribly.

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