409 “I’m certain Rembrandt loves me”

The exhibition at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on which I have been working for five years with Mirjam Knotter of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. “Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes,” has been postponed indefinitely. Still, I have to submit text for the Russian-language catalogue that was going to be printed. Here are fragments from the section “Jewish artists discover Rembrandt.”

Not until the second half of the nineteenth century did Jews begin participating at a professional level in the European art world. For many, it was an uncertain step away from the society and traditions in which they were raised. Coming across Rembrandt could mean a lot to a young Jewish artist. In their time, Rembrandt was world-famous and universally admired, but they will have heard that he was spurned by his fellow Dutchmen for departing from accepted artistic norms. In this way, he was available as a model for a young person venturing to enter a profession that until then had not been considered appropriate for a Jew.

While daring the social conventions of their own people, young Jewish artists were also facing up to the prevalent antisemitism in the countries of Eastern and Western Europe. In this sense too, Rembrandt and his art could provide powerful moral support. As a person, Rembrandt was believed to have been exceptionally sympathetic to the Jewish people. He lived in the Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam, one of the main centers of Jewish life in northern Europe. The street on which he lived was actually called Jewish Broad Street. He was imagined to have consorted freely with his Jewish neighbors and to have made friends with one of the main rabbis of the community, Menasseh ben Israel. How good would it be for a Jewish artist in a Christian environment to be received in the same spirit.

Then of course there was his work itself. Rembrandt’s many depictions of figures and stories from the Jewish Bible were taken as expressions of admiration for the Jews of ancient times. When it came to the living Jews around him, there were not only his portraits of Menasseh ben Israel and Ephraim Bueno, but also the many models for tronies, even heads of Christ, who were thought to have been Jewish. Young, dark-haired models were seen as Sephardim, older men as Ashkenazim. In the earliest catalogue of Rembrandt’s paintings, dozens were said to be portraits of Jewish merchants or rabbis. Catalogues of the etchings gave the title “Jewish bride” to several prints. Even some portraits of Rembrandt’s wife Saskia were labeled as “in the guise of a Jewish bride.” How close could a Christian artist come to identifying with the Jews among whom he lived? And how could non-Jews in the surrounding culture deny that this giant of European art stood open to and cherished contact with Jews?

In this way Rembrandt offered social and spiritual sustenance for two precarious situations in which a Jewish artist could find himself. A counterforce to Jewish resistance to the artistic profession and a defense mechanism against Christians who would deny Jews access to the culture at large. This made Jewish artists susceptible to particular qualities of Rembrandt’s art, and these too could be powerfully appealing. The light and dark effects for which Rembrandt was famous lent themselves to the evocation of emotionally charged scenes, or depictions of numinous rituals, to which they were often drawn. The melancholy look of Rembrandt’s old people, especially of the 1650s, invited the introspection that an artist questioning his vocation and place in society would be inclined to practice.

These aspects of the attitude toward Rembrandt of Jewish artists are particularly applicable to those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who came to art straight from the yeshiva. But the attraction of Rembrandt to artists of later generations, who may not even have been raised in observant families, remained in place. More than the features mentioned above, what stuck more than anything were Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Looking at themselves in the mirror, these artists would see a Jew and a follower of Rembrandt. The same would be seen by the audiences they captured.


“The only peers whom Chagall’s ego permits him to embrace fully are the Old Masters. Suffering pangs of homesickness when he first moved to Paris, it was the Louvre, he writes, that welcomed him with open arms and convinced him to stay. He reassures himself, in a moment of ostensible doubt, ‘I’m certain Rembrandt loves me’. Whereas Russia rejected him both as an artist and as a Jew, in Chagall’s imagination Rembrandt accepts him unconditionally on both accounts.” From “Marc Chagall caught between two lives,” an article by Aaron Rosen in Apollo, 1 June 2018.

One of the works by Chagall I had been hoping to illustrate was emblematic for loving acceptance. It paraphrases Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where Russian viewers derive nearly sacred solace from it.

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668
Oil on canvas, 262 x 205 cm
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum (ГЭ-742)

Marc Chagall, Return of the Prodigal Son
Date, support, dimensions unknown
Paris, private collection that I have been unable to reach

© 2022 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 September 2022

This afternoon our first real vacation in years will start. Loekie and I are flying to Venice, where we have been invited by dear (Dutch) friends as house guests for a whole week. We will be seeing a Biennale for the first time. This has gone at the cost of a visit to documenta, which we are missing for only the second time since the 1970s. But what we read about this quinquennial edition does not make it sound very enticing. Group projects, lots of videos and participatory displays – it sounds like more fun for the makers than for the viewers.

With the uptick of pace over the past months, we’re also missing exhibitions in the Netherlands – Antony Gormley in Museum Voorlinden and Klaas Gubbels in Singer Laren. We did get to the preview of the restored Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerp last Wednesday, about which we have mixed feelings, predominantly a feeling of relief that it is open again. Incomprehensibly, the rebuilding, which took eleven years, did not include sufficient toilet facilities, so that at the preview, with fewer visitors than would be expected on a normal opening day, there was a line for the one (!) women’s toilet. The other one – there are two in all – was out of service. We thought that after the near riots at Musée d’Orsay ten years ago, this would have been drilled into the skulls of museum builders, but no.

As it happens, we land in Venice on Rosh Hashana eve, so tomorrow we can go to a New Year’s service at one of the half-millennium old synagogues in the ghetto on Cannaregio, where we are lodging. I am embarrassed to admit that I am one of those Jews – it seems to be a common type – who only goes to synagogues when traveling, and never at home. Since the last time I showed up in the Utrecht synagogue of which we are members, I have attended services in Istanbul and Geneva, and before that in Tblisi, St. Petersburg, Kraków and Isfahan, probably more.

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2 thoughts on “409 “I’m certain Rembrandt loves me””

  1. Shana tova, and have a lovely time in Venice.
    I see from the above that you lean towards identifying that etching by Rembrandt as a portrait of Menasseh.

  2. Shana tova (and/or happy academic new year, as appropriate)!
    Regarding the etched portrait as Menasseh or not, I am always reminded of Fritz Grossmann’s contention that no two people ever agreed on a portrait’s identity. Moreover, I am not arguing for Menassah in particular, but Salom Italia was hardly a great portraitist …

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