355 Embassy of the Free Mind

What could be a greater honor than to be appointed Ambassador of the Free Mind? That title was bestowed on Schwartz by unrivalled champions of the free mind, the Ritman family of Amsterdam.


On the 3rd of July 2017 an introductory evening was held for a remarkable Amsterdam initiative. The legendary Huis met de Hoofden (House with the Heads, Keizersgracht 123) was rededicated to a new function, as the home of the Ritman Library, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. The library is the foremost privately founded research center for study of the hermetic and other esoteric traditions in Europe. It was built by Joost and Rachel Ritman over long decades, and has now been donated by them to a cultural non-profit foundation housed in the new quarters. They and their daughter Esther, chairman of the foundation and director of the library, call the House with the Heads an Embassy of the Free Mind (Ambassade van de Vrije Geest). When the Ritmans asked me whether I was willing to serve as an Ambassador of the Free Mind, I said yes without hesitation. The following is a slightly amplified English translation of the talk that I gave on 3 July.


Rembrandt opts for freedom

When I want to ease my mind, it isn’t honor that I seek but freedom.
Als ik myn geest uitspanninge wil geven, dan is het niet eer die ik zoek, maar vryheit.

This policy statement by Rembrandt was committed to writing by his biographer Arnold Houbraken. What could be a more appropriate text for an address by a Rembrandt lover at the Embassy of the Free Mind than a line in which Rembrandt speaks in one breath of the mind and freedom? It is also a thankful text because it calls for commentary. Rembrandt’s words are not all that self-explanatory. They create an opposition and lay down a challenge. They reflect the attitude of someone who rows against the stream. That too makes the statement appropriate as a motto for this House.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), Eer boven golt (Honor above gold), 1609
Pen and dark brown ink on cream laid paper, 15.1 cm x 8.9 cm
Sacramento, California, Crocker Art Museum

Freedom is never delivered free of charge at your doorstep. Rembrandt’s choice came at a price. It cost him the understanding of many of his patrons, buyers and colleagues. To start with – what’s wrong with honor? Honor is a good thing for an artist, isn’t it? The motto of the phenomenal Haarlem engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius was repeated proudly by every self-respecting Dutch artist: “Eer boven golt” – Honor above gold. Even artists who did not live by this principle – especially them – liked to be praised for such a superior attitude. And here comes Rembrandt implying that honor is not the highest aim to which an artist can aspire. This is not only his loss. Honor is something accorded by others. By choosing for freedom above honor, Rembrandt robs those patrons, buyers and colleagues of a source of their own self-esteem.

What was it, anyway, that freedom of his, that was worth more than honor? In daily life, it meant nothing more than that Rembrandt preferred drinking a beer with his buddies in a tavern to paying courtesy visits to wealthy patrons in their town palaces. That was bad enough. An ambitious artist was dependent for his living on those town palace dwellers, a dependency that entailed the gracious acceptance of social obligations.

Rembrandt’s disdain for networking was thus bad for business. But his claim to freedom was also considered deleterious for his art. Before Houbraken this opinion had been expressed by his German predecessor Joachim von Sandrart. Houbraken was nine years old when Rembrand died, but Sandrart had known the great man personally. To this day their lots are joined. If you look over your right shoulder standing in front of the Nightwatch in the Rijksmuseum, you will see a civic guard group portrait painted by Sandrart for the same hall in the Kloveniers headquarters as the Nightwatch. Rembrandt and Sandrart were colleagues during the German’s five years in Amsterdam about 1640. This is what Sandrart had to say about Rembrandt’s freedom:

He persisted in his own way of doing things and did not shrink from sinning against our rules of art – against the anatomy and proportions of the human body, against perspective and the use of antique statues, against Raphael’s drawings and ingenious compositions, and against the academies that are so highly necessary for our profession, arguing that one should work exclusively from nature and observe no other rules.

This judgment is based on the age-old philosophical distinction between the ideal and the real. An artist who strove to create ideal forms (this was thought of Raphael) will regard individual humans and other creatures as deficient derivatives of a perfect ideal, a Platonic idea. The ancient statues to which Sandrart refers compensated for this inconvenient truth, it is said, by such means as combining the best features of five different women into one perfect specimen. Critics who accused Rembrandt – and invariably Caravaggio as well – of following nature and nature alone placed these artists in the camp of the “realists” who denied the existence of “ideas.” In theoretical writings the champions of the idea almost always carry the day. They had the institutions on their side, the academies that Sandrart considers so indispensable. He himself founded an academy and gave his monumental book the title Teutsche Akademie. (See the exemplary annotated online edition.) By combating academic prescripts, Rembrandt brought down two hundred years of derision on his head. Not until the mid-nineteenth century, when artists began to rebel against the academies and embrace “realism” as a doctrine, was Rembrandt mounted on the pedestal on which he still stands.

Rembrandt, detail of Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver
England, private collection

This brings us to a sensitive question: may Rembrandt’s critics have been right? Did Rembrandt really draw, etch and paint from nature and nature alone? I do not believe it for a minute. Neither did Rembrandt’s admirer Constantijn Huygens. Writing about the figure of Judas in Rembrandt’s painting Judas returning the thirty silver coins to the priests in the Temple, Huygens praises Rembrandt for “combining in a single figure such a variety of specific features, while expressing so many universal principles.” Huygens was more aware than Sandrart or Houbraken that Rembrandt married observation to conception, the real to the ideal.

What Rembrandt was after, as I see it, was not so much nature as truth. Of course that demanded accurate perception and correct representation of the visible world. But that was not all. Truth was not totally contained within the confines of physical reality or natural phenomena. Rembrandt’s inner vision and convictions also found expression in his art. Like nearly all his contemporaries, Rembrandt believed in a supernatural realm, in a God more real than sensory impressions. But you do not have to be a man of the seventeenth century or believe in God to acknowledge that the door between perception and reflection not only separates those realms – it also joins them.

Rembrandt was not the only Amsterdamer of his time to seek truth in the union of apparent opposites, nor was he the only one to pay a high price for pursuing that truth. Three others, men who Rembrandt might have known personally, come to mind: the Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650), the Sephardi Jew Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) and the Moravian Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670).

   
Frans Hals, René Descartes, ca. 1649
Oil on panel, 19 x 14 cm
Copenhagen, Statens Museum
Jonas Suyderhoef after Frans Hals, René Descartes, later than 1650
Engraving, 31.5 x 22.6 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Descartes is often seen as the personification of strict rationality, but this is misleading. He brought all worldly beings and substances into relation with an ominipotent divinity, rejecting the notion that anything can exist independent of the godhead. Creation and its creator, he maintained, were one and indivisible.

Barent Graat, Baruch Spinoza, 1666
Oil on canvas, 47 x 40 cm
Amsterdam, Constant Vecht gallery
Anonymous, Baruch Spinoza, ca. 1680
Engraving, 18.5 x 14 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Spinoza too affirmed that everything in the universe forms a single whole, but his philosophy had no room for a creator. Natural phenomena find their causes in nature itself, he wrote. That all-encompassing nature is coexistent with God, a way of thinking known as pantheism. The recently rediscovered (and by some doubted) portrait illustrated provides Spinoza with a statue of Truth.

Rembrandt, Portrait of an elderly  man, in all likelihood Jan Amos Comenius, 1660s
Oil on canvas, 104.5 x 86 cm
Florence, Uffizi
 Wenceslas Hollar, Jan Amos Comenius, 1652
Engraving, 11 x 7 cm
University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Comenius, acknowledging that mankind may not be able to comprehend God or nature, proposed that we accept wisdom as the guiding principle of our strivings. Not theism or pantheism but pansophism. In contrast to Descartes and Spinoza, who wrote only for an intellectual elite, Comenius brought his reconciliation of opposites admirably into practice by pedagogical means, complete with a schoolbook. That he fled his country and found protection in Amsterdam, for a time in this very house, lends resonance to the new function of the House with the Heads.

Rembrandt’s coalescence of particulars and universals; Descartes’ bridge between faith and reason; Spinoza’s nature as divinity; Comenius’s instruments for attaining wisdom – these are only four of the countless ways in which people of their century, in (relatively) free Amsterdam engaged in the pursuit of truth. On the shelves of the Ritman library you will find the results of their efforts and those of many others, less well known, often forgotten. It is all too easy to dismiss these mystics and occultists, alchemists and sectarians, as misled, irrelevant souls left behind in a cul-de-sac of the history of ideas. This is a grave mistake. They belong to an age-old strand of the history of mankind that is interwoven with the more canonical movements we like to think of as our forebears. Moreover, however different they were from each other, all shared a commitment – in shining contrast to the orthodoxies of their time – to the free spirit and open mind, the principles that bring us here today.

The hunt for truth is not an innocent occupation. Those who undertake it are sure to be mistrusted, misunderstood, misquoted and belittled. They will be censured just as much or more for what they did not say as what they did say. The risk of active persecution is very real. Descartes and Comenius had to leave their homelands to write and publish what they thought. Spinoza was banned from the Jewish community into which he was born on account of the freedoms he permitted himself. Rembrandt was unjustly castigated as “the first heretic in art” and reviled by many for centuries.

That we can celebrate the founding of an Embassy of the Free Mind in this House, without fear of persecution, does not speak for itself. I suspect that there still are more countries where a movement to promote free thinking would be suppressed rather than exalted. Even in our own Netherlands, Joost and Rachel Ritman did not reach the proud day of today unscathed. Their tribulations were due in some measure to their persistent love for the truth.

There is an old and very attractive theory that a painting by Rembrandt in the Uffizi is a portrait of Comenius. If it is, as may very well be the case, then his spirit too wanders the halls of the House with the Heads, where the sitter once lived. But even without that additional fillip, I feel secure as a Rembrandt researcher and an Ambassador of the Free Mind, in claiming to have Rembrandt on my side. He paid his dues for his choice for freedom and truth, for which we too now choose and add our own payments.

© Gary Schwartz 2017. Published on the Schwartzlist 18 August 2017.


It isn’t  impossible that we have been traveling a bit too much the past few months. After Rome/Naples and Warsaw in May, in June we went back to Italy for a Zürich University symposium on (auto)biography at Villa Vigoni in Menaggio, in mid-July to Kassel for documenta 14 and from 27 July to 11 August to New York, Boston and New Hampshire, with stopovers in Stockholm and Oslo on the way out and back. Reports on these trips will I am afraid have to go on your large pile of uncollectable IOUs with my signature.

A query from a reader of the first hour, Ann Sutherland Harris, led me to post a column from 2001 on another conference in Italy I attended, at the Datini Institute for Economic History, and the published text of the paper I gave there.


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354 How I became a Rembrandt scholar

To mark Rembrandt’s upcoming birthday, Schwartz reminisces about his beginnings in Rembrandt studies half a century ago.


My baptism of fire in Rembrandt studies took place fifty years ago under special circumstances. In spring 1967 I had been living in the Netherlands for a year-and-a-half. The Kress fellowship that had supported me in better style than to which I had been accustomed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore having lapsed, I was eking out a meagre living, with support from my wife-to-be Loekie, as the English-language secretary to Prof. J.G. van Gelder (1903-80) of Utrecht University. From 1961 on I had built up valuable experience as a researcher and copy editor with the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Art and the Bollingen Foundation, capabilities that I thought would appeal to Dutch publishers of scholarly art history in English. I was wrong. They were used to sending translator’s copy to the printer and saw no need to add to the costs of that streamlined process. Then van Gelder offered to recommend me to the publishers of his own books, and I became a beneficiary of a powerful Dutch old boys network that was otherwise unavailable to an immigrant.

That one of van Gelder’s publishers indeed could make use of my services was however sheer happenstance. My letter to the director of J.M. Meulenhoff, Willem Bloemena, reached him upon his return from a phenomenally lucrative sales trip to New York. (See Willem Bloemena’s Great Rembrandt Book.) Emulating Mondadori’s success in bagging mega-orders for oversized books on Leonardo and Michelangelo, he had managed to sell a large edition of an equally big book on Rembrandt’s paintings to the publisher Eugene Reynal, who passed on some sixty thousand copies to Book-of-the-Month Club. The books had to be delivered in September 1968, in time to serve as BOMC’s crown title for the final quarter of 1968, on the eve of the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1969.

On the plane back home, halfway through a bottle of celebratory champagne, Bloemena began to reflect on what he had just sold. All he had at that point was an agreement with the Dutch-German art historian Horst Gerson (1907-78) to write – in German – a text of a certain length on Rembrandt’s paintings, supplemented by a catalogue of all the paintings Gerson regarded as “autograph.” In fifteen months he had to deliver full-length, high-quality printed books in English. The contract he had signed contained penalties for missing delivery or for coming up with shoddy goods that made capital punishment, which is quickly over and done with, look good.

That was his foremost concern when he opened an envelope with a job application from a young American art historian with editing experience. He hired me – first for half of what I should have been earning, a situation I remedied as soon as I realized what was going on – to do all the rest. The first and most enjoyable responsibility was to perform research for Gerson, one of the nicest people I have ever known. He wrote away in Groningen, where he was professor of art history, sending me requests for supplemental research on points that needed clarification. The results had to be submitted in a particular format – on A6 (4 x 5) kattebelletjes to be slipped into his documentation boxes, with one kattebelletje per subject, even if it was the summary of a complete article. I conferred with Gerson frequently in Groningen and on one occasion in Rome, where he was leading a study trip.

While performing these scholarly tasks, I was also expected to find an English translator – I chose the redoutable Heinz Norden (1905-78) – and edit his work; acquire black-and-white photos of all 420 Rembrandt paintings; choose and order photos of the 168 supplementary illustrations in the book; accompany the Swiss photographer André Held on color photography campaigns to locations where no one spoke French, a duty that involved drinking too much of his superior home-made framboise; supervise the graphic design, the work of Frits Stoepman, and put together with him the double spreads; compose the captions and write accompanying remarks in the catalogue; help Bloemena with a coda he added at the end of the book, on Rembrandt’s Nachleben; lunch with Bloemena at the excellent restaurant on the ground floor of his new office at Prinsengracht 1111 (the restaurant was called the Quatre Canetons – look for the Dutch pun); copy edit and proofread the English edition; compile concordances linking Gerson numbers to those in the catalogues of Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Abraham Bredius and Kurt Bauch and vice versa; build a general index and an index of Rembrandt works; provide a listing of photographic acknowledgments; stand by for press control with the production manager Gert Lathouwers, who trusted me to know the exact shades of the eighty paintings reproduced in color; keep the project boss Henk van Hoorn convinced that I was going to get everything done on time; and coordinate, in London, the catalogue in the Meulenhoff publication with Gerson’s new edition for Phaidon Press of Abraham Bredius’s catalogue of Rembrandt paintings of 1935, for which he had served as Bredius’s assistant and editor. All of this with Loekie’s moral support, hands-on help and the laudable forebearance she shows me nearly always.

In addition to the English edition, a well-produced, well-received book that indeed made it to New York by fall 1968, Rembrandt paintings also came out in 1969 in Dutch, French and German. This was in the days of mechanical typewriters, hot metal typesetting and analog lithography, when the most advanced means of communication was the fax. I doubt whether this feat could be accomplished today with as small a team as Bloemena put together in 1967, leading to the further soul-searching question of what the gains of computerization amount to in the end. “Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being,” John Stuart Mill wrote in The Principles of Political Economy (1848), as I read in an article by Nathan Heller in the July 24, 2017 issue of The New Yorker. Is Mills still right?

Aside from its appeal as a book for the art lover, Rembrandt paintings caused quite a stir in the world of Rembrandt studies. In the 1930s Abraham Bredius had included 610 paintings in his Rembrandt catalogue, of which in 1966 Kurt Bauch still accepted 562. Gerson set the knife in this corpus, recognizing Rembrandt’s hand only in 380 paintings, to which he added another forty of whose status he was uncertain. Although he offered little argumentation for these judgments, they were taken seriously and largely accepted. It helped that they were in line with a new wave of connoisseurship represented by the Rembrandt Research Project, which was launched in the same year as Gerson’s book came out. The RRP proclaimed itself to be practicing a more scientific connoisseurship than the intuitive variety of Gerson, Bauch and Bredius.

My reservations concerning the Rembrandt Research Project date from the first time I heard what it was up to. At the launching party for Gerson’s book in the Rijksmuseum, Simon Levie, a member of the RRP, told me proudly that they were going to examine all 620 paintings in Bredius and conclude whether or not they were painted by Rembrandt. I winced and said “But that’s the wrong question.” What I meant, as I had sensed in my work for Gerson and later wrote again and again, is that our understanding of what constitutes a Rembrandt painting is too imprecise to allow for categorical attributions of that kind.

This is the way I was plunged, outside academia, into the midst of one of the liveliest art-historical discussions of the past half-century. My participation in the debates about Rembrandt and connoisseurship has not always been a pleasure. But my intense immersion into Rembrandt studies fifty years ago has rewarded me vastly as a scholar, publisher, columnist and lover of art and art history.

© 2017 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on the occasion of Rembrandt’s birthday on 15 July 2017. Whether it is his 410th, 411th or 412th birthday depends on how you read the sources and documents.

The birthday itself I will celebrate with Loekie in Kassel, where we are going to see documenta 14 and find out what Rembrandt’s successors are doing these days.

20 July 2017: Quotation from John Stuart Mill inserted; Rudi Ekkart’s catalogue added to list of Amazon reviews; spelling of documenta corrected from upper to lower case.


For the past few years I have been writing occasional reviews on Amazon of books that I like. The idea behind this is that I can place the reviews on my own responsibility and immediately, and that they do not have to be heavy-going scholarly critiques. Here are the titles and links:

Rudi Ekkart, Dutch and Flemish portraits, 1600-1800, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Eric Jan Sluijter, Rembrandt’s rivals: history painting in Amsterdam (1630-1650)

Bosch Research and Conservation Project, Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné / Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Technical Studies

Elisabeth de Bièvre, Dutch art and urban cultures, 1200-1700

Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Brüggen Israëls, The Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection of European Paintings at I Tatti 

Dominique Moisï, Un juif improbable

Quentin Buvelot and Edwin Buijsen, Genre paintings in the Mauritshuis

Bernhard Schnackenburg, Jan Lievens: friend and rival of the young Rembrandt

Josine Beltman, Paul Knolle and Quirine van der Meer Mohr, Eindelijk! De Lairesse: klassieke schoonheid in de zeventiende eeuw

Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld and Bart Wallet, Canon van 700 jaar Joods Nederland

Antoon Erftemeijer, Het oor van Vincent: merkwaardige feiten uit de kunstgeschiedenis

Nicolaas Matsier, Het evangelie volgens

Boudewijn Bakker and Erik Schmitz, Landscapes of Rembrandt: his favourite walks


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353 Back to/from Poland

With a family history in Poland and the encumbrance of the Holocaust, Schwartz cannot visit that country like a casual tourist. A professional congress brought him to Warsaw for four days, where his ignorance of his antecedents came back to oppress him. Personal, scholarly and professional feelings become crossed and confused.
Continue reading “353 Back to/from Poland”

The Barberini and Orange inventories: a comparison of the collections and their publication

During the same years in the middle of the first half of the seventeenth century, important collections of paintings were amassed by the stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, Frederik Hendrik, prince of Orange (1584-1647), and Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), the nephew of Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII. The inventories of their collections were drawn up in 1632 and 1625, respectively, offering a good basis for comparison. The article deals not only with the collections, the inventories and their publication in the twentieth century, but also with the structure of the patronage networks deployed by pope and stadholder.

The article was published in honor of Marilyn Lavin, in a festschrift offered by her friends.

Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque: a cat’s cradle for Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, ed. David A. Levine and Jack Freiberg, New York (Italica Press) 2010, pp. 167-178.

Download pdf (280 kB)

338 The young Walter Liedtke

On Tuesday evening, 3 February 2015, a commuter train from Grand Central Station to Westchester County and Connecticut crashed into an automobile on a crossing in Valhalla, New York. Of the more than 600 passengers in the train, six in the first car were killed in a fire caused by the crash. Among them was Walter Liedtke, a friend and colleague of Gary Schwartz. With their first exchange of letters. Continue reading “338 The young Walter Liedtke”

335 A Hebrew Bible page for Paul Huvenne

On the retirement of Paul Huvenne as director of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, the museum offered him a surprise friendship album with contributions by 76 colleagues and friends, mainly art historians and artists. The theme, as I reported in the postscript to Schwartzlist 334, was Beelddenken – thinking in images. The book opens with Paul’s own definition of the word: “Beelddenken is the ability to form and develop thoughts in wordless images and to picture, express and communicate them directly. In Western culture, thinking in images is the repudiated opponent of thinking in words. This bypasses the fact that most words are image thoughts and that the most abstract concepts are easier imagined than articulated.” The engaging and dedicated young woman who thought up and edited the volume, Katharina van Cauteren, to whom the authors as well as the dedicatee are deeply indebted, asked the contributors to write brief reflections on any visual object of their choice, not necessarily a work of art. Continue reading “335 A Hebrew Bible page for Paul Huvenne”