Schwartzlist columns

397 Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child – of state?

Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child in the Rijksmuseum is the poster boy of domesticism in Dutch art. What could be more touching? Schwartz thinks it was also meant to move the viewer in other ways than as an image of maternal care. He thinks he can identify the pathetic little boy as a personification of a high office leading an ailing existence. Continue reading “397 Gabriel Metsu’s Sick child – of state?”

Yes, but: Rembrandt as an unstable medium

Published in the Rembrandt Year volume of The Low Countries, 14 (2006), pp. 221-26

Rembrandt studies are a nerve-racking field. It is nearly impossible to write a proper paragraph about the artist or his work without stepping on the toes – or kicking the shins, depending on your mood – of a colleague. Part of this is due to the argumentative nature of scholars and part to the equivocal personality of the artist. By the time he arrived on the scene at the age of eighteen or nineteen, the man had set in swing a dialectic that has never since come to rest. Students of Rembrandt never had a chance.

The very first words written about Rembrandt’s art, jotted down in Leiden in 1628 by a visiting humanist from Utrecht, lay down the terms. ‘The Leiden miller’s son is highly praised, but before his time.’ How could he know? Was Arnoldus Buchelius such a genius of premonition that, while slighting the Leiden miller’s son for not living up to his hype, he divined future greatness? I think not. My suspicion is that he was simply annoyed that his host, the Haarlem-Leiden humanist Theodorus Schrevelius, was touting in superlatives a young artist whose better qualities were indiscernible to him. From the word go, admiration for Rembrandt was offset by annoyances and uncertainties of various kinds.

Going beyond Buchelius’s ‘sed ante tempus’ – ‘but before his time’ – to more highly articulated complaints about Rembrandt, we come across five main kinds of shaky vibes:
– questionable taste
– personality issues
– financial unreliability
– sloppy craftsmanship
– attributional insecurity.

Objections to Rembrandt’s taste have a certain unpleasant flavour of their own. They betray physical discomfort on the part of the critics, combined with snobbism and art-theoretical disdain. All of this is expressed in Andries Pels’ disapproving remarks on the bodies and social class of Rembrandt’s models:

If he came to paint a naked woman, as he sometimes did,
He took for a model not a Greek Venus
But rather a washerwoman or a turf stomper from a shed,
Calling his fallacy the imitation of Nature
And all the rest vain adornment. Hanging breasts,
Twisted hands, even the imprint of the bands
Of the corset on the belly, the garters on the legs
It all had to be followed, or nature would be dissatisfied.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Good Samaritan. 1633. Etching. 24.7 × 20.3 cm. Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam

To this Samuel van Hoogstraten adds censure of the coupling dogs in a Rembrandt painting of the Preaching of St John the Baptist, while the defecating mutt in the foreground of the etched Good Samaritan was sufficient evidence for some later connoisseurs to remove the print entirely from Rembrandt’s oeuvre. While I have no sympathy with this line of criticism, I cannot help but observe that there are a good number of art lovers who feel that Rembrandt invades their personal space and violates their code of propriety. In general they will not admit this, finding fault instead with the quality of the offending works. This introduces a false element into the discussion that is difficult – say impossible – to correct. In this it resembles the unhelpful discussion about the taste of Robert Mapplethorpe in relation to the merit of his art.

That Rembrandt had a (possibly related) 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.

Of his financial unreliability Rembrandt himself was a prime victim, but so were his son and friends who lent him money that they never saw again, not in cash nor in the form of frequently promised and never delivered works of art. Rembrandt’s relationships with others were riddled with bad debt.

“My X-year-old can do that” is the present-day form of a complaint Rembrandt had to endure from ill-wishing critics. Especially his later works were attacked for fudging over difficulties. “Great painters,” Abraham Bruegel wrote to a Rembrandt patron, “are not usually willing to lower themselves for a trifling draped half-length in which the light shows only the tip of the nose… this kind of painter does the contours so that one does not know what to make out of it…”

For the art historian, the direst form of instability in the Rembrandt perplex is attributional insecurity. An early instance of this phenomenon is to be found in no less authoritative a source than the papers of Stadholder Frederik Hendrik.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary, c.1628. Panel. 55.5 × 44 cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The well-informed clerk who in 1632 drew up the inventory of the prince’s possessions entered a painting in the cabinet of His Excellency as “A painting in which Simeon, being in the Temple, has Christ in his arms, done by rembrants or Jan Lievensz.” This was an item that cannot have been acquired by the court longer than five years earlier. Let this example, dating from a time when Rembrandt was barely twenty-five years old, stand as a symbolic as well as concrete example of the problem. (The fact that we are not sure whether the painting concerned is the version in Hamburg, of 1629, or that in The Hague, of 1632, does not make matters any better.)

Like politicians and captains of industry, art historians have traditional ways of dealing with these issues.

1. No comment. If you do not have to deal with these impossible problems, don’t.
2. Deny they exist. If you are forced to comment, try this one first. Denial is still the option of choice for historians unwilling to acknowledge Rembrandt’s personality problems.
3. If they are proven to exist, shrug them off as being irrelevant. Say that Rembrandt’s financial shenanigans took place in a completely different universe than his artistic production, which is marked by spotless integrity.
4. When the instability concerned is shown to impact massively on Rembrandt studies, say that you knew about it all along anyway and that it has been discounted by the field. This ploy is applicable in all cases.

Evasive tactics such as these actually have a certain point beyond sheer selfdefence. To acknowledge the complete range of difficulties in arriving at a comprehensive and responsible image of Rembrandt and his art is to acknowledge the impossibility of succeeding at the task. Consider only the dilemma of the Rembrandt Research Project. Six top talents joined forces in the years following a large Rembrandt exhibition in 1956 to tackle only one of the five conundrums, and then only in part: attributional uncertainty regarding Rembrandt’s paintings. Since the inception of the project some forty years have passed; more hours have been spent on it than the working life of any one mortal, perhaps two or more. Despite this monumental effort, as of the year 2006 the RRP has not got beyond about half the paintings that come into consideration. If one extrapolates on this record, one arrives at a total of some five lifetimes needed to answer the RRP’s initial question: which paintings are by Rembrandt and which are not? Add a lifetime or two to answer the same question concerning drawings and etchings.

But even an attempt on that scale, if we go by the experience of the RRP, is doomed to failure. With the appearance of vol. 4 of the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings in 2005, the project revamped its methodology drastically, diluting its original ambition, stirring in some new criteria for Rembrandtness and reversing several previous judgments. Because the RRP is not redoing vols. 1-3, even if it manages to cover all the relevant paintings in volumes to come it will not have solved the attributional dilemma but only exacerbated it.

The above remarks are limited to complications arising in Rembrandt’s lifetime. The confusions that emerged after his death are so extreme that some art historians write of “Rembrandt” for the legend in opposition to the historical personality Rembrandt van Rijn. If only they were that easy to keep apart.

My own first entry into this battlefield was on the coattails of a past master, the late Horst Gerson (1907-1978). As assistant to Gerson in his contribution to the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1969, a monumental book called Rembrandt Paintings, I arranged the catalogue section and wrote capsule texts for each double spread. Under the cover of Gerson’s authority, I was able to launch a number of new ideas. For example, I broke up the category ‘self-portraits’, which I mistrusted, inserting the self-portraits into the general rubric “Portraits and studies.” My work under Gerson was a high-powered initiation into Rembrandt studies.

With the first Big Rembrandt Year since 1969 upon us, I find myself at a more advanced age than Gerson in 1969 out there on my own, without an assistant, writing a book in which I am trying to do justice to Rembrandt’s drawings and etchings as well as his paintings, life and milieu. I find myself dependent on, and in competition with, not only the field at large but also myself of thirtyseven years ago. That isn’t the worst of it. Halfway back, twenty-two years ago, I wrote a book on Rembrandt’s life and paintings that leaned heavily in its attributions on the work of Gerson and the RRP while going far further in its treatment of Rembrandt’s life. Leaving attributional uncertainty to these connoisseurs, I set out to synthesise what we know about Rembrandt’s life in combination with the accepted paintings. Given the uncertainties regarding the paintings as well as the doubts regarding the adequacy of the documentary coverage, this was like crossing a wild cold river with ice floes as snowshoes. I am convinced that I reached the opposite bank, but not everyone is.

Be that as it may, I am now dependent on and in competition with that book of 1984 as well. This compounds the instability attending Rembrandt studies with imbalances introduced by my own new interests and ideas. Who wants to simply repeat the ideas and examples of others, even if the other is your former self? So I step on my own toes and kick my own shins.

The problem with Rembrandt, once one is resigned to the impossibility of capturing him entire, is how to deal with the Yes and the But. In the biography, too much Yes leads to hero worship, too much But to a misanthropic image of the man that no one is willing to accept. In attributions, too much Yes creates an oeuvre lacking in critical definition, too much But a corpus that eliminates work of high quality for which no other candidate is available.

It is easy to repeat the cliché that the truth lies in the middle, but in this case that will not do. There is no middle-of-the-road consensus concerning attributions, only the overblown, self-contradictory authority of the Rembrandt Research Project on the one hand and some fulminating, helpless critics on the other. Nor is there a biographical Rembrandt image one can fall back on, if only on account of wildly conflicting opinions concerning his role in the incarceration of his mistress Geertge Dircx.

Welcome, then, to the Rembrandt Year 2006. What will it bring us? Will the impossibility of dealing with Rembrandt/”Rembrandt” only increase? Or will the aggregate of contributions – more than 60 exhibitions and God knows how many books – finally turn the corner from Yes, But in the direction of But Yes!

© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 June 2021

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83 Fatty acids at large

Paintings are made of molecules. If your reaction to this truism is “So what?” you share the mentality of most art historians and museum curators. If artists did not care about molecules, they ask in annoyance – and indeed before the 19th century no artist could even know they existed – then why should art historians?

Whether artists knew about them or not, however, there are excellent reasons for art historians to care about molecules. Old master paintings as we see them in museums owe a lot to the molecule. Virtually all the art we see betrays traces not only of gross disfigurement due to moisture, abrasion, vandalism and ill-advised corrective treatments, but also of more insidious molecular processes. Chemical reactions can alter the way a painting looks from the inside out; leaving no obvious indication that anything has changed at all.

Since 1995, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific and Scholarly Research (NWO) has been sponsoring the first massive, coordinated effort to identify and analyze these effects. The project is called MOLART: “Molecular aspects of ageing in painted works of art.” The coordinator of MOLART is Jaap Boon, who in his daily life is an analytical mass spectrometrist. He works at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics, FOM standing for Fundamenteel Onderzoek der Materie. (Fundamental Research of Matter. People who break out in a rash from acronyms are advised to stay away from this kind of work.) MOLART is a five-year project, which will be rounded off in the year 2000. Regular progress reports have been issued, which can be consulted on Internet at

As an art historian, I cannot claim always or even often to understand exactly what MOLART is discovering. The (English-language) cumulative Progress Report 1995-1998 is full of sentences such as: “HPSEC of artificially aged tempera samples indicated that the formation of cross-linked lipid oligomers correlates with the oxygenation.” It does not particularly help to know that HPSEC stands for High Performance Size Exclusion Chromotography. But there are finds that even a layman can think he understands, and some of these are a revelation. The part that got to me concerned the mobility of fatty acids, which are present in the oils that were used in oil paint from the 15th century on. As Boon explained it to me, most fatty acid molecules bond with the metallic elements in pigments, forming a stable compound. However, some of them do not. These molecules are released and they migrate spontaneously through the painting. Those which move toward the front can leave the paint layer and go on into the varnish. This means that when varnish is removed, as is the general practice in restoring old paintings, a certain amount of original material is removed with it. (Varnish removal sounds more innocuous than it is. It has been estimated of French Impressionist paintings that in this treatment the paint and varnish layers lose 30 percent of their weight.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. The killer sentence in the progress report is this: “Many of the traditional conservation methods are now thought to have side effects which require study on the molecular level.” If even varnish removal has unacknowledged dangers, what to think of such interventions as the Pettenkofer process, patented in 1867, for “regenerating” discolored varnish to make it more transparent. This is done by exposing a painting in a closed space to the vapor of alcohol and a South American resin called Copaiba balsam. In paintings that were treated this way in the past, we now know, “the use of common solvents for cleaning and varnish removal often leads to a loss of original paint material.”

The section on this key issue contains a small contradiction. Page 94 of the report states that a trained eye can recognize the minute telltale signs of an old Pettenkofer treatment. However, on page 95 we read: “The author (Sibylle Schmitt) participated in the investigation of Rembrandt’s ‘The anatomy lesson of Dr. Tulp’ at Mauritshuis, Den Haag. In spite of the fact, that numerous treatments including the use of Copaiba balsam in the past have been documented, no actual remaining evidence could be found,” not even with the microscope or through chemical analysis, let alone the naked eye. This suggests that a higher level of risk may be involved in routine cleaning procedures than even MOLART has been able to detect.

The MOLART report leaves me in no doubt that the study of paintings at the molecular level is sensible and fruitful. It might even be a scientific gold mine. The doubt with which it does leave me is different. Research of this kind is always going to discover ever more and never fewer symptoms of ageing – and unwanted side effects of conservation practices. This is in fact the pattern of the history of art restoration at large. When you speak to an art restorer, you will always hear about new advances in knowledge that make present-day restoration so much safer than in the past. Their predecessors, they will say, however gifted and conscientious they were, simply knew too little about the effects of their procedures. With the increased pace of conservation studies, this generational dialectic has been accelerated. MOLART not only speeds this process up even more; it also enlarges its scope into vast new domains. Jaap Boon may be right when he says that MOLART enables “more and more decisions to be made on the basis of knowledge available beforehand.” But whether the speed-up in knowledge will lead to a slow-down in the aging process of paintings remains to be seen.

© Gary Schwartz 1999. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad, 24 July 1999, p. 28. Published on the Schwartzlist 24 June 2021.

“The years have imposed heavy tribulations”: Rembrandt’s portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert

Working in 2021 on a book about a disputed Rembrandt self-portrait, I wished to refer to the article below, from July 1992, for its comments on the Rembrandt Research Project. The English text had not been published before. If I am not mistaken, this article has never been referred to in subsequent literature on the painting.

Continue reading ““The years have imposed heavy tribulations”: Rembrandt’s portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert”

394 The Rembrandt theft of a hundred years ago today

A centennial moment in Schwartz’s art-historical life. One hundred years ago today a Rembrandt self-portrait was stolen from the museum in Weimar. He is writing a book on the painting. A snippet from its fascinating story. Plus a complete lecture and q&a on the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient. Continue reading “394 The Rembrandt theft of a hundred years ago today”

393 The transparent connoisseur 6: Johnny One Work

There are nearly one-and-a-half times as many recorded Dutch painters of the seventeenth century by whom not a single work is known than masters with an identified oeuvre. And then there are those by whom we know only one really good painting. Where did their lost paintings go? Lots were thrown away, but others, Schwartz argues, are catalogued under well-known names. This subverts one of the basic assumptions of the connoisseur’s attribution.
Continue reading “393 The transparent connoisseur 6: Johnny One Work”

392 “Charlotte” at 40

On the 26th of February 1981 three events took place that laid the basis for the recognition of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) as the creator of one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. An exhibition of her work opened in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam; the film “Charlotte,” directed by Frans Weisz with a scenario by him and Judith Herzberg, had its première; and the first complete edition of her monumental work Life? or Theater? was published. Schwartz was the publisher of the book. He looks back with a sense of achievement, unfortunately blighted by recent events.

Continue reading “392 “Charlotte” at 40”