Rembrandt drew inspiration from artists all over Europe and paid back in kind. He was widely collected in Europe in his lifetime; after his death even more. In the Rembrandt Year 2006, the Rembrandt holdings of museums all over the world are being displayed. The broad diffusion and wide acceptance of his art turned Rembrandt early on into a standard for quality and impact, a standard that is still respected.
One of the achievements of the exhibition Rembrandt-Caravaggio (curated by the Rijksmuseum, held in the van Gogh Museum) is that it highlights the European dimension of Rembrandt’s art. The comparison of Rembrandt (1606-1669) with Caravaggio (1571-1610) is by all means legitimate, even if Rembrandt did not display much direct knowledge of the work of this Italian predecessor with whom he was to be compared so emphatically after his death.
Rembrandt’s artistic roots in Europe outside the Netherlands, especially Italy, are vast. By a conservative count, he drew inspiration from the work of more than 100 other artists. (Source: Ben Broos, Index to the formal sources of Rembrandt’s art.) Of those, some 35 came from Flanders, France and Germany and 32 from Italy. Rembrandt’s astonishing collection of prints and drawings included 20 albums of work by and after Italian masters. One of his prize possessions was “the precious book of Andrea Mantegna," a quattrocento master whose works were practically out of the market by Rembrandt’s time. As he aged, Rembrandt looked for artistic inspiration more and more often in the past, especially the Italian past. I sometimes have the suspicion that in his own mind, Rembrandt was more of a 16th-century Italian than a 17th-century Dutchman.
The interest was mutual. Italians who collected, traded or wrote about Rembrandt during his lifetime them included important artists like Guercino and Stefano della Bella, the major Sicilian collector Don Antonio Ruffo, and two Medici grand dukes. Rembrandt also attracted attention at this level in Poland, Flanders, France, Germany and Great Britain.
If Rembrandt was an artist of high international standing upon his death, today his place in Europe is even higher. More than 50 museums in 18 European countries outside the Netherlands own paintings by him; no print room of any importance lacks examples of his drawings and etchings, often in large numbers. The perceived relation between Rembrandt and Dutch society plays an important part in his widespread European reception. His reputation as a rebel who was misprized by his fellow Dutchmen gave later admirers, wherever they lived, the flattering feeling that they understood the artist better than his own milieu. The eagerness with which the Dutch sold off nearly all their Rembrandt paintings in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to this image. Rembrandt combines the attractions of the unchallenged genius and the underdog.
The Rembrandt year has inspired fresh interest in dispersed Rembrandt holdings. Etchings that normally languish in closed boxes have been taken out and studied, many for the first time. To name only cities beginning with the letter B, exhibitions of locally owned Rembrandt paintings, drawings and etchings are being held in Barcelona, Basel, Berlin, Braunschweig, Brussels, Bucharest and Budapest. (See www.codart.nl/rembrandt_2006, where some 80 Rembrandt Year exhibitions in 15 countries are listed.)
In the contest for unique distinction, I think a claim can be made for Rembrandt as the most widely collected Old Master. That position is more than just a statistic in a popularity contest. Rembrandt is the gold standard for artistic comparisons and a binding element between collecting cultures. That is worth a lot, and the Rembrandt Year provides a chance to make it worth even more.
© Gary Schwartz 2006. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 22 April 2006
The above is based on a proposal that I submitted in 2002 to the Dutch bureau that is coordinating some of the Rembrandt Year events in the country. When the plan for a coordinating committee arose, I was approached with the request to think about a binding theme, something more than just the number 400, for the (presumed) 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. (Why presumed? See http://www.codart.nl/news/82/.)
What I came up with was a somewhat denationalized Rembrandt, a Rembrandt who thrived in an environment far larger than the towns where he lived, Leiden and Amsterdam. I envisioned a European television program on 15 July 2006, in which the ties of each European country to Rembrandt would be touched on. I thought this proposal made sense and had a chance of success in a period when the Dutch were tooling up for the chairmanship of the European Union in 2004.
The reason the plan was not adopted is that the committee consisted of museums and agencies in Leiden and Amsterdam whose main job was to bring in visitors to their cities. They measure success in the extra fractions of a day of an average visit to the country. It looks like they are succeeding. The Lakenhal Museum in Leiden drew more visitors to its first Rembrandt exhibition, Rembrandt’s mother, than it otherwise gets in a whole year. Still, I would have liked to see the Rembrandt Year used for something larger and more interesting than just extra hotel nights in two Dutch towns.
Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl