269 Advanced Rembrandt

Two independent Dutch art historians, Michiel Roscam Abbing and Roelof van Straten, have made optimal use of the Rembrandt year to bring out some basic books on the artist as well as more popular writings. A tribute.

In the course of the Rembrandt Year you have been treated mainly to second-hand information about the master, distilled from the work of the archivists, researchers and thinkers who provide the primary goods. Before the year is out, you might want to get behind the scenes and peep into the cooking cauldrons of basic Rembrandt research.

The freelance art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing, working with the one-main Leiden publishing house Foleor of the art historian Roelof van Straten, has been hard at work gathering first-line essays and uncollected documents that have now been published in two volumes entitled Rembrandt 2006.

About the documents: we have more documents about Rembrandt than nearly any other Dutch artist of the 17th century, and new ones keep turning up. In 1979, a volume called The Rembrandt documents gathered about 450 documents about Rembrandt and his family from archives and printed sources. Roscam Abbing has been able to add 88 more.

“The famous Fleming” Rembrandt, King Uzziah
struck by leprosy or Portrait of a pasha, ca. 1639.
Chatsworth, collection of the Dukes of Devonshire

Some are legal instruments pertaining to cases we already know; they will probably never be of interest to anyone but specialists. Others, however, can really excite the imagination, as New Rembrandt documents nr. 54 certainly did for me. When Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661 as the most powerful man in France, we now learn, he owned a major painting by Rembrandt from about 1639 now in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Art historians call it King Uzziah in the Temple, struck with leprosy, but to the cardinal’s agent it was “the portrait of a Pasha from the hand of this famous Fleming.” Letters to Mazarin from his agent shortly before the cardinal’s death and other documents indicate that the painting was sent to Paris from Rome – how it got there we do not know – where it belonged to Mazarin’s sister. One of the letters tells us that it was Mazarin’s particular wish to own it. If these proofs of Rembrandt’s high standing in Europe in the last decade of his life had been known in the 19th century, the legend of Rembrandt’s rejection by his contemporaries – a legend that was particularly popular in France – might never have gained currency. That is how important archive research can be.

The 19 essays in the second Foleor volume deal with larger and smaller issues in Rembrandt studies. Some of the subjects seem minute to the point of meaninglessness. Watch out. Roscam Abbing devotes 12 pages to the meaning of a single obscure word in the inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions: “sackerdaene pars” (a press of sakerdaan [wood]). What kind of wood was sakerdaan, he asks, and he answers convincingly that it was the wood of a New World tree known also as jacaranda and later as palisander. His research might be trivial for Rembrandt studies, but of considerable significance in the history of natural history.

Michiel Roscam Abbing brought out three other Rembrandt titles this year: a splendid Rembrandt voor dummies volume (with Arthur Graaff), a booklet on Rembrandt’s elephant Hansken (which the Dutch radio media biologist Midas Dekkers called “an extremely charming book ,,, that should be part of everyone’s education”) and a box of replicas of Rembrandt relics. He is an unsung hero of the Rembrandt year. So is Roelof van Straten, who in addition to publishing Rembrandt 2006, wrote the most exhaustive book ever published on Rembrandt’s Leiden years. These initiatives were not part of the sponsored publicity barrage surrounding Rembrandt 400, nor did they benefit from heavy subsidies. All the more credit, as the sun sets on the Rembrandt Year, to two colleagues who piggy-backed on the hype to bring out non-hype work of lasting value.

© Gary Schwartz 2006. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 9 December 2006


Rembrandt, Johannes Wtenbogaert, Receiver of taxes
in Amsterdam and surroundings for the States of Holland, 1639

One of the more detailed contributions in New Rembrandt documents is an appendix by Pierre Tuynman on Rembrandt’s portrait of the tax collector Johannes Wtenbogaert. He corrects a number of misunderstandings in the literature, to which I am afraid I added. Wtenbogaert was not as important as I thought he was. He was not a receiver-general of taxes for the States-general but only a receiver for the States of Holland. The title “receiver-general” has been attached to him in catalogues of Rembrandt etchings at least since 1752, when he is called that in the English translation of Edmé-Françoise Gersaint’s catalogue, the first ever. It is also the title given to him in the latest authoritative catalogue of the etchings, by K.G. Boon and Christopher White in 1969. That is no excuse for perpetuating the error, but it is at least an extenuating circumstance. As for the body to which Wtenbogaert answered, I indeed introduced the notion that he worked for the States-General. It was a misreading on my part of the term “Gemeenelandsmiddelen,” which I took for a reference to the generality rather than to the province.

The error is all the more regrettable because it is impossible to retract it. The books in which they are printed are out there in large quantities, being read and used by many. Fortunately, however, I am working on a corrective mechanism that will reach them. Not as drastic as a factory recall, but a means that will allow authors and their critics to comment on published materials. More on this to follow in the new year.

Having illustrated Rembrandt’s painting of Uzziah and his fanciful portrait of Wtenbogaert together, for completely different reasons, I am struck by a powerful resemblance between them. Both contain images in the background of the brazen serpent from the tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. The portrait of Wtenbogaert is dated 1639, the painting, whose inscribed date is illegible, is assigned to that year on stylistic grounds. Is the presence in both works of the brazen serpent, a rare motif in Dutch art, sheer coincidence? Not very likely. In my book of 1984 (fig. 183) I noticed the recurrence of the brazen serpent, but because I dated the Uzziah to 1635 I did not push the point. However, if the “Uzziah” (the subject remains uncertain) and the portrait print are from the same year, there is good reason to assume a further-going tie between them. To begin with, let me here launch the hypothesis that Rembrandt painted the king or pasha (or as Christian Tümpel would have it, Jacob’s son Dan) for Receiver Wtenbogaert, the inventory of whose collection has not survived. The brazen serpent was made by Moses to save the people of Israel from a plague of serpents, always a handy thing to have around the house.

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