373 Putting ourselves and Rembrandt to the test

For Peter Hecht, who following his retirement from a celebrated professorship in art history at Utrecht University, entered the fray of interpreters of Rembrandt’s notoriously treacherous Leiden History Painting. Schwartz reviews the state of the question, especially with regard to the emotions of three of the figures, and reintroduces into the discussion a neglected piece of pertinent evidence.

In 1626, the twenty-year-old Rembrandt painted a large panel showing a helmeted commander with a sceptre standing above three men in expressive poses. Expressive – but of what? Before reading on, may I kindly request you to go through the seventeen linked explanations of the condition and state of mind of the three figures as interpreted in the literature of art history and decide for yourself if there are any with which you agree.

1 RELIEF (Son being forgiven by father after father condemned him to death) INDIGNATION (Protester against death sentence of A) INDIGNATION (Protester against death sentence of A)
2 PRIDE (Being honored by his king) AMAZEMENT ([An impressed legionary]) APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])
3 CONSTERNATION (Being condemned to death on false accusations) SHOCK ([Shocked legionary]) APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])
4 DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Swearing he was B, in order to save B from being sacrificed) DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Swearing he was A, in order to save A from being sacrificed) SELF-SATISACTION (Captor of A and B)
5 COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets) COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets) COURAGE (One of three identical triplets showing readiness to fight three identical enemy triplets)

6 SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die) SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die) SELF-SACRIFICE (One of three identical triplets swearing to vanquish three identical enemy triplets or die)
7 GUILT – REMORSE – DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father for insubordination) DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father by association with A) APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])
8 GUILT – REMORSE – DESPAIR (Being condemned to death by his father for insubordination) SHOCK (Shocked comrade-in-arms of condemned A) APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])
9 SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle) SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle) SUBMISSION (Suffering defeat in battle)
10 DECEPTION – SELF-SACRIFICE (Taking blame upon himself for assassination plot of brothers, B & C) DESPAIR – SELF-ABASEMENT – IMPLORING (Brother B begging for mercy) CONFIDENCE – SELF-SATISFACTION (Brother C defending himself successfully against charge of assassination plot)

11 DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal on suspicion of having murdered B) DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal for being the cause of the sentencing of A) DESPAIR (Condemned to beheadal for having failed to kill B when apprehended)
12 GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils) GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils) GRATITUDE (Ally of commander receiving spoils)
13 RELIEF (Unfaithful legionary being pardoned by commander) RELIEF (Unfaithful legionary being pardoned by commander) APPROVAL (Faithful legionary agreeing to pardon of unfaithful comrades-in-arms)
14 APPREHENSION (Conspirator being warned to abandon his plot) APPREHENSION (Conspirator being warned to abandon his plot) APPROVAL ([An approving legionary])

15 RELIEF (Rebel being reconciled with ruler) RELIEF (Rebel being reconciled with ruler) APPROVAL ([Legionary seconding reconciliation])
16 SUBMISSION ([Demonstrating subjection to magnanimous ruler]) IMPLORING ([Begging for mercy from magnanimous ruler]) ALLEGIANCE ([Swearing loyalty to magnanimous ruler])
17 RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”]) RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”]) RELIEF – GRATITUDE ([Recipient of imperial “act of mercy”])

As you will have guessed, these readings of the feelings being undergone by the figures are not based primarily on their facial expressions or body language. They are attributions of feelings thought to be appropriate to persons in stories that have been seized upon by the researcher as the subject of the painting.

A remark made by Kurt Bauch in his book of 1960 on the young Rembrandt remains undiminishedly apt sixty years later: “Keine der bisherigen Deutungen passt auf alles gleichzeitig.” None of the interpretations advanced to date covers everything concomitantly. To which we may add that this knot of discrepancies supports the idea that emotions are not so much read out of the facial expressions of painted figures as read into them, once we know, or think we know, the story.

So here are the stories on which the above readings are based, and the authors who broached them. (The characterizations in square brackets in the table above means that the figure is not named in the source; these are attributions to attributions.) I have put the stories in rough chronological order. The authorities cited are not always the only ones to maintain a given identification.

1 Saul forgiving Jonathan after having condemned him to death (1 Samuel 14:45). Werner Sumowski, 1957

2 Saul clothing David with his own cloak and armor (1 Samuel 17:38). Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, 1905

3 Agamemnon condemning Palamedes to death on a trumped-up charge (Diverse post-Homeric sources; Vondel’s play Palamedes of 1625). Maarten Wurfbain, 1976

4 Orestes and Pylades before King Thoas (Cicero, Laelius; Pacuvius, play based on Euripides, Iphigenaia in Tauris; Karel van Mander, Schilder-boeck). Peter Hecht, 2018

5 “The readiness of the Horatians” (Myriad Roman historians; Reynier Olivier van Zonhoven, Der dry Horatien ende Curiatien, 1616). Jeroen Stumpel, 2001

6 “The three Horatii facing King Tullus” (Livy, History of Rome; Reynier Olivier van Zonhoven, Der dry Horatien ende Curiatien, 1616). Pierre Tuynman, 1999

7 L. Junius Brutus condemning his sons Titus and Tiberius to death (Livy, History of Rome, 2.4-5). Wolfgang Stechow, 1929

8 Coriolanus victorious (Livy, History of Rome, 2.33). Egbert Pelinck, 1949

9 Manlius Torquatus sentencing his disobedient son to death (Livy, History of Rome, 8.7.19-22). Wilhelm Valentiner, 1934

10 The magnanimity of Alexander the Great (Quintus Curtius Rufus, Historiae Alexandri Magni Macedonis, 7). Josua Bruyn, 1987

11 The injustice of Gnaeus Piso (Seneca, De ira, 1.18.3-6). Paul Taylor, 2011

12 The magnanimity of Claudius Civilis (Tacitus, Histories, 4.17). Benjamin Binstock in Simon Schama, 1999

13 Consul Cerialis pardoning the German legions (Tacitus, Histories, 4.72). Kurt Bauch, 1960

14 The clemency of Emperor Titus (Suetonius, Life of Titus, 9.1). Frederik Schmidt-Degener, 1941

15 The reconciliation of Ludolf and Conrad the Red with King Otto (Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons). Klaus Demus, cited in 1976 by Wurfbain

16 Emperor Charles V extending mercy to the German cities (Print by Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1556). Bob van de Boogert in van den Wetering and Schnackenburg, 2001

17 The magnanimity of Emperor Ferdinand II ([Only secondary sources cited]). Roel van Straten, 1991

This listing, for which I made grateful use of the entry on the painting in RKD Explore, is not complete. Two unpublished theories that have been submitted to me over the years would come in the first and last positions of a revised list: Joseph recognizing his brothers in Egypt and The revolt of the Huguenots in La Rochelle in 1625.

However we look at it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is either something wrong with us or something wrong with Rembrandt. If the problem lies with us, we have not yet found the incident being depicted. Considering the great breadth of the possibilities, covering a good 2500 years and several civilizations from east to west, there remains a chance that a completely convincing interpretation is still out there to be found, or that someone succeeds in ironing out the counter-indications in one of the existing ones. The alternative is that Rembrandt has failed so completely in capturing the emotions of his figures that only misinterpretations or self-contradictions are possible.

My own published preference, based more on circumstantial than intrinsic evidence, has gone to Agamemnon condemning Palamedes to death. Right now I will let the matter lie. But not without bringing once more into the discussion a piece of visual evidence that I published in 1984 and that as far as I know has been totally and completely ignored by all writers before and since. Below Rembrandt’s painting, look at one from the preceding or the same year by the obscure Dutch painter Reyer van Adelo. They are illustrated in approximate ratio to their actual size.

Rembrandt van Rijn, History painting with disputed subject matter, signed and dated R[L] 16[2]6. Oil on panel, 90 x 122 cm. Leiden, Museum De Lakenhal (on loan since 1948 from the Netherlands Agency for Cultural Heritage)

Reyer van Adelo, History painting with uncertain subject, said (unconvincingly to me) to be Joseph before Pharaoh, signed and dated R. van Adelo fecit 1625 (according to earlier sources) or 1626 (according to Turin art dealer who owned it or still does)
Oil on panel, 123 x 163 cm. Turin, Galleria Luigi Caretto

All the elements in this painting, which seems to precede Rembrandt’s by not more than a few months, have close correspondences to Rembrandt’s: Both show a ruler with a sceptre exercising judgment over a kneeling young man with the same scraggy hairdo.

In both paintings the ruler is accompanied by two main figures: a dashing, bearded youngish man in flamboyant silks and a plumed hat and an older man, bearded and bare-headed. Behind the ruler in both paintings are armed men. A particularly striking correspondence concerns the presence of an artist in the ruler’s entourage.

Reyer van Adelo’s painting shows a young, beardless man in a cap with a slashed rim who closely resembles the model for a print after Lucas van Leyden published after his time as a self-portrait. Rembrandt famously put a self-portrait into his own history painting. This would not be the only time he compared himself to his great Leiden forebear.

Hendrick Hondius after Lucas van Leyden, Young man with a skull, in later printing of 1610 identifying the model as the painter himself
Etching and engraving, 22.0 x 13.1 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Why none of the seventeen cited writers on Rembrandt’s history painting in Leiden – and many more uncited here – is interested in this, is beyond me. What it suggests to me, if the two paintings have the same subject, is that the main action concerns only the ruler and one kneeling young man, looking much like a victim. The other figures in Rembrandt’s painting are reacting to whatever the ruler is saying, but are not being judged themselves. They will have been added to give context to the incident. Why the kneeling man is undressed in the van Adelo and fully armed in the Rembrandt – the only significant difference between any of the figures – may turn out to be a vital clue in identifying the subject.

And even if the two paintings have different subjects, isn’t it interesting that Rembrandt at the very start of his career should have borrowed so many features from a painting by an artist as obscure as Reyer van Adelo?

Peter – this is surely not the tribute for which you might have hoped, in response to your well-wrought, reasonable and clever article in Simiolus. But the question mark in the title – “Could this be it?” – shows that you did not expect discussion to come to a halt.

© Gary Schwartz 2019. Published on the Schwartzlist on 15 June 2019

P.S. 18 June: In response to the queries below concerning the column in the background of Rembrandt’s painting, here are details of the animal on top and the men at the base. (Images cannot be posted in the query section.) I must agree with Dingeman van Wijnen that the animal looks more like a sheep than a calf (sorry Baruch) or a she-wolf (sorry Jean-Marie), though with an unnaturally highly curved back and a too long tail. With thanks to Museum De Lakenhal.

21 June: In response to Roel van Straten’s comment about the resemblance of the animal on the column to the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece, this picture of the insignia plucked from Internet. The fleece is taken from a ram, which Rembrandt’s animal is not. Are we ready to concede this additional inconsistency?

Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site) or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.

So will donations. These have been lagging behind for months. See what you can do.

Your donations help defray the costs of the Schwartzlist and encourage Gary Schwartz to write more columns.

.Donate Button

My main media contribution to the Rembrandt year 2019 so far is this interview on Turkish English-language television. TRT flew me to Istanbul for two-and-a-half days, an offer I would never refuse. I didn’t even mind when they told me that it was cheaper to bring me to Istanbul and put me up in a hotel than to hire a studio in the Netherlands for a remote interview.

45 thoughts on “373 Putting ourselves and Rembrandt to the test”

  1. Dear Gary,

    No one but you could have done this (and that’s not meant as the classic damning with faint praise)!

    All the best from the Erfurt-Frankfurt train,

    1. Many thanks, Joshua. Whether or not I’m the only one who could do it, I must agree that I am the only one who has!
      Bon voyage, tot ziens,

  2. Oddly, dear Gary, you say that I gave Euripides as the source for the iconography of the Rembrandt, which I certainly did not, pointing out instead that the scene which Rembrandt depicts is missing in Euripides. It is however in Van Mander and in Cicero, who in turn quotes Pacuvius, an author who was published by Scriverius. I would appreciate if you would correct that — and would like to refer those interested to Simiolus 40-4, pp. 292-301.

    1. Sorry for the slip, Peter, which I have corrected, from “Euripides, Iphigenaia in Tauris,” to “Pacuvius, play based on Euripides, Iphigenaia in Tauris”

      The reference to your article is under a link to its page on RKD Explore, as are all the references.

  3. I would never normally weigh in publicly about this complicated and enigmatic work before an encompassing Dutch painting audience, but I really liked your main point–that once we have a story we read the reactions made by painters in light of what we perceive to be enacted in that same narrative.

    On the other hand, there are details that you omit by focusing on the admittedly close parallels between the Turin painting, which might inflect any interpretation. The Turin picture shows an abject figure with no blouse, whereas the Leiden painting shows him with shield and weapon; moreover, the foreground is strewn with discarded weapons, so this looks like a surrender scene, which might invoke those interpretations of magnanimity by a ruler. Additionally, the presence of extra figures who seem to be related to the main kneeling figure also seem to have elements of military leadership by the costumes of recent Du! tch portraits. Finally, there is the idolatrous column in the background, which takes the scene out of the contemporary and probably out of the biblical, unless to show a foreign faith rather than monotheism. None of these elements clarifies the classical vs biblical range of interpretations much (and the contrast between a seated vs a standing ruler might also hold significance, suggesting greater submission in the case of the Turin painting, in keeping with its more abject dress). Does that get us closer to the narrative shown here? Not to me, and I am grateful for your additional pictorial evidence. But there are also some points at which the resemblance stops.

    1. Thanks for your good observations, Larry. In this column I deliberately limited my comparison of the paintings by van Adelo and Rembrandt to the figures in the van Adelo and their equivalents in the Rembrandt. This seems to me to be a concrete and indisputable issue that calls for attention even if the other details you mention suggest that the two paintings may have divergent iconographies.

      I also deliberately avoided commenting on the virtues or deficiencies of individual interpretations. Many of the articles cited in the links, including the excellent one by Peter Hecht, do engage in detailed criticism of previous hypotheses. This goes far beyond the scope of a column.

      In order to keep attention focused on what I think of as the value of my column – the demonstration that the readings of the emotions of those three figures are so at odds with each other, and pointing out the striking and hitherto ignored (except by me) correspondences of the Rembrandt to the van Adelo – I prefer not to enter into discussion here of other details and the interpretation of the subjects of the two paintings.

  4. Thank you Gary. I have thought this must have been a commission ed painting from the first time I stood in front of it decades ago. The subject probably reflects both a contemporary event and an an ancient sources. My apologies to yo and Peter Hecht, whose article I have yet to read, if I am stating the obvious and revealing my ignorance.


    1. All relevant responses are welcome, Mark. There is general agreement that the painting was a commission, and Peter Hecht and I also agree in thinking that the person who ordered it was Petrus Scriverius. I share your feeling that the subject reflects a contemporary event and ancient sources. Peter Hecht sees it only as “a highly dramatic scene from a Greek Legend,” without relating it to the Dutch context of its time.

  5. Hoi Pap,
    Happy fathers’ day. Couldn’t reach you on the phone, so here’s your son langs deze onsympathieke weg! I realize I must at least attempt to make some scholarly remarks on these hallowed pages though so here goes:
    I put it to the jury still in deliberation on the 17 (19?) proposed subject matters that you mentioned… why is everyone apparently ignoring the elephant in the room? The elephant in question being a calf-like idol raised on a column. It seems the colouring wasn’t finished judging by the fact that some of the background figures are still in their base-coats, or else the colors have faded? Could it be that the calf was or should have been painted in gold (perhaps the 20 year old artist didn’t have the necessary cash to get it right?)
    Is this not quite simply a portrayal of Moses giving his brother Aaron a righteous hiding for having f***ed up during his absence? Curious about your thoughts, and much filial love, Baruch

    1. I see I should have read all the comments before posting; just noticed Larry Silver also brought up the idolatry angle. Still curious about your thoughts on the matter!

    2. My dearest son, I find it not onsympathiek at all that you congratulate me in public on being your father. Thank you with a hug and kiss.

      The “calf-like idol raised on a column” is not ignored in the literature. Let me just quote Peter Hecht, who quotes three previous theories of its meaning.

      “Only the idol of the sheep (if that is what it is) on the column remains a kind of mystery.”

      And in a note to that remark: “The lamb or sheep on the column, or whatever animal it is supposed to be, can also probably be left in peace: it is as unlikely to refer to Jesus as yet another victim of “the anger and cruelty of the Roman world,’ Taylor … , as to the emblem of the Golden Fleece, van Straten… I assume that it is simply the prototype of an idol on a column, meant to situate the scene in the pagan world, although I do wonder if there is perhaps some classical or other source suggesting that human sacrifice and the worship of animals go hand in hand.”

      Your query, Baruch, shows that Peter Hecht’s wish that the mysterious, highly intriguing detail “be left in peace” is not coming true. Other interpreters too have found themselves forced in the end to play down the importance of unexplained details that nonetheless give the appearance of bearing significant meaning.

  6. Dear Gary, many thanks for your – as always – inventive findings. In this case on a painting that has always been dear to me since my early career as teacher in art history. In the later sixties one of my tasks was to take freshmen to the Lakenhal in order to ‘initiate’ them into looking at works of art. It was my habit to ask them to turn their backs to this early Rembrandt and let them describe what they had seen.
    One of them was Frits Duparc who always remembers this as an effective way of training. But I never tried to burn my fingers at an attempt for stating its iconography.
    I thank you for your revealing findings and – this time – I offer a contribution to the Schwartzlist.

    1. What a lovely story, Wessel. I’m not sure how well I would have done at that test, but even thinking about it will prod me to look better at whatever I’m seeing!

  7. I could not get the lamb on the column out of my head, and though it did not bring me towards an interpretation, I wished to mention it because I think it must be crucial and decisive – it is so prominent. And can it mean anything else than sacrifice of one for the many? But which story in the Old Testament (classical lit not being my forte I stick to the OT) would fit this?
    I can only think of David offering himself to fight evil in the place of his people. Beautiful, young, redheaded, all that fits. The men-with-emotions would then be his brothers, calling him names – who does he think he is is? And the young man in the background would be Jonathan.

    But I cannot convince myself at all I must admit. What about the siege of a town in the background, the sun on the shield?

    It’s just that I cannot see anything else but a lamb in the animal.

    1. All I can do at this point is to add details of the animal on top of the column and the men at its base, as a P.S. to the column. I agree with you that the animal looks most like a lamb or a sheep.

  8. If I may put in my two cents’ worth… The conspicuous absence of turbans speaks for a non-Biblical source (compare with the Basel “David before King Saul,” 1627). The main protagonist seems to be the young man kneeling in the foreground: he is the only main figure without facial hair. The fact that he still has his sword etc. would seem to preclude a capitulation or punishment scene (I would not read the pile of weapons in the foreground as an iconographic clue, but as filler). The three figures behind him form a distinct group that may or may not be relevant to the action. As for the animal on the column, considering the length of its tail, might it not be a clumsy interpretation of the Roman she-wolf? I can like this painting only as an enigma: I hope no one ever elucidates the subject. If nothing else, it has quite a few features that made it into the “Nightwatch.”

    1. There are good observations, Jean-Marie, and I too tend to the idea that the main action is between the ruler and the armed young man before him. I looked at picture of wolves – their ears tend to stick straighter up than those of the animal on the column.

      What you say about the pile of weapons not being an iconographic clue but “filler” is the kind of tactic that Hecht employs for the animal on the column – as every interpreter has to play down the significance of details not mentioned in the story being defended.

  9. Dear Gary,

    Thank you for this very interesting post. The diagram with all the interpretations of facial expressions and gestures emphasizes, in my opinion, that we humans apparently have difficulty judging them without knowing the subject of a painting. I think we came to a similar conclusion during the experiments in the Emotions exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum.

    The similarities between Rembrandts History painting and the Reyer van Adelo painting are indeed striking.

    1. Thanks very much, Jettie. Indeed, I should have mentioned the exhibition in the Frans Hals Museum in which you helped me so greatly. The reference on the RKD website is at https://rkd.nl/explore/library/276340, though only to the Dutch edition.

      About Reyer van Adelo: I have been unable to find that last name in the online archives of Leiden, Utrecht and Amsterdam, nor in the Dutch genealogical journals. There is no Adelo in the current telephone book of the Netherlands. So I am beginning to wonder whether the signature Reyer van Adelo that we find only on the painting from Turin (de-accessioned from the Wallraff-Richartz Museum in 1944), beside one with the monogram R.v.A. and two attributions of unsigned paintings, might be a pseudonym. The painting is clearly the work of an accomplished master. Benedict Nicolson calls him “An unrecorded Baburen-like artist.” Maybe we have to start all over again in attempting to identify him.

      1. Dear Gary,

        Around 1983, when I studied art history in Utrecht, my highly esteemed professor Albert Blankert showed me and my fellow students slides of paintings attributed to R. van Adelo. He was fascinated by this artist, who stood so close to the Utrecht Caravaggisti, and yet, remained so enigmatic. Albert asked me to keep an eye open for Van Adelo when doing research in the archives. Unfortunately, after more than 35 year, I have to report that I still have not found a trace of the man. The name Van Adelo does not pop up in Archieven.nl, the website which currently gives access to 206 million descriptions of archival documents in Dutch archives. Neither does the name exist in https://www.wiewaswie.nl/, the website with genealogical sources on 200 million individual Dutchman.

        We may have to look again at the signatures or monograms on the paintings, which may have been misread.

        With kind regards, from your pupil,

        Marten Jan Bok

        1. Dear Marten Jan,

          It was in 1983 that I came across that painting and began pondering its relation to the Rembrandt. My memory is not as good as yours, and I can’t recall whether I spoke to Albert about this at the time. But I certainly will do that now.

          As I wrote to Jettie, I\m starting to wonder whether Reyer van Adelo is a pseudonym. The signature seems to have been read that way when the painting was in the Wallraff-Richartz Museum, when it was sold by Sotheby’s, and by the Turin art dealer.

          Warmest thanks for calling yourself my pupil. That’s the only thing I regret about choosing not to be into academia, not having students.


          1. Dear Gary,

            I think a finally cracked the nut. There is a Frisian painter whose name and life dates seem to provide a match: Jkr. Rembolt van Adelen van Cronenburg (b. Sexbierum c1595, d. Sexbierum 1668/1672). He was a distant cousin of the famous Frisian portrait painter Adriaen van Cronenburg (d. Bergum c1604). In 1718 five paintings on coper by ‘Jr. Adelen’ are mentioned in in the collection of the Frisian lawyer Zachaeus van Ghemenich (1654-1720), which proves that Rembolt van Adelen was a painter.

            If I am right, then the signature on the Turin painting (‘R. van Adelo fecit 1625’) should not be read ‘R[eyer] van Adelo’, but ‘R[embolt] van Adelen’. As I wrote to you in June, the signatures on the paintings will need to inspected, most importantly the one in Turin. I now assume that the letter ‘o’ is in fact an ‘e’ with a diacritic for the ‘n’.

            Given Rembolt van Adelen’s (assumed) year of birth 1595 – he may actually have been born a few years later -, he must belong to the generation of Frisian artists who trained with the Leeuwarden Caravaggesque painter Lambert Jacobsz. (b. Amsterdam c1598, d. Leeuwarden 1636), who settled in Leeuwarden in 1620. In 1625, Van Adelen would then have been one of his first pupils to produce mature works, such as the one in Turin. Jacob Backer and Govert Flinck entered the workshop after 1625.

            I leave it to others to analyse the stylistic affinity between the work of Van Adelen and that of Lambert Jacobsz.

            All the biographical information I quote comes from: Piet Bakker, De Friese schilderkunst in de Gouden Eeuw (Zwolle 2008).

            With kind regards,

            Marten Jan

  10. Dear Gary,

    Thanks for giving the opportunity to join the discussion on the Leiden History Piece.

    Unfortunately, Hecht’s essay, like many others before, ignores facts that would speak against his theory.

    Two things, as Obama used to say. First, there is not a single detail in the painting that possibly indicates that the scene takes place in times of classical mythology or ancient history.

    Second, the ruler is without question an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Over the last three decades I have studied and analyzed hundreds of 16th and 17th century prints in which rulers with a bowed crown, as in the History Piece, occur. In these hundreds of cases, the crowned man is always, without exception, a Holy Roman Emperor! Thus, in 1626 (and after: see Luyken) there was a strong tradition of how to depict the Holy Roman Emperor. [This can be checked in ICONCLASS Indexes: Dutch Prints and Early German Prints, under 44 B 11 2].

    To my mind, these indispensible facts should be the starting point of any interpretation of the Leiden history painting.


    Roelof van Straten

    1. If you’re right about the crown, Roel, I’ll have to relinquish my adherence to the Palamedes theory. But not yet, not without a fight!

  11. I take the liberty of commenting on the arguments just contributed by R. van Straten.

    1. The squat dome in the background is comparable to the one in the David/Saul scene (Basel), which should qualify as “ancient history.”

    2. Is the iconographic tradition for the representation of Holy Roman Emperors distinct from the tradition of representing
    rulers from classical or ancient history?

    The detail of the animal on the column (see above) is clear enough to show teats, which would lend plausibility to the “Roman she-wolf” hypothesis.

    1. Indeed – the squat dome looks like a reference to biblical or classical antiquity. And what about the shield of the kneeling man? Does that not qualify as a reference to antiquity?

  12. Given the wide range of interpretations (and historical contexts) already advanced, a first task would be to do some weeding out. This can be done on the basis of internal evidence. Rembrandt paints two paintings –the Leiden piece and the Basel sketch–both featuring large groups of figures and a focus of attention in an imaginary setting. The Basel sketch depicts an identifiable scene from the Old Testament, which is a good start. The costumes include turbans and so we can assume that turbans contribute the Oriental touch necessary for a biblical subject (see also the Lyon “Stoning of St. Stephen”). The absence of turbans in the Leiden picture would confirm this and so exclude a biblical subject.

    This leaves history and mythology as possible sources of subject matter. The architectural elements in the Leiden, Lyon and Basel pictures being similar, we can assume that they are unspecific and serve only to indicate an ancient setting. I would not expect historical accuracy in any accessories or costumes. But when Rembrandt went to the trouble of giving teats(!) and a long tail to the animal on the column in the Leiden picture, these should be considered as significant details, and therefore clues to the general context. That could only be Rome or Roman.

    (This is not a clinching argument, of course, since I now grant Rembrandt the historical accuracy that I denied him in other details).

    Maybe the Lyon St. Stephen, being of the same format, could help us. The young Saul/Paul (attribute: a sword) witnessed the stoning of St. Stephen : “… the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).

    When I said the pile of weapons in the foreground was “filler,” I meant only that it served to key the setting (martial), but not the subject. This is an assunption, not an argument. More intriguing is the colored cloth on the ground in front of the conspicuously youthful figure. Back to the drawing board…

    1. Sorry, Jean-Marie, but many if not most of Rembrandt’s Old and New Testament scenes of the 1620s and later do not give turbans to the figures. So you cannot use that feature of the Leiden painting to “exclude a biblical subject.” Rembrandt is not making it that easy for us.

      A thematic link to the Lyon St. Stephen of the same size is incorporated into the Palamedes theory, seeing Palamedes and Stephen as unjust victims of judicial murder. This is then associated, through Vondel’s play Palamedes of the year before (1625), to the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt in 1619, experienced by Remonstrants as the martyrdom of their champion.

      An entry in the auction of 24 paintings as an appendix to the sale of Petrus Scriverius’s library (1663, following his death in 1660) reads: “Two impressive (“brave”), large pieces by Rembrandt.” There is only one known pair of paintings that answer to that description – the History Painting and the St. Stephen – and they were made in Scriverius’s Leiden. The attraction of the Palamedes hypothesis lies in Scriverius’s advocacy of the Remonstrant cause and the way this gives meaning to the entire constellation in a way lacking in the other identifications. But it too has problems, of which Roel van Straten’s statement about the ruler’s crown seems to me the most damning.

  13. A few last few remarks from me on the painting.

    1. The animal on the column: I do not see any tits, and I have never seen a wolf with such a peculiar bent back, rope-like tail and unfrightening head. I have seen, however, hundreds of animals with such a peculiar bent back, often rope-like tail, and unfrightening head, and very much resembling the animal on the column: the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, of which the Holy Roman Emperor was by definition the grandmaster. What a coincidence!
    2. No, the classical Roman emperors never wear a bowed crown. They either wear a toga and then combined with a laurel wreath, or sometimes a pointed crown, or they wear an armour combined with a helmet with pointed crown.


    Roelof van Straten

  14. You did call this column “Putting Rembrandt and ourselves to the test” and so I readily accept the challenge.

    For the teats of the animal on the column: this is my interpretation of the details that Rembrandt deliberately chose to add to its underbelly. A she-wolf does not need to look menacing, since it is more an image of nurturing than of protection. If what I am looking at is not teats, then please explain the necessity of this otherwise gratuitous detail. Pictures of the Roman she-wolf on columns can easily be found on the internet. Here is a link to a good representation of wolf, teats and tail in mosaic (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tsmall/493069368). For all its superficial resemblance, the Golden (Ram) Fleece is too much of a stretch here.

    It is easy enough to verify the presence or not of turbans in the paintings before 1629 thanks to “Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisisted.” In most(!) of the pictures depicting large groups in a biblical context, turbans are shown. Not in every picture, but often enough not to dismiss this possible iconographic indication.

    Any intepretation of the subject is going to have to explain certain prominent details, assuming that Rembrandt, as a painter, even working under the iconographic directions of a Scriverius, was providing information in pictorial form. Was Palamedes a young man? Why represent the stoning of St. Stephen in particular, when all martyrs were unjustly executed? Are politically motivated executions ever just?

    I have no idea what Rembrandt represented in the Leiden picture, but only point out certain details (turbans, she-wolf) that could contribute to an identification of the subject by reducing the field of candidates. Roelof van Straten writes that he does not see the teats: does anyone else not see them? Gary Schwartz writes that turbans do not occur often in the early paintings, when in fact they do: who agrees with that? That’s what I call a test. Great column!

    1. Early Rembrandt Biblical paintings, through 1635, with and without turbans. Not all of them are accepted by Ernst van de Wetering, but I regard them all in any case as inventions by Rembrandt and give them their Bredius numbers. The years are sometimes ca. dates.

      With turban (12) – mostly one or two, even in scenes with many figures
      The stoning of St. Stephen. Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts (Br. 531A)
      The ass of Balaam balking before the angel. Paris, Musée Cognacq-Jay (Br. 487)
      David playing the harp before Saul. Frankfurt, Städel Museum (Br. 490)
      The tribute money. Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada (Br. 536)
      Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver. Private collection (Br. 539A)
      The raising of the Cross. Munich, Alte Pinakothek
      The descent from the Cross. Munich, Alte Pinakothek
      Daniel and King Cyrus before the idol of Bel. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum (Br. 491)
      The feast of Belshazzar, ca. 1635. London, National Gallery (Br. 497)
      The adoration of the Magi. St. Petersburg, Hermitage (not in Bredius)
      John the Baptist preaching. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (Br. 55)
      Christ before Pilate and the people. London, National Gallery (Br. 546)

      Without turban (18)
      Anna accused by Tobit of stealing the kid. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Br. 486)
      Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple. Moscow, Pushkin Museum (Br. 532)
      The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts (Br. 532A)
      Samson betrayed by Delila. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (Br. 489)
      The presentation in the Temple. Hamburg, Kunsthalle (Br. 535)
      Christ at Emmaus. Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André (Br. 539)
      The raising of Lazarus. Los Angeles, LACMA (Br. 538)
      The presentation in the Temple. The Hague, Mauritshuis (Br. 543)
      Christ on the Cross. Le Mas d’Agenais, parish church (Br. 543A)
      The Good Samaritan. London, The Wallace Collection (Br. 545)
      Esther preparing to intercede with Ahasuerus. Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada (Br. 490)
      Christ in the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (owner; Br. 547)
      The entombment of Christ. Glasgow, Hunterian Museum
      The risen Christ showing his wound to the Apostle Thomas. Moscow, Pushkin Museum
      The Holy Family. Munich, Alte Pinakothek
      Joseph telling his dreams. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Br. 504)
      The angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. St. Petersburg, Hermitage (Br. 498)
      Samson threatening his father-in-law. Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (Br. 499)

      There is only one general rule I have found concerning turbans in history paintings: they are never put on the heads of Christians.

      1. Thank you for taking the trouble to check, but I wrote: “pictures depicting LARGE groups in a biblical context.” That should change the statistics somewhat.

        I am not trying to define any rules specific to Rembrandt, only point out a pictorial detail that, at least within a limited time frame (1625-28), might serve as an iconographical cue (here, by its absence). Given the controversy over the subject of the Leiden history painting, it would seem reasonable to attend to such details.

        1. It seems to me equally pertinent to Rembrandt’s practice to look at turbans in all his biblical paintings as opposed only to those with large groups. As for attending to the details. they are discussed in various of the publications to which I refer in the links to RKD Explore. Everyone tries to fit them into his chosen narrative, while often being forced to admit that they don’t.

      2. Dear Gary, many thanks for this very useful column. One tiny piece of evidence supporting a Christian context for this scene is the cross on the tower in the background, to the left of the column.

        More evidence concerning Rembrandt’s thinking appears in the cloud of blue around the animal on the column. Rembrandt evidently mucked around and changed and corrected it in numerous places. The tail appears to have started out erect, and an ear stuck out to the left. I too noticed the teats and wondered, but I have to agree with Roelof that the combination with the Imperial crown is an important piece of evidence unto itself: we must have an emperor here, and the Golden Fleece, and Rembrandt did not quite clarify the horns. My question is, what would his source have been for this symbol?

        1. Dear David,

          If Roelof is right that the ruler must be an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and if it is right that the painting was one of the “twee braave groote stukken van Rembrandt” that belonged to Petrus Scriverius, then a search in Scriverius’s publications on Dutch medieval history would seem in order. One of these days…

  15. I forgot that Rembrandt was also being put to the test here. If he actually differentiated between a biblical and a historical scene in the Leiden picture, did he also bother to distinguish Rome from Greece? In other words, does the detail of the she-wolf on the column mean, not Rome in particular, but only “classical history” in general? (Or, if Scriverius commissioned the painting, how finicky would he have been on such a point?).

    In a discussion on the young Rembrandt’s accuracy in depicting historical/biblical fact, I would argue that, for all his book learning, he dealt very freely with them and that he was more beholden to pictorial than to textual sources. In that case, Palamedes’ age at the time of his condemnation would not have had to be represented accurately either. It would have sufficed to put the emphasis on him in some way: for example, by representing him beardless.

    1. In the print of Palamedes in the print edition of Vondel’s play, Palamedes was shown as a mature man man with a bare chest. This will have been to bring him closer to the age of Oldenbarnevelt. The Palamedes of Greek mythology was a young man, a correction that Scriverius will have provided to Rembrandt.

      1. Therefore you have a good case for the Palamedes hypothesis, even if it rests on the assumption of great artistic licence, which was certainly one of Rembrandt’s strengths.

        I would be interested to know your position on the identification of the animal on the column: she-wolf or not she-wolf? Its presence would not necessarily exclude the Greek connection, but further confirm Rembrandt’s reliance on imagination and demonstrate its extent.

        1. I wrote that the animal looks more like a sheep to me than a wolf or a ram. Excuse me for not entering into discussion of all aspects of the painting. I wanted to concentrate on the expression of emotions and the painting by van Adelo.

  16. OK, I got it. We know what happens when someone cries “she-wolf!” too often.

    I have a question concerning the van Adelo picture: why do you reject the Joseph and Pharaoh reading?

    The situation reminds me of the anecdote in Simon Schama’s “Rembrandt’s Eyes” about the picture that Rubens painted for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome and that proved unsuitable for the altarpiece, so that he was obliged to turn to his patron, the Duke of Mantua, to try to sell it. In his correspondence with the Duke’s secretary, he played down the picture’s “esoteric” subject matter, writing: “Though the figures are saints, they have no special attributes or insignia that could not be applied to any other saints of similar rank” (p. 131).

    1. Nice story, Jean-Marie, thanks! It reminds me of these lines from Bredero’s play The miller’s farce (1613), which I translated this way in my Rembrandt book of 1985:

      TRIJN JANS Jeeps! Ain’t that a neat picture!
      Do you have any idea if it has a story, or is it just made up?
      PIET For all I know it could just as well be from the Bible as from the soaps.
      Painters just paint any old thing that pops into their head.

      Bredero having been a painter himself gives the statement some authority.

      About Joseph before Pharaoh, see Genesis 41:14: “So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.” And at that encounter, it is Joseph who is doing the talking, explaining Pharaoh’s dream.

    1. But the passage also says that Joseph was dressed in clean clothes. A typical case of an ambiguous iconography in Rembrandt: to accept any one interpretation, you have to explain away, deprecate the significance of, or simply ignore features that do not fit.

  17. If you ask me, the drapery that is visible seems clean enough. The half-naked torso might be a good way to express “Joseph’s” subordinate status, hinting at the coming transition from rags to riches.

    Another thing: my first impression was that the name “Reyer van Adelo” might be the Netherlandish version of a name with Iberian roots.

    I do not think that the interpretation of old master paintings is any different in that respect from the interpretation of facts in the hard sciences. Thank you for the discussion.

  18. Dear Gary,

    I’m writing quickly, largely from memory, as displacement activity from other things I should be doing – but that’s what this painting does to one, no? So here, one or two more points.

    I pursued the matter of the crown when Roelof van Straeten brought it up, and indeed, it seemed to hold. On the other hand, I couldn’t find a single depiction of a Habsburg emperor that really matched the face of the crowned man (van Straeten, I think, didn’t provided comparative illustrations – or if he did and I missed them, my apologies).

    If I recall correctly, too, the fundamentally modern dress of the subjects is no less at odds with Rembrandt’s usual practice when representing classical than it is with Biblical subjects – but as I say, my memory’s decidedly open to question here. (And one could always seek to resolve the anomaly by arguing that this is his earliest secular history painting, done before he’s established his general practice.)

    As for the background: yes, it’s always looked more like a sheep than a wolf to me (but majority doesn’t necessarily rule here), and the building not only resembles the structure in the Basel David and Saul but looks at least as much like the building in the background of the St. Petersburg David and Jonathan, which I believe is commonly identified as the temple of Jerusalem (see also the Triumph of Mordecai).

    How this all adds up, though, remains as much a mystery to me as it does apparently to everyone else.

    Best always,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *