This is a two-part series about archive researchers incapable of accepting that Rembrandt was manipulative, no more trustworthy than he had to be, tricky with money, capable of great cruelty, and about whom in his century few people had a nice word to say. Both of these researchers added significantly to our knowledge of Rembrandt’s life, and both coupled their archival citations to tendentious claims that the documents absolve Rembrandt of all stigma.
If in 1852 Pieter Scheltema undertook to whitewash Rembrandt out of patriotism, in 2019 Machiel Bosman did so not for love of country but in order to aggrandize himself by belittling other researchers. Here is the blurb for his (Dutch-language) book Rembrandt’s plan: the true history of his bankruptcy, written on his authority.
Rembrandt van Rijn was a difficult person with little consideration for others. He was a spendthrift and engineered a deceitful bankruptcy. And he had a turbulent love life with among others Geertje Dircx, whom he cruelly had incarcerated in the Spinhuis in Gouda. Right?
No. These are “alternative facts.” This is what scholars have made of things in a kind of grapevine game: they parrot each other. Machiel Bosman follows Rembrandt’s life through the later years, including his bankruptcy, the years that define his image. And he performs fact checking: what did the experts write, and how does this relate to the sources? It then turns out that there is little we can say with assurance about Geertje Dircx, and that Rembrandt’s bankruptcy had a different complexion than has been assumed until now – which sheds a different light on his character. In the Rembrandt Year 2019 Machiel Bosman revises our picture of Rembrandt. Not only that, but he also shows that writing history has a lot to gain when one returns to the source.
Being one of the expert scholars targeted, I objected about this text to Bosman, with whom I had been engaged in discussion and correspondence for a year before the appearance of his book. The only change he made was to the sentence about parroting, which now reads: “These are ‘alternative facts.’ They are post hoc constructions for which there is no proof.”
For a critic with so much attitude, Bosman is remarkably imprecise, in addition to being wrong-headed and nasty. The objects of his scorn are straw men. Speaking as one of those under attack, I can say that my opinion of Rembrandt’s character has a wider base than an interpretation of his behavior toward Geertje Dircx or his conduct during his bankruptcy. (See below.) These episodes fit into lifelong patterns that I signaled in my books on Rembrandt of 1984 and 2006, which I moreover laid out to Bosman in correspondence, and which he pointedly ignores. Neither I nor anyone else ever said that Rembrandt had a turbulent love life, only that his ditching of Geertje Dircx in favor of Hendrickje Stoffels had fateful consequences for Geertje. And as for Rembrandt’s bankruptcy being deceitful – Bosman himself is the chief author of a theory of this kind. The main new piece of evidence he adduces is a court finding that he says proves that Rembrandt lied about the size of his fortune upon the death of his wife Saskia in order to divert as much of the bankruptcy proceeds as possible to their son Titus (and thereby to himself), at the expense of other claimants.
The tone of the blurb carries over into the book, which is full of deriding comments on earlier writers on Rembrandt. Throughout, Bosman blatantly applies a double standard. Of his predecessors, he mocks the qualifications they employ: “this one has to, another should, the third can – but where is the proof? It isn’t there,” suggesting that their reconstructions of events are irresponsibly speculative. In fact, his own reconstructions are even more so. He brings into the discussion an abundance of judicial, administrative and notarial sources and then, with as little proof as anyone else, proceeds to read the minds of all concerned. He tells us why the actors behaved the way they did, what the alternatives were and why they did not adopt them. At every turn he dishes up a dizzying new mix of laws, regulations and practices that no reader can possibly judge without redoing his research. (Which is made additionally difficult because his book lacks a list of sources and even an index. Most of his source material comes from the same compendiums we all use.) He writes this up with great aplomb, as if privy to the thinking of all involved. Earlier interpretations that do not agree with his, he dismisses as “lacking a single shred of evidence.”
But when in the second section of his book he anatomizes earlier historiography more systematically, the burden of proof is reversed by 180 degrees. From then on, we are told that “there is no evidence to disprove” an assertion of his. These assertions are all guided by the desire to extol his own scholarship by whitewashing Rembrandt. If there is a way, however convoluted, to interpret a document in Rembrandt’s favor, Bosman promotes it to the status of a fact. Even direct, first-person criticisms of Rembrandt, made under oath, are dismissed by Bosman. Rembrandt’s own statement to the bankruptcy court, under the scrutiny of his creditors, is called a fiction. Whenever it serves his case, he claims to know that a given statement is boilerplate cliché and therefore lacking in truth value, that the person making the deposition has a hidden agenda and is not to be trusted, or that there are outside circumstances that should make us believe the exact opposite of what it being sworn to.
What Bosman does not tell the reader is that the critical view of Rembrandt’s character he attempts to subvert is not that old. Between 1852 and the 1960s, Rembrandt stood on a pedestal as a model of humaneness and understanding. The turning points can be dated to 1964 and 1965, when H.F. Wijnman and Dirk Vis raked Rembrandt over the coals for his treatment of Geertje, and 1984, when I integrated that story into a biography of Rembrandt, finding other evidence as well for his contentiousness and virtually none for that famous sympathy. Because Bosman has turned this into an issue, let me tabulate the documents concerning conflicts in which Rembrandt was involved. The references are to Walter Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt documents, New York (Abaris) 1969 and the website Remdoc.
|Lawsuit against Albertus van Loo and wife, in the name of Rembrandt and his brother-in-law Idzert Ulenburch, concerning the estate of his father-in-law. Judgment in their favor.|
|1637/7||Deposition of Samuel d’Orta, suspecting Rembrandt of cheating him by printing for himself and for sale impressions of an etching plate he had sold to Orta, with exclusive rights. Upshot unknown.|
|1638/3; remdoc/e4448||Lawsuit against Dirck Alberts, in the name of Rembrandt and others, including Idzert Ulenburch, concerning sale of a farm. Judgment in their favor.|
|1638/7; remdoc/e13700||Rembrandt sues Albertus van Loo for slandering Rembrandt and Saskia. Loses the case, has to pay costs.|
|1639 1659/21; remdoc/e12837
|As attested in 1659 by Hendrick Uylenburgh, in 1639 Rembrandt took Andries de Graeff to arbitrage to force acceptance of delivery and paying for portrait. He wins the case.|
|1643/1; remdoc/e4518||Lawsuit in Rembrandt’s name against Dirck Alberts. Judgment in his favor.|
|Rembrandt sues Cornelius Heermans and Dirck Alberts. Judgment in his favor.|
|1647/1||Burgomasters of Leiden request burgomasters of Amsterdam to collect inheritance taxes from Rembrandt, implying attempt to evade collection.|
|1649/3; remdoc/e4574||Amsterdam Chamber of Marital Affairs fines Rembrandt for failing to answer a summons to appear at a suit brought against him by Geertje Dircx for breach of marital promise. (In 1647 Geertje had drawn up a testament making Rembrandt’s son Titus her universal heir.)|
|Troubled negotiations between Rembrandt and Geertje.|
|1649/8; remdoc/e4580||Chamber of Marital Affairs fines Rembrandt for failing to answer a second summons in the case.|
|1649/9; remdoc/e4581||Final settlement of Geertje’s claim, in her favor, on more advantageous terms than in the mutual negotiations. Rembrandt attends the session. He denies having promised to marry Geertje and says it is up to her to prove that he ever slept with her.|
|1650/5||Document lost, but on the basis of 1656/4 it can be inferred that Rembrandt initiated the gathering of statements by neighbors of Geertje concerning her conduct and her commitment to a house of correction, the Spinhuis of Gouda.|
|1652/1; remdoc/e4596||Rembrandt pays assessment tax on house purchased in 1639, after being in arrears.|
|1653/2; remdoc/e4623||Rembrandt summoned, in his absence from his house, to pay the transfer tax on the deed of his house, which had been advanced by the seller, Christoffel Thijsz.|
|1653/3; remdoc/e4624||Rembrandt summoned for the second time to pay the transfer tax.|
|1653/6; remdoc/e4628||Statement of long overdue payments to Christoffel Thijsz for purchase of house, advances, taxes, expenses and interest.|
|Christoffel Thijsz presents his bill to Rembrandt. Rembrandt refuses to accept it on 4 February 1653, allows it on 10 December 1654.|
|Disagreement between Rembrandt and his neighbor Daniel Pinto over jacking up a shared wall.|
|1654/4; remdoc/e1661||Patron who ordered a portrait of a young woman from Rembrandt requests repayment of advance out of disappointment with likeness. Rembrandt refuses, also refuses to retouch the painting until full purchase price is paid.|
|1654/8; remdoc/e4653||Rembrandt in conflict with neighbor Daniel Pinto about noise in cellar.|
|Rembrandt demands payment from Dirck van Cattenburgh, receives it the next day.|
|1656/2; remdoc/e4694||Pieter Dircx, Geertje’s brother, a ship’s carpenter, asks Rembrandt to drop a restraining order against him, in order to be able to sail on a ship where he had been engaged. Rembrandt refuses.|
|1656/4; remdoc/e4696||Cornelis Jans attests upon Rembrandt’s behalf that she aided in 1650 in bringing Geertje Dircx to the Spinhuis.|
|1656/5; remdoc/e4698||Trijn Outger testifies that when in 1655 she went to Rembrandt to tell him that she was trying to get Geertje released, he threatened her, telling her she would be sorry if she did.|
|1656/20; remdoc/e12739||Hiskia Uylenburgh, Saskia’s sister, initiates a court case against Rembrandt, for unknown reasons.|
|A debt of one thousand guilders that Rembrandt had incurred with Jan Six had been guaranteed by Rembrandt’s friend Lodewijk van Ludick. In 1657, after Jan Six sold the claim to Gerbrand Ornia, Ornia, seeing that Rembrandt could not come up with the cash, demands payment from van Ludick. The debt went from hand to hand, building up interest, to the detriment of van Ludick.|
|1659/18; remdoc/e12788||An agreement between Rembrandt and Jan Six dating from 1652 is declared null and void. Rembrandt claims to have lost the contract. No further contact between the two is recorded, after a friendship and patronage relationship that had lasted some ten years, until about 1655.|
|Rembrandt’s Sicilian patron Don Antonio Ruffo complains about Rembrandt’s faulty assembly of a commissioned painting, asking for either a replacement or repayment. Rembrandt’s response, preserved only in an Italian translation, is that “credo che vi sono pochi amatori a Messina” – I don’t think there are many cognoscenti in Messina – and he stonewalls about payment.|
|Titus recommended Rembrandt to a Leiden publisher for execution of a portrait engraving. Rembrandt delivers an etching, leading to complaint by the publisher and embarrassment for Titus.|
|Frustrated attempts by Harmen Becker, the last holder of the Jan Six debt, to get payment from Rembrandt in the form of paintings. Rembrandt fails to deliver papers relating to the agreement and falls short in meeting agreed-upon obligations.|
|1666/2; remdoc/e13039||Rembrandt in arrears on rent.|
|1666 (not in either source)||Commissioned to submit models for an altarpiece of the Annunciation of the Virgin in Genoa, Rembrandt increases his asking price by 250 percent and delays so long that the ship on which the oil sketches should have gone is iced in for the winter. “He is an unpredictable man,” wrote the captain to his principals, “but that doesn’t surprise me at all, because he is a painter and by nature they generally do not keep their word.”|
Over and against this cocktail of litigiousness, untrustworthiness, recalcitrance, mendacity, arrogance and vindictiveness – and there is more like it, in less outspoken form – there is a single document among the 500 or so in The Rembrandt Documents that shows Rembrandt behaving nicely. Why we don’t know, but on 1 November 1642 he guaranteed the payment of 1200 guilders pledged by two Edam dignitaries for the ransom of two fellow townsmen who had been captured from shipboard on the Barbary coast (1642/8; remdoc/e4513). Since the principal guarantors pledged “their persons and possessions, both present and future, nothing excluded, and subjecting themselves to law and justice,” Rembrandt wasn’t taking much of a chance. But give him credit where credit is due. Too bad we cannot also give him credit for making a loan, witnessing a document, being a godfather, helping a friend or colleague, conducting an appraisal, serving on a board, volunteering service, giving charity, or for any of the other kinds of cooperativeness and mutual respect that many other Dutch artists displayed. True, everyday goodness did not find its way into the archives as readily as disputes, but its absence in 45 years of Rembrandt’s adulthood is a disturbing fact.
And that’s where Machiel Bosman comes in. Believe it or not, he looks for innocence in Rembrandt’s heinous behavior toward Geertje and goodness in his stiffing of people who lent him money! For each and every document in these cases he finds a different possible explanation than what was sworn to by the deponents, explanations that make Rembrandt look good. The other documents listed above, which establish a pattern in his behavior and reflect on his character, Bosman simply ignores. This allows him to claim triumphantly that he has succeeded in rehabilitating Rembrandt’s character against the charges brought against him by all those purveyors of alternative facts who moreover do not bother to read the documents.
This is really too bad, because Bosman has performed prodigious research, his findings give grounds for fresh thought, and he has indeed put his finger on some misunderstandings and mistakes of other scholars. With his rebarbative manner and tendentious argumentation, though, his pose as possessor of the truth, and hitching his wagon to Rembrandt’s reputation, he sheds more light on his own character than on Rembrandt’s. Admitting that I am a special case in this regard, Bosman has ruined all his good work for me.
© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 1 March 2020.
Dejected as I am about the US elections, I derive some solace from the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren. Not only for her unparalleled intellectual qualifications, impressive achievements in the Senate, and for professing the kind of progressive politics that are my own, but also for her civility and good humor. America paid itself an undying compliment in 2008 and 2012 with the election and re-election of Barack Obama. As little hope as is allowed right now that it will do the same again by electing Warren, her race stands out as a model that in some bright future may carry the day.
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20 thoughts on “380 Whitewashing Rembrandt, part 2”
Dear Mr. Schwartz,
I have read your interesting column 380 Rembrandt, part 2.
Good that you oppose against this (cheap) way of character interpretation (based on a few archive documents).
I donated because I hope that these critical columns will be written for a long time (-;
Many thanks, Albert. I will continue to do my best.
Wow! For a more nuanced understanding of my book, please visit my website: http://www.machielbosman.nl/rembrandtsplan-en
Look who’s talking about nuance! Now that we’ve both had our say, Machiel, I think it’s time to sit down and thrash things out, don’t you think? I’ll get back to you later in the month.
You write on Rembrandt: ‘The Geertge Dircx tragedy shows him as a bitter, vindictive person who reacted to setbacks by attacking the adversary with all means, fair and foul.’
I write, after explaining the problems with the sources, that I do not know what exactly happened between the two: ‘I give it for better. My aim was to show that alternative scenarios are conceivable – scenarios that shed a different light on Rembrandt’s involvement in the Geertje Dircx affair than the black interpretation that dominates the current perception’.
Please tell me how your version is more nuanced than mine.
This is, by the way, one of only three times in my book (notes aside) that I question your interpretation. All three of them deal with the same subject: the harshness of your characterization of Rembrandt.
Now, I am not claiming that Rembrandt was a saint. All I am saying in this regard is that the sources do not lend themselves very well to an assessment of Rembrandts character – fair or foul.
I am more than willing to discuss those issues – thanks for the invitation. As long as there is a moderator and it takes place in public. Let’s set something up!
Machiel, I cannot conjure up a public forum with moderator at which we can talk. Last year the Rembrandt House offered to moderate a polite discussion between us and you turned that suggestion down. Now you’re posing conditions I cannot meet.
About Rembrandt’s treatment of Geertje, see my response to Stephanie Dickey.
Last year you threatened to sue me because of my publisher’s blurb. After that, you wanted to talk things through over a cup of coffee at the Rembrandthouse, a month or so before my book was due to appear.
At the time, I e-mailed you that coffee seemed like a good idea, ‘but not until after my book is published. Otherwise I would feel a bit awkward – if I know what’s in my book and you don’t.’
You wrote back that you didn’t think it was necessary to wait for my book, because we could still talk about your work. I didn’t think that was a very useful suggestion, and I decided to let it rest.
I never made public that you threatened to sue me until now. I am not the one looking for a fight, you are.
Now, after your column – from which I learned that I ‘aggrandize myself by belittling other researchers’ and that my ‘rebarbative manner, tendentious argumentation and my pose as possessor of the truth sheds more light on my character than on Rembrandt’s’ – a mere coffee is off the table. I am still willing to talk to you, for academia’s sake, but only in public and with the help of a moderator.
Then again, we have already had a debate. Would you mind if I published our earlier e-mail exchange on my website? Here I addressed many of the issues you raise in your column (for example, to come back to your previous reply, why we cannot simply trust the testimonies in the Geertje Dircx-affair – such ‘attestaties’ were drawn up at the request of the adversaries and were thus biased by nature, as judges at the time knew well). If you mind, I shall be obliged to confine myself to my side of the correspondence – for the completeness, that would be a pity.
You are perfectly welcome to publish our correspondence, which began in February 2019, with lots of time for coffee before the publication of your book around October 1st. I’m sure the readers of your website will see that when at the end of a mail about Rembrandt’s court cases I say that I am taking you to court about the blurb for your book (for which in any case the publisher is responsible), it was meant as a joke. When at first you didn’t take it that way, in a mail of 6 August, and said you were not going to discuss the scholarly issues with me on account of that remark, I was astonished. But on 20 August you wrote in apology, after hearing from a third party that I was not about to sue you: “Daar ben ik blij om, en het spijt me dat ik dat niet heb gezien.” (I’m glad to hear it, and I’m sorry that I didn’t realize it.) So it’s a fresh surprise to read in your comment above that you are reverting to a literal reading of my joke and are telling people that I threatened to sue you. Would you like to apologize again?
Your version of our exchange in August about the invitation from the Rembrandt House to us both, to talk things over in a supportive environment: “You wrote back that you didn’t think it was necessary to wait for my book, because we could still talk about your work. I didn’t think that was a very useful suggestion, and I decided to let it rest.” That is not what I wrote. I quote: “wij weten allebei wat ik over Rembrandt heb geschreven. In een gesprek zou jij duidelijk kunnen maken welke cruciale informatie ik over het hoofd heb gezien, of onvoldoende gewicht aan heb verleend.” (We both know what I have written about Rembrandt. In a conversation you could make clear to me what crucial information I missed, or failed to weigh properly.) That is the suggestion you felt was not very useful – that you tell me what you have discovered that could show me I was wrong.
When you post our mails on your website, please send me a link.
This is getting stupid. This is what you e-mailed me on August 5, two months before my book was published: ‘Should you uphold the allegation that we are uttering “alternative facts”, with knowledge of the evil will that phrase implies in American politics, you leave me no choice but to take you to court.’
(‘Mocht jij de aantijging handhaven dat wij “alternatieve feiten” debitteren, met kennis van het kwade wil die die frase in de Amerikaanse politiek inhoudt, laat je mij geen andere keuze dan je voor de rechter te halen.’)
Naturally I was shocked. These are not jokes. My publisher even took legal advice. Then, when I learned from a third party (why not contact me directly?) that it was somehow meant to be a pun, I decided to let things rest. I mailed you directly, and indeed I wrote: ‘I’m glad to hear it, and I’m sorry that I didn’t realize it.’ (‘Daar ben ik blij om, en het spijt me dat ik dat niet heb gezien.’) That is the civil thing to do, isn’t it – not to let things get out of hand and keep relationships going. But that does not change the fact that I did take your threat seriously, until I learned from a third party that it was somehow not meant to be serious – which is actually the way threats work: you hold them over someone’s head until you don’t.
And just to be clear: you never even apoligized for a ‘joke’ that, even if it was a joke, was clearly not very funny.
Now, you also claim that I am disingenuous about our exchange last August. But at the time, and to this day, I didn’t know the Rembrandthouse invited us both to talk things over. I was under the impression that it was you who wanted to talk to me in the presence of a moderator. I didn’t turn down your invitation, as you claimed in an earlier reply, but I thought it would be wise to wait until my book was published. It was obvious that you had great difficulty with my research, even without seeing a word of it, and I didn’t think it would make much sense to talk about it before you had a chance to read it.
You didn’t think it was necessary to wait for that. You thought we might as well discuss your work. Now you claim you didn’t say that and I put words in your mouth. That’s not true. These were your exact words in your e-mail of August 22nd, when you finally deigned to contact me again directly: “What you’re saying is you don’t want to talk to me until I’ve read your book. Because I have pretty heavy obligations, that could take a long time. We can reverse your reasoning: we both know what I have written about Rembrandt. In a conversation you could make clear to me what crucial information I missed, or failed to weigh properly.’
(‘Wat je zegt komt erop neer dat je mij niet wil spreken tot dat ik jouw boek heb gelezen. Omdat ik behoorlijk zware verplichtingen heb, zou dat een hele tijd op zich kunnen wachten. We kunnen jouw redenering omdraaien: wij weten allebei wat ik over Rembrandt heb geschreven. In een gesprek zou jij duidelijk kunnen maken welke cruciale informatie ik over het hoofd heb gezien, of onvoldoende gewicht aan heb verleend.’)
This will be my last reply to your column. If you want to have the last word, go ahead and take it. I will publish our correspondence on http://www.machielbosman.nl/reactie-op-schwartz.
As awkward as all of this is, I’ll let it stand as an example of what Rembrandt sometimes does to people. I do not pretend to be immune.
1) Civility in public discourse (whether scholarship or politics) is a dying art, largely because it doesn’t sell. Thank you, Gary, for advocating for respectful acknowledgement of our peers, past and present!
2) As I understand it, Bosman has tried to argue that Rembrandt handled his bankruptcy strategically, to preserve assets for his family — not just for himself. That is not necessarily something to condemn. However, there is still the longer pattern of behaviour to consider.
3) What do we really know about Geertge Dirckx? It is possible she was a manipulative gold-digger, a thief, or worse. Did Rembrandt mistreat her, or did she seduce a lonely widower and try to take him for all he was worth? I suspect she was what we might call “a piece of work” because Rembrandt had her family’s complicity in locking her up — maybe they couldn’t figure out what to do with her either. We don’t know the whole story, and trying to read people’s minds (as you wisely point out) is always speculative. I think we need to leave it as a low point in Rembrandt’s life that caused pain on both sides.
4) Methodology aside, this debate raises a more fundamental question that the comments to Part 1 were starting to address. Caravaggio was a murderer. Bernini slashed Costanza Buonarelli across the face with a knife for cheating on him. Benvenuto Cellini beat up his models, before and after having sex with them, and boasted about it in his autobiography. Is what Rembrandt did any worse than that? And, if we still agree that the art is sublime, how do we cope when we find out its maker was not? In the Me Too era, with so many men in the arts turning out to have abused their power, this is a timely question — one that those of us in academia need to figure out how to deal with in teaching history to our students. Any advice welcome!
5) I wonder if we could step back and think: What do we really learn by trying to decide whether Rembrandt was a good person or not? Why do we care? I would like to see more research on how other artists lived their lives, creative, personal and financial, so that we have a better pool of comparative data. As I have said elsewhere, Rembrandt is too often studied in a vacuum — and that, too, is because of the marketplace: fame sells.
Let me start by responding to what you say about Geertje Dircx being a piece of work, and possibly a manipulative gold-digger and a thief.
When Saskia died, Rembrandt needed a woman in the house to take care of the household and of Titus, who was then nine months old. The only person we know to have filled these tasks was Geertje Dircx, and although the earliest document concerning her dates from 1648, it is assumed that she entered Rembrandt’s employ in 1642. She stayed until mid-1649. Geertje was good enough in Rembrandt’s eyes to be trusted with his child for seven years, seven years in which nothing she did gave cause for registered complaint.
The record of 1648 in which Geertje enters the documentary record is her testament of 24 January 1648. She is ailing (sieckelijck), but able to walk and stand and is in full possession of her mental and speech capacities. She leaves to her mother “all linen, clothing, woolens, and other material, belonging personally to the testatrix, but nothing else,” specifying that “she did not consider as clothing any jewelry belonging to her.” Everything else – which obviously included jewelry, was left to Titus, along with all of Geertje’s other “property, movable and immovable, securities and credits, and legal rights.” To me this can only mean that Geertje had become Rembrandt’s concubine and that he loved her well enough to give her expensive presents. One of them, according to a later document, was an unengraved silver marriage medal, which supports Geertje’s claim that Rembrandt had led her to believe he would marry her. That Rembrandt was not readily in a position to marry her or anyone on account of the stipulations of Saskia’s will does not make this any prettier. Now that he was putting Geertje out of his life, he wanted those presents back. Can there be any doubt that it was to accommodate Rembrandt that she wrote that testament? You really don’t have to read anyone’s mind to arrive at that conclusion. And if you do doubt it, you are left with the assumption that it was an outpouring of love for little Titus that led her to make him her heir. You don’t really mean that she might have been out “to seduce a lonely widower and try to take him for all he was worth,” do you?
Not having vowed to stick with Geertje in sickness and in health, Rembrandt did not. Fifteen months later, on 15 June 1649, after Hendrickje entered Rembrandt’s household and stole his heart, Geertje and Rembrandt drew up an agreement governing Geertje’s departure from Rembrandt’s house. He is to give her 160 guilders a year. This too speaks of an intimate relationship between them. If she were simply leaving his employ, she would not be entitled to anything more that perhaps a number of months’ pay. The agreement contained the stipulation that Geertje never change her will in favor of Titus. In other words, it curtailed her freedom to dispose of her goods as she saw fit. In a subsequent restatement of the agreement Geertje was additionally forbidden from selling or doing away with the jewelry she left to Titus. She had in the meanwhile pawned some of them, and Rembrandt takes all kinds of steps to get them back into her possession.
Geertje apparently grew unsatisfied with this agreement, perhaps changing her mind, and on 25 September she has Rembrandt summoned to the Chamber of Marital Affairs to answer charges of breach of promise to marry her. He fails to appear twice, and is fined each time. On the third summons he does show up, in order to declare that he never promised to marry Geertje, that he is not obliged to admit that he ever slept with her, and that is up to her to prove that he did so. Is this #MeToo stuff or isn’t it? It sickens me. The board didn’t comment, but ordered Rembrandt to pay her 200 guilders a year, an indication that his initial offer of 160 was below standard.
After thus having deprived Geertje of her freedom to dispose over her goods, Rembrandt then participates, with Geertje’s brother, in a successful action to lock her up altogether. This was based on reports solicited from neighbors. apparently concerning her deportment. When a friend of hers from Edam came to Rembrandt to tell him she will try to get her released, he raises his hand to her and tells her they will be sorry if they do. He sends letters to the institution, asking for a continuation of Geertje’s imprisonment.
Stephanie: whatever bad behavior Geertje displayed followed on her being ditched by Rembrandt. It is not unreasonable to assume that it was sparked by Rembrandt’s treatment of her. To call her “a piece of work” ignores the fact that she enjoyed Rembrandt’s confidence and affection for seven years. Why anyone should want to appeal to the fragmentary nature of the documentation in order to deny that Rembrandt behaved viciously to his ex – helping to have her locked up for five years, a term he would have wanted prolonged – I really do not understand. How in the world else do you characterize his behavior toward her?
2) About Bosman’s reconstruction of the bankruptcy – no one recently has doubted that a cessio bonorum was voluntary. Bosman hammers again and again on this point, starting with the title of his book, Rembrandt’s plan, as if he were going against received opinion and proving it wrong. Where he does go further is in saying that Rembrandt lied about the size of his joint fortune with Saskia in order to benefit Titus at the cost of all those people whose money he borrowed and failed to pay back. It’s all sweet and nice to say that he did this for his family, but does this excuse sheer dishonesty? You tell me.
Points 4 and 5: As a biographer of Rembrandt, I do not think I owe an explanation for why I try to understand his character, independently of his art. If I were forced to make a connection, I could say that his inability to compromise, which led to all those court cases and disputes, could have benefited his art, by making it impossible for him to let himself off the hook. At a given stage, the parts of someone’s personality and profession do come together. About how to teach students to admire the art of people who behaved despicably, I’m sorry to say that I have no advice at the moment.
Gary, you twist my words. It is just not true what you write. I do not ‘hammer again and again’ on the voluntary character of the cessio bonorum. I’m showing that this cessio was part of a deliberate plan that Rembrandt had been preparing for months. That is an entirely different story, and a new one.
I did not write that Rembrandt ‘lied about the size of the joint fortune with Saskia in order to benefit Titus at the cost of all those people whose money he borrowed’, as you claim. I gave a number of reasons why Rembrandt may have made an incorrect inventory, before concluding that we cannot be sure why he did it. One of my suggestions is that ‘he tried to park as much money as possible with his son in preparation for a possible bankruptcy.’ But then I write that even if this was his plan when he made the inventory, he clearly did not follow it up when he applied for cessio bonorum (p.84).
Now about Geertje – read my book. We can’t trust the sources. The ‘attestaties’ you rely on were often deceptive – as is most certainly so in this case, for it is not possible to reconcile one with the other. Now, we do not know which ones are true, if any. But you consistently side with Geertje – also in the overview of ‘documents concerning conflicts in which Rembrandt was involved’ in your column. There you write (1650/5) that it can be inferred from Cornelia Jans’ deposition ‘that Rembrandt initiated the gathering of statements by neighbors of Geertje concerning her conduct and her commitment to a house of correction’ – while this cannot be deduced from that at all. On the contrary: Cornelia states that she acted on behalf of Geertjes family (‘ten verzoecke van de vrunden van Geert Dircx’).
I could go on and on. You’re spreading misinformation about my book, and frankly, I do not understand why.
Do you really think that after seven years as a surrogate mother to Titus Geertje would have gotten into all that trouble except for the way she was treated by Rembrandt and through Rembrandt’s actions? Was her brother really out to get her and Rembrandt, as you suggest, rather than collaborating with Rembrandt to put her away, which is how it appears? Did she behave so terribly, with her neighbors reporting on a way of life going so far off track (ontspoorde levenswandel) that her own relatives thought that an 11-year sentence in the hooch was called for? Is it a mitigating factor that the regime in the Spinhuis in Gouda is mild, as you say? I see you whitewashing Rembrandt in an affair in which he showed considerably cruelty, looking everywhere for exonerating loopholes.
You write that Rembrandt’s evaluation of the goods he shared with Saskia “klopt niet” (is incorrect, and Rembrandt knew it; p. 10, 11), is emphatically incorrect (22), “deugt niet” (is wrong; 84), “het een en ander aan die opgave schort” (this and that is wrong; 23) and so forth, repeated again and again. I call it a lie, intended to maximize the take for Titus. The High Court says that no estimate “has been submitted in a fitting fashion” and ends up awarding Titus much less than would have been the case had Rembrandt been able to execute his original plan. I don’t think we disagree, but as I see it you pull your punches in judging Rembrandt’s behavior, here and elsewhere.
Look, Machiel, I stand by my admiration for your prodigious research in Rembrandt’s plan, with its interesting new information, angles and ideas. What I react badly to is the way you frame nearly everything as a correction of the misguided judgments of your predecessors, who to your repeated astonishment have not read the documents. We have, even if not as extensively as you. When your book is published in English, as it should be, try to find a way to make your points without having to elevate yourself by quashing everyone else. While you’re at it, read your text critically for the application of double standards, both in interpreting the documents and in judging other people’s scholarship. Cut down on the mindreading. Take out some of the repetition. Good luck.
What a nice comment! I side with you completely. As for Mr. Schawrz I am shocked to read the correspondence and his disputable and disrespectful treatment of a guy who offered an alternative story on Rembrandt’s hardships. I just wonder how would Mr. Schwarz behaved if he were in Rembrandt’s shoes.
Yes, it may be the case that Rembrandt came back on his word, aren’t we all do in certain cases. And why can’t we if our upbringing and moral let us? What bad did he do to Geertje? And how do you know Mr. Schwartz how she accepted the news? Well, any woman could have been furious and didn’t want let it go because of expectations, etc. So if your expectations fail you Mr. Schwartz you just leave it as it is and continue further with a happy heart and all content about it? What a nice person you are! An exception to the rest of mankind tortured by feelings of remorse and a wish to have things back in favor.
One more time thank you Stephanie for standing up for Rembrandt.
In response to both your comments: if you want to know how I arrived at my opinions concerning Rembrandt’s life and doings, please read my book of 1985 about him, in which I incorporate all the known documents and writings about him from his time. I completely agree with you that Stephanie is a nice person.
Dear Mr. Schwartz,
In no way I question your knowledgeable interpretation of archive documents you carefully researched and studied for many years. I am distressed about the fact that you insist that Rembrandt was not a good person in his treatment of Geertje and others. Would you be? You may have a mistress and in the moments of infatuation or other moments caused by mere gratitude or whatever you may genuinely promise to marry her. But later things may change. And events may happen that you are no longer able or willing to keep your promise. Do you really think that it makes you a bad man or that whatever happened you are bound by your own word? And if your mistress insists on you keeping your promise and threatening you, would you be nice to her? Etc., etc.
Hi, Gary, I am somewhat mystified by this tussle between you and Bosman. I have not read either book, but reading through your litany of the legal issues in Rembrandt’s life, I do not feel that it comes close to your characterization as “this cocktail of litigiousness, untrustworthiness, recalcitrance, mendacity, arrogance and vindictiveness”. It reads more like the vicissitudes of an underpaid artist, trying to maintain the semblance of a solvent citizen in an expensive city on a poorly paying metier. Most of the lawsuits have to do with the collection of money owed to him, or of taxes and fee payments that were in arrears (due perhaps to his poverty), as far as I can make out. Certainly this is the impression of him conveyed by his self-portraits – we do not see a sharpster on the make, but the rumpled artisan expressing the truth of his precarious lifestyle (and health!).
I do not doubt your description of the unbridled exaggerations developed by Bosman, but at least your expressed assessment of Rembrandt seems unduly uncharitable given the issues he faced, at least to this poorly-informed reader.
Let me attach to each of my qualifications the cases to which they refer.
Litigiousness. Even when Rembrandt was not the one to start a case, and even when he had right on his side, getting into a dispute with him was more likely to end up in the courts or in arbitration than with someone capable of talking things out and compromising. There are eleven cases of that kind in the table.
Untrustworthiness. The accusation by Samuel d’Orta of outright cheating, and the failure to pay off debts to Lodewijk van Ludick and Harmen Becker with paintings, despite repeated promises. What looks like tax evasion in Leiden and Amsterdam.
Recalcitrance: The truly nasty refusal to acknowledge to the Board of Marital Affairs his intimate relationship with Geertje Dircx. See my response to Stephanie Dickey.
Mendacity: Machiel Bosman showing that in 1647 Rembrandt evaluated his joint property with Saskia at the time of her death, to which Titus had a preferential right to the half, at 40,750 guilders. When the court of justice finally adjudicated the will in 1665, it reduced that to “at least 22,000 guilders,” cutting Titus’s share by close to half. Bosman considered this a deliberate misrepresentation by Rembrandt.
Arrogance: After delivering a painting to a Sicilian patron that was pieced together of various pieces of canvas the sewn seams of which cast annoying shadows, Rembrandt responds to a complaint implying that the buyer and his friends don’t know what they’re talking about. Rembrandt’s biographer Baldinucci says of him in so many words that he was arrogant.
Vindictiveness: Participating in the incarceration of his former lover and threatening a friend of hers with retaliation.
Rembrandt was not underpaid. He was one of the most expensive artists in the Europe of his time. The “issues that he faced” were all of his own making. Bad health was not one of them, as far as we know. Not paying for his house in the agreed-upon stages was.
Machiel Bosman picks at some of these cases (not all) one by one, saying that because “alternative scenarios are conceivable” we are not in our right to judge Rembrandt. I do not agree.
Of course Rembrandt was a complex personality, whose dedication to his other two women and his children was touching. Although some of his friendships were broken, there was at least one that he retained, with the pietistic poet Jeremias de Decker. But I do not think that the really bad behavior I see him displaying should be removed as evidence because he was sometimes nice, or because there are ways of framing things in a better light. If anyone at all in his time had said he was a kind person, or any behavior had shown him that way, I would give him the benefit of the doubt. But I do not see real room for the kinds of doubt Bosman casts on the documents.
I absolutely agree with you.
There’s something incorrect about Mr. Schwarz’ treatment of Rembrandt. Artists are human beings not saints and the statement of Mr. S. that Rembrandt didn’t do anything good as in Mr. S opinion he was supposed to do as a “good citizen “, what was he? He acted as deemed required to support his family and his art. That’s it. And neither Mr. S is allowed to judge him.