Rembrandt suffered from a rare condition that has not yet been diagnosed. He had an aversion to spires and sometimes to towers, lopping them off his depictions of buildings we know to have had them. Schwartz worries the issue.
A year (and an eon) ago I spoke in the Amsterdam Museum to a dedicated group of Amsterdam aficionados who give bespoke tours in the city for serious visitors. They have the cute alliterative name Mee in Mokum, untranslatable but paraphrasable as Come Along (or Be Accompanied) in Amsterdam, with the Yiddish name for the city (from the Hebrew), meaning place. Rather than giving them a potted Rembrandt talk, I came up with the idea of asking the organizers to provide me, ten days in advance, with Rembrandt questions from the members that I would answer in the auditorium. (I would like to do this more.) What follows is an extended reply to a question from Otto Meyer: “In 1644/45 Rembrandt etched the Montelbaan Tower without a spire, while we know that since 1606 it was provided with a spire and clock by Hendrick de Keyser. Why and wherefore?”
Actually, what follows is a reply but not an answer to Mr. Meyer’s question, only an amplification of it. I pass the question on to you, dear reader.
Rembrandt, The Montelbaanstoren in Amsterdam (at the foot of the Oude Schans, a five-minute walk from Rembrandt’s house), ca. 1654-55
Reed pen and bistre, 14.5 x 14.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rembrandt House Museum (224)
The drawing in question.
Reinier Nooms (ca. 1623-1664), Montelbaanstoren, from Verschillende schepen en stadsgezichten van Amsterdam (Various ships and town views of Amsterdam), ca. 1652-54
Etching and drypoint, 13.9 x 25.0 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-20.533)
In a truer to life view of the tower, Reinier Nooms included the spire, in the early 1650s, in the title print to part two of his unsurpassed series of views in Mokum. The Rembrandt House Museum makes a stab at explaining Rembrandt’s departure from what he saw: “Rembrandt omitted the ornamental spire in his drawing. Perhaps he thought the sturdy shape of the old tower was more beautiful.”
What I was able to tell Otto Meyer and his colleague guides is that this was not a unique case. Rembrandt was in the habit of decapitating towers.
Claes Jansz Visscher (1587-1652; attributed to), The Swijgh Utrecht Tower in Amsterdam (an eight-minute walk from Rembrandt’s house), ca. 1610
Pen and ink, 12.1 x 15.1 cm
Rembrandt, The Swijgh Utrecht Tower in Amsterdam, ca. 1650-55
Pen and brown ink, 16.6 x 23.5 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-T-1969-222)
The oldest part of the complex for which Rembrandt painted the Nightwatch, the practice range of the musketeers, the Kloveniersdoelen, was a tower from the 1480s called Swijgh Utrecht – Utrecht, be silent, a warning to the bishop of Utrecht not to think about attacking Amsterdam. In his entry in the online catalogue of Rembrandt drawings in the Rijksmuseum, Peter Schatborn comes up with a more elaborate explanation for Rembrandt’s omission of the spire.
Rembrandt left out the pointed roof on the tower. […] The motif’s omission in Rembrandt’s drawing was probably not so much because it would not fit on the paper (after all, there is a large gap above the crenellated top of the squat round tower), but because he wanted to depict the tower as far as possible in its original form. In another drawing of an old Amsterdam monument, his study of the early sixteenth-century Montelbaan Tower, in the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, he omitted Hendrick de Keyser’s pointed wooden spire of 1606. By leaving out modern additions to these medieval structures, Rembrandt could use them as ‘historical’ buildings to deck out his biblical and historical scenes [… three examples cited, none of which show those Amsterdam towers]. The towers he invented for his biblical scenes may not have been consciously derived from buildings he had drawn from life, such as the Swijgh Utrecht Tower, but there are certainly clear parallels.
Is this an editing error? First Rembrandt leaves the spires off existing buildings so that he could “use them as ‘historical’ buildings to deck out his biblical and historical scenes,” but in the same paragraph, when he comes to put towers into those scenes he does not “consciously” use them at all. Be this as it may, this self-contradictory explanation, which attributes to Rembrandt an antiquarian’s knowledge of and interest in architectural history, cannot be maintained for some of Rembrandt’s other omissions of spires and towers. One particularly delicious one took place between the first and third states of his etching Landscape with trees, farm buildings and a house with a tower.
Rembrandt, Landscape with trees, farm buildings and a house with a tower, ca 1651
Etching and drypoint, 12.2 x 32.1 cm
Above, first state: Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-456)
Below, fourth state: Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-457)
For this truncation, the leading expert on Rembrandt’s etchings, Erik Hinterding, proffers the all-purpose art-historical noncommittal explanation: “In the third state Rembrandt removed the cupola and the topmost part of the tower, probably to increase the compositional unity with the other buildings.” What makes this intervention particularly piquant is that the tower belonged to the country house of Rembrandt’s long-time patron Joannes Wtenbogaert. This would not be the first time the two of them played identity games with each other. Rembrandt’s etched portrait of Wtenbogaert shows him engaged in an allegorical activity related to his work that has eluded explanation to this day.[27 December 2020: In response to Martin Royalton Kisch’s comment below, and my response to it, here is Rembrandt’s drawing of the location of the above etching, from the other side, at a greater distance. The pinnacle of the tower is flatter than in states 1 and 2 of the etching.
Rembrandt, Landscape with the house with the little tower, ca. 1651
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, 9.7 x 21.4 cm
Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum (83.GA.363)]
The most egregious piece of tower-bashing in Rembrandt’s oeuvre is what he did in Utrecht. About the year 1652, passing through the city, he took the time to make one drawing that we know of.
Rembrandt, View of the Mariakerk in Utrecht, from the southwest, ca. 1652
Pen and brush in bistre and Indian ink, on brownish-gray paper, 11.1 x 18.5 cm
Cambridge, Harvard Art Museums (1951.130)
Rembrandt gives the scene a bucolic look, as if on a walk in the woods he had come upon a medieval church that struck his fancy. But the building was drawn from a spot that looked out on one of the most iconic towers in the Low Countries.
Pieter Saenredam, View of the Mariaplaats in Utrecht, from the west, with the Mariakerk, the cathedral tower and the Buurkerk, inscribed by him Pieter Saenredam fecit, in the year 1636, on September 18, done from life, in Utrecht
Pen and aquarel, 50.1 x 34.9 cm
Haarlem, Teylers Museum (O 079)
From about the same angle, fifteen years earlier, Pieter Saenredam had drawn a magisterial cityscape of that very view, which he was to paint in 1662. And what did Rembrandt make of the motif? He found a spot where he could conceal behind a tree – was the tree really there and that high? – the pride of the Utrecht Middle Ages, the Domtoren, the tower of Utrecht Cathedral. Adding insult to injury, he also robbed the Buurkerk on the left of the spire on its tower. Swijgh Utrecht all over again, with no bishop on the attack.
That is why I disagree once more with Peter Schatborn, this time concerning the attribution of a drawing of the town of Rhenen.
Rembrandt, View of Rhenen, ca. 1650
Pen and ink, wash, 21.2 x 32.6 cm
The Hague, Bredius Museum (T87-1946)
To know what that pitiful tower really looked like, feast your eyes on how Saenredam saw it, from outside the city walls:
Pieter Saenredam, with later coloring and figures, The Cunerakerk in Rhenen, with the palace of Frederick V of the Palatinate (left) and the town hall (right), 28 June 1644
Pen, ink and wash, 35.4 x 46.5 cm
Haarlem, Teylers Museum
Gary Schwartz, in the company of and with the indispensable help of Laurens Schoemaker, Marten Jan Bok and Loekie Schwartz, photo of Cunerakerk from about the same angle as Saenredam’s drawing, taken on the murky afternoon of 21 November 2020
Today, the palace and the town hall are gone, but the church and its tower stand as erect as ever. Also as photogenically and as worthy of depiction in art as it has been for five hundred years. We see the irresistibly picturesque tower of the Cunerakerk in more a hundred drawings, prints and paintings, by sixty or so known and anonymous artists, from 1550 to 1900, illustrated in Laurens Schoemaker’s unsurpassed book on the iconography of Rhenen. Only one of them lacks the spire – the one that has always been considered to be by Rembrandt until Peter Schatborn left it out of his catalogue in 2019. Who else, I ask you, would have even considered emasculating that tower of its crowning glory? Who but an artist who has an issue with spires.
This case is good to keep in mind when thinking about representation and reality in general.
© Gary Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 December 2020
The catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings by Peter Schatborn to which I refer is to be found in: Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding, Rembrandt: the complete etchings and drawings, Cologne (Taschen) 2019. Because that book appeared without a concordance in which the universally used Benesch numbers can be looked up to see whether and where they are included in the new edition, a lack that reduces by more than half its usefulness to scholars, I have made one, which you are free to use: http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/from-otto-benesch-to-peter-schatborn-a-concordance/
[27 December 2020: Illustrating discussion with Willem Haakma Wagenaar, below, detail from Joan Blaeu, Traiectum Wtrecht, 1649. Saenredam’s viewpoint is definitely in the lower middle left, where the trees are planted around the Mariakerk, allowing a view of the Domtoren, upper middle and the Buurkerk, in the center. That is where I place Rembrandt’s viewpoint as well. I can see no other tower where the one on the left of Rembrandt’s drawing stands than that of the Buurkerk, truncated. Willem disagrees.]
In mid-September this invitation went out to the best relations of Kunstmuseum Basel. As guest curator of the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, I was to speak at a ceremonial opening on 29 October. At the end of September Switzerland put the Netherlands onto its list of high-risk countries. Anyone entering the country from where I live was required to go into quarantine for ten days. I kept our train reservations until ten days before the opening, hoping the measure might be rescinded, but then cancelled them with regret. In the event, it did not matter, because a few days before the opening the museum called off the ceremony in its entirety. Fortunately, the public was able to see the show for about six weeks before the museum shut down.
Since then the directives issued by the Swiss, German (our transit country) and Dutch (I will keep my damning criticism to myself) governments have gone all over the place, while the real danger of infection rose fairly steadily. We have still not seen the exhibition, and will only give it a try if we get innoculated in time, before it closes on 14 February.
Allow me, however, to invite all of you to a virtual visit put online last week by the museum: https://kunstmuseumbasel.ch/de/ausstellungen/2020/rembrandts-orient/virtueller-rundgang
After Basel, the exhibition will move to Museum Barberini in Potsdam, where the plan was hatched. It too is presently closed, but we have not given up hope of experiencing a festive if restrained opening in March 2021.
That was the main professional impact on our lives of the pandemic, I am relieved to say. On the epidemiological level, it seems that we both contracted covid-19 at the TEFAF between 6 and 8 March. All I had was a feverish feeling for a few days; Loekie was sicker and has suffered intermittent loss of taste since. But we consider ourselves among the lucky ones so far.
Here’s wishing you a happy or at least less anxiety-ridden new year.
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27 December 2020. To keep up with the lively discussion on my diagnosis of Rembrandt’s missing spires, I took to hand the best book on Rembrandt’s depictions of buildings, Boudewijn Bakker et al., Landscapes of Rembrandt: his favourite walks, Bussum (Thoth Publishers), Amsterdam (Gemeentearchief) and Paris (Fondation Custodia) 1998. There I found the sources for some of the suggestions of Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding cited in the column. Concerning Rembrandt’s motives for leaving off the “elegant wooden spire” on the Montelbaanstoren, Bakker writes: “It would seem that Rembrandt, like Savery and Ruisdael, [who also omit the spire in their depictions of the tower – for them this was not part of a pattern, as with Rembrandt], wished to emphasize the solid medieval stone aspects of the tower and consciously omitted the modern additions. Apparently their artistic perception was not offended by the – equally modern – brick addition with the circular blind arches in ‘the antique style’.” Bakker lets two mutually contradictory motives both stand – the wish for historical authenticity and the willingness to sacrifice it when it gets in the way of “artistic perception.”
The drawing of Swijgh Utrecht Bakker calls “highly personal and indeed almost bizarre,” not only eliminating the high pointed roof but distorting the view in other extreme ways as well. He does not offer an explanation. The one he proposes for Rembrandt’s elimination of the spire on Wtenbogaert’s country house in the third state of his etched view I find lame: “Evidently Rembrandt was not so much interested in the noteworthy architecture of the house, as in the effect of buildings as they merge into their landscape background.”
The suggestions in the literature deal only with the Amsterdam towers, on an incidental basis, not linking them to a penchant Rembrandt shows in Utrecht, Rhenen and the road to Amstelveen, where Wtenbogaert’s house lay.