During the so-called holidays, Schwartz carried out a very long overdue and immensely satisfying rearrangement of the books in the room he works in. Passing through his hands once more were a favorite collecting genre: over-the-top books on Rembrandt. He comments on four of them. Below the column is an invitation to join a Rembrandt webinar in which Schwartz is participating on 19 January.
Like corona viruses, the oeuvre of Rembrandt has an uneven surface that can become attached to a large number of other bodies. It has spikes leading to innumerable subjects and stories and to an indeterminate number of works that look like his but that he did not make. Although the boundary defining his autograph creations is unstable, art historians, museum people and dealers tend to work within fairly conventional limitations, agreeing to disagree about the attribution of a few dozen paintings (and a few hundred drawings), while generally accepting some of the new discoveries that pop up from time to time. The study of Rembrandt’s subject matter has a few lasting conundrums, but almost everything is accounted for in the iconographic tradition.
Not everybody respects these limitations. There are art historians who feel that all the rest of us are missing the point about the nature of Rembrandtness; professionals from other fields, especially medicine, who see things an art historian cannot; owners of paintings who are completely convinced that the professionals are misguided in refusing to accept Rembrandt’s authorship of their treasures; and others to whom received wisdom is there to be flaunted. They sometimes go to great lengths to prove their points. Among my six or seven hundred Rembrandt books are a fair number with symptoms of what I call the Rembrandt virus. Allow me to introduce you to four of them, in chronological order.
We ask ourselves in vain why it is that Rembrandt’s works impress us very much more than those of other artists. […] The explanation can only be metaphysical. Thanks to a discovery of mine which I described in this book, I believe I have – no, not at last explained the enigma which is Rembrandt, but at least brought us a step nearer to its understanding.
The Jewish Hungarian physician János Plesch (1878-1957), a refugee in England, published in 1953, in German and English editions, a book to take that step. What he found in Rembrandt’s work were secret indications of three kinds: “Letter magic,” “Subordinate figures” and “Frame figures.”
“Often grouped like an aureole around the head of a portrait or in the sky above an object, the letters very rarely, almost never, become involved with the main subject.” In the Samson and Delilah in Berlin, for example, “the name Rembrandt runs through the whole curtain.”
Letter magic is not illustrated in the book, but subordinate and frame figures are.
Mythological representations contain busts, female figures, orators, gods, the heroes of Homer, scenes from Egyptian history and so on (The Descent from the Cross: by Torchlight, Bartsch 83). Subordinate figures are to be found in Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, and engravings almost without exception. […] All sorts of physiognomies, types and figures stare at us out of his pictures. […] The figures twist and turn, dance and leap, each idea is followed by another in rapid succession, until finally there is a witches’ sabbath of spirits, devils and monsters to make the senses reel. […] I cannot think that he revealed it to a single soul, to wife, family, or friends, and certainly not to his pupils, for in that case it would not have remained secret for long.
“The so-called frame figures in which the whole painting is executed or the whole picture etched, are much more difficult to detect than the ordinary subordinate figures.” In Rembrandt’s mother (Bartsch 351), “the left-hand side of the face reveals an old woman with a nose eaten away by syphilis.” This is important for Plesch’s appendix, “Rembrandt and the cultural and historical significance of syphilis,” in which he demonstrates that Rembrandt infected Saskia as well as Titus with syphilis. He stops short of saying that Rembrandt inherited his dose from his mother.
Because fantasy is required to see the subordinate and frame figures, Plesch regards it as “a sort of test for artistic understanding and ability” to be able to discern them. I am embarrassed to admit that I fail the test.
In the fall of 1937, the art historian and heraldicist A.J. Rehorst tells us disarmingly, he bought for the asking price of 35 guilders, from the antique dealer E. van Dam at Delftsevaart 27 in Rotterdam, a wonderfully picturesque town canal that was destroyed in the bombardment of May 1940, “A seemingly worthless painting […] that upon further investigation turns out to be a highly important document of the seventeenth century [painted by Rembrandt], with reference to the first performance of Vondel’s tragedy Palamedes.” That is a chapter heading in his Dutch-language publication on the painting in 1979, An emblem on Vondel’s Palamedes: an unknown work by Rembrandt.
Without pretending to understand how Rehorst arrived at the double discovery, I reproduce the illustrations of his painting (he has also written a book about his van Gogh), with his demonstration that “The circle division by the divisor 72, which lies at the basis of Rembrandt’s work, also represents the mathematical basis of the emblem of Vondel’s tragedy Palamedes.”
In 2005 the couple Eppo Bleker and Hetty Bleker-Poot published a book of 147 pages and a fold-out genealogy under the title Rembrandt en de Blekerfamilie (the English can be guessed), followed in 2011 by the 784-page Rembrandt paintings: authentic, partially authentic, not authentic. These bound volumes, in a firm case, are produced with admirable care by graphic professionals. The Blekers tell us that when Rembrandt came to Amsterdam from Leiden he entered into close contact with a forebear of Eppo’s, the artist Gerrit Claesz Bleker (1602-56). Bleker was a Mennonite, and when Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a portrait of an adherent of that faith he would call on Bleker to take charge of the clothing, collars and jewelry. Bleker also brought him commissions. “In all, fifty paintings, mainly portraits of the Bleker family, their circle, and their descendants over four generations were painted, mainly by Rembrandt. In a number of cases Rembrandt painted the head and the head covering, and Gerrit Claeszn. Bleker the clothing with the folded and lace collars.” The portrait of the Shipbuilder and his wife in the Royal Collection, for example, depicts not Jan Rijcksen, as everybody else thinks, but the ship’s chandler Jan Bleker and his wife Dientje Oldenburg. It was painted for Bleker by Rembrandt in March 1633, for 160 guilders. We find this information in one of the 679 entries in vol. 2. Most of the paintings catalogued are dated by the Blekers to the month, and are often provided with the amount in guilders the artist, not always Rembrandt, was paid.
Even more important than the Bleker family as a patron of Rembrandt is an art dealer and collector named Isaak Liebkost, who was born in Amsterdam on 18 October 1580 to a family of Jewish immigrants from Germany. “Liebkost was far and away Rembrandt’s most important patron. He gave more than 70 commissions to Rembrandt during the entire period during which Rembrandt painted.” Never having come across this name in the literature, I was eager to know where the Blekers had found it. The answer is in this modest remark (vol. 1, p. 27): “On page 284 of Rembrandt Druckgraphik, vol. I, 1976, Sudwest Verlag, Munich, is an illustration showing Liebkost as Abraham.”
On that page is an illustration of Rembrandt’s etching Abraham caressing Isaac, with the German title Abraham liebkost Isaak. The Blekers read this to mean that a man named Isaak Liebkost modelled for Rembrandt as Abraham. On this basis, they identify Liebkost as the patron of more than 70 paintings dating from 1626 to 1669. That no one named Bleker or Liebkost is to be found in the 500-odd documents concerning Rembrandt adds to the distinction of this magnum opus.
In Rembrandt: die geheimen Zeichen des Meisters (The master’s secret signs) Peter Georg Lahne, like Jànos Plesch, finds three kinds of concealed signs in Rembrandt compositions: the monograms (Meisterzeichen) R, RS and RL; the alchemical symbol for quicklime ; and that for metallic antimony . Rembrandt inserts them in such minute form that they can often only be seen with a magnifying glass (see the cover) or in an X-ray.
In the etching Lahne captions as “Practicing alchemist,” a favorite of all secret explicators, he finds two Rs as well as the symbol for Calx viva.
Lahne’s discovery of Rembrandt’s microsigns stands in service of a particular aim. That is proving that a version of Simeon in the Temple in his own collection is Rembrandt’s original, and that in the Mauritshuis a copy. A major piece of evidence is that his painting is full of alchemy and little Rs, while the only microsign he can find in the Mauritshuis painting is an N, for Namaak (imitation).
The big questions raised by these departures from the established order are: What is the source of the Rembrandt virus? How is it transmitted? How dangerous is it? When can we expect a vaccine to be developed?
The virus seems to have several sources, ranging in various mutations from undisguised greed to irreproachable pursuit of wisdom. That the ultimate source lies in the master himself (Rembrandt was not the only pathogen in the canon) seems likely to me, since I have never encountered viruses attached to such other masters I have studied as Gerard Pietersz van Zijl, Jan van Beecq or even Pieter Saenredam. What it is about Rembrandt that makes so many people susceptible to infection is equally divided, I suggest, between his fame, the value of his art, and the qualities in it that grasp the viewer but themselves remain ungraspable.
Having lived healthily for many years with these four and a good number of other infected volumes, and having self-tested negative, I feel secure in saying that the virus is not transmissible by contact, aerosol, telepathy or dust. Every case must be a fresh infection from Rembrandt to the recipient. Nor does it seem to constitute a danger to those infected, none of whom, to my knowledge, ever complained about their condition. As for a vaccine, I have been working on one for about half a century, without any sign of a breakthrough. I must admit however that my efforts have been rather half-hearted, since I love collecting Rembrandt arcana and look forward to finding more. Among the lessons they hold for the specialist is the ho-hum piety that no one owns Rembrandt, but also the more unsettling challenge to inspect your own work for microsigns of infection. You (I, that is) might be an asymptomatic carrier without knowing it.
© 2021 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 14 January 2021.
An invitation. On 19 January, at 11 a.m. New York time, 5 p.m. in the Netherlands, I will be participating, with three valued colleagues, Otto Naumann, Arthur Wheelock and Leonore van Sloten, in an hour-long webinar on Rembrandt. It is offered by Sotheby’s, who are selling a splendid painting by him next month. If you’re interested, just log in at https://rsvp.theworldsbest.events/k9xm4. When you do so, you will be given the option of identifying your organization. If you fill this in as Schwartzlist you will be upping my stock with Sotheby’s.
Forgive me for withholding comment on my beloved birthland.
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