391 Four strains of the Rembrandt virus

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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13 thoughts on “391 Four strains of the Rembrandt virus”

  1. Fun, Gary, thank you, I hadn’t bothered to read these. But as you intimate, the virus is only transmitted by the very greatest masters, the household names. Dost thou not remember (from pre-internet days, so I cannot immediately find chapter and verse) the man who thought all Frans Hals’ paintings were signed in Arabic? Or the one who believed Goya forged old master drawings (including Rembrandt’s Hendrickje in the British Museum)? Or even the theory propounded by Professor Perrig that most of Michelangelo’s drawings were not by him for lack of “kinetic energy” (even those acquired direct from the Buonarroti family)? Let alone the vast head of Dante in profile in the Last Judgment, with Christ in the middle of his brain? And don’t get me started on Leonardo…

    Truly great masters have a wonderful capacity to catalyse not only the imaginations but also the psychological projections of the viewer (the most important way of assessing just how great an artist, or a work of art, is, in my view); but they can also do this, perhaps yet more powerfully, in the minds of the insane or merely unbalanced. But yes, and sadly, greed is often the prime motivator for distorting the effect.

    At a tangent to this, I remember a gentleman who in the 1980s used to call me regularly at work from phone-boxes near Swansea in Wales, and write long, scrawly screeds to me, determined to persuade me that his pastel copy after a Van Dyck portrait head was by Cima da Conegliano…More books need writing in praise of eccentricity.

    1. Terrific, Martin, thanks so much. I’m only relieved that I don’t buy books on all those other guys. But I’m sorry not to remember the Arabic signatures on Frans Hals paintings. Maybe we should build a bibliography on the eccentrics.

  2. A fun column, thanks Gary. There is a similar phenomenon with Spinoza. He infects people from all walks of life, which makes them see in him what they want to see in him. He’s rationalist, a mystic, an atheist, a pantheist, a defender of rabbinic tradition, a secular Jew, a Reform Jew, a liberal, a socialist, a communist, gay, straight, etc. Essentially, he’s a Rorschach Test. The two viruses come together in Valentiner’s book REMBRANDT AND SPINOZA.

    1. You left out Yerushalmi’s theory that he’s a Marrano. Beside Valentiner, I have two other books with the same title.

      Julius Bab, Rembrandt und Spinoza: Ein Doppelbildnis im deutsch-jüdisch Raum, Berlin (Philo Verlag) 1934
      A moving argument for inclusivity in society, with reference to the new regime in Germany. Surprisingly, Bab accepts the characterization of Rembrandt as a “Dutch German,” in the terms of the anti-Semitic book by Julius Langbehn, Rembrandt als Erzieher.

      Rembrandt and Spinoza: Webster’s quotations, facts and phrases, San Diego (ICON Group) 2008
      A fairly meaningless miscellany of quotations and bibliography, with the title as the only trait d’union between the two. So mechanically composed that it also has quotes about Rembrandt Peale.

  3. Thank you so much, Gary, for this fun column. I always had a lot of fun looking at works of art and reading the documents – more or less any kind of work of art/documents regarding artists of the past – and thinking about the human being that produced it in that exact moment in history. I found it extremely fascinating that we are here after centuries of trials and errors interpreting those pictures. In the end, it’s that gaze that helps that past to be alive, and meaningful. Definitely a “bibliography of eccentricities” is something that should deserve more attention.
    It’s always a great pleasure to read your columns and the comments.

    1. Thank you, Marco. It would be great to have a bibliography of eccentricities, but if I may excuse myself I won’t be the one to compile it.

  4. Fabulous! Thank you, Gary, for this witty and informative column. As a side note, I have long wanted to make a bibliographic study of all the medical authorities who think they can decode Rembrandt’s works or his psyche, eyesight, or physical health. Some, like Schupbach on Tulp, have made real contributions, but there is much more, often published in medical journals rather than the art historical press. More than one have suggested that Hendrickje, posing as Bathsheba in the painting now in the Louvre, shows signs of breast cancer, and that Rembrandt’s bulbous-nosed face displays the skin disease rosacea (W.C. Fields was a famous sufferer). Once again, this begs the question of why Rembrandt is a magnet for such studies. Maybe this is a good project to occupy the long days of COVID isolation. Anyone who wants to chip in is welcome!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie, I’m glad you want to do this rather than telling me to do it. Plesch’s diagnosis of syphilis for the entire family deserves a place of honor on your list. About eyesight, I responded in Schwartzlist 219 (25 September 2004), “Rembrandt as eyewitness,” to the “demonstration” in a medical journal that Rembrandt was wall-eyed and that this explains things about his art. A few years later I found myself at a symposium in Beijing with a co-author of the note Mary Livingstone. I thought we could have a nice, collegial conversation about our difference of opinion, but when I introduced myself and told her about my column she stood up and walked away.

      The mother of all opthalmological diagnoses (and an inspiration to practitioners of other specialties) is Richard Greeff’s book of 1907, Rembrandts Darstellungen der Tobiasheilung. Nebst Beiträgen zur Geschichte des Starstichs. Eine kulturhistorische Studie. From now on, dear Stephanie, I’ll forward everything else I come across to you.

  5. For a minute there, I thought my research on Rembrandt’s signatures would finally make it into your column, although, in this case, not in very savory company. When it comes to what James Elkins called “cryptomorphs” and “cryptograms” (in “Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?”), the debunkers always take the easy way out by citing obviously aberrant examples. Yet serious art historians have always been “seeing things” in paintings–like Rembrandt’s hand, or not–without being laughed off the podium. For artists and beholders alike, it is indeed a “test for artistic understanding and ability” to see how far one can fetch–and prove it. If there is such a thing as a Rembrandt virus, then I doubt that many of us are immune to it.

    1. Dear Jean-Marie, Of course I thought of you in writing this column. There are several reasons why I did not mention you. (Of course, the more reasons you think you have for doing or not doing something, the more you are probably covering up.)

      1) I did not want to embarrass you.
      2) I did not want to get into an argument with you.
      3) Your work is a hybrid of acute observation, classical scholarship, discourse criticism and delightful digression as well as presenting symptoms of an acute infection by the Rembrandt virus.
      4) After reassorting my Rembrandt library I couldn’t find my copies of your writings. I seem to have treasured them so much that I put them into a special place somewhere, which is always a mistake.

      4) is the feeblest excuse of all, since you have generously put a marvelously well-wrought edition of The Rembrandt search party: anatomy of a brand name on internet. Readers, see http://www.rembrandt-signature-file.com/remp_front.htm for a work that will surprise and delight you as well as giving cause for head-shaking astonishment.

      With your conclusion I am in entire agreement. I could have stated that more forcefully in my own last sentence.

      1. Dear Gary,

        thank you for your reply: I appreciate it very much. My research on Rembrandt’s name and signatures is too sensitive a topic for me to get into an argument about and I see no cause for embarrassment. I do not claim to be the bearer of any ultimate insight. I only want to get the point across that Rembrandt’s handling of his name and signature until 1633 documents an intentional, and therefore meaningful, process that is rich in personal and artistic implications. I will have achieved something in this over 30-year-long project if this general observation is acknowledged as an art-historical fact and given at least as much attention as Rembrandt gave to it himself. What the implications are is open to interpretation and discussion, and that is a lot of what the “art” in art history is about.

        Due to the overwhelming lack of response to my website (except for the odd “Rembrandt-in-the-attic” hopefuls), I will be discontinuing it in March after fifteen years, but still continuing my research, all out of my own threadbare pocket and in spite of what I perceive as a pandemic Rembrandt hype.

  6. Hello Gary,

    I liked this so much and wonder if such esoterica comes from historians’ frustration that description may explain technique, textures, composition and color, but eludes the wonder of these paintings. I grew up in London and stared transfixed by the beauty and mystery of Hendrickje Bathing in the National Gallery. Of course, it’s very difficult trying to explain the elusive if you are an art historian of a major master who has been so well researched, but not everything can be explained, and certainly not by codes.

    1. Many thanks for these good remarks, Barbara. I have always thought it beyond my powers to explain the beauty and mystery of art, and have seldom tried, at some cost to my public reach. Of Hendrickje, I wrote in a caption to my book of 1984: “This oil sketch enlarged to the dimensions of a full-scale painting is to my eye one of the freshest and most original of Rembrandt’s works in oil. The eye can be deceived, however. Many such expressions of enthusiasm by art historians have turned out to apply to forgeries, copies, works by apprentices or adaptations by the master of someone else’s idea.” I was afraid of my own love of the painting.

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