396 Alibi for Rembrandt contested

On popular demand, Schwartz returns to the vexed question of Rembrandt’s character. A new article disputes the archival basis for Machiel Bosman’s aggressive defense of Rembrandt as a man driven by love of family to bankrupt himself.

As you may recall (if you don’t, see Schwartzlist 380 Whitewashing Rembrandt, part 2), the Amsterdam historian Machiel Bosman, armed with a new interpretation of the documents concerning Rembrandt’s insolvency, disputes my character sketch of the artist as a shifty and unreliable operator. The essence of his argument is in the title of his book: Rembrandt’s plan: the true history of his bankruptcy. Rembrandt had a strategy that he put into effect out of loving concern that his family not go under on account of the mountain of debt he had piled up. When his finances went terminally sour, he did all in his power to save the expensive house on the Breestraat, on which he had been failing to make payments for fifteen years, for his son Titus. Bosman is touched by this display of paternal caringness.

Rembrandt took the initiative for his own insolvency [p. 11]. It was a way for him to get ahead of the game [een vlucht vooruit]. It has been suggested that it was forced by his creditors, but well considered there is no proof whatsoever for this [p. 31 …] Take the house – it was never the intention that it would be sold. That was the whole idea behind the insolvency: that they would always keep the house. It was quite intentional that Rembrandt had assigned it to his son [p. 59].

The arguments he brings to bear involve detailed readings of dozens of documents in numerous sections of the Amsterdam archives, interpreted through speculation concerning the motives of all involved. Few people are well enough informed about the bureaucratic and judicial intricacies involved to judge Bosman’s conclusions on their merits. I am not one of them. I was therefore particularly interested in an article in the new issue of Oud Holland, vol. 134 (2021), nr. 1, pp. 9-24: Dave De Ruysscher (legal historian and lawyer) and Cornelis in ‘t Veld (Ph.D. candidate and legal historian), “Rembrandt’s insolvency: the artist as legal actor.” This article too takes me into depths in which I can only tread water, so I must reserve judgment about the substance of the authors’ conclusions. Which are these:

Machiel Bosman reassessed Rembrandt’s bankruptcy and interpreted it as being part of a scheme that purported to shield his house from his creditors. Bosman stresses that Rembrandt was taking care of his family and contrasts this view to the traditionally negative approaches to evaluating the artist’s actions. [Our] analysis leads to the conclusion that Rembrandt could not in fact have brought his house outside the reach of his creditors. Moreover, the filing for “cessie van goede” [voluntary bankruptcy] was not part of a masterplan but, rather, a last straw that allowed for retaining some control within a context of imminent legal actions from frustrated creditors [p. 9].

I gladly leave it up to Bosman to fight it out with De Ruysscher and in ‘t Veld about the legal proceedings. It is enough for me that this new twist contests the major premise in Bosman’s title – Rembrandt’s plan – and knocks the chip off the shoulder of his subtitle: the true history of his insolvency.

Where I do enter the fray is when Bosman contends that Rembrandt’s behavior in this affair is what led art historians like myself to criticize his character. Concerning my own writings, this is simply not true. In my books on Rembrandt I report on the creditors he stiffed, but I do not need that as evidence for his pattern of bad behavior to his fellow man. Allow me to quote from an article of 2006, “Yes, but: Rembrandt as an unstable medium”:

That Rembrandt had a […] personality problem speaks clearly from the documents. In preparation for a Rembrandt website, I inserted into a database the basic facts in the known documents referring to Rembrandt and his works. Of the 509 documents in the system at the time of writing, 157 relate to twenty-five different conflicts. The other parties, in alphabetical order, were agents, art dealers, artists, craftsmen, creditors, debtors, merchants, neighbours, nobility, officials, patrons, professionals, regents, relatives, servants and tradesmen. The many colleagues of mine who refuse to admit that Rembrandt had an abrasive personality do not care to look this record in the face. Personally, I am sufficiently impressed by it to offer a reward to anyone who can show a matching record in the biography of any other Dutch or Flemish artist.

As of now, fifteen years later, no one has claimed the reward. Perhaps because I did not say what it is. Well, it will be a bottle – or two, depending on the quality of the submission – of Giovanni Morelli’s favorite wine, Gattinara, plus a humble admission on the Schwartzlist that the successful claimant was right and I was wrong.

Concerning Machiel Bosman’s second body of proof of Rembrandt’s good character – that the way in which he participated in the sentencing of his rejected lover Geertje Dirckx to incarceration in a penitential institution is less incriminating than it seems – the less said, the better.

The article of 2006 is available online on the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL; Digital Library of Netherlandish Literature – highly recommended). I have now placed it on the Schwartzlist as well.

© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 25 June 2021

At 5 p.m. of 15 June I will be conducting an online guided tour to the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, of which I was guest curator. I will be seeing the exhibition for the first time next week, on July 2nd, in Museum Barberini in Potsdam, the day after the quarantine requirement for unvaccinated, untested visitors to Germany is withdrawn. I will place a link on this page when it is made available.

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7 thoughts on “396 Alibi for Rembrandt contested”

  1. What? Failing to make payments on a house for fifteen years? Fifteen years! What person who cares for his family’s fortunes–not to say his own peace of mind–would put himself in such a predicament? By the time he reacted legally in his family’s interests, which were also his own, it was too late to be a model father or partner.

    1. Dear Jean-Marie,

      Fifteen years may be an exaggeration. When Rembrandt bought his house in 1639, he was to pay one-quarter in two years (not sure if he did) and the rest in five or six years. So when he went bust in 1656, he might not have been in arrears for more than twelve years. But of course I could not agree more with your point.

      Thanks and greetings,

  2. Hello Gary, and thank you.
    I have to say that I see the issue of Rembrandt’s character as a bit of a side show, though not without interest. Most of us would agree that Rembrandt was a very great artist with the capacities of what is termed ‘genius’; and that he could certainly be egotistical and badly behaved.
    But I think it’s true that very many (though not all) geniuses are not charming, smooth operators in the real world of interpersonal or social relationships. Exceptions include Raphael and Rubens, but there are not all that many of them. Genius is 99% perspiration, as Edison famously quipped, and Rembrandt, like many great artists (in the broadest sense – think Beethoven?) and also scientists (think Elon Musk?), only really wanted to get on with his work. For him, that meant either drawing in his sketchbook, always in hand, or in his studio, getting on with his painting or preparing an etching. Anything that interfered with that activity, with the possible exception of teaching, would be regarded as an irritating interruption and engender an angry response. Like Titian, he could be mean-spirited as well as mean in the sense of avaricious, too. But these are really the norms of ‘genius’.

    I remember in our correspondence recommending to you the wonderful film about a highly gifted couturier – a maker of beauty, the last film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, “The Phantom Thread” (2017). The chief character is singularly selfish when it comes to personal relationships. But the film’s most important message is that we forgive such geniuses a great deal because they bring such benefits to our world. That is how I look at Rembrandt.

    During the first lockdown, I wrote a short article on Rembrandt’s character, but I don’t think I will publish it. After all, it’s hard enough to psychoanalyse the living and with the dead the picture can only be guided by the surviving documents. In the absence of most of his letters, a diary or an autobiography, the overall picture is likely to be distorted through the lens of official and litigatory papers,

    All best wishes,


    1. Dear Martin,

      Indeed, after in my book of 1984 having blasted Rembrandt for his bad behavior (leaving Geertje Dirckx out of consideration) it occurred to me too that the inability to compromise that cost him favor was of great benefit to his art. Glad to second you on this. Haven’t seen the film yet.

      I wouldn’t be going on about this if Machiel Bosman hadn’t kicked me in the shins. Hope I can drop it for good now. That’s no reason for you not to publish your own piece.

      Met hartelijke groet,

  3. Dear Gary,

    Thank you for your continued attention. I read the article by De ruysscher and In’t Veld, and I had quite a bit of trouble with it. Among other things, they write that Titus owned half of the house on Breestraat after his mother’s death; that Titus could evict his father if he remarried; and that Titus’ will from 1655 was not in accordance with the law. This is all utter nonsense, as you must know. I suggest we fight this together, before this too settles back into Rembrandt literature. And so there is a great deal more.

    I am working on a response for Oud Holland, but even if it is accepted, it will be winter 2022 for it to see the light of day. In response to your column, I was planning to publish my preliminary comments on my website, for you and your readers to see, but I have been advised against it. If I publish these comments anywhere, even if only in a remote corner of my website, I might jeopardise the article, I was told – because Oud Holland only wants new material, and it is up to them to decide.

    Still, no-one forbids me to share my comments with you, so I will e-mail them to you. I would ask you to handle them prudently. I think you will find them very convincing.

    Where you wrote that their article is hard to fathom, their errors are easier to grasp. I would really appreciate it if, after reading, and despite our differences. you would share with your readers that there are indeed serious problems with the article concerned.

    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks, Machiel, I am pleased to be conversing with you again in collegial courtesy.

      As I wrote, I do not pretend to follow your arguments and those of the Oud Holland authors with any degree of authority, and am happy to leave further discussion to you and them. What I wanted to show in this column is that the issues are debatable and less settled than your claim to be in sole possession of “the true story.”


      1. Dear Gary,

        Even established matters can be debatable if you keep debating them. I think American politics proves that every day. But that doesn’t change the fact that some things just don’t add up.

        I just sent you nine pages of comments. They go directly to the sources and to the core. I’ve also added direct links to the sources, and to the legal texts, so you can check it all out for yourself. And it’s really not that hard; any trained historian should be able to do this.

        De ruysscher and In’t Veld mix up the different systems of inheritance, their references are a mess, they quote De Groot saying this when in fact he says that, they quote selectively and out of context, they don’t understand the functioning of the Orphans Chamber, they read things that are not there, and they neglect the sources.

        I’m sorry, but this all is not up for debate. I strongly recommend that you read my comments. I would be shocked if you would not read them. I think you owe it to me, and to your readers. I think you, as a well-known Rembrandt connoisseur, have a duty to try to combat new distortions, and to inform your audience as best you can.

        Hartelijke groet,

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