Schwartz weighs in on the discussion of the iconography of the splendid Rembrandt Standard bearer now bought by the Rijksmuseum and comments sourly on its price.
Is he or isn’t he? Is the Rembrandt painting called The standard bearer, which the Rijksmuseum has purchased from the heirs of Elie de Rothschild for 175 million euros, a self-portrait or not?
Rembrandt, Self-portrait as a standard bearer, 1636
Oil on canvas, 111.8 x 96.8 cm
A consensus is not to be found. Wilhelm Valentiner, in 1908, catalogued it as a self-portrait, but put a question mark behind the designation. In 1915, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, in the most complete catalogue of Rembrandt’s paintings ever, straddled the fence by giving it the title A standard-bearer, but writing in his entry: “The man has Rembrandt’s features” (nr. 270). In 1935, in a very summary catalogue that nonetheless replaced Hofstede de Groot as the new standard, Abraham Bredius put the painting in his section of genre paintings (nr. 433), not in the self-portraits. In the revised edition of 1969, Horst Gerson wrote that some earlier authorities “consider this to be a self-portrait, a suggestion that seems to me (and others) most unlikely.” Kurt Bauch, in his summary catalogue of 1966, was one of the others. He thought that Rembrandt’s brother Adriaen van Rijn might have modelled for the ensign (nr. 299). But then again, Bauch saw Adriaen in ten other paintings as well, which is also unlikely.
The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) sounds decided, but sheds little clarity on the question (volume III, 1986, nr. A 120): “Right into the modern literature the model has been seen as the artist himself. Bauch thought he was Rembrandt’s brother Adriaan. There is insufficient evidence for the first assumption, and no ground at all for the second. If the painter in fact used a model, it was probably not the intention to portray him as an individual […]” Did the Project members really think it possible that the painter did not use a model? Or that he found a model in the street that looked so much like him that most viewers took him to be the artist himself? Ernst van de Wetering, when in 2015 he rounded off the RRP’s Corpus of Rembrandt paintings in a personal volume VI, Rembrandt’s paintings revisited: a complete survey, wrote of nr. 147: “This painting, remarkably frequently copied, cannot be considered a portrait, nor as a self-portrait in any real sense (even though the facial features of the subject do resemble those of Rembrandt, who may well have posed for this figure in the mirror).” The RRP seems to be tripping over words and concepts, into forms of self-contradiction.
A more forthright tack was taken in 2019 by Volcker Manuth, Marieke de Winkel and Rudi van Leeuwen, in their massive Taschen catalogue of the paintings: “Although the eyes and the nose indeed show some resemblance to those of Rembrandt, the facial features are so modified by the jaw and the prominent drooping moustache that the painting cannot conceivably have been intended in the first place as a self-portrait.”
A lovely twist on the question came to me on 8 December in a mail from Joshua Rifkin, with this brilliant comparison:
Rembrandt, Self-portrait with baret and scarf (in reverse), 1633
Etching on paper, 13.3 x 10.4 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-32)
The etching, which Rifkin reproduced in reverse (in a different copy) and therefore in the original direction in which it was scratched into the wax, has always, since the first catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings, by Edmé Gersaint, in 1751 (nr. 22), been called a self-portrait. The title given to it by Adam Bartsch in 1797 (nr. 17) was “Portrait de Rembrandt avec l’écharpe autour du cou” (Portrait of Rembrandt with the scarf around his neck). In the entry, Bartsch quotes Gersaint as remarking that the scarf falls onto Rembrandt’s back.
Rifkin wrote, “Not that I’d be arguing for Standard Bearer as a self-portrait. In fact I don’t think I’d be arguing for anything. But still I wonder.” So do I. The question implicit in his comparison is: “If the etching of 1633 is accepted as a self-portrait, for what reason should the painting of 1636 not be called that?” It cannot be for the drooping moustache and the form of the jaw. Or the hairdo or the scarf, for that matter, all of which are much the same in both. The most significant difference is that the Standard bearer is armed.
The documentary sources for how such images were described brings welcome enlightenment. During Rembrandt’s lifetime, two paintings by him of the type we call self-portraits are found in the records. On 27 June 1657 the paintings in the estate of the prominent art dealer Johannes de Renialme were appraised. Nr. 292 was “Rembrandts Contrefeijtsel antijcks” (Portrait of Rembrandt à l’antique). “Contrefeijtsel” was the ordinary term for a portrait, and “Antijcks” referred not to classical antiquity but anything that you might find in an antique store. Any number of Rembrandt self-portraits fit this description, perhaps even those many in which he sports a gold chain.
The second refers to a painting that was sold on 1 December 1658 by Dirck van Cattenburgh to his sisters Joanna and Margarita, to cover security for a loan. “Een schilderij sijnde een tronie door Rembrant nae hemselven geschildert” (A painting being a “tronie” painted by Rembrandt after himself). The plain definition of “tronie” is face, but it was used as a term for an image of a person, not limited to face paintings alone, that was not intended to be seen as a portrait of an identifiable individual. In fact, the Cattenburgh item fits The standard bearer quite well. All the struggles in the scholarly literature to categorize the representation and identify the model are here treated matter-of-factly. Yes, the painting is a tronie, but Rembrandt is recognized for who he was.
Along with the portraits of Rembrandt à l’antique and the tronies for which he modelled, there were also unadorned likenesses for the family. Three such paintings were in the inventory of Rembrandt’s daughter-in-law Magdalena van Loo, drawn up after her sad death on 21 October 1669 at the age of twenty-eight, just weeks after Rembrandt died on the fourth.
“een conterfeytsel van des overledens schoonvader” (A portrait of the father-in-law of the deceased; that is, Rembrandt)
“een conterfeytsel van des overledens schoonmoeder” (A portrait of the mother-in-law of the deceased; that is, Saskia)
“een conterfeytsel van des overledens man, daer hy over de leuning leyt” (A portrait of the husband of the deceased, showing him leaning on a ledge; Titus).
The portraits of Rembrandt and Saskia were painted by Ferdinand Bol, but there are self-portraits by Rembrandt that have been paired with portraits by Saskia, presumed to have been made for the family.
Distinguishing between these three types of images of Rembrandt, and placing the Standard bearer in the class of tronies for which Rembrandt modelled, what does this say about the other self-images in which he shows himself armed? Where do they belong? No other artist painted and etched himself so repeatedly in military garb as he. There are individual self-portraits of the kind, mainly by Rembrandt pupils like Paulus Lesire, Pieter Potter, Carel Fabritius, Ferdinand Bol, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Arent de Gelder (not all accepted as self-portraits), but Rembrandt was the first and only to make a specialty of it, in the years 1628-36. Added to his own images of himself in armor are a number of such portraits by others in his circle, including a marvelous one by Jan Lievens, painted perhaps even before Rembrandt started arming himself.
Jan Lievens, Portrait of Rembrandt in a gorget, ca. 1628
Oil on panel, 57 x 44.7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-C-1598)
Without details or ado, here is my present collection of Rembrandt in arms.
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a gorget, laughing, ca. 1628
Oil on copper, 22.2 x 17.1 cm
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum (2013.60)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a gorget, ca. 1629
Oil on panel, 44.5 x 34.3 cm
Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art (C10063; Courtesy of The Clowes Fund)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait, bareheaded, in a gorget, ca. 1629
Oil on panel, 38.2 x 31 cm
Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Gm391)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and flat cap, ca. 1631
Oil on panel, 67 x 54 cm
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi (00186869)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and helmet, 1634
Oil on panel, 80.5 x 66 cm
Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (GK 237)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and plumed cap, 1635
Oil on panel, 91.2 x 71.9 cm
Buckland Abbey (NT 810136)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and feathered beret, ca. 1635-40
Oil on panel, 62.5 x 47 cm
The Hague, Mauritshuis (149)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait as officer, with Saskia (The Prodigal Son in the Tavern), ca. 1635
Oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie (Gal.-Nr. 1559)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait in gorget and flat cap, ca. 1635
Oil on panel, 56 x 47 cm
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (808; RKD)
I know of no self-portrait drawing by Rembrandt in armor, and only two etchings.
Rembrandt, Self-portrait as an oriental ruler, 1634
Etching on paper, 12.4 x 10.2 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1961-987)
Rembrandt, Self-portrait with plumed cap and sword, 1634
Etching on paper, 19.9 x 16.5 cm
London, British Museum (1847,1120.1)
The etched three-quarter length figure of 1634 comes closest in composition to the Standard bearer of 1636, and closest to it in the doubts expressed about its status as a self-portrait. My own feeling is that we should not draw too categorical a distinction between self-images à l’antique and tronies for which the artist modelled. In the captions above I have labelled them all self-portraits, but a better designation might be self-non-portraits.
Why Rembrandt should have pictured himself as a military man is a question I leave to be considered (though probably not answered) another time.
That Rembrandt’s painting of a Standard bearer is worth owning no one will dispute. But that does not mean that it is worth buying at any price whatsoever. I don’t think anyone would think it worth say the nearly half a billion that was paid for the maybe Leonardo da Vinci Salvator mundi (a freak sale that I leave further out of consideration). So it is legitimate to ask what a responsible price would be.
Early last year, ArtNews published a listing of the ten most expensive old masters sold in our time. Until 2016, when the Rijksmuseum paid Eric de Rothschild about $84 million each for Rembrandt’s portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, the top item whose price is public knowledge was a Rubens Massacre of the Innocents, which was bought at Sotheby’s in 2002 by the richest man in Canada, Kenneth Thomson, for $76.5 million dollars. Since 2016 only one other old master has fetched more: a Botticelli portrait that in 2021 went to a Russian buyer for $92.2 million.
Against this background, where did the heirs of Elie de Rothschild get the idea of asking $186 million for their Rembrandt Standard bearer? The obvious answer is that they got it from seeing their cousin Eric succeed in selling his two Rembrandt portraits for $168 million. If that kind of money could be gotten from state museums, why not double it and see what happens?
The justification that the prices for great art simply have risen to the level now paid by the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch state does not wash with me. One hundred and seventy-five million euros is more than twice the highest amount ever paid for an old master painting. In this century only four old masters changed hands for even half that amount. The French state had already turned down the option to buy at that price, and I doubt whether any other buyer would have stepped in for much more than what was paid for Maerten or Oopjen. By failing to negotiate a better price, by paying a record amount for the Rembrandt paintings, the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch state are jacking the market for old master paintings up to the speculative level at which billionaires buy contemporary art and nft’s. That contributes to a development that will make it impossibly difficult for public museums all over the world to acquire the best old masters, extending even to those that owners might want to donate. Those owners have heirs who also read the papers. That the Rembrandts are being sold for these inflated prices by one of the wealthiest families in the world makes it all the more painful. By way of comparison, let it be said in honor that Kenneth Thomson donated his Rubens free of charge to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 January 2022.
9 February 2022: On 19 January, Otto Naumann gave an eminently well-informed, entertaining talk on the prices of Rembrandt paintings, in which he disagreed pertinently with the opinion I express above. Watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nMJGzfpC7M. Otto quotes my remarks, from “By failing to negotiate a better price” to “all the more painful,” leaving out my phrase about heirs who read the papers. Otto then goes on to explain why the price is justified, with reference to long-term developments in the prices of old masters and the number of billionaires in the world (three thousand). He does not quote my figures about the price for the Standard bearer being more than twice as high as any old master ever sold, which is why I called the price inflated. Nor does he comment on the undesireability of top old masters going to billionaires rather than museums. But do watch that very good talk.
Tomorrow an invitation is on its way to a Rembrandt webinar starting on 24 January.
Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site) or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.
So will donations. Don’t be shy, send a donation.