Writing more than half a century ago in what was then the standard monograph in English on Rembrandt, Jacob Rosenberg described a small self-portrait by the artist in Aix-en-Provence as a type “rare in Rembrandt’s work.” The “sadness” of this work was nonetheless said to reflect a critical stage in the artist’s life. when the painter’s beloved and faithful Hendrickje Stoffels died, and in general the somber undertone of his final works was thought to allude to the “failure and catastrophe” of his last years after his earlier, dramatic ascent to prominence.
In the handsome catalogue published by Yale on the occasion of the 1991—92 Rembrandt exhibition in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, the Aix picture is illustrated as an anonymous picture, probably from the 20th century. In other words, a fake! This is not the first time that the attribution has been doubted, but the radical skepticism about a painting previously thought to reflect the artist’s life so poignantly is typical of a recent stringent revisionism in the writing on Rembrandt. If at the beginning of the century there were thought to be nearly 1,000 paintings by Rembrandt, it has been conjectured that by the end of the century only 250 will be attributed to him with any degree of certainty.
Who, then, was Rembrandt? As one contributor to the catalogue suggests, today in Rembrandt studies “confusion flourishes as never before.” The image of Rembrandt has become so uncertain that an “imaginary Rembrandt” is invoked to bring unity to the “bewildering range of interpretations of his work.” This imaginary Rembrandt is said to be a “spectre.”
Many paintings formerly believed to be by him are now attributed to his numerous students, and various examples of such work from the Rembrandt exhibition are discussed in the catalogue. Some paintings made under his direction by other hands were originally understood to be “by Rembrandt,” hence the signatures on them. The distinction sometimes made between a Rembrandt and a painting made directly under his supervision (now labeled a non-Rembrandt) is purely academic, a fiction not true to Rembrandt’s own sense that a painting of his invention and superintendency was his own.
As Rembrandt’s oeuvre shrinks, his image is also being reconsidered, if not diminished as part of the current revisionism. In one recent, much-discussed book, emphasis was placed on the evidence that the artist was not so sympathetic a person as was once thought. The deeply sympathetic Rembrandt of Romantic myth is here exploded in an analysis of the artist’s baser social motives. In another recent book, stress is placed on Rembrandt’s economic ambitions. The main idea here is that for Rembrandt art was a commodity to be measured in financial terms. Rembrandt’s interest in money cannot be denied, but it is debatable whether his financial aspirations have much to do with the character of his art.
In an age when the idea of the self has become increasingly complex and slippery, the notion of the artist’s self has become more elusive. Since we are now learning that Rembrandt didn’t make with his own hands all those paintings attributed to him, these works therefore cannot be seen as the mere illustration of moments from his life. The idea of Rembrandt is thus thought to be increasingly problematic.
But is it? Even if Rembrandt’s work were reduced to only 100 or just 50 paintings, even if his paintings were not seen in precise biographical terms, his distinctive vision would still shine forth. In the catalogue we find a corpus of approximately 50 pictures that by themselves would assure the fame and significance of the artist—from the youthful self-portrait in which Rembrandt pictures himself as dandy, haughty but sensitive, his face glowing in a dark interior, through the disturbing self-portrait from his final year, where the artist, now bloated, gazes out at us in an attitude of troubled and fatigued resignation. Framed by these stunning portraits is the powerful Raising of the Cross, where Rembrandt remarkably pictures himself among those raising the Cross; the gorgeously painted, deeply inward Woman Bathing; the immensely sympathetic Titus at His Desk, the haunting St. Matthew and the Angel; the ambiguously comic and disturbing Rape of Ganymede; and the ravishing and mysterious Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. The catalogue comments on these pictures in merely technical terms, but the excellent color plates more vividly remind readers not fortunate enough to see the Rembrandt exhibition of the luminous enchantments of Rembrandt’s work.
And what of those paintings in the exhibition once thought to be by Rembrandt that are now assigned to his students—for example, the Portrait of Rembrandt now attributed to Flinck or the Young Woman at an Open Door, signed as a Rembrandt but here reattributed to van Hoogstraten? The publicity from the Yale University Press for its catalogue dwells on the controversy surrounding such re-attributions, but even if these new attributions hold up, even if the beloved Polish Rider is eventually shown convincingly not to be from Rembrandt’s hand, as has been recently suggested, the character of Rembrandt’s achievement remains intact. For the subtle chiaroscuro, rich impasto, psychological penetration, and humane character both of his paintings and of those made under his supervision or spell reflect the inventive spirit and imaginative poetry of Rembrandt himself.
The Romantic tale of Rembrandt’s rise as an artist and the continuing saga of his pathetic demise may no longer obtain, and we may no longer be able to read this broad story in his works as we once did. We may be momentarily disoriented by the controversy surrounding the attribution and de-attribution of paintings associated with Rembrandt, by the politics of professional art historial scholarship, by the ensuing hype of book publishing and publicity of block-buster exhibitions. Nevertheless, we still behold in paintings by Rembrandt and artists enchanted by him, seen in the 1991—92 exhibition and illustrated in this marvelous catalogue, a distinctive, radiant vision—one of extraordinary tenderness, fellow-feeling, reverence. However we may choose to write, rewrite, or unwrite the “story” of Rembrandt, his powerful vision endures.