How many painters were taught by Rembrandt? How big was his school? Well, that is a matter for debate—to echo Donald Rumsfeld, there are the known unknowns. Then there are the unknown unknowns.
By Gary Schwartz
The standard version of what the Rembrandt school was dates from only six years after the master’s death. In 1675 the German artist and writer on art Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) sketched an impressive, indeed unforgettable, picture of “nearly countless children from distinguished families [coming to his house for] instruction and training, each of whom paid him 100 guilders a year, aside from what he earned from his pupil’s paintings and prints, which also ran to 2,000 or 2,500 guilders cash, in addition to what he gained from the work of his own hand.”
Some of the particulars of this jealous-sounding auditing of someone else’s books are confirmed from outside sources. In the one written agreement that has survived between Rembrandt and the parents (or in this case guardians) of a pupil—the elusive Isaac Jouderville (ca. 1612–1645/48)—the tuition fee was exactly the amount named by Sandrart half a century later. That Rembrandt traded in the work of his pupils is also documented. Most significantly, the files of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) bulge with paintings and drawings by known and—mainly—unidentified masters whose work resembles that of Rembrandt in one aspect or another. The known masters who the RKD says were actual pupils of Rembrandt’s number 39, in addition to nine Dutch contemporaries who are listed as “followers of Rembrandt.”
More liberal figures are in circulation. In 1983 Ben Broos drew up a table including all the artists who in the old sources and good modern scholarship have been called pupils of Rembrandt, whether or not a specific tie is backed up by documents. He came to a total of 55 names. Werner Sumowski, in his six volumes on the paintings and 10 on the drawings of the Rembrandt school, includes 99 artists, nearly every one of whom produced work that at one time or another was thought by responsible experts to have been made by Rembrandt.
That, to speak with Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. Then there are the unknown unknowns. Even the formidable Werner Sumowski, who knows more about the Rembrandt school than anyone who ever lived, threw up his hands in despair when he flew into that cloud. In his massive Gemälde der Rembrandt Schule, Sumowski illustrates 2,519 paintings assigned by him to the Rembrandt school. When he came to the section on the anonymous Rembrandt school, this intrepid scholar wrote, “To publish the paintings of the Anonymous Rembrandt School would take a multi-volume edition [of its own]. Here appear only a small number of artistically interesting or instructive examples.”
Over and against this inclusive view is the strict reductionism of Walter Liedtke, curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 2005, in an article in Oud Holland, Liedtke challenged the notion that Rembrandt worked closely with “countless” pupils and took a body count of no more than 19 “possible and probable Rembrandt pupils,” with two borderline cases thrown in, for a grand total of 21. Liedtke’s dispute is not with Sumowski (who in his 131 notes he seems, surprisingly, never to cite), but with the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). In its Corpus of Rembrandt paintings, the RRP found itself rejecting by the carload Rembrandt-like paintings without having a likely candidate at hand for authorship of these works. The explanation they came up with is cited disapprovingly by Liedtke: “From the disproportion between the small number of pupils or collaborators known to us from the first few years in Amsterdam [1631–34] and the large number of rejected [by the RRP] paintings that bear the marks of Rembrandt’s style from that period, one suspects that a relatively large number of workshop collaborators from those years are still unknown to us.”
Taking “a closer look at ‘collaboration’” and insisting on examining “Rembrandt’s workshop according to the evidence,” Liedtke arrives at the opposite conclusion. “The impression gained from a fresh look at the pictorial evidence is that Rembrandt could have maintained his known output with just a few assistants at any given time.”
What this boils down to is that the prevailing images of Rembrandt as head of a workshop or founder of a school vary by nearly 500 percent.
Authority followed by Size of Workshop / School:
Liedtke 2005: 21 pupils and collaborators
Broos 1983 : 55 pupils and assistants documented or regarded as pupils in sources and scholarly literature, including the 39 on the RKD list.
RRP 1982–2005: Documented collaborators (not counted or listed, but probably close to Broos’s list) and “relatively large number of workshop collaborators . . . still unknown.”
Sumowski 1979-94: 99 pupils, collaborators and followers.
Although these authors provide typologies of the pupils and followers about whom they write, general consensus on the subject is further away than ever. Within the Rembrandt Research Project itself, a certain schizophrenia prevails. While the Project speaks of many “workshop collaborators,” it never (hardly ever?—am I missing something?) identifies specific paintings as products of collaboration, treating them as either by or not by the master.
As a further contribution to the discussion, allow me to add two favorite references to three members of the Rembrandt School who are not on any of the above lists. I do this in order to challenge the legitimacy of concepts that have led to such extreme divergence of opinion among Rembrandt specialists.
In 1863 the French political activist and art historian Théophile Thoré (1807–69), writing under the pseudonym W. Burger and commonly called Thoré-Bürger, published the first volume of a two-part work with the title Musées de la Hollande. In vol. 1, Amsterdam et La Haye, in the chapter “Musée d’Amsterdam,” on the later Rijksmuseum, he wrote (p. 54): “A l’école de Rembrandt se rattache aussi Pieter Saenredam . . .” The kick I get from this plain statement derives not only from the unexpected link Thoré-Bürger draws between the two masters to whom I have devoted the most attention. It is also because Saenredam represents a style that is usually considered antithetical to that of Rembrandt.
A highly charged illustration of the antithesis is the comparison between paintings from the same period by the two masters of newborn infants being brought to the Temple (Rembrandt, 1631) or to church (Saenredam, 1633). The contrasts in light, space, and atmosphere could hardly be greater. Mr. Transparency, meet Prince Numinous.
Why then did Thoré-Bürger call Saenredam, who was 10 years older than Rembrandt, a member of the latter’s school? It was partly a simple misunderstanding, due to lack of good information. The complete sentence from Musées de la Hollande reads, in translation, “The Rembrandt school also included Pieter Saenredam, who is said to have studied with Pieter de Grebber, who is said to have studied with Rembrandt. De Grebber as it were seeks Rembrandt out, as we observe in his paintings in the pavilion in the woods [Huis ten Bosch] in The Hague.” The error lies not only in the disparity in age between the soi-disant master and pupil, but also in the identity of the de Grebber with whom Saenredam studied. It was not Pieter de Grebber (ca. 1600–1652/53) but his father Frans Pietersz. de Grebber (1579–1649) from whom the young Saenredam received instruction.
More interesting is Thoré-Bürger’s remark about Rembrandt and Pieter de Grebber. The Frenchman was an important connoisseur of Dutch painting; it was he who rediscovered Vermeer, perhaps the greatest contribution of all times of art history to art appreciation. Here we find him positing a stylistic or thematic dependency on Rembrandt in the art of a master whose penchant for what is called the classical puts him, in modern art history, at the opposite end of the range of Dutch painting from Rembrandt. What was he thinking of? Could it have to do with Thoré-Bürger’s comparison of Rembrandt to Correggio and Velázquez? His eye caught by that mysterious detail of the Night watch that grabs us all—the little girl in gold—he writes, “La petite fille lumineuse est comme Corrège, oui! dans les plus radieux du peintre de Parme.”
Could it be de Grebber’s use of the same device in a painting of a procession that made Thoré-Bürger think that de Grebber was seeking Rembrandt? The question is all the more interesting on account of a firmly documented contact between Rembrandt and another representative of classicism in Dutch painting, Cornelis van Everdingen. A year and a half after the death of Rembrandt, on May 12, 1671, an Amsterdam notary took a deposition concerning the artist’s estate. At the request of the merchant Dirk van Cattenburgh (ca. 1616–1704), two Amsterdam painters, Allard van Everdingen (1621–75), 50 years old, and his 25-year-old son Cornelis van Everdingen (1646–92), told what they knew about the ownership of a certain painting by Rembrandt, a late version of Simeon with the Christ child.
Allard attested that in the months before Rembrandt’s death, he had visited him on behalf of van Cattenburgh. The dealer had ordered a painting of Simeon from Rembrandt that had not yet been delivered. He wanted van Everdingen to get it for him. Rembrandt showed him the painting and said that it was unfinished.
Cornelis told more. He had visited Rembrandt’s studio repeatedly in that period, he said, and had not only seen the painting of Simeon but had also held several conversations about it with Rembrandt. “Gediscoureert” is the Dutch word, an expression that speaks of real discussion and not just the exchange of polite remarks. The repeated visits of Cornelis van Everdingen to Rembrandt’s studio and the quality of their contact led the archivist Isabella van Eeghen in 1969 to ask, quite reasonably, whether he might not be considered one of Rembrandt’s last pupils. Her suggestion has not been picked up by the art historians.
What might an artistic trait d’union between Rembrandt and the van Everdingens have looked like? No work by Cornelis is known, but documentary references suggest that he might have studied under his uncle Cesar van Everdingen (ca. 1617–1678). This opens the way to an intriguing comparison between details from a Holy Family by Cesar van Everdingen and a Simeon in the Temple by Rembrandt’s other “last pupil,” Arend de Gelder (1645–1727), who continued working in Rembrandt’s late style in Dordrecht until well into the 18th century. If, in the spirit of Thoré-Bürger, we unbend our notion of the Rembrandtesque, we can see Cesar van Everdingen as well Arent de Gelder “seeking Rembrandt”—the former, about 1660, in a classicistic mode, the latter, about 1700, in a Rembrandtesque equivalent.
That the subject of de Gelder’s painting is the same as the painting concerning which the old Rembrandt and the young Cornelis held their discourse, suggests that the meetings between Rembrandt and Cornelis van Everdingen may have extended in concrete form to include Arent de Gelder and Cesar van Everdingen.
What do I think this means? Simply, that the connections between Rembrandt, his contemporaries and followers are not adequately described by existing categories. The classicistic critique of Rembrandt existed alongside overlappings between his art and that of classicists. With regard to Rembrandt’s relation to his predecessors the situation is just as bad. An even more dubious designation than Rembrandt school and Rembrandt workshop is Pre-Rembrandtist. This contrachronistic label is applied to artists of an older generation who without Rembrandt’s help developed styles and motifs that remind art historians of Rembrandt. Their historiographical reward for having done so is to be dumped unceremoniously into the Great Rembrandt Catchall, as if he and not they were the originator of their ideas. The very real possibility that paintings and drawings now assigned to the Rembrandt school actually derive from pre-Rembrandt traditions and have nothing to do with Rembrandt himself is not part of the prevailing narrative.
I end with a modest manifesto. Rather than drawing a line around Rembrandt to distinguish him from non-Rembrandtesque surroundings, rather than elevating Rembrandt to ahistorical heights in his relation to forebears, contemporaries, and followers, let us study him as part of the large continuum of European art of which he was such a formidable representative.
© Gary Schwartz 2011. Published on the Schwartzlist on June 14, 2011.
The European University of St. Petersburg, where I lectured on Rembrandt’s Orientals on May 18 and on May 20 participated with Marten Jan Bok in a workshop on Art and Money, to which we were invited by Roman Grigoriev. Put it on the program for your next visit to St. Petersburg, just to have a chat with students and staff.
Our following trips abroad are
Late July: Herstmonceux in Sussex, belonging to Queen’s University of Kingston, Ontario. For the second time, Isabel and Alfred Bader are hosting a loya jirga of Rembrandt specialists. The main theme will be devoted to the Rembrandt school. The present column was written as a discussion item for the symposium.
Mid-August: Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga and points between. On 20 August a new museum for old masters is opening in Riga, the Riga Bourse. Never having been to the Baltic states or Finland, Loekie and I are seizing on this opportunity to reconnoiter them a bit.
Over the past months I have posted a number of older writings on a WordPress page that I call Schwartzlist documents.
Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) (1994)
Gary Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940. In 1965 he came to the Netherlands with a graduate fellowship in art history and stayed. He has been active as a translator, editor, and publisher; teacher, lecturer, and writer; and as the founder of CODART, an international network organization for curators of Dutch and Flemish art.
As an art historian, he is best known for his books on Rembrandt: Rembrandt: all the etchings in true size (1977), Rembrandt, his life, his paintings: a new biography (1984) and The Rembrandt Book (2006). His Internet column, now called the Schwartzlist, appeared every other week from September 1996 to April 2007 and has been appearing since then irregularly. His most recent book on Rembrandt is one of the six titles nominated for the Banister Fletcher Award for the most deserving book on art or architecture of that year.
In November 2009, Schwartz was awarded the coveted tri-annual Prize for the Humanities by the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation of Amsterdam.
Responses always welcome at Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl