Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Rembrandt - by H.R. Rookmaaker

Rembrandt’s Wisdom

by H.R. Rookmaaker
Rembrandt is a remarkable artist. With respect to the nature of his art, he was quite an anomaly in his day. Although he never travelled to the South, he turned his attention more than any of his contemporaries to the art of the Baroque and his work was deeply influenced by it. Baroque was the new seventeenth-century art style which developed in Italy and Flanders in connection with the Counter-Reformation. It was a style that once again took the old biblical stories and the stories of the lives of saints and tried to paint them with such beauty, magnificence, movement and grandeur that Catholic believers would be revitalized in their faith and convinced of the greatness of their church. These artists painted a world of superhumans, extremely muscular and showing superhuman fortitude, within an environment fitting for such beings; and they painted it all as if it was completely realistic, right down to the smallest details. In this art (most notably represented by the painter Rubens [1579–1640] in Flanders) it is as if we are observing a stage on which, with much colour and movement, these superhumans are performing a drama under the most incredible lighting.
This is the art Rembrandt came to know through prints (the reproductions of those days) and through viewing the fairly numerous pieces available at art dealers. He took the characteristics of this art and made them his own (to the extent that it was possible for a Dutchman, because that kind of theatrical ‘heroization’ does not really become us at all!). It is difficult to say whether this interest in the Baroque was the reason why Rembrandt concerned himself with biblical scenes so much more than his contemporaries did. (He was too much of a Dutch Protestant to paint the lives of saints or scenes from Greek mythology.)
Perhaps it was just the opposite, namely his interest in depicting biblical stories that drove him to look further afield, since Dutch art was at the time focused entirely upon portraying the natural reality around us. We can explain many of the characteristic features of Rembrandt’s art on the basis of the mentioned influences and interest: his striving for a ‘most natural movement’; (of which he speaks in a letter from the early years in Amsterdam, the only letter of his that has been preserved); his search for sharp light-dark contrasts with an almost stage-like lighting of the painted scenes; his interest in topics like The blinding of Samson or topics in which, because of the sudden intervention of angels and such there is a dramatic turn in the action, with much brilliance and tension.
In these efforts, Rembrandt was not always convincing. His double portrait of himself and Saskia evidences a certain overconfidence, and perhaps a secret hope of some day being able to live in splendour like the grand seigneur Rubens? The result is foolish, contrived, and overly dramatic. The gesture of raising the glass, for example, does not seem realistic and, instead of elevating the middle-class character of this Dutch burgher it rather accentuates it more clearly. This is what characterized Rembrandt’s paintings in years prior to 1640. They were years of fame and many commissions, and years in which he increasingly mastered the medium of paint.
At the same time, we begin to see the emergence of another side of Rembrandt, though not so much in his paintings but rather in his drawings. In these sketches he notes down ideas and initial designs for large paintings which sometimes materialized and sometimes not. In addition, there are studies which also were not intended for publication or for sale. In these studies we see his interest in the ordinary events around him: people in their day-to-day lives, women playing with children, etc. After about 1636 Rembrandt was drawn to depicting landscapes, particularly the natural surroundings of Amsterdam.
We see a gradual maturing and deepening of insight, and a growing awareness that Baroque art is too superficial, with too much glitter and too little of what is substantial and genuine. In The nightwatch, a work that took him several years to paint, we see a last attempt to combine the Baroque movement with a more peaceful and orderly compositional style. In the composition of the etching Haman and Mordecai Rembrandt formulates some of the problems posed by The nightwatch. In the former he attempts to offer an initial solution to those problems. Remember that an etching is printed from a copper plate, on which the original drawing has been etched; therefore the image appears in mirror image.
If you turn this image around, you will see the connection with The nightwatch even more clearly. Here, too, you see a man who appears to be walking out of the image towards us, a portal in the background, and a procession. One detail deserves our special attention: the hand of Haman, which stands out so clearly. The artist achieves that effect by letting the staff in Mordecai’s hand, the spear sticking out behind the horse, and the tail of Mordecai’s robe serve as pointers to this hand. But these lines that serve as pointers have been criss-crossed with other lines, so as to hide this technique. The nightwatch (completed in 1642) thus indicated a turning point in Rembrandt’s career as an artist, as well as a milestone in his development. From that time on he did not hazard travelling this road again. This feat of artistic strength, with which he may have been not particularly satisfied, signalled the end of his interest in Baroque art.
Although the death of Saskia as well as the less than enthusiastic reception of this work may have strengthened this development in Rembrandt’s artistic thought, it would not be right to explain the changes in his art simply on the basis of extra-artistic circumstances. Perhaps we should say a few words about the ‘tragic Rembrandt’ about whom you hear so much. If you follow the literature about Rembrandt from his own time until today, you will notice that no one in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries ever used the word ‘tragic’. The poor reception that The nightwatch received, and the decreased interest in his work after that by his contemporaries, are hardly ever mentioned. His bankruptcy in 1656 is simply seen as the inevitable result of financial mismanagement and living beyond his means. Neither, for that matter, did the Dutch hail him as a great national artist, just as in the eighteenth century the public had little interest, on the whole, in Dutch seventeenth-century artists, and their works were mainly used as export products. In the nineteenth century, with the debut of Romanticism and its accompanying nationalism, every nation came forward with a ‘great man’. England produced Shakespeare, for example; Germany produced Dürer; and naturally the Dutch felt the pressure to come up with someone too. With little enthusiasm, Rembrandt was chosen; other than this, people just perceived him as a Dutch citizen, a personification of typical Dutch middle-class culture.
Then, with the further development of the Romantic respect for great heroes, people – in particular foreigners – discovered the ‘tragic Rembrandt’, presenting him as a man misunderstood and neglected by his times, a great man in the midst of a petty world. Finally today, through careful research of the real facts, we have returned to the right path and have learned to judge Rembrandt more soberly. We learned that Rembrandt’s commissions did not drastically decrease in number after The nightwatch, and that his bankruptcy was, to a large extent, his own fault. After all, even though you may be a celebrated artist, a debt of 3,000 Dutch guilders (it would be many times that today [over $100,000]) is no small matter!
Only one book
When he was declared bankrupt, all the contents of Rembrandt’s home were sold, and the auction catalogue contains a full account of his possessions. Besides all kinds of curiosities, beautiful carpets, helmets, etc., he also owned many prints. Among others he owned nearly the entire collection of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts and copper engravings, as well as a great many Italian prints. Other than that, he owned only one book – the Bible. Rembrandt must have had a great personal interest in the Bible, considering the fact that again and again, in paintings, drawings and etchings, he portrayed biblical stories. And he did not limit himself, like the Roman Catholic Baroque artists did, only to those stories which had become accepted by tradition. Rather, he often dealt with subjects which had never before been artistically portrayed – scenes from the life of David, Joseph telling his dreams, and others. What is striking about his drawings, and also about the etchings and paintings from his most prolific and fruitful time (the 1650s), is how soberly he depicted these biblical scenes – without any Baroque adornment or theatrical gestures. Like his contemporaries, he made no attempt at being historically accurate (that did not come until after 1800) but concentrated rather on shedding light on the significance of the event. At the most he might indicate that the story takes place in the Middle East by portraying Abraham with a turban on his head.
As we have seen, Rembrandt continually busied himself with biblical subjects; he showed no interest in producing so-called genre pieces, the glimpses into daily life that we know from artists like van Ostade and Jan Steen. Apparently he did not consider those topics important enough for large compositions; in that he was faithful to the Baroque tradition, although in most respects he had broken with that movement. We do, however, find the ordinary everyday realities portrayed in his smaller drawings and etchings. An etching, after all, is a type of art intended to be sold, albeit to a very limited audience of connoisseurs. Therefore by its nature it finds its place between the ‘public’ painting and the sketch intended solely for personal study or notation. It is precisely in the etching technique that Rembrandt offered his very best, creating a body of works of unsurpassed excellence. There may have been artists who matched him in painting or in drawing, but as far as etching goes, he stands alone!
We cannot delve too deeply into Rembrandt’s mature work, his beautiful portraits, his magnificent figure studies (for instance of an old woman reading) and his biblical scenes (the Holy family, Bathsheba, Saul, David, etc.). In these we see Rembrandt at his best, an artist whose most outstanding quality is his humanness. It is that humanness that makes him accessible to everyone, including the ‘layman’. Despite the brilliance of their construction and the genius of their design his works require no explanation. As a matter of fact, the secret of his art is that it almost defies explanation because it speaks for itself so beautifully. The means that Rembrandt used to call up his images so convincingly simply escape our analytical abilities. He offers us an unadorned portrayal of reality that never becomes flat or picturesque and is always imaginative and visionary. His humanness can be so profound that as observers we simply learn: to see, to notice and to understand people and their world.
All of these qualities have earned Rembrandt his unique and matchless place among the master artists of all time. Rembrandt had an incredible ability to vividly imagine things he had never actually seen, and then to portray them in a thoroughly convincing way. To accomplish this he also needed to have an almost perfect control of his artistic medium. But even more than that, he needed great wisdom, a deep and comprehensive understanding of reality that would never prove obsolete. Rembrandt’s art has a timeless appeal. This is partly because, contrary to the work of many other artists, one does not need a great deal of historical knowledge to understand it. It is also because his vision is so rich that we don’t quickly tire of his works and become impatient to move on. His work manages to appeal to scholars and laymen all over the world, capturing and drawing in people of every rank and station.
Yet Rembrandt’s work is through and through Dutch; it is down to earth, never theatrical, and it never idealizes or glamorizes the stories it depicts. As a matter of fact, one Catholic viewer making his first acquaintance with this artwork actually thought Rembrandt was trying to mock the Bible and the biblical characters. Later he came to understand it very differently. What gives this art its depth and vision, its penetrating truth and honesty? Once again, it is Rembrandt’s wisdom. A person cannot write, speak or paint at a deeper or more profound level than his or her wisdom allows. No novel, study, discussion, or work of art can display greater understanding than its author possesses. We must not understand this wisdom individualistically. For wisdom, which is a combination of insight, knowledge, life experience, perceptiveness, understanding of norms, common sense and empathy, cannot be captured in its entirety by one person. The wisdom and insight, knowledge and world view of the surrounding culture always help – or hinder – us. That, by the way, is why it is so difficult to gain a proper perception, a wise understanding, of the problems of our own time, because our world is permeated by a secular vision that reduces everything to economic and technological factors. We have the Scriptures as our highest source of wisdom, but in our effort to look at things in a scriptural way we stand alone. We first have to learn to see through all kinds of prejudices and so-called ‘self-evident’ truths and to recognize their poverty and their tendency to falsify the truth. We hope we have made it sufficiently clear that Rembrandt was no genius who lived in an ivory tower building up his store of wisdom in an individualistic way. He did draw from Scripture, but the surrounding world contributed to his ability to condense scriptural truth into wisdom.
Thus it is no coincidence that Rembrandt’s art emerged during a time when Calvinism had left its indelible mark on our country. It was a time when the common perception of reality, the understanding of norms and the world view tended to be sober and honest and rich and biblical. This came not as something learned but as a gift of grace, as the fruit of people surrendering themselves to the Bible and allowing it to direct them.
It is nearly certain that Rembrandt was not a church member. Perhaps he had only a minimal knowledge of and interest in the creeds of the church. We will not try to justify this. But it does not diminish the fact that he was clearly a man who read the Bible and accepted God’s word. Building on the realm of thought of the world around him, he gained a deep view of reality – a view that was down-to-earth but not cold, and certainly not based only on economic factors (which is what passes for ‘common sense’ today). It was a deeply human view because it was founded on the truth and because it did justice to reality as God’s creation, marred by sin. Rembrandt’s limited interest in the theological questions of his day (certainly reflective of his stance towards the institutional church) did not necessarily limit his wisdom. After all, scholastic leanings and Anabaptist trends were not foreign to the Reformed milieu in those days, and they sometimes even suppressed the wisdom of Scripture.
Rembrandt’s interest in biblical subjects is not typically Calvinistic. In the Netherlands artists had consciously turned away from such subjects in the early seventeenth century. Therefore, apart from Catholic painters like Jan Steen and the Utrecht school, we rarely find them depicted in the Dutch art of the time. That is where Rembrandt’s art shows evidence of Baroque influences and his inclination toward the old traditions. Nevertheless, the way in which he interprets the Bible and portrays its stories – without glamorization, but soberly and with the understanding that these biblical characters are people just like us – can only be explained on the basis of the Calvinism so prevalent in his culture, even though occasionally he gives an Anabaptist interpretation of the biblical text. We need to realize that every portrayal of biblical material, whether in writing or by visual imagery, offers some kind of exegesis or interpretation of the text, and we must not see this as a drawback. The only question is: is the exegesis correct? Much more could be said about this. For example, we could explore the fact that Rembrandt never used halos in his work, with the exception of situations where Christ reveals himself as the Son of God, as in his depictions of Christ with the men of Emmaus or with Thomas, for instance. But we will not go into this now.
In conclusion, we have seen that a study of Rembrandt’s work can never be a superficial affair, because it teaches us how to see and how to understand. We can learn much from his perceptions of human beings and their activities, both in his own surroundings and in the biblical stories. He can help open our eyes to much that we, living in this thoroughly secular generation with a strongly socialistic worldview, easily lose sight of. Therefore he can help us to become wise. This can only happen, of course, if we also study the Scriptures ourselves, and if we are willing to open our eyes to the realities around us as well. Then the honesty and truthfulness of Rembrandt’s art will ring a bell with us, and we will be able to use it to help us grow spiritually.
Try to see Rembrandt’s works in museums and exhibitions, so that you can experience his work first-hand. It’s not enough to hear from others that he was a great artist. You need to experience for yourself the profound wisdom hidden in his work. It does not really matter that occasionally Rembrandt was wrong in his perceptions and that a few of his works were of less than star quality. Perhaps this art can help us recapture a little of the everyday wisdom of the Dutch seventeenth century.
Originally published in Dutch in Calvinistisch Jongelingsblad 11, 1956.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.