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The Documents from the ebook A New Key to Rembrandt

When we consider Rembrandt's standing among his contemporaries it is remarkable that there should be so little documentary evidence about him. What there is, is readily available in English translation. I shall concern myself only with those pieces of evidence which seem to have acquired new significance in the light of my own studies.

Only seven letters exist in Rembrandt's hand. They are of a purely business nature and are all addressed to Constantijn Huygens, Secretary of State to the Stadholder Frederick Henry. The letters all date from early in Rembrandt's career. Their subject matter includes the delivery of six paintings of The Passion, and the payment for these. None of the letters gives the least indication of having come from a 'difficult' man: on the contrary, Rembrandt is obsequious, not unduly flustered by non-payment and seems only a little disappointed that His Highness should finally have paid only half the price the painter had proposed. They are the letters of a man who knows on which side his bread is buttered, but did not always find the will to deliver on time. He insisted on giving Huygens a large and horrifying painting, The Blinding of Samson against the will of the recipient!

The letters tell us little enough. It is in the inventory of his belongings that Rembrandt reveals more of himself. His misfortune is useful for us in that a complete inventory of his possessions was taken at the time of his near bankruptcy in 1656. By far the largest category was that of works by other artists, of which there were over sixty. When we add to this the large number of books of engravings, and the drawings and the sculpture, we begin to realise the scale of Rembrandt's remarkable appetite for art. He seems to have delighted in the works of Adriaen Brouwer (who specialised in scenes from low life). The works by other contemporaries - his master Lastman; Pinas, reputedly also his teacher; his fellow student Lievens; Seghers, whose etching plates he inherited - seem to reflect his loyalties as a man. They cannot be taken as a completely reliable guide to his tastes as an artist. The books of drawings and engravings probably reflect his real interests far more accurately, but with a collector as catholic and voracious as Rembrandt clearly was, chance must have played a part.

He was also a dealer who expected to profit from the resale of some of his collection. Early in his career, Rembrandt became a partner to Hendrick van Uylenburch (his wife, Saskia's uncle) who dealt in pictures, and we cannot be certain which items in his collection were bought simply for resale, as dealer's stock.

Rembrandt had a reputation for rashness. Balduccini wrote (on the evidence of Bernard Keillh, a Rembrandt student of eight years' standing): "He deserves, however, great praise for his generosity, extravagant though it may have been, for he thought so highly of his art that when similar things were auctioned - especially paintings and drawings by great artists of his own country he raised the initial price so high that there was never a second buyer. He said he did this in order to raise the status of his profession. He was also very generous in lending his possessions to other painters whenever they needed them for their work". (Lecaldano, 1973, p.9)

Certain items, however, are an entirely reliable guide; either because of their very number, or because we know that Rembrandt made use of them for two very careful copies. (Mantegna's general approach to drawing bears a very close affinity to Rembrandt's, if one looks beneath the superficial differences of manner.) There were also engravings after Raphael and even a number of original works by him. Rembrandt had scrapbooks of works of leading Masters of the whole world, including one 'very large, with almost all the works of Titian' (presumably of engravings after Titian). Item 230 is 'one little child by Michelangelo'. In all there are some thirty scrapbooks or folders. He may have bought them as stock, like many of his professional contemporaries he dealt in art of all kinds.

Rembrandt clearly venerated the works of many of the great Masters, but not uncritically. His taste favoured those elements that involved a closer contact with nature; the more florid 'arty' elements clearly provoked his displeasure. Lord Clark has perceptively contrasted Rembrandt's treatment of The Rape of Ganymede with versions by Michelangelo and Titian. He says: "I think Rembrandt was shocked and he was determined that his picture should shock." (Clark, 1978, p.45) The point, like that of Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross, was to shock with the contrast between his own 'truth' and the contrived 'art' of others. Clark continues: 'there is no doubt that Rembrandt's image gains immense power from his struggle against the potent charms of classic art. It is like one of those blasphemies that precede conversion' (p.47). My own view is that the blasphemies ceased but that the conversion never came. The calm of Rembrandt's late paintings is not the unmoved Olympian stability of classical antiquity but a more earthly tranquillity, the result of resignation and old age. Rembrandt maintained his allegiance to the real world and he remained true to his own experience, but with age his responses to the art of others mellowed. His youthful work veered between straight competition with Rubens (as seen in The Rape of Proserpine) and self assertive criticism of 'high art'.

As he matured, the combative element in his character waned. Consequently his attitude to the art of others became less clear; far from becoming more traditional, I believe that he became quietly certain of his own very individual path.

Rembrandt owned a truly astonishing number of Roman portrait busts, some in plaster copies, but possibly as many as thirty in the stone originals. Such works were eagerly sought after by collectors in Rembrandt's day, and we know that they commanded a very high price. A great deal of his capital must have been tied up in them. His appetite for Roman portraits has sometimes puzzled modern scholars, few of whom share the seventeenth-century enthusiasm for that genre. I seek to explain this enthusiasm in my syntax video.

Two books of drawing of sculpture made by Rembrandt from the Antique which are mentioned in the inventory have alas been lost but the abundant evidence for Rembrandt’s debt to Roman portraiture is there, in his work.

The importance of the large collection of plaster casts from life, found among Rembrandt's possessions, has been overlooked. Hands and heads figure prominently among the baskets full of plaster casts listed in the inventory. One head is mentioned in the inventory as having been over painted by Rembrandt himself. Such a head could have been used as a substitute for a live model for a painting. I believe that such casts were used not only for the purpose of instructing students but also by Rembrandt himself; to help him complete drawings after the models had stopped posing. Houbraken mentions that it is rare to see in Rembrandt's work a beautifully painted hand. Houbraken must have been very unlucky in the Rembrandts he knew, but it is true that in Rembrandt's drawings of hands the quality varies greatly. At one moment he seems able to make the most beautifully expressive hand with a few apparently casual strokes of the quill; and yet he is prepared to take the etching of The Woman with the Arrow (Pl.15a) through five changes of state without making any adjustment to a hand - which would cause raised eyebrows if found in the work of a minor artist. This etching is a late one (1661), completed after the sale of his goods when he would have been deprived of the use of his cast collection.

Quality is a good indication in deciding whether Rembrandt had a hand in front of him as he drew. It is my belief that the superlative drawing that one often finds in a Rembrandt hand is due to his use of casts at leisure; without the fear of movement and pressure of time which are a part of the experience of drawing from life. I would urge particular attention to drawings of old male hands spread wide (such as those of Isaac in Pls.20b and 20e) and to the young female hands, slightly cupped as if around a ball, which we see in the Hagar & the Angel. Both gestures occur frequently and they are nearly always of breathtaking quality in observation and execution. I therefore hypothesise they were drawn from a cast after the model had departed.

Finally, in Rembrandt's collection there is his accumulation of theatrical properties: old clothes, musical instruments, military equipment; all these are mentioned in the inventory and their significance has been overlooked by modern scholarship. Baldinucci mentions them; Roger de Piles, writing in 1699, is explicit enough in telling us the use Rembrandt made of them: "he himself said that his art was the imitation of nature and, since this included everything, he collected ancient suits of armour, ancient musical instruments, old cloths and a multitude of ancient, embroidered clothes, and he used to say that they were his antiques." (Lecaldano, 1973, p.10) The relevance of this collection to my argument is obvious. Houbraken claims to have heard from many Rembrandt students that 'he would sketch a face in ten different ways before painting it on to canvas, or that he would spend a whole day or even two arranging the folds of a turban until he was satisfied.' (Lecaldano, 1973, p.12)

There are some other points of interest noted by Rembrandt's contemporaries but since ignored. There is frequent reference to Rembrandt's "keeping low company"  Von Standrart says: "He had no idea of the importance of social rank and was forever rubbing shoulders with people of inferior class, which was detrimental to his work." (Lecaldano, 1973, p.8) These people were probably his models and I myself would regard them as essential to his work. Baldinucci says: "This painter belonged at the time to the Meninistic religion which, although a heretic sect, is nevertheless opposed to Calvanist doctrines; its members do not receive baptism until the age of thirty; they do not elect literate preachers but men of low class who are given the same honours as gentlemen and men of wisdom..." (Lecaldano, 1973,p.9)

These early records and commentaries provide some strong support for my evidence Von Sandrart comes tantalisingly close to telling us about the mirrors. He writes: "He also made skilful use of reflections by which means light could be made to penetrate areas of shadow." (Lecaldano, 1973, p.9) This passage has always been taken to refer to light reflected from light-toned objects (such as the open Bible in the portrait of his mother). It is more than likely that Von Sandrart refers to mirrors, which had a secondary use in reflecting more light on to a subject. The daylight available to Rembrandt was uncompromisingly directional: no room in his house had windows on more than one side and there do not appear to have been skylights or large north lights such as is customary in studios. It would be natural under such circumstances to try to bring in reflected light to 'fill' the shadows, in order to reveal the modelling. It is probable that mirrors were first made use of as 'light enhancers' - and only later used as 'subject multipliers'. The putative size of Rembrandt's mirrors is dealt with in the next chapter. It seems reasonable to deduce that he possessed at least three mirrors: two are mentioned in the 1656 inventory. But Rembrandt continued to paint self-portraits (which would of course have required a mirror of good quality) until his death in 1669.

In all the contemporary accounts I have found only one assertion which might be taken to be in conflict with my thesis. Houbraken, writing in 1718, asserts: "As an artist he was imaginative and that is why one often sees several sketches by him of the same subject." (Lecaldano, 1973, p.12) We may choose to decide that this means that the 'sketches' were actually made from Rembrandt's imagination. What Houbraken really meant is not entirely clear; he may simply have wished to say that Rembrandt's creativity often produced more than one solution to any particular problem. There is evidence from Houbraken himself to support this interpretation, in a later passage of this very text he writes:
"I know of no other artist who has introduced so many variations and so many different aspects of one and the same subject. This was the result of careful observation [my emphasis] of the various passions and these are recognisable in the facial expressions and in the attitudes of his characters".

Karel van Mander reports that Michelangelo da Caravaggio used to asserted that: “a painting, whatever its subject-matter and whoever its author, is a fatuous and a childish thing if it is not painted from nature: that there is nothing preferable to following nature: and for this reason he never attempted a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes. Our great Rembrandt was of the same opinion, and was indeed faithful to the principle that one must follow only nature: anything else was worthless in his eyes ... Rembrandt could never have been bound by rules dictated by others, nor could he have followed the example of other artists whose way of reproducing beauty has made them famous; he was content with imitating nature as he saw it and without any pedantry.” (Lecaldano, 1973, p.12)

It is curious that we have no direct account of Rembrandt's use of models and mirrors. His use of mirrors is by no means unique: it is part of the continuous tradition of European painting and it begins with Brunelleschi or van Eyck - possibly even with Giotto. It can be argued that such practices were so widespread that no-one thought them worthy of particular mention. I cannot believe that they were not common knowledge in Rembrandt's own lifetime. There is evidence that his students used mirrors occasionally. The size and quality of mirrors improved considerably in the 17th C as glass manufacture improved. In fact Amsterdam was the world leader during Rembrandt’s life-time.

Various remarks attributed to Rembrandt, his behaviour, his interests, his collection of bric-a-brac, jewellery, old clothes and theatrical properties, his fastidiousness in arranging a turban - all give evidence of a man indulging in a continuous visual feast; an artist who, like a stage or film director, deploys his actors as a part of his art, and from the scene he has created he selects his subject matter and point of view to maximise the emotional expression.

His 'keeping of low company' and his association with the Mennonites give us some indication of possible sources for his amateur models. He almost certainly also used professionals. Finally, the records and the judgements of his contemporaries proclaim that Rembrandt was taught by nature. All documentary signposts point in one direction; the 'scholars' have gone off on a 20th C tangent.