REMBRANDT VAN RIJN
Dutch painter and engraver, considered Holland's national cultural hero. Born in Leiden, he was probably reared in Calvinism, the official religion of Holland. There has been some speculation that Rembrandt became a Mennonite later in life. Rembrandt has always been associated with the Jews of Amsterdam. His religious-cultural background naturally brought him nearer to the Hebraic than the Hellenistic heritage and, like his fellow Dutchmen, he was well versed in the Old and New Testaments. The new Dutch Republic at that time was celebrating its liberation from Spain, and regarded itself as the chosen people, the "New Israel," and its land as a "New Jerusalem," while the Spanish oppressor was likened to Pharaoh or Haman of biblical times. Like other Dutch artists of the time Rembrandt painted Old Testament subjects and created many wonderful drawings and etchings. His pupils continued this trend, often using his drawings as the basis for their work. For these Old Testament depictions Rembrandt may have used Jewish models, which were portrayed in a sympathetic and, above all, human manner. Rembrandt learned his first lessons in giving form to biblical texts from his teacher Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), and from 16th-century prints. An early work by Rembrandt is Balaam and the Ass (1626; Paris), similar to and inspired by Lastman's work on the same subject (1622; Jerusalem). In certain instances his treatment of the themes deviates from the traditional and has led scholars to speculate that Rembrandt may have derived his novel interpretations from conversations with rabbinical authorities, who provided him with details from post-biblical Jewish literature. It has been shown that Rembrandt and other artists consulted the Antiquities of *Josephus Flavius to enrich their biblical iconography. In his New Testament depictions the Jews, especially when he depicts the Pharisees, are sometimes shown as "suspicious of the Christian Miracle."
Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam on the Breestraat from 1633 to 1635 and from 1639 to 1658. It has been suggested that his choice of a home in Amsterdam's Breestraat was motivated by its proximity to the city's growing Jewish community. In actual fact quite a few artists resided in this quarter. Rembrandt was friendly with two Sephardi Jews, one of whom was the physician Ephraim Hezekiah *Bueno (Bonus). The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam owns a small Rembrandt oil portrait of Ephraim Bueno, a preliminary study for the etching of 1647. In World War II this portrait was "bought" by the Nazis for Hitler's museum, from the dealer Mannheimer. Rembrandt's other Jewish friend was *Manasseh ben Israel; Rembrandt's etching of him in 1636 is supposed to have been based on a painted portrait that has disappeared. It is doubtful, though, whether it is in fact a portrait of Manasseh ben Israel, but, on the other hand, there is no doubt that Rembrandt and Manasseh knew each other. In Rembrandt's 1635 Balthazar's Feast (National Gallery, London), a mysterious hand writes the words: Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin in Hebrew letters on the wall. Rembrandt may have consulted Manasseh about the script and in what manner the writing should be arranged. He wrote the words from top to bottom, according to an old Jewish tradition, which was later quoted in Manasseh's book De Termino Vitae. For Manasseh's book Piedra Gloriosa, o de la Estatua de Nebuchadnesar ("The Glorious Stone, or Nebuchadnezzar's Statue," 1655) Rembrandt made four etchings, one of which was the David and Goliath. His plates were not found acceptable on religious rather than aesthetic grounds, and a new commission was accordingly given to another artist – possibly the Jewish copper engraver Shalom *Italia.
The painting and the four etchings are based on the book of Daniel, and are related to messianic ideas common in Holland at that time. Manasseh was, in many respects, a mediator between Jews and Christians. He, like the philo-Semites, was fostering millenarian hopes for messianic salvation.
There has been much speculation as to whether Rembrandt and Baruch *Spinoza knew each other. The assertion that Rembrandt was Spinoza's drawing teacher has been rejected. Many scholars have claimed to see a likeness of Spinoza in paintings by Rembrandt, yet alleged identifications have remained highly debatable. There is a possibility that the two may have met at the home of Manasseh ben Israel, who was one of Spinoza's teachers, or at the home of Spinoza's Latin teacher, Dr. Frans van den Emden, where one of Rembrandt's pupils was a lodger, or at meetings of Collegiants and Mennonites which the philosopher occasionally attended.
Much of what we think about Rembrandt and the Jews derives from ideas formulated in the 19th century. E. Kolloff wrote in 1854 about Rembrandt's depictions of the biblical past as bearing a "strong touch of the Judaic." Rembrandt's financial problems, which eventually led to his bankruptcy in 1656, were believed to be the result of his relations with Jewish patrons, especially Manasseh ben Israel, who had allegedly influenced him to spend time and money on kabbalistic ideas.
Evidence of Rembrandt's artistic interest in the Jews he encountered in Amsterdam is provided by his numerous drawings, in pen and bistre, or brown or black chalk, of bearded old Jews in long coats. His early depictions of beggars in high hats are not of Jews, but probably based on J. Callot's prints of vagabonds. His etching known as Jews in the Synagogue (1648) shows nine Jews and not a minyan (quorum) as has been stated. Nor is it any longer agreed that the setting is a synagogue, and it has been suggested that the picture should be titled, A Scene in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam. The Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum; painted after 1665) may not be a portrait of Jews at all, though one scholar maintains that the sitters are the Jewish poet Miguel de *Barrios, and his much younger wife, Abigail de Pinna. The title was given to the painting in 1825, and therefore lacks historical justification. It is now believed to be a biblical painting, most probably of Isaac and Rebecca. Already in the 18th century art collectors cataloguing their collections gave Jewish "Romantic" names to some of the artist's works, as for instance two etchings, labeled the Great Jewish Bride and the Small Jewish Bride by Valerius Rover, but which are not what they are called.
A number of portraits assigned to Rembrandt, including some that may be works by his pupils, are believed to be of Jews, though the titles alone, often supplied by dealers, are not sufficient proof. The sole documentary evidence that Rembrandt found patrons among the well-to-do Sephardim of Amsterdam is a deposition concerning a disagreement between the artist and a certain Diego d'Andrade over a portrait of a young woman (perhaps Diego's daughter) which the patron had found unsatisfactory. This painting has, very tentatively, been identified as one in a private collection in Toronto. All identifications of portraits of unknown Jews based on "racial" features are tentative, though in certain cases the physiognomy and style of clothing appear to be more persuasive than in others. Jewish sitters have thus been claimed for as many as 40 oils, but the number is open to challenge. A painting in Rembrandt's inventory of 1656 which is listed as "a Head of Christ, a study from life" and related works were probably painted after a Jewish model. According to S. Schama some of the types of people dressed in heavy coats and fur hats (kolpaks) are actually Polish noblemen from Gdansk, and not Jewish. It is assumed that quite often Jewish beggars, who were poverty-stricken Ashkenazi refugees from Poland, served as paid models.
Among Rembrandt's most celebrated oils on Old Testament themes in major public collections the following may be named: Samson and Delilah (1628; Berlin), Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630; Amsterdam); Saul and David (1631; Frankfurt); Sacrifice of Abraham (1635; St. Petersburg); Samson Threatening his Father-in-law (1635; Berlin); Blinding of Samson (1636; Frankfurt); The Angel Leaving the Family of Tobias (1637; Paris); Samson's Wedding Feast (1638; Dresden); David's Farewell to Jonathan (1642; St. Petersburg); Bathsheba at her Toilet (1643; New York); Susanna and the Elders (1647; Berlin); Bathsheba with David's Letter (1654; Paris); Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife (1655; Berlin); Saul and David (c. 1655; The Hague); Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656; Kassel); Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (c. 1659; Berlin); Moses Holding the Tablets of the Law (1659; Berlin). In this last-mentioned painting the tablets are inscribed in beautiful Hebrew lettering in accordance with the Amsterdam Sephardi manner.
Rembrandt made numerous drawings and prints of Old Testament subjects. Often he seeks to analyze the human motives and the psychological turning points of the episodes. Many are depictions of the stories of Genesis, such as Joseph's Coat Brought to Jacob (1633); Abraham Casting Hagar and Ishmael (1637); Joseph Telling his Dreams (1638); Adam and Eve, (1638); Abraham's Sacrifice (1655). The story of Tobias also held his fascination throughout his life. In 1651 he made the print of The Blindness of Tobit.
In his famous etching The Triumph of Mordecai of c. 1641 Rembrandt shows the Temple of Jerusalem through an arch, which is an allusion to the building of the Third Temple. The print is close in conception and composition to the Night-watch, Rembrandt's great masterpiece.
Jewish artists after the Emancipation considered Rembrandt and his "Jewish" creations as proof of the fact that Jewish art was possible.
J. Bab, Rembrandt und Spinoza (1934); W.R. Valentiner, Rembrandt and Spinoza (1957); L. Balet, Rembrandt and Spinoza (1962); J. Rosenberg, Rembrandt (1964); F. Landsberger, Rembrandt, the Jews and the Bible (19722); C. Tuempel, Rembrandt (1992); M. Weyl and R. Weiss-Blok (eds.), Rembrandt's Holland (1993); S. Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes (1999); M. Zell, in: Simiolus 28 (2000–1), 181–97; S. Perlove, in: Dutch Crossing, 25 (2001), 2, 243ff.; M. Zell, Reframing Rembrandt's Jews and the Christian Images (2002); S. Nadler, Rembrandt's Jews (2003).
[Alfred Werner /
Rivka Weiss-Blok (2nd ed.)]
Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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