Rembrandt – short essay

I wrote this short essay as an Honours student in art history at Victoria University of Wellington, in David Maskill’s print course, for a catalogue and exhibition in 2005, called:

Artiface : artists’ portraits in prints

Rembrandt’s private world (Vivienne Morrell) – at the end I’ve also included the text of the brief floortalk I gave at the exhibition.

Rembrandt 1 Te Papa Collection

Unlike Anthony van Dyck’s contemporary project of the Iconography, Rembrandt’s etched portraits portrayed preachers, scholars, and craftsmen whom he knew, not the rulers and statesmen portrayed by van Dyck. His etchings did not have as wide a circulation as van Dyck’s engravings. In addition, he etched twice as many self-portraits as he did portraits of others. Rembrandt did not have wealthy court or church patrons, nor did he travel outside Holland. His was a more private world compared with van Dyck’s.

Most of Rembrandt’s thirty-one etched self-portraits were made during the 1630s, when he was establishing himself as an independent artist; first in his home town of Leyden, then in Amsterdam, where he moved in 1631. We don’t know why he produced so many self-portraits. Indeed, it is likely his motives were mixed and varied at different times. However the large number suggests they must have had something to do with his conception of himself as an artist.

The earliest self-portrait in this exhibition was made in 1630 while he was still living in Leyden. This small etching shows him frowning and was one of four done in the same year with different facial expressions. Facial expressions were regarded in art theory of the time as one way of revealing inner emotions, and were especially important for a history painter, which Rembrandt was at the time[1]. So this is likely to be a study, and it may also have been used for his pupils to learn from. (Gerrit Dou became his first pupil in 1628.)

Rembrandt mostly depicted himself in old-fashioned costume from the previous century. In the 1636 Self-portrait with Saskia—he had married Saskia van Uylenburgh two years earlier—both of them wear old-fashioned costumes. It is his only print where he depicts the two of them together, but Saskia is literally in the background. Rembrandt is the main focus.

Rembrandt & Saskia  Rembrandt cap

Te Papa Collection: with Saskia; in a cap and scarf

In his Self-portrait in cap and scarf of 1633 he wears a beret, which was no longer a fashionable item, and the shirt he wears is part of a military costume. His use of historicising costume may suggest he was simply posing or role-playing. However, its use has also been interpreted as Rembrandt wanting to put himself into a tradition of Northern European artists, emulating Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden for example, who were both painters and printmakers.

In order to enhance their status, many artists depicted themselves in fashionable contemporary clothes in an attempt to put themselves on a par with their clients. This makes Rembrandt’s Self-portrait drawing at a window of 1648 even more unusual in that he depicts himself in very ordinary working clothes. Perhaps now he is no longer play-acting, but showing himself as a confident, contemporary craftsman? It has also been suggested that this composition is closer to the image of a scholar in his study and therefore related to discussions common at the time, including among Rembrandt’s associates, about the relative merits and similarities between the arts—particularly painting and poetry.

His prints were collected by art lovers from fairly early in his career, and as he often did many states of one print, it became important to connoisseurs to collect all the states. He also experimented with different papers and inking of the plate so even each impression could often be different. His portrait of the print dealer Clement de Jonghe (1651) went through six states and was printed on various papers. Clement de Jonghe was the owner of seventy-four of Rembrandt’s copperplates, as listed in an inventory taken after Clement’s death. The gloves lend a certain elegance (they were particularly associated with nobility at the time) but otherwise the print provides no clues to his identity. Unlike most printmakers, Rembrandt did not include any inscriptions. If Rembrandt’s self-portraits were produced as examples of his technical mastery mainly for connoisseurs, it seems unusual that in his etchings he seldom depicted himself as a working artist. The two in this exhibition (Self-portrait with Saskia and Self-portrait drawing at a window) are untypical in depicting him with drawing or etching tools.

Most of Rembrandt’s portraits are relatively simple compositions of the person usually in a room or with no background included. This contrasts with the etching in this exhibition by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), an Italian who was influenced by Northern European artists, particularly Rembrandt. Both Rembrandt and Castiglione were also notable experimenters in print techniques. The Genius of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione was published in 1648, the same year as Rembrandt’s Self-portrait drawing at a window. The two look very different, yet they are both saying something about artistic genius. Castiglione’s, however, is in the Italian allegorical tradition and can be ‘read’ in a more literary way than Rembrandt’s.

The concept of an artist’s ‘genius’ did not have the same meaning as it has now—then it meant inborn talent, being especially gifted or inspired and sometimes ‘poetic spirit’ is used to describe it. Castiglione’s Genius is an allegory on his artistic genius as personified by the young semi-nude man with trumpet and book. Castiglione may have adapted a common emblem for ‘heroic poetry’ for the personification of artistic genius.[2] Heroic poetry was the highest form of poetry (in that sense it equates with history painting) and is represented by a beautiful young man, crowned with laurel, holding a trumpet, with an open book on his knee. The muse of history (Clio) also has the same attributes of trumpet and book. His ‘genius’ wears an extravagantly plumed hat rather than laurel, but the laurel wreath is in the top left hand corner, being pointed out by a putto figure, representing ‘fame’. However, the monument is overgrown with grass and the sheet music and artist’s palette lie on the ground, suggesting the theme of the futility of human endeavour, common to some of his other etchings. A dedication to a Dutch art dealer then living in Italy is also included, as is the name of the Roman print dealer from whom the print can be bought.

These five Rembrandt prints give us a glimpse into his private world, which was spent mostly in Amsterdam among a relatively small circle of friends and associates. This contrasts with the more public world of many artists of the time who travelled to obtain patronage, such as van Dyke and Castiglione.

Footnotes

[1] History painting encompassed Biblical, classical mythology, and historical ‘grand narratives’; for many centuries it was regarded as the highest form of painting.

[2] In the 16th and 17th centuries emblem books were common, for example, Cesare Ripa produced one in 1593 called ‘Iconologia’ (republished many times subsequently) which became firmly established as an artist’s source book.

Rembrandt floor-talk

My section comprises five Rembrandt prints and one by Castiglione, who I’ll come to shortly. You won’t see Rembrandt featured in Anthony van Dyck’s contemporary project of the Iconography. I think Rembrandt created his own Iconography, mostly consisting of himself. He completed about 80 self-portraits in his lifetime – 31 of them were etchings, which is one of the largest numbers of self-portraits of any artist. In contrast to the relative uniformity of van Dyck’s Iconography, Rembrandt’s prints show a range of formats and roles.

The earliest self-portrait in this exhibition is this one, done in 1630, when he was 24. It shows him frowning and was one of four done in the same year, with different facial expressions. It’s likely to be a study for his painting, and it may also have been used for his pupils to learn from. (He took his first pupil when he was 22.)

Unlike many contemporary artists who depicted themselves in fashionable clothing, Rembrandt mostly depicted himself in old-fashioned costume from the previous century. In this Self-portrait in cap and scarf of 1633, he wears a beret, which was out of fashion in his day. In fact, Rembrandt’s use of berets so often may have helped popularise the association of artists with berets. The shirt he wears is part of a military costume. This button, which was called a point, was for attaching armour.

He married Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1634 and this Self-portrait with Saskia was done two years later. It’s the only print where he depicts the two of them together, but Saskia is literally in the background. In including himself he has drawn over part of her costume. He wasn’t left-handed either, that is another fiction of the pose. Again, both of them are wearing old fashioned costumes.

This use of historic costume may suggest he was simply posing or role-playing. However, its use has also been interpreted as Rembrandt wanting to put himself into a tradition of Northern European artists, emulating Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden for example, who were both painters and printmakers. Rembrandt owned a large number of prints by these artists and others.

In this Self-portrait drawing at a window (of 1648) he depicts himself in very ordinary working clothes. There have been a number of interpretations of this print – perhaps now he is no longer play-acting, but showing himself as a confident, contemporary craftsman? It could also be Rembrandt emulating Durer, for example, the image at the start of the exhibition showing Durer sitting in front of a window. It also has similarities to Durer’s portrait of the famous scholar Erasmus in his study (show picture). This Rembrandt image has also been taken up by later artists, such as Muirhead Bone seen in the twentieth century section.

This self-portrait was made about the same year as this one by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione – 1648. Castiglione was from Genoa, and perhaps unusually for an Italian artist at that time he was influenced by Northern European artists, particularly by the prints of Rembrandt. He may also have worked briefly with van Dyck, when they were both in Genoa. This print is called The Genius of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, and is in the Italian allegorical tradition, quite different from the Rembrandts. The concept of an artist’s ‘genius’ didn’t mean the same as it does now — then it meant inborn talent, being especially gifted or inspired. So this is an allegory on his artistic genius as personified by the man holding a trumpet and book. At this time, emblem books were common for artists’ to use as source books. They contained emblems or personifications for a whole range of abstract concepts.

This little putto figure represents ‘fame’ and is pointing to the laurel wreath, which could be Castigliones. However, there is an element of melancholy. The monument is overgrown with grass and the sheet music and artist’s palette lie on the ground, suggesting ‘vanitas’, or the futility of human endeavour. This was a common theme in some of his other etchings. In some ways Castiglione is updating Durer’s Melencolia theme of the creative genius. Castiglione also did a version of Melancholy quite similar to Durer’s version.

I doubt that Rembrandt used an emblem book. He had an extensive art collection if he needed inspiration, but his symbolism is more personal to himself. So despite the apparent simplicity of these prints, a number of art historians have spent their careers interpreting Rembrandt.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s