Littell's Living Age/Volume 142/Issue 1838/The Works of Rembrandt
|Littell's Living Age
Volume 142, Issue 1838 : The Works of Rembrandt
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It was the destiny of the Dutch people to open the modern era of history by victoriously asserting and illustrating the principle of human freedom at once in the spheres of government and society, of thought and of art. To the generation whose desperate resolution and tenacity in war had established the liberties of their country against the strength and the fanaticism of Spain, succeeded generations whose task it was to exhibit to the world fruits worthy of those liberties. The result fairly corresponded to the effort that had preceded it. Throughout the seventeenth century — at least from 1609, the year when the independence of the Dutch provinces was recognized in the armistice signed with Spain, to 1672, the year when a failure of vigilance, if not of valor, allowed Louis XIV. to overrun the southern frontier — throughout this period the place of honor in European history belongs unquestionably to Holland. First among the nations in naval strength and in commercial and colonial enterprise, first in industry and energy, unsurpassed in statecraft, alone in the self-respecting equality of her citizens, a lone in honorable hospitality to exiles, alone in tolerant and assiduous love of learning and letters — no element of sober, dignified, and practical greatness seems wanting to make the nation admirable.
It is a somewhat commonplace reflection, to which M. Fromentin, in the book quoted at the foot of these pages, succeeds nevertheless in giving a striking turn, that not all the heroism nor all the wisdom of Holland in her great age has earned for her from after generations so much attention, so much affection, so many pilgrimages, as the skill and diligence of a few score of her artificers, some of them famous in their own day, the greater number obscure, and not a few who died in the depth of penury and neglect. A solitary like Ruysdael, a roysterer like Jan Steen, is familiar, in the very trick of his thought, touch, character, to thousands to-day to whom the strategy and the constancy of a William or a Maurice, the policy of a Heinsius, the prowess of a Tromp or a Ruyter, the learning of a Grotius, — even the wisdom of a Spinoza or the inspiration of a Vondel, — are but names and the shadows of names. In the enthusiastic criticisms of W. Bürger, in the fluent narratives and prefaces of M. Charles Blanc, in the lucid and effective generalisations of M. Taine above all, it has been set forth how the greatness of the Dutch school coincides in date with the emancipation of the Dutch people, and how the same temper animates their politics and their painting. Nearly all the chief men of the school were born in the years immediately before or after 1609, which was the year of the armistice signed between Spain and her revolted provinces. With their first breath they thus drew the spirit of independence; and independence, originality, the spontaneous rejection of tradition and authority, is the common characteristic of their work.
It is not often that the progress of art really reflects, in this close and obvious way, the progress of historical events; but the reality of the connection between the two seems proved, in the case before us, by a comparison of what took place in the Dutch provinces with what took place in the sister provinces of Flanders. While Holland had made herself Protestant and free, Flanders had allowed herself to be forced back into allegiance to Spain and to the Church. Up to this time Dutch and Flemish art had been to all intents and purposes one; but henceforth they were one no longer. Flemish art presently underwent, in the hands of Rubens and his school, a great and dazzling revival, but a revival along traditional paths, a revival of which the inspiration and the character were ecclesiastical, ceremonial, courtly. What happened a few years afterwards in the Dutch school, on the other hand, was in no sense a revival at all: it was a new departure. In a community which had broken with Catholic tradition and with feudal forms, there was no longer any demand for an art which should continue to run in the traditional grooves. In such a community, men must choose either not to paint at all, or else to paint on new principles. The Dutchmen chose the latter course. They painted with greater activity than ever; but they painted not for the Church nor for princes, but for their own homes; and we all know in what manner.
The breach with precedent was complete. Precedent directed the painter to occupy himself almost exclusively with themes of another world — the precedent of the Middle Age, with themes of Christian devotion — the precedent of the Renaissance, with themes of Christian devotion and of pagan poetry together. Under either rule, the artist had hitherto devoted nine-tenths of his powers to representing the best only of the things he saw, and those not for their own sake, but in order to shadow forth other and still better things of which the Church or the poets told him. But now, by a sudden shifting of interest, he begins, in Holland, to occupy himself almost exclusively with the themes of this world. He takes all facts as they come, and takes them simply as they are, for the sake of their humanity, their reality, their variety, and of the part they play not in his hopes or imaginations concerning another world, but in his observations and experiences in this.
Of the new generation of Dutch painters, one division go out, among timbered lanes or windy dunes, or by sunlit water-meadows or frozen meres, to study and report the effects and qualities of their native scenery and native atmosphere. Another division interest themselves most, not in the landscape itself, but in the pastoral life which peoples it: their choice is to study and exhibit the groups of cattle, the sheep and shepherds, the peasants at rest or labor. Other divisions find their interest indoors; some in the company of harlots and tatterdemalions, some in that of silken dames and gallants. Others love to exhibit the gestures of those who chaffer over the variegated wares of the fruit-stall or the fish-market. Others, again, delight in these wares by themselves, and find materials for their pictures in nothing else but fruits and fishes, and dead game furred or feathered. Others apply themselves to portraiture; but this in itself is nothing new. In the old days when the Church and the poets between them had monopolized nine-tenths of art, the one-tenth not so monopolized was already taken up with portrait. What the Dutch school did with this branch of art was to give it a new extension and a new importance by painting groups of many figures in combination, not, according to a common practice of the Florentine and the Venetian schools, under the disguise of actors or bystanders in some great religious or mythologic scene, but in their natural characters and habiliments as they lived. Such groups of civic or military personages — magistrates, officers of corporations, officers of trained bands, members of commercial tribunals and the rest — are among the most powerful and most characteristic creations of Dutch art. And they are the only class of its creations which have never found their way out of their native country, but impose an unavoidable pilgrimage upon the foreigner who seeks to be acquainted with them.
The art of Holland, indeed, at the date of which we speak, has sometimes been described as an art of universal portraiture. It has been said that the Dutch school effected the revolution of painting by simply applying to everything the same literal and straightforward principles which hitherto had been only applied to the features of men and women that it was desired to leave to posterity. But this is only another way of saying that in the hands of this school art, from being sacerdotal, aristocratic, monotonously subservient to a fixed ideal, becomes for the first time secular, popular, human, variously natural and free. Such as it thus first became in the seventeenth century, such in principle, with intervals of exception and reaction, has the art of painting remained ever since.
And such, from the very nature of the modern world, it must in the main no doubt continue. But there is a set-off against the merit of that great and spontaneous achievement by virtue of which the Dutch painters of this age take their place as leaders and pioneers of modern art. Leaving Rembrandt, who is at once a typical master and a great exception in the school, for the moment out of sight, and taking the rest of the school as a whole, its weak point is this, that it fails to afford to contemplation delight of the same degree as is afforded by the works of the older and traditional schools. There are minds, we are aware, incapable of taking much pleasure in the ardent and solemn imaginations which make up the world of old Italian art, yet quite capable of taking pleasure in the sincere and faultlessly expressed realities which make up the world of ordinary Dutch art. But to minds capable of taking a sensitive and discriminating pleasure in the work of both schools, there can be no kind of question which pleasure is the more intense. Nor is this because the work of the Italian schools is the better done. Perhaps, indeed, the combination of technical powers put forth upon the monumental undertakings of Italian art, in the perfection of the crowning age, was greater than any combination of technical powers put forth upon the homelier performances of Holland. But, on the other hand, much of the still immature work of Italy, which certainly delights us not the least, is, strictly speaking, not nearly so well done as the Dutch work. One of the surprising features of the new art in Holland is that it is so evenly, so signally, so universally well done. Every important Dutch painter of the seventeenth century (we again postpone the consideration of Rembrandt) is at all moments perfectly sure of his hand; perfectly well instructed as to his means, which are so precise and sound that the result seems beyond the attacks of time; perfectly efficient in the solution of all the problems to which he applies himself. Whatever the materials before him, and however minutely he transcribes them, he knows how to harmonize his work into a just and agreeable result; he knows inimitably well how to draw and place objects and figures in space, and how to give them their exact force and value among their surroundings; how to express the subtlest relations of near and far, to give to things on earth their due degrees of solidity, and to clouds their perspective, their lightness, their remoteness; how to play with the contrasts of open or imprisoned daylight in public place or garden, in courtyard or chamber, in corridor or alcove; how to realize the very structure and substance of humanity beneath garments which serve not less to express the life of the frame within, than to reflect and take their part in the life of the atmosphere without.
In spite of all these and a hundred other secrets, which the ordinary Dutchman of the seventeenth century possesses and practises to admiration, why is it that his work leaves us cold in comparison with any fragment from the churches or palace walls of Italy in her great ages? The only answer is that the elements with which painting must work, the appearances which it must in some mode or another represent and combine, in order to give us the most intense pleasure we are capable of receiving from it, are, and must surely forever be, those of bodily symmetry, distinction, grace, of facial sweetness, expressiveness, power, with beauty of costume and environment, and poetry of skies and landscape. All these elements we are accustomed to find the work of the Italian schools, even when it was least mature, exhibiting or striving to exhibit. Some of the same elements, in various degrees and admixtures, have entered into the work of one and another of the modern schools. But the founders of modern art, the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century, hardly show any feeling for such elements at all. Their physical types are, at least, types of a plain and self-respecting gravity, at worst, types of ribald deformity or sensual abjectness. Their dress and scenery have no more than the picturesqueness, sometimes of domestic opulence, sometimes of pothouse disorder. Their landscape is perfectly harmonious and justly felt within its special range of light and color; but that range is narrow, and the Dutch landscape painters as a rule avoid such occasions of splendor, poetry, and deeper imaginative suggestion as even the quiet scenery of their country might have afforded. A man like Everdingen, indeed, imported into Dutch art some sense of the poetry of mountain and forest gloom, and Everdingen found in Jakob Ruysdael a follower of greater power, originality, and penetration than himself. And men like Both, or again Dujardin, imported some of the poetry of classic sentiment from Italy. But, making all due allowance for exceptional tendencies, it is true of the Dutch painters in general that they do not speak to our finer emotions. They apply the most delicate perceptions, the truest pictorial instinct, the most skilful handling, often to an unrejoicing, and sometimes to a revolting, order of facts. In a word, the faults of this school, in many respects so exemplary, are the faults of spiritual commonness and of prose.
But commonness, prose, the absence of charm and distinction, are qualities of northern art by no means new in the seventeenth century. M. Taine has explained, in his decisive way, how physical coarseness, the absence of bodily symmetry and grace, are the calamities of the northern as compared with the southern races of Europe, and atmospheric gloom, the absence of sustained light and radiance, the calamities of the northern as compared with the southern climate; and how the differences between northern and southern art are the permanent and inevitable result of these conditions. M. Taine's great talent, we had almost said his genius, consists in thus bringing out clear and convincing relations between distinct orders of facts; but usually, and here not least, he is obliged to simplify and to overstate both orders of facts for his purpose. Certain, nevertheless, it is that northern art had always suffered in some shape or another from an inveterate inability to realize any high conception of human breeding or beauty. Flemish painting under the Gothic and religious rule, from the Van Eycks to Memling, had in part made up for this shortcoming by the expression of strength with devotion in men, and of mildness with devotion in women, by an unexampled force and splendor in the color and finish of costumes, jewellery, armor, and by a landscape primitive indeed, but of much loveliness both in sentiment and detail. German art, in the hands of Dürer and his contemporaries, had in like manner made partial amends for want of beauty by a still greater character of strength, of rugged sincerity, penetration, and conviction, and by a somewhat kindred, though inferior, care and splendor of color and detail. But the bane of both schools, though much more of the German, had been that overmastering tendency towards the characters of commonness, uncouthness, physical disproportion, imperfection, and grimace.
Under the rule of the Renaissance, this tendency of the northern schools took another turn. We find flocks of artists making their way from the north to Italy, sitting at the feet of the great masters of Venice or of Rome, imbuing themselves enthusiastically with the principles of the antique, and returning to propagate those principles at home; and all to no purpose, or worse than none. The work of the painters of the Netherlands through the greater part of the sixteenth century, from the days of Mabuse and Schoorel to the days of Bloemaert and Poelemburg, exhibits a perpetual struggle between ambition and natural endowment. A Heemskerk, a Goltzius, a Cornelissen, these and a score of other would-be masters of the classic style, have left to posterity a depressing spectacle in their lumbering, their sprawling parodies of Raphael, Michael Angelo, or the Venetians. They wished to carry on the great tradition according to which the perfected and ideal physical frame of man had been the one worthy theme of art. They hoped to add another chapter to that which M. Taine, to quote him once more, calls the great poem of the naked and heroic human body. So much effort and so much enthusiasm were never perhaps so pitifully wasted. No set of men ever tried so hard to be eloquent in a language which they were not born to utter. They forfeited the native virtue of veracity without acquiring the foreign graces after which they strove.
It was a good day for northern art when the genius of Rubens for the first time transmuted into something unchastened, indeed, and exuberant, but still living, impetuous, and masterly, the official sanctities and mythologies of the Italianized schools of Flanders, which until his day had been so clumsy, cold, and pretentious. It was a still better day when the painters of the liberated Dutch provinces, in the manner we have seen, gave up those sanctities and mythologies altogether. Commonness and prose, where they are vices in the blood, are best not paraded in the attempt to perform achievements to which commonness and prose are fatal. The Dutchmen showed knowledge of themselves, as well as of the new conditions under which they lived, when at the close of the sixteenth century they spontaneously forswore high art, and took with one consent to painting pictures of daily life and nature. By so doing they not only secured to themselves a success which in its own homely and unimaginative way was immediate and complete; they threw a whole world open to the experiments of the modern spirit. They were not, the majority of them, men of a stamp themselves to solve what is, we can now see, the great problem of modern art — the problem how to combine the new spirit of freedom and naturalism with the old spirit of intensity and ardor, the old power in appealing to the emotions. But one man among them, at least, of such a stamp there was, and that man was Rembrandt.
In saying that Rembrandt was at once a great type and a great exception among the artists of his race, what we meant was this. He is the most Dutch of all Dutchmen in his incapacity for conceiving physical beauty and distinction, or realizing combinations of linear grace. So he is in his rejection of authority; in his defiance of convention; in his acceptance of the crudest facts; so that he will exhibit a mother attending to the most pitiful necessities of her child, and call her Mary, a boy humiliated in abject bodily terror, and call him Ganymede. But at the same time he is like no other Dutchman in that his scenes, for all their crudity, are never common, and his mode of expression, however blunt, never produces the impression of prose. Beautiful his work is not, but it invariably arrests and haunts. There is about it at once a simplicity and a strangeness, an air of reality and a mystery, a combination of the poignantly human with the unaccountably fantastic, a force, a penetration, a personality and intensity, which together appeal to the beholder with a power comparable in degree, if not in kind, to the power of the appeal made by any of the greatest masters of other schools. Every one is struck by Rembrandt. Every one feels that he is a poet and a magician, and a poet and a magician of a new kind. In recent years he has become the object of a renewed study and a redoubled enthusiasm. A political revolutionist like Proudhon has hailed him as the prophet of a new era, as the first painter fired by the spirit of democracy and bearing witness to the claims of the outcast and the miserable to human brotherhood. M. Charles Blanc, the veteran French critic, who has given so much of his life to illustrating and making known in various forms the genius of this master, puts a similar claim in a somewhat paradoxical shape, considering the impressive antecedents of Christian art, when he says that Rembrandt is, in the true sense of Christianity, the first and only Christian painter. M. Athanase Coquerel, the distinguished son of a distinguished father, in his double capacity of Protestant pastor and cultivated lover of the fine arts, has dwelt on the religious and intellectual significance of Rembrandt's work from a specially Protestant point of view; treating it as a great example of the efficacy, in art as in other things, of the principle of individualism, of dissent, of personal conviction and construction. Among painters and critics of painting, the apostles of what is called realism, who aver that it is no part of art's business to represent things as the least better than they are, have proclaimed Rembrandt their founder and patron. Many distinguished artists, such as M. Flameng in France and Professor linger in Germany, have helped to make known by engraving the pictures of the master scattered among various private and public galleries; to whom should be added, in a second line, the Russian amateur, M. Massaloff, who especially deserves thanks for a set of etchings from the forty works which are out of reach of the ordinary student at St. Petersburg. Students and men of letters of many countries have devoted themselves to interpreting the master's genius, to ransacking the documents of his history, to exploding the errors of their predecessors. The productions of his hand with brush or needle have been catalogued and recatalogued. In right of the power and attraction of his double work, as the most memorable of painters and the most masterly of etchers, his place is fixed by common consent among the eight or ten foremost artists of the world. His country acknowledges him, not perhaps as her most memorable, but as her most living and best-remembered name.
The books which we have named for reference at the head of this article are only a few out of the number of which Rembrandt has in quite recent years been the occasion. We have omitted those in which W. Bürger (Thoré), the most devoted of Rembrandt enthusiasts, published the notes and expositions intended to form the basis of a complete treatise which he did not live to finish. Of M. Charles Blanc's repeated Rembrandt publications, we only include the smaller edition of his two-volume catalogue, illustrated and introduced by a brief memoir, of the etchings. The standard and indispensable biography of the master is now the second edition of the work of his countryman, M. Vosmaer, written, fortunately for the general student, in French, and setting forth in a convenient form all that recent researches have brought to light concerning the life and fortunes of Rembrandt, his family, friends, and pupils. Two catalogues, one chronological and the other systematic, both necessarily subject to future correction, complete the work of M. Vosmaer, whose strength, it should be said, lies rather in devotion to his subject, and in the accurate collection and exposition of facts, than in special penetration or balance of critical judgment. For these latter qualities, as well as for the charm of a French style of singular flexibility, individuality, and force, the work of the painter and critic lately dead, M. Fromentin, is quite without a competitor in our list. M. Fromentin, in recording the impressions of a tour in Belgium and Holland, discusses, amongst the works of other masters, only a small number of those of Rembrandt. But these are among the most important, and are treated by M. Fromentin with a fullness, a point, a convincing impartiality and insight, which fairly place his work among the classics of criticism. From the misunderstandings and irrelevancies to which the ordinary literary critic is subject, M. Fromentin was saved by his technical knowledge and experience as a painter; from the inarticulateness of the ordinary painter, by his exceptional gift for letters. Neither is his criticism, like that of most artists when they are not what we have called inarticulate, but have the power of putting words to their meaning, made one-sided by the force of his own personal artistic instincts and prepossessions. Probably no more just and searching analysis of a picture was ever written than that by which M. Fromentin has sought to redress the verdict of somewhat inconsiderate enthusiasm which has been generally adopted in the case of Rembrandt's largest, but not greatest, work — the famous so-called "Night-Watch" of Amsterdam.
After France and Holland comes our own country. English students have in the last few years had exceptional opportunities of studying certain aspects of the master's genius. The exhibition held by the Burlington Fine Arts Club two years ago brought together a collection, such as had certainly never been brought together before, of the choicest examples of his engraved work from the private cabinets of this country and of France. At the Grosvenor Gallery last winter a collection of some sixty original drawings illustrated the mastery over human actions and expressions, the mastery over landscape relations and effects, which his hand was accustomed to assert in those intimate notes in which he would scrawl down, with a touch so seeming-careless but so unerring, the hints, suggestions, observations, destined to be worked out hereafter. The National Gallery possesses a choice of excellent examples of Rembrandt's painting in his various periods and manners (we do not count the interesting and much-debated "Christ blessing Little Children," from the Suermondt Collection, which, however hard it may be to assign among the pupils of the master, we hold to be certainly not his own). All that the Rembrandt student in England has now to desire is that the Royal Academy should seek to secure the co-operation of the private owners of pictures throughout the country, in order to furnish yearly exhibitions, not, as they have been furnished heretofore, of all sorts of old masters miscellaneously, but of single masters or groups of masters successively; and that one such yearly exhibition should consist of the works of Rembrandt and his school.
In connection with the exhibition of etchings in 1877, an amateur well known for his able practical work in that branch of art — we mean Mr. Seymour Haden — wrote a preface to the exhibition catalogue, in which he put forward certain views which 'had been already the subject of discussion among students, but had not till then appeared in print. The point of these views lies in this. Among the etchings, both signed and unsigned, usually attributed to Rembrandt in his earlier time, between the years 1628 and 1638 or thereabouts, are many, including some of the most important, of which the work is different from and inferior to his best work of the same period. These Mr. Haden repudiates, and maintains to have been executed, some wholly and some in part, not by Rembrandt himself, but by pupils and assistants in his studio. We shall return to this question presently. In the mean time it is enough to say that Mr. Haden's practical attainments, and long familiarity with the etched work of Rembrandt ,give interest and authority to his criticism on technical points; while on points other than those strictly technical he shows an unfortunate habit of round assertion and headlong inference. His reprinted essay ought hardly to be called a "monograph;" it is in fact a string of somewhat dogmatic notes and suggestions, some of them valuable, some, in our judgment, the reverse. Mr. Haden further does himself less than justice in the tone of the personal attacks which he has thought it fitting to make on a fellow-worker in the same field, whose book stands next on our list.
Mr. Middleton's descriptive catalogue of Rembrandt's etchings is the result of many years of careful study, and is, as we can testify after searching trial, a thorough and serviceable piece of work. A whole literature has been devoted to this section of the master's activity. Etchings present to the student and collector a double aspect — that of their artistic value, and that, as we may call it, of their natural history. From the former point of view, no one has ever rivalled Rembrandt in this, the most expressive and personal variety of the engraver's art. Nearly all the Dutch painters of his time were etchers, but beside Rembrandt the rest were children alike in invention, observation, character, and in technical accomplishment, variety, resource. From the point of view of what we have called its natural history, the class of facts to be noted about an etching are, first, the vital facts which concern its genuineness as distinguished from copies, its preservation, its brilliancy, and the further facts, sometimes vital, sometimes unimportant, which concern its state, that is the particular stage in the career of the engraved plate at which any given impression has been struck off. It has been the habit of artists themselves, and still more of those who come into possession of their plates after them, to add new work from time to time to an etching for the sake of completing, altering, or reviving it. A catalogue, to be complete and serviceable, must give accurate and distinct accounts of important as well as unimportant variations, and of unskilful as well as of skilful copies. This minute and unthankful work Mr. Middleton has done more freely than it has been done hitherto, either by M. Charles Blanc or the earlier authorities. His work is the more useful for following, instead of the old arrangement according to divisions of subject, and without regard to chronology, a new arrangement in which only four broad divisions of subject are recognized, and within each of these we are enabled to follow the mind and hand of the master consecutively from youth to age, instead of being to our confusion bandied backwards and forwards between the two. The arrangement of Rembrandt's work, in all kinds alike, according to date, had been first attempted by Vosmaer, and was applied practically to the etchings, at the suggestion of Mr. Haden, in the exhibition of 1877. The weak point of such an arrangement is that many pieces not dated by the master himself have of necessity to be placed conjecturally, from the internal evidence of style; and in such conjecture it is impossible to make sure of being right within a year, or even within two or three years. Neither Mr. Middleton's classification nor his chronology is unassailable, but both give proof of careful consideration, and, with some few exceptions, may be adopted for working purposes. His brief biography, and his apparatus of index, facsimiles of the test points marking differences of state, copies, and the like, with cross-references to other catalogues, references to the great public collections of the British Museum, Paris, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Cambridge, and Oxford — we wish that at least Berlin and Vienna had been added — all these are excellent. In the general and introductory parts of Mr. Middleton's book, a critical vocabulary somewhat wanting in color and precision, and a somewhat uncertain note when he touches matters of art lying outside his immediate undertaking, furnish a marked contrast with the practised elegance of M. Blanc's literary workmanship, but after all are trifling blots upon what is a work, not of literary ambition, but of practical guidance to the student, and as such is fitted to be of permanent and standard service.
Lastly, in a deserving series based upon recent German publications, and illustrated with duplicates of the original woodcuts, Mr. Mollett gives for English readers, as Professor Lemcke has already given for those of Germany, a readable abridgment of the biographical work of Vosmaer. Mr. Mollett's little book is fuller and more systematic than the essay of Professor Lemcke, but has this disadvantage, that the cuts, whether from imperfect printing or whatever cause, will not bear comparison with the same cuts in the German work.
We have been thus particular in briefly describing the nature of the chief recent publications bearing upon our subject, because in our further observations we shall not return to them more than is necessary, but shall endeavor in our own way to sum up the salient points of Rembrandt's career, as that career now stands disengaged from the fables by which the gossip of the generations following his own had surrounded it; and at the same time to state, as we conceive it, the essential nature of his achievement in relation to modern art.
Rembrandt van Rijn, or of the Rhine, the son of Harmen, the son of Gerrit, the son of Roelof, was born at Leyden on July 15, 1607. He came of a family of millers, various members of which had for several generations held the principal share in a mill, and at one time shares in a second mill, situated on a rampart at an angle of the Rhine, just within the gate called the White Gate of the city of Leyden. Facing this rampart across the road were three or four substantial houses, and in one of these the miller Harmen and his wife Neeltje, the daughter of a baker, were living when their fifth son was born and christened Rembrandt. They were well-to-do tradespeople, owning, besides the chief share in the family mill, some house and garden property in the suburbs.
Of the boyhood of Rembrandt we know nothing except that, after the course of elementary schooling customary in the Protestant Holland of those days, he was put to the high school in hopes that, his elder brothers having been brought up to trade, he, the youngest, might learn Latin and be sent in due time to the university. But he would not learn Latin; he would only scribble and draw. Before long his parents determined to make the best of their son's vocation, and put him to study painting under a distant connection of their own, Jakob van Swanenburch. This Jakob was, it would seem, the least remarkable of a family of painters of the same name in Leyden; but he had studied high art in Italy, and was of good position in his native town, his father having been a magistrate as well as a painter. With him Rembrandt remained for three years, probably from 1620 to 1623. Then, the promise of the boy being already manifest, he was sent, at about sixteen years old, to work with another and more distinguished master, Pieter Lastman, at Amsterdam.
At Amsterdam Rembrandt stayed at this time for half a year only; and for the six following years he seems to have lived and worked at home at Leyden. It was still the fashion, and continued to be the fashion with a certain number of painters, even through this revolutionary period of Dutch art, to travel in Italy as a preparation for practising at home. But Rembrandt's was no temper either to desire or to submit to the lessons of the south. All his life long he was, indeed, an eager student and collector of the products of many schools, including those most opposed to his own. But to imitate, to take example, to allow foreign influences to modify his own instincts and predilections, was the last thing of which this uncompromising spirit was capable. No man was more apt than Rembrandt to take pleasure in works of art of all kinds, or made, as we shall see in the sequel, greater sacrifices in order to surround himself with them. But to collect and appreciate is one thing, to be influenced is another. It was his own peronal report of humanity and nature that Rembrandt was born to deliver, not an echo or concordance of the reports of other people, however high their authority or however well they pleased him.
His mode of imposing his own personality, of transmuting everything which he touches, is, indeed, never more truly apparent than when he chooses, as he occasionally does, to take over a group, a motive, an idea, out of the work of some one else. Thus, he more than once made drawings, of his swift and vehement kind, after the "Last Supper " of Leonardo da Vinci; but Rembrandt could not see human beings as Leonardo saw them, and his hand has instinctively transformed the accomplished ideal characters of the Italian into Dutchmen of the bluntest type, the most humble feature and aspect (we speak particularly of the example in the King's Library at Dresden). Again, Rembrandt once follows a motive of that master of the austere and strenuous ideal style, Mantegna, in showing a Mary seated and bowing her head and body sideways over her child to nestle her face passionately against his. But in giving the Virgin of his little etching the attitude of Mantegna's great engraving, he utterly discards Mantegna's special element of style. He changes the sentiment from the key of high devotional pathos to the key of cottage humility and pitifulness; he places the figures in a cottage interior, perfectly realistic in spite of the symbolic serpent that we see beneath the Virgin's foot, and outside the window he stations a forlorn, plebeian Joseph wistfully looking in and wondering. Or again, and from a model nearer home, from the work of Hans Sebald Beham, a German line-engraver on a miniature scale, whose style had been derived in about equal parts from Dürer and from Marcaritonio, Rembrandt borrowed the notion of engraving a couple of fellows of whom one shouts, "'Tis very cold," to the other, who answers back, "That's no matter." But these slight pieces are in no sense "copied," as Mr. Haden calls them, from those of Beham. Rembrandt changes the field-laborers of the earlier master into ragged, snarling beggars; he gives them quite other looks and gestures, and his whole touch and treatment are unlike those of Beham with an unlikeness not at all to be explained by the mere natural difference between the burin and the work of the etching-needle. And so in all similar cases.
We have now traced the young Rembrandt to the threshold of the period when he takes his stand and earns his living for himself. We have so far anticipated as to assure ourselves that he will adopt no lessons and follow no precedents save such as recommend themselves to his personal gifts and instincts. We shall the better understand his future career if at this point we allow ourselves to anticipate still further, and try to realize for good and all what those gifts and instincts were. In what manner, then, was Rembrandt destined to assert himself as a man of unequal but searching and profound experiment among men of even, contented, but unexciting achievement — as an artist accustomed impetuously to feel and imagine among artists only accustomed placidly to see and paint — in a word, as a poet among men of prose?
The first and most obvious element of imaginative effect in Rembrandt's work is, of course, his chiaroscuro, or management of light and dark. The appearances of objects which interested him more than any other were those which indicate their solidity, their relief and projection in space; and as these appearances are made up of shadow and light, so the problems of shadow and light are the great problems of his art.
Early art, especially in Italy, had scarcely occupied itself with such problems at all. Early artists had seen the world, so to speak, not solid, but flat; the appearances of things which they had aimed at representing had been their linear contours and local colors; so long as they got these true and fair, they had been content with a very partial indication of the relations of light and shadow which express the relief of objects in space. It was not till the full Renaissance in Italy that Leonardo da Vinci first of all, and then Correggio, began to occupy themselves with effects of chiaroscuro; Leonardo with the object of pursuing to the end, and carrying into the third dimension, as they had never been carried before, the refinements of expressive draughtsmanship; Correggio in the desire of completing his new effects of flesh modelling, and realizing the full roundness and softness of angelic tissues against clouds and gulfs of distance. Since the days of these two, the problems of chiaroscuro had played a great part in painting. It had been found that to lower the general lighting of a picture, and to bring out the points of chief interest in sharp illumination, was an easy way of producing a striking effect. Certain masters had gained a great reputation by what were called night pieces, of which the object was to strike by a representation of the effects of firelight or twilight in a dark room. Others, without choosing subjects naturally requiring strong chiaroscuro, had nevertheless adopted that method of painting in which chiaroscuro is everything, One artist who, in pictures of an almost miniature scale and delicacy, adopted the dark key, was Adam Elsheimer, a German who worked and had many followers in Rome in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. Another who painted in the same key, not with delicacy but with a coarse and lurid power, and on a large scale, was Caravaggio; and he too had a great following. A Dutch artist, fifteen years older than Rembrandt, Gerard Honthorst, painted scarcely anything else but torchlight and twilight pieces, and was famous under the name of Gerard of the Night. Among masters in closer relation to Rembrandt himself, Jan Pinas, and his own teacher Lastman, were accustomed to work, though not exclusively, in the same manner. And to that manner, to the dark or swart manner as it was called, Rembrandt, since it suited his own powers and instincts, from the first attached himself.
In his hands, however, the swart manner became something quite different from anything which it had been in the hands of others. It became a mode of idealizing the objects of life and nature in their appearances of light and dark, as potently and as subtly as the old Italians had idealized them in their appearances of color and line. Rembrandt's achievement in chiaroscuro was to show how, by the adoption of a special scale of light and shadow, painting might express, caress, force home, with a power and animation altogether new, a certain class of the aspects of masses in space, their living and breathing aspects of substance, of surface, of come-and-go. The full scale of nature's own relations of light and shadow is, we must remember, beyond the power of painting to imitate. The maximum of light which painting can obtain upon the canvas is something much below the pitch of full natural daylight. Hence every effect of light and dark in a picture is a compromise, and every painter has to decide for himself what particular form of compromise he will adopt. That usually adopted consists in compressing the entire scale of light and dark, so that slight differences in these qualities in a picture correspond to and stand for much greater differences in nature. Others will not accept this form of compromise; but will either, beginning at the lower end of the scale, get the relations between their shadows exactly equivalent to the same relations in nature, in which case their means are exhausted before they get to the upper end, and the light parts of their work become confused, as often with Turner, in an indiscriminate blaze; or else, beginning at the upper end of the scale, they will get the relations between their lights exactly equivalent to the same relations in nature, and in that case their means will be exhausted before they reach the lower end, so that the dark parts of their work are swamped in a general obscurity. Both Mr. Ruskin and M. Taine have pointed to this last form of the compromise as being characteristic of Rembrandt. But this is not yet a complete account of the matter. If we say that Rembrandt enshrouds in gloom all those parts of his picture which in nature would be seen in shadow varying from half-shadow downwards, because he wants the whole available scale between pictorial light and pictorial dark to express the full range of transition, and full subtlety of relation, among those things which in nature would be seen in light varying from half-light upwards, we define a part of Rembrandt's practice in the matter, but only a part. Thus, he loves to employ the highest powers of his scale in the rendering of objects which in nature are very conspicuous for lustre — as armor, jewels, feathers — and to realize this lustre, he paints with unheard-of devices of impasto, of relief, of glazing, till the substance of the work itself stands up in gleaming facets. Then he renders, as nearly as possible in their true relations with these, and with an inexhaustible subtlety of gradation, the qualities of subordinately illuminated things — as the gloss, softness, and life of the hair, the glow, substance, and modelling of the human tissue in head and hands, their retreating and advancing planes and masses. By this time he has got low down in his scale, and comparative obscurity absorbs the rest — the dark background, which ordinary portrait painting employs as a screen to relieve the figure, being with Rembrandt not only this, but a natural descent from the point to which he has already pursued the expression of relief in light and shade.
But Rembrandt does not keep his painting, except occasionally, in any such uniform or calculable relation with nature as this. Rather, having this for his general principle, he further proceeds to deal with the phenomena of light and shade as their master; altering, concentrating, scattering, rearranging them as suits his imaginative purpose. A picture of doctors listening to the lecture of an anatomical professor shall seem illuminated by an arbitrary concentration of pale light upon the corpse; so shall the pale body of Christ seem self-luminous in an "Elevation of the Cross," or in a "Deposition;" in "Jacob's Dream," in the "Message to the Shepherds," and in the "Resurrection," the phosphorescence of a hovering angel shall startle the night with mystery; alike in groups and single portraits, in Scripture scenes, in landscape, the light shall be collected and flung in sheaves wherever it is wanted, and wherever it is not wanted shall be obliterated and swamped. Rembrandt's most ambitious portrait group, the "Sortie of the Company of Banning Kock," is so forced out of all regular relation to nature, its obscurity is so freakishly illuminated in the figures of a buff lieutenant, and a phantom child all gleaming blue and gold, that whole generations of men have asked themselves in vain what season of the day or night it represents.
To Rembrandt's habit of thus interpreting scenes of natural daylight according to a scale which sacrifices the lower gradations of light in order to obtain fuller truth in the upper, and to his further habit of arbitrarily concentrating and disturbing light according to the interest of the scene, has also to be added a third habit, that of choosing, very often, scenes not of natural daylight at all, but of such dim or artificial light as it is within the power of painting to interpret with comparatively little compromise. Especially in order to give poetry and mystery to his homely versions of Old and New Testament history, Rembrandt would now and again follow the example of the professed painters of night pieces, and choose an indoor or outdoor scene to be illuminated with the flicker of flambeaux or firelight. Such scenes he would treat not crudely, not harshly, like his predecessors, but with the subtlest art. He would diffuse his artificial light from a concealed focus — a hearth with figures darkly relieved in front — a rushlight screened by the hand of Joseph beside the manger — a lamp swung behind the column of a temple — and would follow out to its last issue the struggle of this light amid the surrounding gloom, from its full glare near the focus to its expiring, almost indistinguishable gleam upon the rafter of a roof or the litter of a distant corner.
This, in truth, is the great difference between Rembrandt and other followers of the dark manner — that his transitions are never crude or abrupt, and his darkness is never opaque or dull. In the midst of gloom, he never lets the light perish, but is as careful of its remotest glimmer as of its central coruscation. He breaks his shadow with light and his light with shadow with an infinity of counterchange and gradation. Reaching the lower part of his range quickly, he cannot, as we have said, in that range give objects any longer their true relations. But the objects are there notwithstanding; the gloom is mysterious and eventful with the presence of forms, faces, and objects hard to decipher, but yet making themselves felt. The background, as you search it, proves never to be slurred or empty, but always peopled and worked out; you can look into and make discoveries in it to the last. It is not till a day of sunshine that you discern, at Dresden, all the faces of Philistines at the marriage feast in Timnath, who grin and make merry while Samson turns to expound his riddle, and his bride sits white-vestured, radiant, victoriously smiling in the midst; nor that you can tell, in the other great picture near it, what fills the vague blackness into which the angel takes his flight, while Manoah and his wife kneel beside the sacrifice, their humble, awe-struck countenances making a strange contrast with the splendor of their scarlet and purple apparel. And so, at Brunswick, of the dark wood in front of which the pale Magdalen half trails, half lifts herself in loving humility at the feet of Christ; so, at Munich, of the roof above the "Nativity," where fowls roost among the dim rafters against the scarcely discernible blue of the night, and again of the women in the "Resurrection," who have drawn near the tomb in the darkness, and one of whom drops her jar of spices at the angelic apparition that fills the air; so of the figures that people the dim temple aisles in the "Woman taken in Adultery" of the National Gallery; so, in a word, of almost all the backgrounds and distances of Rembrandt's painting.
Add that all this play and interest of light and shadow takes account of figures and objects, not as peopling mere space, but as peopling space occupied with atmosphere; an atmosphere which has a life, an activity, a transfiguring power of its own, now rarer, now denser, now obstructing light, and now transmitting it, enveloping and investing the surfaces of things with its own halo and vibration, and constituting, as M. Taine puts it, a universal presence and most significant actor in the scene. M. Taine, no doubt, would have us believe too much when he ascribes all the qualities of Rembrandt's light and shade to the impression naturally received by visual organs of exceptional sensitiveness in the dense atmosphere of Holland. But it is in a passage rarely equalled for that which may he called the rhetoric of criticism that M. Taine discusses the part played by this element in the art of Rembrandt : —
- He exhibited all the swarming and mysterious life of the atmosphere, the interposed atmosphere, colored and tremulous, in which living things are plunged like fishes in the sea. He lit it with the light of his country, a feeble and yellowish gleam like that of a lamp in a cellar; he entered into the painful struggle of that light against darkness, the fainting of the thinner rays which straggle expiring amid the gloom, the tremulousness of the glimmering reflections which cling for a moment upon slippery walls and vanish, and all the life of that vague multitude of half-lights which people the kingdom of the dark, and which, invisible to common eyes, seem in his prints and pictures like the creatures of some submarine world beheld dimly athwart gulfs of sea. For his eyes, emerging from this obscurity, the full light of day had the effect of a dazzling rain; he felt it like a burst of lightning, like a miraculous illumination or the explosion of a sheaf of missiles. So that in this inanimate world, the world of light and shade, he found the most complete and most expressive drama for the painter, all contrasts, all conflicts, all that is most mortally dismal in the light, all that is most fugitive and melancholy in uncertain shadow, all that is most violent and irresistible in the irruption of the day.
This is the writing of a very accomplished man of letters, who allows himself to be led by his own eloquence somewhat, we think, beyond the true soberness, and aside from the true bearings, of the facts. With such a passage it would be instructive to compare, if we had space for further quotation, the passage in which M. Fromentin, writing as a practical painter, defines the character of Rembrandt in another great aspect of his practice, his character as a colorist. Rembrandt has been praised with extravagance as one of the great colorists of the world. M. Fromentin, on the other hand, shows, with a perfect relevancy and cogency, that Rembrandt, though he produced most powerful effects of color, is not entitled to be called a colorist at all, in the sense in which that name is given to painters who care for color more than for anything else, and use color as their special means of idealizing the world. Such painters, the colorists properly so called — and their number includes men working according to ideals so diverse as Titian, Tintoret, Veronese, Velasquez, Rubens — such painters all agree in this, that in their work a local tint preserves its identity, its individual quality, through all transitions of light and dark. Deepening, paling, it is nevertheless constant to itself, and never tends to become white or colorless in the lights, and black or neutral in the darks. It is precisely to these changes, absorptions, degradations, that the local tints of painters not belonging to the color group do tend. Such changes are conspicuous in the work of Rembrandt. As light and dark are what he cares for more than anything else, so his extremes of light and dark devour his local colors, absorbing them and destroying their identity. In a scale of light short of full illumination, Rembrandt will produce effects of color as rich, as jewelled, as constant to their own nature, as those of Tintoret himself; especially in certain favorite tints of deep red, as for example the scarlet and purple of Manoab and his wife, at Dresden, the crimson velvet of the Cambridge "Portrait of an Officer," the color between scarlet and crimson of the famous portrait of his wife at Cassel, the red, sombre but still rich, of the man loading his gun in the "Night-Watch," the red, running to dusky orange and gold, of the centurion Cornelius in the picture belonging to Sir Richard Wallace, the blaze of crimson, brick-red, and orange, laid on in loaded touches without fusion or blending, which looks so strange and violent at a close inspection, but falls into such perfect relations as you retire, in the family group at Brunswick. And the heads and hands of his principal personages he generally keeps within those degrees. of the scale of light at which he can paint them with full local truth and richness of flesh color. But whatever else in the picture is in higher illumination than this, has to sacrifice its specific quality as color in order to attain its required quality as light. The lustrous objects of the scene, surrendering their individual tints, appear not, indeed, as colorless, but, as gleaming in some nameless hue made up of all the other hues in the picture so blended and broken up in light as to be indistinguishable. See, for instance, the pearls and jewels, the armlets and necklaces, the feathers and gauze scarf of Saskia, in the same striking and highly-wrought portrait at Cassel which we have already mentioned. And as it is with colors at the upper end of the scale of light, so it is at the lower. They undergo a similar loss of identity: the figures and objects which reveal themselves in that transparent and suggestive darkness, which we have described as filling the chief part of Rembrandt's canvases, reveal themselves not in the individual hues of nature, but in variations of timbered, golden, bronze, or greenish neutral tint, in which, as in the high light, all the other hues of the picture, instead of being separately continued, are blended, transformed, and drowned. Look, for instance, at the faces of the armed companions that fill the background of the "Night-Watch," at those of the Philistines in the aforesaid banquet at Timnath, at those of the laborers whispering their discontent over their wages, in the "Parable of the Vineyard," at Frankfort, at those of the shepherds peering into the stable, or of the Manes swooning beneath the cross, in a score of "Nativities" and Crucifixions." All these are faces painted not in the colors of humanity, but in a monochrome determined by the general harmony of the picture. Or again, as a crucial instance, take the peacock on the table in the picture at Dresden, of Rembrandt seated laughing with his wife on his knee. A painter who belonged to the colorists might have kept this accessory object ever so subordinate in value, but would have preserved its proper peacock colors. Rembrandt paints it, to suit his harmony, in a dull, broken monochrome between brown, grey, and green.
The colorist, then, we recognize as being in Rembrandt, though powerful and original, yet quite subordinate to the master in light and shadow. It might almost be added that both color and chiaroscuro were subordinate in his work to another and more vital element still, the element of human emotion and expression. Only in truth these elements are not separable from one another. The true way of putting it is to say, that chiaroscuro in the first degree, and color in the second, were this painter's means for making humanity live in pictures. And his view of humanity was the most original and the most penetrating. We have said that he had little eye for physical beauty or distinction. But he had a much rarer gift, an eye for the moral beauty which may accompany physical degradation; an instinct of compassionate penetration, which enabled him to seize and put on record those unconscious aspects of their life by which the abject, the coarse, the forsaken, appeal mutely to the human heart within us. This was, indeed, only a part, although the most interesting part, of the gift, surely without rival among painters, which Rembrandt possessed for the observation, of character, and of all outward signs, looks, gestures whatsoever, that either record past experiences or express a. present crisis. We have it in his own words, written in reference to work upon which he had spent special pains, that the expression of life and movement — "the most and the most natural movement" — was the point on which his mind was bent above all others. A preoccupation of this kind has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. Take the work of Rembrandt in his portraits and portrait groups. At their best, these have the vitality, the serious force and grasp of realization, the sense of solid and breathing presence, which was common to many masters of his age and school, qualities enhanced in his case by the peculiar force and refinement of his flesh modelling, the peculiar splendor of his illumination and suggestiveness of his backgrounds. But he is not at all times quiet enough for portrait, or content enough to be governed by the facts before him. In these undertakings, his love of movement, of bustle, of come-and-go, of the poetry of light and shadow, all those strivings of his spirit after an ideal world of its own, sometimes get the better of him and give the result, for all its grasp of character, an air of something phantasmagoric and unreal. Such an air unquestionably belongs to the famous group of the "Night-Watch," and makes of it a work more exciting, t may be, to comtemplate, but less masterly, appropriate, and sufficient than other works in the same vein by Frans Hals, or even by a colder craftsman like Van der Helst.
It is in subjects of dramatic interest that Rembrandt finds scope at once for his grasp of character, and for his love of life, movement, bustle. And in subjects of dramatic interest he is inexhaustible. He knows all the life and all the types of his quarter, the comfortable burgess, the physician, the preacher, the trader of outlandish garb and mien, the swarms of street and wharf, the vices, the humors, the picturesqueness of the populace, the deformities of the lazar-house, the riot of the tavern and squalor of the garret; he has watched and drawn every look and action of railing beggar or bawling chap-man, of chaffering goodwife or wheedling Jew, of pursy official and starveling vagabond. All these things he knows and has recorded a thousand times; using, without the least regard to style, whatever means were the readiest to follow and fix the object and the moment of interest. A few hasty sweeps of a brush loaded with bistre upon the paper, a few significant scramblings of the needle upon the copper, perpetuate, with an astonishing insight and precision, the speaking movement, the pathetic glance,, the quivering lip of supplication, the outstretched hand of importunity, the tottering step of palsied age, the snarling mask of plebeian spite, the swollen features of unloveliness in woe, the huddling gestures and pitiful kindnesses of those who would comfort one another amid rags and darkness. It is in the temper of this latter class of his observations that Rembrandt is altogether singular. He has not the least shrinking from what is most abject, most repulsive even, in either the physical or moral world; but amid the repulsiveness, the abjectness, he discerns and puts on record, not only whatever is picturesque, whatever speaks to and entertains the eye, but above all, and like no one else, whatever is poignantly human, whatever speaks to and lays hold upon the heart.
Another great singularity in Rembrandt is that, except in notes and studies, he does not usually thus record the diversified life around him, as most of his countrymen record it, for its own sake merely. He uses all these materials chiefly to illustrate the Bible. Images of worship being no longer needed for the churches of reformed Holland, the themes of worship, we know, had for the most part been abandoned by the school. But Rembrandt returns to those themes in a new sense. The stories of the Bible appeal intensely to his religious sentiment and to his love of dramatic interest together. He pores over those stories, in the temper of a dissident, a private, a democratic Christianity. The chord within his nature which responds most keenly to the teachings of Christ is the chord of compassion, of equality, of sympathy with the poor and needy and those that are ready to perish. He was capable of seeing the best in what was vilest, and, like his master, had compassion on those multitudes. And so he seeks to make the stories of the Bible live in the only way in which he could sincerely and of his own instincts conceive them. He thinks of the scenes of the Old and New Testament in terms of contemporary Amsterdam. He confers on Abraham and Joseph, on David and Manoah, on Tobit and Tobias, on angels and celestial ministers themselves, all the plainness, all the humanity, all the predicaments, but also all the life and expressiveness of every day. His Mary and Joseph are the homeliest-featured helpmates, she humbly brooding over and loving her child, he helping, puzzled, tender in humility greater still, as they sit within the cottage gloom, or tramp forlornly on their exiled way through ford and thicket, or take their midday rest in returning, he seated on a bank with bread and clasp-knife, and turning to look kindly at the child as the mother beside him removes its wrappings. And so on through the whole range of biblical personages: they receive from Rembrandt a new plainness and humility, but in plainness and humility a new life and pathos.
The only transformation, the only embellishment, by which the master seeks to give to his Christian subjects a touch of oriental and historic color, consists in a certain apparatus of costume, as turbans and silken scarves for judge and Pharisee, or flashing swords, casques, breastplates for soldier and centurion. In this he was for once at one both with earlier and recent precedent — the works of his own master Lastman, among others, furnishing abundant examples of this use of far-fetched fripperies and costumes. For Rembrandt, with his love of lustrous objects, and his need of such objects to form centres of illumination in his pictures, these materials of scarf and turban, of silk, cloth-of-gold, brocade, of sword and mail, of plume, brooch, and badge, naturally possessed a special attraction. To procure them he was accustomed to ransack the wharves and the brokers' booths, till his house became in all its corners a very museum of curiosities. The pictorial effect and magic of his work these trappings necessarily enhance; its human effect, on the other hand, they occasionally somewhat mar and vulgarize. For Rembrandt will not abate a jot of dramatic truth or realistic bluntness in one of his personages more than another; and these qualities are apt to match strangely with a barbaric splendor of apparel.
We have, then, by this time before us a list of the elements which give to the work of Rembrandt its special character — a character which is shared in greater or less degree by that of a whole group of satellites whom he drew around him. He was an exception, we have learnt, among his countrymen, first by his magic of light and shade, with a subordinate, though not inconsiderable, magic of color; next by his unrivalled grasp of character and life, and especially of the pathetic sides of plebeian character and life; thirdly, by his habit of depicting facts, without compromise indeed, yet not usually for their own sakes, but for the sake of realizing scenes consecrated by religious emotion; and, lastly, by an additional element intended to be poetical, though in truth its effect is often no more than one of somewhat puerile fantasy, the element of outlandish richness and research in the costumes of certain classes of his characters.
All these elements, except of course the single one of color, are just as characteristic of the second gre at division of Rembrandt's work, the division of engravings, as they are of his paintings. In the art of etching, perfected as he knew the means of perfecting it, Rembrandt found the only mode of linear expression which could have been made suitable to his special genius. The chastened, the severe, the firmly and deliberately ploughed line of the burin, in what is called line engraving, is really suited only to the expression of a chastened and severe conception of physical form. It is a mode of work best corresponding to those instincts in art which find in purity of form, and determinateness with suavity of linear contour, the most interesting of natural facts. Even in the work of the greatest of line engravers, Albert Dürer, there had seemed a certain conflict, a certain incongruity, between the unerring precision and purity of the engraved line itself, and the conception of form which that line was employed to realize; a conception wavering at first between the symmetry of the Italian ideal and the realism, the uncouthness of the north, but finally, in the mature practice of Dürer, deciding definitely in favor of the latter. Rembrandt's conception of the human fabric was much more uncouth and Teutonically plebeian still than that of Dürer, without Dürer's countervailing qualities of strenuous manhood, energy, and precision. Neither did linear contours interest Rembrandt, except as serving to circumscribe and define the gesture and feature of life; for the qualities, the rhythm and modulation, of lines as such he did not care, and even as a means of indicating the places of things and their forms, he greatly preferred light and shadow. Etching, with its rapid, unrestrained, lightly-moving stroke, thus supplied exactly the appropriate means for the only kind of. design upon metal which could for him have had any attraction. With the etching needle he could record, without stopping to chasten, the most fugitive lines of expressive movement; he could add as much or as little modelling of surfaces and shading of backgrounds as he pleased; and by the use of the dry point, with devices of burr and printing, he could produce, at comparatively small expense of labor, effects of light and dark the most consonant with his instincts, the most varying from crisp to soft, from sudden to gradual, shadows the deepest without opaqueness, the most velvety, transparent, and mysterious. Much that was best in himself, much that was most spontaneous and intimate, as well as much that was most fanciful, Rembrandt was accustomed to express in this form; and when we think of his achievements as a whole, we justly put one of the central Bible etchings, like the "Christ healing the Sick," or the finest etched portraits, like the "Six," the " Haarings," or the "Lutma," or nude studies like the "Woman with the Arrow," or the "Woman in Shadow" lying down, or a landscape like "The Three Trees," and many on a lesser scale — we justly put etchings like these, in a general estimate of the masters work, on almost the same level of importance as any of his paintings in the same respective orders of subjects.
The characteristics of Rembrandt's genius which we have thus endeavored to define are general, and hold good of one period of his career almost as much as of another. Naturally, however, they declare themselves at different periods in somewhat different forms, and with variations of technical practice. Speaking broadly, Rembrandt's manner both in painting and etching exhibits a progress, from great delicacy and scrupulousness of touch and handling in his earliest days, to extreme dash, audacity, and summariness of touch and handling in his latest; and in this progress, it is possible to mark with fair distinctness a first, a second, and a third stage. The three most important of his pictures that still remain in Holland, the "Anatomy Lecture" (1632), the "Sortie of the Company of Banning Kock," or "Night-Watch" (1642), and the "Syndics of the Drapers' Company" (1661), are usually quoted as the great typical examples of the three manners. At the same time, the manners proper to such several stages not seldom overlap, and in portrait painting especially, works of the master widely separated in date bear not seldom a close resemblance. We speak particularly of the most sedate, masterly, and dignified group of his portraits, those in which he has most frankly submitted to be governed by the facts before him. To this group belong alike the noble double portrait of a "Naval Constructor and his Wife," at Buckingham Palace, painted in 1633, and another double portrait of 1641, that of the "Pastor Cornelis Ansloo with his Wife;" with several fine single figures in full length, such as the portrait of Martin Daey and that of his wife, the one belonging to 1634 and the other to 1641; and the admirable nameless full-length at Cassel, bearing the date 1639, of a fresh-visaged personage leaning against a column in a vestibule. In the etchings, again, though it is easy to trace a general development of style from the delicately minute to the daringly vigorous, and though there is little resemblance between a characteristic work of Rembrandt's earliest time like the "Presentation with the Angel" (M. 178), or the nude study of a "Diana bathing" (M. 258), and a characteristic work of his later time like the "Christ and the Woman of Samaria" (M. 293), or the nude study of the "Woman with an Arrow" (M. 252), nevertheless almost any single year will show us work the most various in treatment and purpose. Thus the year 1641 gives us the elaborately and the slightly finished studies of a single sitter which we have already noticed (M. 147, 269), the highly-wrought portrait of "Cornelis Ansloo," the vehemently conceived and roughly scrawled ideas for lion-hunting scenes (M. 272, 273, 274), as well as some of the earliest examples of Rembrandt's expressive, feeling, and refined workmanship in the art of landscape etching (M. 305, 306, 307).
Resuming, now, the chronological thread of Rembrandt's life — the six years of his ripening youth which he passed in his father's house after he came back from Amsterdam have left comparatively little trace. His earliest authentic picture, a little St. Paul in prison seated beside a window, belongs to his twentieth year, and is preserved in the Museum at Stuttgart. The next year, 1628, shows us two etched studies of his mother, whose well-marked features, firm and dignified in old age, he has perpetuated in this way over and over again. One of these earliest etchings in especial is so distinguished for perfect character and drawing, with the touch of a finished master in the modelling of the features, the animation of mouth and eyes, the trick and delicacy of the hair, that it has helped to make some critics sceptical as to later work in which less accomplishment is shown. That Rembrandt had thus early made some reputation by works to which we have no longer the clue, is clear from the fact that he had already a first pupil, destined afterwards to become famous, in the person of Gerard Dou, as well as from a story of his having about this time sold a picture for a hundred forms to an amateur of the Hague, and of his consequent surprise and elation. We may guess, also, that at this time Rembrandt and another young artist of his native town, Jan Lievens, who was of his own age, a fellow-student under Lastman at Amsterdam, must have been in relations of intercourse and mutual influence. Lievens in a year or two went, if the traditions concerning him are true, to England, and afterwards settled at Antwerp. Mr. Haden has confused the matter by classing him among the pupils of Rembrandt. That he was so there is no evidence whatever, though there is proof of their having had subsequent communication. Some etchings of 1635 bearing the initial of Lievens are actual duplicates of others bearing the siguature of Rembrandt, and in a few more the work of the two shows a close coincidence; but what the precise relations of these several pieces are it seems impossible to distinguish.
In 1629 we find a few studies, both etched and drawn, of "St. Jerome." This subject had been a favorite one with northern artists ever since the days of Dürer and Erasmus, and Rembrandt handled it many times in one form or another. A picture in which he showed the saint kneeling upon a mat within a cave, with his back to the spectator and his attendant lion beside him, has been engraved by one of the pupils who joined his studio within a year or two of this time; and the supposed original of this engraving, dated 1629, has passed with the Suermondt Gallery into the Museum at Berlin, where, however, the authorities cast doubts upon the work. One thing more is to be noticed in connection with the year 1629; in it appears the first of those studies of his own physiognomy which throughout all the rest of Rembrandt's life were destined to give him so much occupation. No artist was so constantly taking his own portrait. There are extant, among his paintings, fully thirty such portraits of himself from youth to age; and among his etchings an equal number. Sometimes as many as a dozen of these last belong to a single year. It was a homely visage enough which so preoccupied its owner. Thick, light hair disposed to straggle and curl, a thin moustache brushed sideways according to the fashion of the time, a scanty beard, generally shaved excepting a tuft beneath the lower lip, a massive, roughly modelled head, the determined mouth by no means finely cut, the nose thick at the end and somewhat pinched at the bridge, the powerful brow concentrated in level wrinkles above searching, somewhat narrow eyes — such were the features of which Rembrandt has left us versions in every manner of workmanship and every key of expression. Vain of his looks he can hardly have been, but interested in them, fond of watching and studying them, as a strong and self-conscious personality is fond of watching and studying whatever belongs to itself, this he certainly was; and the vainest of beautiful women never spent so much of her time before the mirror. What is more, Rembrandt in his youth and early manhood was almost as fond as a woman of ornaments and costume; and he has painted and etched himself once and again in armor, in rich furs and outlandish hats and feathers, in all sorts of strange and rich caparisons. Especially in the days of his prosperous marriage with a comely and well-portioned bride, when they were both wont to masque for one another's pleasure in the richest properties of his studio, Rembrandt seems really to show a sort of fantastic coquetry, a pride in the silkiness of his long locks, a desire to look the knight or gallant instead of the plain burgher and craftsman that he was. But whatever touch of vanity, or of a desire to find cause of vanity, Rembrandt's own rough externals may have afforded him, the root of the matter of course was, that he found the most convenient model in himself. He could subject his own person to whatever disguises, his own features to whatever contortions, he pleased; he could arrange himself in whatever light, natural or artificial, full or reflected, sharp or soft; upon himself he could study at his ease those problems of facial modelling in light and shade, those secrets of facial structure and expression, which his genius was always urging him to master. And the fact is, that in these studies of himself, the early etched studies especially, he seems often to have no other object than to record a look of sudden and strong expression, as terror, bedevilled mirth, or snarling malice, which he has assumed on purpose before the glass. Strict fidelity in portraiture is the last object at which he aims; and in many cases the features are so modified that we cannot tell for certain whether they are indeed his own.
It is in the next year, 1630, that these studies first occur in numbers. In that year the full activity of Rembrandt's career begins. In that year he leaves his father's home for good, and establishes himself at the centre of Dutch life, Amsterdam. Here he was quickly joined by pupils a few years younger than himself. To what extent some of these pupils may also have been his assistants, and have carried out work which has since passed current under his name, is a question that has given rise to much discussion since it was recently raised by Mr. Haden. Mr. Haden's own contribution to the solution of the question may be summed up thus. He has shown, to something like certainty, that some of the larger and more important etchings produced in Rembrandt's studio, in the course of the first few years of his residence at Amsterdam, were completed from the master's designs by other hands than his own, excepting sometimes the principal heads or other passages which he might reserve to be put in by himself. The famous "Descent from the Cross" (M. 187) and "Ecce Homo" (M. 200) are the chief of several examples in which this participation of other hands may be regarded, we think, as proved. Unfortunately, Mr. Haden was not content with establishing his main point, but accompanied his exposition with offhand assertions as to the real authorship in each case of the work rejected. These assertions show quite insufficient study of the facts, and Mr. Haden, in reprinting them, has virtually retracted them in a preface, but at the same time has qualified the retractation in his text by the following unscholarlike plea: "The accounts we have of many of these men and, with two or three exceptions, the men themselves, are too obscure, and the work they did too bad, to render a more laborious identification of them than we have here thought it necessary to make anything but a waste of time."
Mr. Haden, it seems, has yet to learn that time is never so much wasted as in advancing confident opinions on any subject whatever upon insufficient grounds. It is perfectly true that among the members of the pleiad who worked in Rembrandt's manner and under his influence were some, like Ferdinand Bol, of refined and serious talent, and others like Van Vliet, whose work is seldom anything but the coarsest parody of their master's. But it is not less true that the minutest comparative study of the work of all these satellites must be undertaken before an opinion worth having can be formed concerning their respective shares in the early productions of Rembrandt's studio. Nor is it probable that study, however minute, will ever really settle the points at issue. Take the case of a well-known work, the larger etching of the "Raising of Lazarus." Like not a few other subjects, this was treated in half a dozen ways at about the same time by Rembrandt and various members of his group. In all, the central idea is to give a thaumaturgic character to the scene, to represent it as an act of incantation, in the performance of which the Saviour stands erect, a magician conscious of his power, within the vault or cavern where Lazarus lies buried, but at some distance from the tomb; at his command the dead awakes, and the bystanders testify their amazement. The impulse to the treatment of this theme seems to have been given by a picture painted in 1632 by Rembrandt's former master, Lastman. Within the next year or two, as we may judge, appears the celebrated etched version bearing Rembrandt's signature. Here the Christ is a figure much more classical in pose and drapery than is usual in his work, and the execution may possibly be in part that of pupils; while other parts — notably the expression and gesture of Lazarus, which are almost exactly repeated in a subsequent picture of the "Resurrection of Christ" — are in the most characteristic manner of the master himself. In the year 1633, a little-known pupil, Jan de Wedt, paints the same scene in a somewhat similar spirit, but in breadth instead of height, with a quite different arrangement of all the figures, and with the addition of a new personage who helps to remove the grave-clothes from the risen Lazarus (this picture is at Darmstadt). Next we have an etching by Van Vliet, the coarsest and most repulsive of his whole work, in which a conception of the scene akin to that of Rembrandt, and containing some attitudes nearly identical with his, but seen from a different point of view, is embodied in figures of debased and hideous feature, and with a harsh violence of illumination. Lastly, an etching of Lievens represents again a kindred conception of the scene, only that here the Saviour faces us on a kind of terrace, beneath which, in front, lies the open tomb; and, emerging from the tomb, we see nothing but the hands of Lazarus flung up like those of a drowning man. We have tried, but quite in vain, to satisfy ourselves of the exact relations and derivations of these kindred embodiments of a single subject. And relations of similar intricacy occur repeatedly among the works of Rembrandt and his followers in his early days.
Even among the paintings of the master, in this comparatively unformed time, there are not a few which criticism must hesitate whether to ascribe to himself, or partly or altogether to his assistants. We think that the authorities of the Berlin Museum are doubtless right in restoring to the youth of the master himself the once disputed "Rape of Proserpine," a small mythological piece of the most careful execution, and conceived with a characteristic union of far-fetched fantasy in the ornaments and costumes, and realistic point and bluntness in the action of the attendant maidens, who are trailed along the ground clenching their teeth as they tug frantically at the skirts of their mistress, to rescue her from the grasp of the ravisher. On the other hand, there is a large picture at Munich which has generally been accepted, and from M. Vosmaer has received especial praise, but which we are altogether unable to recognize as the work of Rembrandt. This is a "Holy Family," of nearly life size, in which the Virgin, seated, with one knee raised, in a dull lilac gown, and wearing on her shoulders a gauze scarf, caresses the shoulder and foot of the swaddled child lying across her lap, while a middle-aged Joseph leans with blandness over the empty cradle to look on. We more than doubt this picture, not merely because the chamber is represented in an ordinary diffused light, such as Rembrandt hardly ever, except in a few portraits, employs; nor because it is signed, in characters suspiciously clear and large, Rembrandt f. 1631, a signature which the master hardly ever, or, as Mr. Middleton thinks, positively never, adopts at this date; nor because the same mother and child are almost identically repeated, only more in profile, in a signed work of Ferdinand Bol, at Dresden — for the master is often thus repeated with variations by his pupils; but because, over and above all this, the work has precisely that touch of everyday elegance, of insipidity with correct drawing and accomplishment, that lack of individual invention and point, which, where Rembrandt is concerned, are the strongest negative proofs that can exist. We think it probable that the picture is of Bol's handiwork, about the year 1645, and that the signature of Rembrandt is spurious.
Enough, however, of discussions which concern rather the special student than the general reader We will only add, that we agree with Mr. Middleton in thinking that the reasons which may be sufficient for assigning in part to pupils the workmanship of the large published etchings of this period are insufficient for similarly assigning to pupils the small heads and studies of beggars. These, as a rule, could hardly have been intended for the market; there could have been no reason for their being marked with the monogram of Rembrandt when they were the work of another hand. Some of the beggars so signed, it is true, are little better than, and very like, similar studies published by Van Vliet in his own name in 1632 and 1635. Some of the studies of aged heads resemble, though in a less degree, similar studies by Lievens; but there are extant painted studies from the same models, notably three at Cassel, which are unquestionably by Rembrandt's hand, and show that he was exercising himself at this time upon these very models in the study of flesh painting, of character, of light and shade. No man is always at his best, and we must remember that Rembrandt, a man of experiment all his life, was still at his most experimental age. If we see engravings bearing his signature, in one or another of its customary forms, which closely approach, now the manner of Bol, now that of Lievens, now even that of the objectionable Van Vliet (so far as these fluctuating talents can be said to have definite manners of their own), we need not necessarily infer that they are in each case the actual work of the satellite and not of the master. Mr. Middleton declines to make this inference, and while he accepts Mr. Haden's contention concerning some of the larger prints, that they were done with the help of pupils, has often an easy task in disposing of Mr. Haden's assertions as to the particular pupils in question. He has perhaps not been quite explicit enough as to the part taken by Mr. Haden in calling the attention of students to the general question; but when that gentleman charges him with simply "appropriating and mutilating his conclusions," the charge falls, from its own extravagance, to the ground.
Granting that Rembrandt had even more help at this time from pupils than we believe to be the case, his first three years at Amsterdam were years, in any case, of extraordinary industry. In 1632 he painted, among other things, the first of his large groups of portraits, that which exhibits his friend and patron, Nicolas Tulp, demonstrating before his class in the anatomy school. This celebrated piece, with much dignity of individual character in the heads, lacks the animation of Rembrandt's finest work, and is to some extent disfigured by the imperfect drawing and arbitrary lighting of the corpse. The next year, 1633, produced several of the most important plates etched in Rembrandt's studio, besides almost a score of known portraits, some of them exhibiting his powers in their fullest force and sanity; and, among subject pictures, an "Elevation of the Cross," and a "Descent from the Cross," the latter repeating with variations the motive of the great etching, which were the first two of a set of five illustrations of the life of Christ painted in these years for the stadtholder, Frederick Henry of Nassau. These five, of which the last two were not completed till six years later, now hang together in one of the small cabinets of the gallery at Munich. They are on a uniform scale, the small scale, which to our thinking suits the manner of Rembrandt in religious episode better than the heroic dimensions which he sometimes, for no very obvious reason, adopted. The execution of these commissions for the stadtholder brought Rembrandt into acquaintance and correspondence with two men of higher standing than most of his accustomed friends — the secretary, Huyghens, and the paymaster-general, Uytenbogaert. It is in a letter to Huyghens that Rembrandt uses the phrase we have quoted about having attained, in the last two pictures of the series, the expression of the "most and most natural movement" which he had yet compassed. The comment on his words is to be found especially in the subject of the "Resurrection," in which, with a singular and rude audacity of conception, he has figured the angel hovering with expanded wings, and violently, yet without effort, heaving up by one end the cover of the tomb, from which the guards, who have been asleep beside or upon it, are hurled toppling confusedly, their armor glinting in the gleam of the angelic brightness, while the head and body of Christ raise themselves feebly, with an action like that of Lazarus, and still wrapped in their cerements out of the tomb, and the Manes are to be discerned in the obscure foreground gazing with amazement at the miracle. As an example of the same partiality for suddenness and violence of action, and an example which does not shock, as that we have just quoted would shock but for the mystery which enshrouds the action, the "Binding of Samson," belonging to the same period, is conspicuous. Of this picture, treated nearly in life size, there are two versions, one in private possession at Vienna, and one in the gallery at Cassel. M. Vosmaer is surely unfortunate when he compares a version of the same subject at Brunswick, which is the work of a pupil, Jan Victor, and asks whether the same Victor cannot have been the painter of the scene as figured at Cassel. The design of Victor is in truth conspicuous for coldness and artificiality, that of Rembrandt for an amazing dramatic force and energy. Three mailed warriors have seized the shorn giant within a cave; he has fallen backwards, wildly kicking, upon one who grasps him with both arms about the throat; another, bearing down with all his weight the resistance of the prisoner's elbow, clutches his beard with the left hand and slashes out an eye with the right; a third manacles his right wrist; a fourth, fantastically dressed in brigand red, stands projected against the opening of the cave, and threatens the overpowered foe with his partisans; while a white-vestured Delilah, holding out the shears in one hand, and the shorn locks in the other, looks down with a victorious smile as she flits from the presence of her deed into the daylight.
But we must not pause over the description of individual works. In the year of Rembrandt's first commissions for the stadtholder a new influence entered for the first time into his life. In 1632 he had lost his father, and thenceforth began to sign with his full name, instead of with the monogram signifying Rembrandt Harmenszon. Several etched portraits of his mother in her widowhood suggest that at this time he may have joined her for a while at Leyden. In 1633 he fell in love with Saskia, the orphan daughter of a jurist and politician of repute, Rombertus van Uylenburg, and married her in the summer of 1634. She brought him no inconsiderable fortune, and the marriage was in all points prosperous. For the next eight years Saskia fills a great place in the life and the art of Rembrandt. He drew, etched, painted her in every mode and guise. Of all these likenesses of his bride, the most charming at once for expression and simplicity is the drawing of her in a broad-brimmed hat, with her cheek resting on her hand, made, as would seem from a writing in his own hand at the foot, three days after their first betrothal, and now preserved in the Museum at Berlin. In too many of his painted portraits he either spoils the charm of his work by endeavoring to fix some dimpled laugh or other too fugitive expression, as in the early example at Dresden, or else, as in the profile picture of the same year at Cassel, he produces a splendid and fascinating result, but one which depends more upon the magic rendering of pearls, brooches, and feathers, a masquerading costume of crimson velvet and jewellery, than upon any convincing fidelity or directness of likeness. From the best of the paintings, however, and from a number of etched likenesses, some of them in the masquerading vein, but others of entire simplicity, we are well enough able to realize the glowing fair complexion, the gold-brown hair, with its wandering ringlets about ear and cheek, the open looks, the maidenly, and in due course the matronly, sweetness and content of Saskia. A picture at Dresden of 1640 shows her in her ripest bloom; in one, probably of the next year, at Antwerp, she looks sweet but a little worn and fragile; one or two most touching sketches upon copper seem to be the record, taken at her bedside, of an illness which presently carried her away. A picture at Berlin, dated 1643, shows her, if this indeed be Saskia, in the somewhat altered form and feature in which she was present to the widower's memory afterwards.
The year of Saskia's death, 1642, had been the year of Rembrandt's great civic picture, to the fame and the phantasmagoric strangeness of which we have made allusion already. Banning Kock, the captain of the company whose sally to the shooting match had been thus transfigured upon canvas, was not satisfied with the fidelity of his own portrait, and had recourse to a less poetic painter for another version of his features. We do not again encounter in Rembrandt's work such an instance of the conflict, to use M. Fromentin's very just phrase, which this picture exhibits in an extreme degree, and most of the portraits of Saskia had exhibited more or less, between the man of visionary ideals and the man of facts and realities that existed side by side in Rembrandt. Subjects of Scripture and fancy continue to give scope to the one element in his nature, and portraits to the other. His manner becomes more large and daring, and he begins to effect his blendings and breakings of tints and tones with one another by means which look rough and strange at a near view, and only fall into harmonious significance as you draw back. His wife's death made no difference in his industry or his habits of life. He seems to have continued to live with his children in the large house in the Breedstraat, in which, after several migrations, he had been for some years settled, and in which he was accustomed to accommodate his pupils, if we may trust the gossip reported from one of them at second hand, in studios separately partitioned off, that there might be the less danger of their losing their individuality and failing to show of what their native powers were capable.
Each year adds its regular tale of Bible compositions, portraits, studies of character and costume, both etched and painted. To these are added the new element of landscape. The first dated landscapes in Rembrandt's work belong to the years immediately preceding his wife's death (the signature and date 1636 on a little panel at Cassel are plainly spurious); and landscape forms for the twelve years following a constant branch of his practice. Coupling this fact with the fact that these were also the years of Rembrandt's closest friendship with the wealthy amateur and man of letters, Jan Six, Mr. Haden hazards the conjecture that Rembrandt at this time lived in part at least at Six's countryseat at Elsbroeck. But there are no adequate grounds for such a conjecture, which for the rest seems inconsistent with Rembrandt's close avocations as a painter and teacher of painting.
To dwell for a moment on the character of Rembrandt's work in landscape — between the ordinary sentiment of his etched and of his painted landscapes, there is a curious discrepancy. In the former class, with a very few exceptions, Rembrandt is content to record his impressions of the level and uneventful scenery near his adopted city; expressing, with a perfect precision and subtlety, a justice and distinction of touch which are exclusively his own, the shadowy softness of a foreground copse, the trending sinuosity of a sunken lane, the gabled picturesqueness of farm buildings beside a sea wall, the perspective of level fields or gentle undulations diversified with a cottage here, a windmill there; the poetry of pastoral meadows and intersecting channels, of horizons peopled with the distant spires of a merchant city, or bounded by the scarcely discernible barrier line of the sea. It is only in an exceptional piece like "The Three Trees" that Rembrandt tries in etched landscape effects of anything like epical power and gloom. But in his painted landscapes — and they are not numerous — epical power and gloom are the rule. He plants a dark monumental windmill upon a dark and lofty bank, and conducts along the stream that rounds its way beneath them a reflected solemnity of sunset; or he dreams of mountain distances, and intervening valleys overhung with sullen masses of cloud, through which a gleam falls here and there upon peopled hamlets and travelled roads of men. His prevailing landscape color is a darkly glowing brown, and it is only by exception that he suffers a blueness in the sky, or in the fields a gleam of verdure.
In the portraits painted by Rembrandt of himself, in the years following his wife's death, and notably in the etched portrait beside a window, of the year 1648, we observe that he has discarded the fripperies of a former time, and depicts himself as a sober citizen in every-day attire. In portrait, as in landscape, the quality of his line upon the copper grows with every year more assured, telling, and concise; and this is the time of some of his most perfect and interesting en graved portraits, as those of Jan Six, with its admirable life in pose, countenance, hair, its masterly contrast of indoor mystery and outdoor daylight; as well as those of the Jew doctor, Ephraim Bonus, the painter Asselyn, and the picture-dealer Clement de Jonghe. This is also the time of the masterpiece among his Bible etchings, the great plate of "Christ healing the Sick;" in which the just enthusiasm of posterity has not known whether to admire most the conduct and mystery of light and shade, or the profound and moving quality of invention in the groups that encompass the Saviour; the disputatious and supercilious Pharisees; the populace that believe and wait for the miracles to come; the maimed, the halt, the miserable, who have dragged themselves on crutches, or helped one another with tressels and barrows, to the feet of Christ, and point in piteous appeal to their afflictions; the wayfarers who have ridden in strange garb and on strange beasts of burden from afar at the report of the power of the healer.
In the mean time, while Rembrandt was bent upon the things of his art, troubles were preparing that he had not taken thought to prevent. With the passion of a collector, and with that dangerous idea that is apt to possess itself of ardent workers, that money spent upon the materials of their work cannot be spent extravagantly, he had filled his house from floor to ceiling with pictures of all schools, portfolios of the costliest engravings, costumes, specimens, casts, minerals, treasures of art, curiosity, and natural history in every kind. Already in Saskia's lifetime, whispers had gone abroad among some of her family that the couple were spending more than they ought. Such whispers they had indignantly repudiated, and even sued at law those who disseminated them. But almost at the same time we find Rembrandt pressing Huyghens for prompt payment on account of work done; and it is clear that, though he was at this time in receipt of a large income from pupils and from the sale of his works, he was spending all that he earned, not, indeed, in vulgar extravagance, but on acquisitions of which he did not measure the extent or cost. Saskia, before her death, showed her confidence in his integrity by expressly leaving him in the enjoyment, subject to no restraint from trustees or otherwise, of her fortune, which in the event of his death or remarriage was to revert to his son Titus. Soon after 1650 we hear of loans and mortgages. By-and-by a scandal concerning an illegitimate child born to the painter by a servant-maid Hendrikje, results in a second marriage; and in order to raise the amount necessary to put Titus in possession of the property due to him in this event under his mother's will, Rembrandt has formally to declare himself bankrupt. The times were bad, the proceedings were long and tedious; the proceeds of a sale of Rembrandt's accumulations of personal property were miserably below their value. Nevertheless, when all was over, he was able to put his son in possession of the full amount of the inheritance due to him from his mother, and to begin life again in a new house, though parted from his treasures. To the inventory of these treasures, which has been published over and over again since it was first brought to light among the archives of the insolvent debtors' court, we are indebted for the possibility of realizing in full detail what had been the surroundings of Rembrandt's household existence in the days of his prosperity.
It is clear from the character of the house in the Roozengracht of Amsterdam, to which Rembrandt removed after his disaster, and which M. Vosmaer has had the good fortune to identify, that he by no means, as has been sometimes represented, passed the remainder of his days in squalor. He had never been a seeker of society, or been himself sought by those who moved in literary and academic circles. But his misfortunes did not lose him the friends he had; and among these one at least, Jan Six, whose portrait he painted in the very year of his bankruptcy, 1656, was one of the most accomplished gentleman and scholars in Holland. Neither did these misfortunes at all interrupt the indomitable tenor of his industry. In the year of the bankruptcy Rembrandt painted, besides the portrait of Six, two at least of his best-conceived and most expressive Scripture scenes on a large scale, the "Jacob blessing the Sons of Joseph," and the Frankfort version (there is another differently treated at St. Petersburg) of the "Parable of the Vineyard." The chief actual trace which Rembrandt's disasters have left in his art is to be found in the portraits which he engraved of a certain father and son, Haaring by name, who were officials of the insolvent debtors' court; and these are among the most masterly of his whole work.
That the latter years of Rembrandt's life were, nevertheless, more solitary, more depressed, and accompanied with less of recognition and respect than his earlier years, is certain. The tide of fashion was beginning to set against the native, the revolutionary manner of Dutch art, and in favor of classic graces from Italy and pen-wigged dignities from France. Many who had been carried away in earlier years by the force and originality of Rembrandt's own achievements, had now fallen away and made compromises in favor of academic principles. In the mean time Rembrandt's own temper and convictions became more defiant, and his artistic practice more daring and contrary to convention. A magnificent example of his best powers in this, which we have called the violent period of his practice, is the group, painted in 1661, of the "Syndics of the Drapers' Company at Amsterdam." Another example, gorgeous in Rembrandt's old key of crimson and orange, but bewildering, as we have said, at a near view by the roughness and calculated irregularity of its handling, is the anonymous family group, of a few years' earlier date, at Brunswick. Another most moving and most dramatic work, of which the date is given by M. Vosmaer as 1668, but with greater probability as 1658, by the compilers of the catalogue of the Darmstadt Gallery, where it is preserved, represents Christ bound to a column before his scourging. The National Gallery has a fine portrait of this latest manner of the master. But as the years go on, his works become few and far between. He had given up etching in 1661 — among his last works in that kind being some studies of the female nude, in which no concession is made to the ideal graces, but which derive a real dignity from the force, the certainty, the austere frankness of their handling, their richness, color, and relief.
Of Rembrandt's death we know nothing, except what is recorded in a bald official entry, to the effect that he died on October 8, 1669, leaving behind him two children. All the offspring of his first marriage had died, we know, during, his own lifetime; but the mother of the children who survived him seems to have been a third wife, of whom nothing is recorded but the name, Catherina van Wijck. Among the last of all the paintings left by Rembrandt we still find portraits of himself. One of these, according to his old love for sudden and vivid expressions, exhibits him before his easel, maulstick in hand, turning to laugh a toothless laugh of the keenest merriment at some one who comes in and accosts him. But we prefer to think of him as he appears in certain other portraits, in battered, but not ignoble age, his head covered with a cap or white cloth, his looks intently levelled upon what is before him, his rough face wearing the dignity and power of those whose thoughts have been set, not on small ambitions or transitory successes, but upon the disinterested pursuit of an ideal. And to the ideal within him Rembrandt had in truth been faithful. He had made slips, had mismanaged his affairs, had ended his days obscurely; but he has left an honorable as well as an immortal name. He had not been mean — the old stories about his grasping temper are well disproved now, and when we find him helping his kinsfolk at Leyden, as their business declines from bad to worse, we seem to trace a part of the causes of his own impoverishment. He had not been unkind — witness his wife's dying proof of love and confidence. He had been whimsical, fantastic, stubborn, caring less for the company of the learned and highly bred, excepting a very few who sought him out, than for that of a group of plain craftsmen and citizens like himself— printsellers, jewellers, writing-masters, and some of the less famous and less courted among his brother painters. His manners had no doubt been rough, and his answers sometimes blunt and strange. He makes no such chivalrous figure in history as is made by many of the great artists in Italy, or even by his Flemish contemporaries, Rubens and Vandyck. Even in his best days with Saskia, the semblances which he has left us of himself vary between the aspect of masquerading picturesqueness, as in instances too numerous to record, and the aspect of somewhat plebeian jollity, as in the well-known drinking picture at Dresden. The only portrait in which he presents himself as really and simply a gentleman, is that admirable one in the National Gallery of the year 1640, painted with a fusion and softness almost like those of Correggio, as well as with an inner glow and force of flesh-color that are all his own.
But, gentleman or not, smooth in his dealings with his fellow-men or rough, Rembrandt had seen his own goal and reached it. At the dawn of modern art, he had given proof and earnest of faculties in the modern spirit which have not again found equally potent utterance. By his treatment of light and shade, he had conquered for painting a new kingdom in the world of visible facts and of their poetry. By his treatment of action and expression he had conquered for it a new kingdom in the world of human character and life. And yet his system of light and shade is too strange, and his version of human existence too devoid of beauty, for us to regard him as having solved any of the problems of modern art for good. One possible solution, indeed, he has offered, and such is the force of genius that in his own works we find ourselves not only impressed but satisfied with it. But in the work of others whom he immediately inspired we find the same solution deeply unsatisfying. Several of the painters of Rembrandt's pleiad may approach him, as portrait painters, in force and glow; one or two, Eeckhout or Fabritius for instance, may occasionally catch some of the pathos and intensity of their master in religious scenes. But as a rule we are chiefly struck, in the works of this group, by what is forced in their chiaroscuro, by what is cold and strained in their action, by what is vulgar in their types and fantastic in their costumes. The truth is, that the achievement of Rembrandt must rather be regarded as a great experiment than as a great example. From him, we accept what he chooses to give; but we cannot accept from others, or for good, painting in which daylight is sacrificed to chiaroscuro, and beauty to character and pathos. Neither can we allow that the art of Rembrandt, as some allege, is the only Christian art worth the name. Nay, if it is the business of religious painting to make the objects of adoration adorable, surely the masters of the old tradition were right to do this by investing them with beauty and majesty. Shapes of bodily perfection, countenances of power and charm, raiment of splendor, paradisal skies and flowers — these visible prerogatives are the highest which it is in the power of painting to dispense; and to dispense them is in the power of painting only. Rembrandt lived among a people that knew not beauty nor majesty, and in an age when the power of the old tradition had gone irretrievably by. It is his glory that he knew how to move, how to impress, by the exhibition of the aspects of physical gloom and spiritual abasement, almost as much as these others by the exhibition of the aspects of physical radiance and spiritual exaltation. But his achievement is no reason for making light of theirs. His work, in religious art as in other things, is in the nature of an alternative and an experiment — an alternative of genuine value — an experiment of the deepest interest; and it is his glory to have added a new and most striking chapter to that inexhaustible history, the history of human ideals.
- Philosophie de l'Art dans les Pays-Bas. Par H. Taine. Paris: 1869.
- Rembrandt et l'Individualisme dans l'Art. Par Ath. Coquerel fils. Paris: 1875.
- L'Œuvre complet de Rembrandt décrit et commenté par Ch. Blanc. Two vols. Paris.
- Rembrandt, sa Vie et ses Œuvres. Par C. Vosmaer, Second edition. Hague: 1877.
- Les Maîtres d'Artefois: Beigique — Hollande. Par Eug. Fromentin. Third edition. Paris: 1877.
- The Etched Work of Rembrandt. A Monograph. By Francis Seymour Haden, F.R.C.S. London: 1879.
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Rembrandt van Rhyn. By Charles Henry Middleton, B.A. London: 1878.
- Kunst und Künstler. Herausgegehen von Robert Dohme. Rembrandt van Rijn. Von C. Lemcke, Leipzig: 1878.
- The Great Artists: Rembrandt. From the text of C. Vosmaer. By J. W. Morlett, B.A., Brasenose College, Oxford. London: 1879.
- For instance, Mr. Middleton's canon, just in the main, but hardly without exceptions, that Rembrandt used the monogram R. H. exclusively up to, and never after, the year 1632, causes him to assign to 1630 a print of Christ Disputing with the Doctors" (M. 177), of which the date on some impressions reads quite unmistakably 1636. Again, it is a pity to separate, by classifying the one under Portraits and Studies, the other under General and Fancy Compositions, two pieces like the "Man playing Cards" and the "Man with Crucifix and Chain" (M. 147 and 269), which are portraits of the same sitter, etched, though in very different styles, in the same year, 1641. Or again, Mr. Middleton's system leads to some strange juxtapositions, as when we find the rare "Study of a Copse and Paling" placed next to the "Portrait of Van den Linden" (M. 166, 167).
- Mr. Middleton, who follows M. Vosmaer in adopting this date, has shown how two signatures of the master, in one of which he states himself to he twenty — six years of age in 1634, and in the other twenty-four in 1631, seeming thus to give the two different dates 1608 and 1607 for his birth, are not really inconsistent, since the signature of 1634 was written on June 22, when, in truth, supposing him born in 1607, he would not yet have completed his twenty-sixth year. We have, then, only to suppose that the other signature, which makes him twenty-four in 1631, was written in that year on some day after his birthday, June 15, and we have the date 1607 doubly established. It is idle to claim, with Mr. Haden, an equal authority for the other date, 1606, given by a contemporary writer, Orlers.
- It is proper to add, that the whole paragraph in which Mr. Haden specifies the "reputed authors" of certain designs borrowed, or supposed to be borrowed, by Rembrandt, is misleading, partly from hasty expression, partly, it seems, from insufficient acquaintance with the facts.