I spent yesterday afternoon at Columbia University sitting through a lecture by the eminent Rembrandt scholar, Ernst van de Wetering. Van de Wetering is chairman of the Rembrandt Research Project, an art historical initiative that began in 1968 as a menas to separate genuine Rembrandts from the work by his pupils and followers (and forgers). A committee of art historians has systematically examined Rembrandt’s contested oeuvre, submitting works by him and his school to extensive technical, documentary, stylistic, and iconographic analysis, and rendered an opinion as to the works’ authorship. The project has slashed Rembrandt’s once bloated catalogue from more thatn 1,000 works to several hundred. Organized within the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and staffed by leading scholars in the field, the RRP is the preeminent authority on matters of Rembrandt attribution and van de Wetering is sometimes described as the world’s leading Rembrandt scholar. The opportunity to hear the great scholar speak seemed too great to pass up. I was wrong.
The lecture was occasioned by the imminent publication of a new volume in the RRP’s ongoing catalogue A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. The latest volume, number five in the series, discusses 30 small-scale history and genre paintings made from 1642 and after. Van de Wetering explained that at its inception the research project dealt with Rembrandt’s oeuvre in chronological order for three volumes (1982-90), then adopted a thematic approach with a volume on self-portraits (2005) and now the compendium of small-scale history paintings, for which he served as editor. “With this thematic way of working we could get closer to Rembrandt’s way of thinking and working in the face of specific artistic challenges,” he writes in the preface to the new volume, which compares painted compositions with related prints and drawings. He opted for the small-scale history category because he believes these religious and mythological works were “the artistic laboratory” of Rembrandt, and the lecture, the first in van de Wetering’s 13-city North American tour, ostensibly would provide insights into the thinking that went on in that laboratory. Unfortunately, it did not.
Van de Wetering examined Rembrandt’s thinking obliquely though the writings of two great chroniclers of the Golden Age Dutch art world, the painters Karel van Mander and Samuel van Hoogstraaten. Van Mander wrote a biographical dictionary of famous artists in 1604, and Van Hoogstraaten, a student of Rembrandt, borrowed from it in compiling his own similar book published in 1678. The books include not only critical biographies but treatises on art theory that enumerate the foundations of painting as the practice was then understood, exploring topics such as composition, the expression of emotion, unity, handling of light and color, and so on. Van de Wetering posits that if you subtract the materials that van Hoogstraaten took from van Mander what you have left is what van Hoogstraaten learned from his teacher Rembrandt. Of course, this is not sound logic, as Hoogstraaten may have had other sources than his teacher. But in any case, van de Wetering never specified what he believes van Hoogstraaten learned from Rembrandt.
Instead he cited 17th-century descriptions of a small-scale history painting by Rembrandt. One cursory reference – I believe it is by van Hoogstraaten – describes the work as two men in conversation with a beam of sunlight; another – I am not sure who the author was — notes that the linear contours of the picture are similar to those in works from Rembrandt’s earlier period. Van de Wetering casts these shorthand descriptions as indicative of critical attention changing from content to form. But this conclusion was unpersuasive and unclear. What exactly was he saying about the relationship between form and content, between practice and theory, and what evidence exists to support a broad generalization about shifting attitudes? He never came around to articulating just what he had discovered, if he discovered anything at all. Instead, he projected disparate images –a well known print showing an artist using a grid system to draw a female nude, a Mondrian with roughly the same distribution of masses as a Rembrandt painting, van de Wetering’s own notes scribbled on scraps of paper – without knitting them together in support of a coherent statement or idea. It is said that if you cannot explain your idea to a child you do not understand it yourself. What does it say about your understanding if you cannot explain your idea to Ph.D.s and other experts?
Like much of art history, the talk was draped in an air of intellectual grandeur. The cavernous, carpeted, rosette-ceilinged chamber in the university’s Italian Academy, replete with Latin inscriptions along the entablature, was a suitably sumptuous setting for an august art historical spiel. Columbia art history professor David Freedberg introduced van de Wetering with the aura of reverence that is customary on such occasions. But the hour-plus lecture was not only tedious, but unfocused and rambling. Noting that the talk would be repeated at venues across the country, Freedberg expressed admiration for van de Wetering’s endurance, but he would have done better to confer such praise on the audience.
I have not read the new volume, and I presume that its 140-page first chapter, “Towards a Reconstruction of Rembrandt’s Art Theory,” lays out van de Wetering’s ideas with greater lucidity. The previous volumes provide a wealth of technical and documentary information, and although their conclusions are not universally shared by experts in the field, they nonetheless are invaluable documents that have elucidated the practice and output of Rembrandt and his school. The theme of the sixth and final volume in the Corpus is “Rembrandt’s mind.” Let us hope that by the time professor van de Wetering introduces it to the public that he has clarified his own thoughts.
Jason Edward Kaufman
A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings V: The Small-Scale History Paintings (Rembrandt Research Project Foundation)
Springer, Nov. 15, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4020-4607-0
674 pages, 898 illus., 629 in color. Hardcover
$1,679 ($1,399 if ordered before Jan. 31, 2011)