Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2001
Mariët Westermann Rembrandt Phaidon, 1999. 351 pp. Paper $22.95 (0714838578)

The last book of wide reputation written on Rembrandt in English and intended for a general audience was Christopher White’s Rembrandt in 1984. Given the rate of change in the world of scholarship, the sixteen years that separate White’s and Mariët Westermann’s books counts as a generation. Thus, Westermann’s book has been widely anticipated as a text that could fulfill many roles—an assigned textbook for students in art history courses, an accessible introduction to the artist for laypeople, and a quick refresher for art historians.

The book does not disappoint any expectations, for it satisfies all of these roles admirably. Westermann’s prose is lively, vivid, and clear. The two most important tasks an author of such a book has to undertake—the sympathetic and engaging description of individual works of art, and the synthesis and distillation of current scholarship—are carried out in ways that show common sense and judiciousness.

This is no small accomplishment, given the strains and contradictory interpretations found in Rembrandt scholarship in past generations. Part of the problem is that Rembrandt, as person and artist, turns out to be more, rather than less, chimerical the more he is studied and characterized. Was he a hard-nosed businessman? A defiant individualist? A devoted family man? A cagey, cranky loner? Yes to all, it seems, for Rembrandt’s life and career took many twists and turns, and he played many of these parts, consciously or unconsciously. Westermann squarely confronts this multiplicity by devoting her introduction to “Rembrandt’s Faces,” meaning his unusual devotion to the art of self-portraiture. By doing so, she also acknowledges that it is Rembrandt’s humanity that fascinates us as much as his art, and that a long-established temptation has existed to elide the two. While she points out that nineteenth-century writers tended to assimilate Rembrandt as a model of the solid bourgeois (325-26), Westermann herself occasionally succumbs to the temptation to read Rembrandt as a modernist before the fact. On page 206, she writes that “it was perhaps inevitable that his increasingly experimental art would come into conflict with his commercial enterprise.” Was this really an inevitability in the seventeenth century? In their own ways, Hals and Vermeer were just as experimental in their art as Rembrandt, and their relative success or failure commercially seems, at this distance, not to have been a product of their stylistic innovations.

More than ever before in such a book, Westermann seeks to provide the social setting in which Rembrandt trained, worked, and interacted with friends, family, and patrons—not always separable categories. He was an artist-businessman by necessity, Westermann reminds us (see, in particular, chapter 6, “The Business of Art”)—dependent on the vagaries of the new open art market in the Netherlands, but also attentive to the possibilities for self-promotion through the important commission and the dissemination of his style and ideas through prints. In this understanding, Westermann’s Rembrandt is one that has emerged partly through the filter of writers such as Svetlana Alpers and Gary Schwartz. While their work seemed so controversial in the 1980s, in a number of ways they have now carried the day, for writers such as Westermann are more careful today to acknowledge the importance of the immediate social context and Rembrandt’s consideration of commercial success as a goal. To whit: “He never lost sight of his art as business.” Likewise, she accepts the likelihood of the practice of collaboration in Rembrandt’s studio (95), though some (increasingly a minority) would still argue against this stance. In all these ways, her Rembrandt is up to date. Interestingly, while she is extremely deft at discussing the materials of Rembrandt’s art—including the supports and pigments, etching tools, and drawing implements—the physical sense of Amsterdam and the landscape around it, such a palpable presence in Christopher White’s study, is largely absent here.

As an author, Westermann’s voice is authoritative, but within the mode of recent art history. The epilogue, which succinctly traces the reception of Rembrandt from his time until now, makes clear Westermann’s awareness of her text’s place in a larger tradition and of the provisional nature of all such interpretations. I wonder, however, if general audiences are really as engaged by the historiographic considerations of Rembrandt scholarship as art historians are, or whether such discussions result from pressures within the discipline of art history itself.

At times, the author’s scholarly self-consciousness is a bit jarring, such as when she moves abruptly from Rembrandt’s training to the work of the Rembrandt Research Project (25-27), or from a consideration of the year 1642 to scholarly understanding of this date in the importance of Rembrandt’s life (177). And, of course, there is the occasional statement that could provoke discussion. She maintains that “Rembrandt often turned such sketches [from life] into more finished works of art” (147). In fact, what is interesting is how uncommon a practice this was for Rembrandt, given the large number of such drawings he made, and how relatively few were put to use as material for paintings and prints. Why state so baldly that Alexander, purchased by Antonio Ruffo, no longer survives (293)? A couple of candidates for this painting do still exist and should not be dismissed so summarily. Finally, Westermann revives the notion that Jewish Bride is a portrait historié (302-4), entitles it “Portrait of a Couple in the Guises of Isaac and Rebecca,” and discusses it within the context of Rembrandt’s late portraits. What she herself describes as the “indeterminate facial features” of the depicted figures suggests the need for greater caution in categorizing this work as anything but a history painting.

The biggest danger of writing about an artist like Rembrandt, who has been reduced to soundbites over time, is to fall prey to the lure of stereotypes and clichés. Westermann succeeds in avoiding this to an impressive degree; only on occasion does she slip by relying on a phrase such as “the profound humanity” when describing the late portraits (304) without really telling us what this means. On page 244, she states that in 1653, “The demands of the world and of his art became increasingly at odds with each other.” Here, Rembrandt sounds suspiciously like the stereoytypical postwar action painter rather than an seventeenth-century artist, and no evidence exists to back up such a claim. Overreliance on certain adjectives, such as “quirky,” when used to describe his etching style on pages 258 and 260, or “wayward” to describe his character and attitude (325 and 328), detract, though only slightly, from what otherwise seems a carefully crafted book. On the other hand, the freshness of her discussion of Christ on the Sea of Galilee as related to other Dutch tempest images (110), and the richness of her succinct characterization of the much-discussed Night Watch (161-74), go a long way to reclaim their interest for readers.

Rembrandt’s multifaceted career as an artist has always presented a significant challenge to anyone who would write about his art as a whole, for he seems to have been equally devoted to painting, printmaking, and drawing as avenues of expression as well as financial success. Westermann, in general, does an excellent job of bringing together these various pursuits, though the decision to sequester the general discussion of Rembrandt as a printmaker to a separate chapter, “Reinventing the Print,” is a disappointment because it undermines the sense of Rembrandt’s career as a whole. On the other hand, astute choices of comparative material throughout the book considerably help to enable the different artistic contexts that shaped Rembrandt’s art and those with which he had to compete. The copiousness and generally good quality of the color reproductions are important contributions, particularly with regard to the works of graphic art.

One complaint that I have about the Phaidon series in which Westermann’s book appears is the lack of precise documentation. While Westermann carefully cites the sources of a number of ideas and interpretations she has presented with the inclusion of a section called “Further Reading,” organized by chapter in the back matter, it is annoying that specific debts cannot be foregrounded along the way. This not only deprives the reader of a clear understanding of who contributed what to the general understanding of Rembrandt, but it also naturalizes arguments in a way that makes them seem more authoritative for the nonexpert than they probably should.

It is easy for any reviewer to cavil at this phrase or that opinion in any book, but is much harder actually to write about the life and work of such a great artist. In a time when some completely disdain monographic art history, or the promotion of individual “geniuses,” it takes courage to insist on the relevance of this literary genre. In both the attempt and in her final achievement, Westermann has succeeded in writing a book that should likewise convince most readers of the validity of such work.

Catherine Scallen
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University