Two Readings of Rembrandt
Two books on the 17th-century Rembrandt demonstrate just how gifted the artist was, and why his art still matters to us today.
A book, even one on art, cannot be judged by its cover; however, a lot can be learned about an art history text from its end matter. Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age, by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver (2009, Penn State Press), contains 72 pages of endnotes and 26 pages of bibliography. By contrast, John Durham's The Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith (2004, Mercer University Press) has no endnotes, nor any other formal citations, and no bibliography (although the author does make helpful suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter). Where one might expect to find endnotes and bibliography, The Biblical Rembrandt instead lists the museums Durham has visited in his life-long, if informal, investigation of Rembrandt van Rijn's art. Perlove and Silver, two of the most distinguished scholars of Northern Renaissance and Baroque art, have surely visited most or all these collections and Durham is well read in the extensive literature on Rembrandt's art. Yet the differences in how these authors choose to present themselves, as researched scholars or an amateur connoisseur, foreshadow how they frame Rembrandt as an artist.
Written from a personal point of view, Durham's The Biblical Rembrandt attempts to draw out of Rembrandt's art what these works might have personally meant to the artist. While he acknowledges that this pursuit of Rembrandt's own intentions might be akin to a snipe hunt, Durham rightly asserts that Rembrandt's art, particularly his extensive oeuvre of biblical paintings and certainly his numerous self-portraits (as well as the many examples of self-portraits within biblical scenes), is autobiographical in that the artist seems to have used his art as a medium for examining issues of faith and personhood. Although Perlove and Silver mention Rembrandt's wife Saskia van Uylenburgh only once, Durham goes into as much detail as possible (given how little we know about Rembrandt's private life) in describing his family life and imagining how the twists and turns of his life affected his reading of the Bible and, in turn, his art.
The most enjoyable aspect of The Biblical Rembrandt is Durham's interpretive descriptions of the artworks themselves. Although he does not strictly follow either a chronological or thematic program, Durham's informality allows the reader a sense of standing with him in front of the work. Durham repeatedly stresses the sense of humanity present in the artist's biblical paintings, drawings, and prints. Rembrandt's art becomes a medium by which we experience the faith and doubt, joys and sorrows, aspirations and fears, of biblical figures from Abraham to David to Bathsheba to Christ's disciples. Durham details Rembrandt's realization of these spiritual and psychological dramas through the expressions and poses of his figures, the compositions of his designs, and his attention to the work's material. Durham invites his readers to complete each narrative by situating ourselves in the work. He introduces each work, as one might introduce a friend, and then lets it speak for itself.
Durham describes Rembrandt as a person and artist of faith, standing outside of history; however, Perlove and Silver root the artist firmly within the religious climate and conflicts of his time and place. Although this is not its primary focus, Rembrandt's Faith describes the translation of Protestant theology into art more clearly than many of the books particularly devoted to this topic. Perlove and Silver elucidate theology and history such that these concepts and controversies become windows rather than barriers to engaging Rembrandt's art. For less capable scholars, the complexities and contradictions of post-reformation Netherlands—what the authors described as a "religious stew" of reformed Protestants, counter-reformed Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, and others—might have become a sort of quagmire. Perlove and Silver not only bring clarity to these religious and cultural issues, but they deftly employ the theological writings of John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, and Martin Luther and artistic precedents in the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Lastman, Lucas van Leyden, and Jan Lievens as beacons in our journey through Rembrandt's art.
The methodological differences between Durham's The Biblical Rembrandt and Perlove and Silver's Rembrandt's Faith are most clearly manifested in their respective treatments of specific examples of Rembrandt's art. In discussing Rembrandt's The Apostle Paul in Prison, an early work dated 1627, Durham focuses on Rembrandt's depiction of the saint as a man of humility who may, judging from his gesture of clasping his pen and writing with one hand and covering his mouth with the other, be in search of the right word. Durham notes a possible correspondence between Paul's struggle for expression and Rembrandt's own creative process.
While Durham's reading depends on interpreting the painting's internal elements, Perlove and Silver examine the historical context in which Rembrandt painted. Having detailed the conflict between the Dutch Reformed Church and the Remonstrants (followers of Jacob Arminius who questioned certain elements of reformed theology and were persecuted for their faith/heresy), Perlove and Silver suggest that this work might invoke the incarceration of Remonstrants. Although he had Remonstrant patrons, the artist's depth of sympathy for them is not clear. Both Rembrandt's Faith and The Biblical Rembrandt offer insightful as well as, in the absence of conclusive external evidence, equally speculative readings of The Apostle Paul in Prison.
Examining a mid-career work, The Visitation (dated 1640), Durham sees "a palpable sense of family affection and spiritual expectation." This work was painted during what were, arguably, the happiest years of Rembrandt's life. The artist had married Saskia in 1634 and may have been hoping for a family of his own. (Sadly, only one of their four children survived infancy and Saskia herself died in 1642.) Rather than situating this work within the artist's biography, Perlove and Silver interpret Rembrandt's The Visitation as a Protestant conversion of a Roman Catholic subject. The scholars point out that the Visitation, a scene in which the Virgin Mary is glorified by her cousin Elizabeth, was popular with Catholic artists. However, in Rembrandt's only known treatment of the Visitation, Elizabeth does not look at Mary but rather turns her gaze heavenward, moved by the Holy Spirit to praise God directly.
In his last decade of life, Rembrandt increasingly treated biblical narratives as internalized dramas. One of the most famous of these late works is The Return of the Prodigal Son. Compared with Rembrandt's earlier versions of this subject, the work from around 1669 eliminates many of the external narrative elements of the parable. Rembrandt's focus turns to subtle gestures and facial expressions as means of accessing the internal drama of this reunion. Citing reformed theology that grace could not be earned, even by repentance, but rather must be bestowed by God, Perlove and Silver call attention to Rembrandt's focus on the father's merciful embrace of the son. Durham, on the other hand, reads this father-son relationship as the artist's final confession in which, after a life of faith and transgression, he pours out his remorse and hope into the arms of his heavenly father.
While situating him historically and theologically, Perlove and Silver do not characterize Rembrandt as a strict follower of any particular visual model or religious teaching. In unpacking his art, they stress that Rembrandt interpreted the Bible, and other theological sources, in his own way. Furthermore, they note that Rembrandt's art elevates itself above all contemporary controversies, thus allowing viewers to each interpret the work for themselves. It is Rembrandt's capacity to employ the elements of his art to visualize the Bible, without becoming didactic, that inspires such diverse readings as we find in Rembrandt's Faith: Church and Temple in the Dutch Golden Age and The Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith. Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver demonstrate that Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the most astute and gifted artists of his own time; John Durham reminds us why his art still matters to us today.