The Arts: Behind the Master’s Canvas
The 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth is the perfect time to laud the art world’s most famous philo-Semite. Yet scholars are now asking, Did he really like the Jews?
The image is arresting and moving: Moses, holding the Ten Commandments aloft, illuminated from below. But is he about to present the tablets or dash them? Is he resigned or angry? Is the light on his face and body natural, or is his tunic reflecting the unholy glow of a Golden Calf that he sees when he looks out at us?
Almost like reading the Torah itself, reading a painting by the great 17th-century master, Rembrandt van Rijn, takes time, an open mind and close scrutiny. It also requires that one stand back and absorb the whole.
This year, the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth—July 15, 1606—provides a great opportunity for art lovers to do just that. A cornucopia of events with exhibitions, lectures and writings honoring his legacy are being held in the Netherlands and other countries—including the United States (see box, page 62).
In particular, his works on Old Testament and Jewish themes are getting a fresh look. In Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum will explore how the artist retold Bible stories in his drawings, and an exhibit at the Biblical Museum will survey his Old and New Testament etchings. Several new books also discuss Rembrandt’s relation to his very Jewish milieu.
However, it is an exhibition opening in November at the Jewish Historical Museum (JHM) in Amsterdam, “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” that seeks an answer to the big question—did Rembrandt understand and like Jews?
The answer today seems to be—yes and no.
Born in Leiden, Holland, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn moved to Amsterdam in 1631. He lived in the quarter that was also home to prominent Sefardim and poor but learned Ashkenazim. He is supposed to have been friendly with philosopher Baruch Spinoza and used his neighbors as models.
The notion of “great contacts between Rembrandt and his neighbors has long tickled the fancy of Jews,” says Edward van Voolen, curator of the JHM exhibition. “Jews have been fascinated by Rembrandt at least since the mid-19th century and all through the 20th, up to today.
“[But] in actual fact, we have very little indication of Rembrandt’s contact with Jews,” he notes. “One exception being Dr. Ephraïm Bueno, a Spanish immigrant and doctor. We know for sure he made an oil sketch and etching of him.”
There is a story “that Rembrandt went to visit a synagogue, and in the synagogue he saw such interesting faces and he is presumed to have thought this is how Jesus must have looked,” van Voolen continues. That is why we have his dark-haired and dark-eyed, Jewish-looking Jesuses.
But, he adds, “that is a myth as well. These identifications are based on 19th-century preconceptions of what Jews may have looked like.” There is also little evidence that Rembrandt ever went into a synagogue.
However, Larry Silver, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that since Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter, it would have been probable for him to visit the synagogue, as many Dutch and foreign visitors did. Silver is working with Shelly Perlove, professor of art history at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, on a new book, Rembrandt’s Face, Christianity and Judaism in the Dutch Golden Age.
“Dr. Perlove and I argue,” Silver says, “that Rembrandt was interested in Judaism in an almost archaeological way, as were many of his contemporaries, in the appearance and practices of the Temple of the period of Christ so he could make images of Christ from the circumcision onwards that were as accurate as possible.”
xThough Rembrandt left no written account of his thoughts about his neighbors, his paintings (or, at least, their titles) give evidence to his focus on Jewish themes. Among his hundreds of works are portraits of prominent Jews, drawings of synagogues and rabbis and, of course, “The Jewish Bride,” the famous image of that loving couple, in addition to his many biblical works—the earliest of which dates from 1626, the latest from the mid-1660’s.
Some of his earlier works, particularly those created in Leiden, such as “The Money Changer” (also called “Parable of the Rich Man”) or the etching “Christ Before Pilate,” carry negative Jewish stereotypes.
“The Money Changer” depicts a man in a hat, ostensibly a Jew, peering at his gold by candlelight. His hand is cupped around the candle whose flame is hidden. Around him are stacks of bound papers, accounts with Hebrew-like characters on them. The money changer is isolated, alone in a cave of his gold and accounts.
“It is a moral allegory, stating that one who is just counting his money [all day and night] hides from the true light,” explains Annette Weber, professor of art history at the College of Jewish Studies at Heidelberg in Germany.
For Rembrandt, the true light is religion and God and Christianity, she adds. “He certainly plays with anti-Jewish stereotypes of medieval times.”
“If you look at [the image] of Jesus before Pilate, the Jews around Jesus are nasty creatures,” says Alfred Bader, a Milwaukee art collector and author. “Then he met Manasseh Ben Israel, and he painted Jews completely differently.”
Rembrandt created four etchings for Manasseh Ben Israel’s messianic text, Piedra Gloriosa, all of which will appear in the JHM exhibit. Many believe the artist also consulted the rabbi for help in forming Hebrew letters in his works, for example, in “Belshazzar’s Feast,” an epic scene from the Book of Daniel in which the hand of God writes the words of prophecy that heralded the end of the king of Babylon’s reign.
“Recent doubts have been cast about whether Rembrandt actually met Manasseh,” van Voolen notes. “The identity of the man [in the portrait] that depicts Manasseh has been put into doubt as well.” That, too, will be explored in “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt.”
What is clear is that his paintings of themes from the Hebrew Bible depart from typical Christian depictions and they have engendered much discussion, both for their amazing painterly techniques and for the depths of emotion given to these iconic figures.
One example is “Moses and the Tablets of the Law,” from 1659, which will be on view at the JHM. In Rembrandt’s hands the popular motif shows layers of nuance. A solitary figure on a swirling, almost abstract background, an uncertain Moses raises the tablets over his head. “It is not the triumphant Moses, which you see so often through Christian eyes,” says Weber.
In his 1946 book, Rembrandt, the Jews and the Bible (Jewish Publication Society), historian Franz Landsberger suggested that Moses was raising the tablets as if lifting up a Torah scroll. However, points out Weber, “he is looking down. You don’t look down when you lift the Torah. It’s impossible—try it!”
Weber believes Moses is about to throw the tablets as he looks upon the sin of the Golden Calf. “Moses is bitterly upset about what he sees in front of his eyes,” she explains. “He looks down with anger and sorrow, and lifts up the tablets in the moment before smashing them.”
Another Weber favorite is “Jacob Struggling With the Angel,” from 1659. In it, the two figures are set against an abstract background. Jacob strains to lift up his opponent but the angel seems unconcerned and looks down on Jacob with a benign expression. “[Jacob] is desperately struggling for knowledge,” explains Weber. “He sees the battle and realizes he is losing it.”
“Biblical text is never easy to understand,” she adds. “You are smitten by the words and try to translate them…. And then you see someone who has a totally personal but also coherent vision. If you look at the text about Jacob fighting, you see there is an open-ended situation.… And that a painter is able to recreate this situation visually is amazing.”
For all the nuances in Rembrandt’s works, he nevertheless must be viewed within his historic and religious milieu. He was Christian and during his time there was much discussion of the coming of the Messiah, even among the Jews. It was common for Christian artists to depict biblical themes and approach them as presaging the coming of Jesus.
The JHM is combining the historic view with modern scholarship in “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt.” The show will juxtapose Rembrandt masterpieces with comparable works by other masters such as Willem Drost, Romeyn de Hooch and Bernard Picart, and will include documentary material, reproductions and even scenes of 17th-century Amsterdam.
“I really love Rembrandt,” says van Voolen. “I am fascinated by the Jewish connection with Rembrandt.” He notes that the show will be the first time that all these paintings are collected and that the myth of Rembrandt’s special relation to Jews and Jewish themes will be analyzed.
Rembrandt also lived at a time when the Dutch identified themselves with the Bible. “The battle of the Jews against their rulers,” explains van Voolen, “whether Babylonians or Egyptians, [was a metaphor] for a small nation fighting to be free. And the Dutch identified with that story because they liberated themselves from Spain in the Eighty Years’ War,” which was fought from 1568 to 1648.
At the same time, there were many immigrants in the Netherlands as well as commercial contact with people from the Near East. During the Dutch Golden Age, the Netherlands was a fairly tolerant place.
“So,” van Voolen says, “we find in Rembrandt’s paintings that he made extensive studies of [immigrant] faces. We also know he collected costumes and all sorts of hat gear and he used them in his paintings and etchings and drawings. But what we don’t know is whether any of those figures are Jewish.”
And, he notes, “we have some documents in which it becomes clear that when Rembrandt had contact with Jews, he had trouble with them.”
In one case, he fought with a Jewish neighbor over payment for the repair of his house. In another, a Portuguese Jew asked him to paint a portrait of his daughter and did not like the results. “He refused to pay,” says van Voolen, “and it came to a court case.”
However, such problems don’t necessarily mean Rembrandt and his Jewish neighbors never got along.
I see rembrandt’s old testament subjects as Christian readings of the Bible,” says scholar and journalist Gary Schwartz, whose biography on the artist, The Rembrandt Book (Harry N. Abrams) is due out in October.
To believe otherwise, he explains, is “wishful thinking more than anything else.… Rembrandt was a Christian and genuine in his faith.”
If you make philo-Semitism a test for accepting works by European artists of any period, he adds, then most would be unacceptable.
“I don’t think there is a lot we have to ignore in order to enjoy [Rembrandt’s] art,” argues Silver. “On some level, you appreciate what people did in the public arena of art making, and if you insist that these people be cultural heroes on a personal level, sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
So why do Jews romanticize Rembrandt? “It is a disappointment in European culture that there is so little positive interest in the Jews,” says Schwartz, “so the idea that Rembrandt was an exception was very dear to people.” In fact, he explains, real interest in Jewish practice among Dutch artists began a generation after Rembrandt’s death.
“It remains a fact that Rembrandt is a great painter, a fantastic painter, the best we have in the 17th century, maybe next to Vermeer,” says van Voolen. After Rembrandt’s death, “everyone claimed him…. The Dutch claimed him as their national painter in the 19th century…and then the Germans claimed him…. Hitler, may his name be erased, had a special preference for Rembrandt paintings.”
In the 19th century, van Voolen points out, German historian Julius Langbehn “tried to label Rembrandt as the prototype of the Aryan German artist in contrast to the Italian Renaissance.”
And then there was Landsberger, the final director of the former Jewish Museum in Berlin before it was dismantled and its paintings confiscated by the Nazis. “He was highly romantic and positive,” says Weber, “and called [Rembrandt] one of the first painter artist-friends of the Jews.”
Van Voolen notes that some 19th-century Jewish artists, notably Max Liebermann from Germany and Jozef Israëls from the Netherlands, became interested in Rembrandt.
The debate continues, 400 years after Rembrandt’s birth. Some questions about him may never be answered. But those questions seem somehow less urgent than the ones he posed himself: Is Moses raising the tablets or dropping them?
That tension and the humanity of Moses as he gazes in anger and sorrow at his people are a reminder of the message within the text: Jews, and their prophets, are only human.
And we, standing before a painting on the wall, are all at Sinai.