Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was a well-known and somewhat controversial artist in his time, and many historians, critics, and artists wrote about his work and life during and shortly after his lifetime. In this episode, curator of paintings Anne Woollett discusses three short biographies of the artist: one by German painter Joachim von Sandrart; the second by Italian painter Filippo Baldinucci; and a third by Dutch painter and printmaker Arnold Houbraken. All three biographies were written within fifty years of Rembrandt’s death and have recently been published together in a short book as part of the Getty Publications Lives of the Artists series.
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Lives of Rembrandt publication
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn Getty Museum collection page for Rembrandt
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLLETT: As much as they represent a jolly and occasionally mistaken commentary on an artist, they also give us great insight into what was important to painters.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with Getty Museum paintings curator Anne Woollett about three accounts of the life and work of Rembrandt van Rijn.
Rembrandt was a famous and much talked about artist, even during his lifetime. In the years following his death in 1669, numerous accounts of his life and art were published. In this episode I speak with Getty Museum paintings curator Anne Woollett about three such accounts. These lives, or short biographies, written by German, Italian, and Dutch artists within fifty years of Rembrandt’s death, testify to the extent of the artist’s reputation. They have recently been published together in a single book as part of the new Getty Publications series called Lives of the Artists, and are the subject of our conversation today.
CUNO: Thanks so much for joining me, Anne, on this podcast. Today we’re gonna be discussing the Getty’s publication of a chapbook comprising three lives of Rembrandt, one written in 1675 by Joachim von Sandrart, a painter himself, a painter from Nuremburg, Germany; a second published eleven years later by the Italian painter and writer Filippo Baldinucci; and a third published in 1718 and written by the Dutch painter and printmaker Arnold Houbraken. Three painters-slash-writers, a German, an Italian, and a Dutchman, writing within six to forty-nine years after the death of Rembrandt. Previously, I spoke with your colleague Davide Gasparotto, about the lives of the three Renaissance artists written by Vasari, the lives of Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo, lives written more than 100 years before the lives, or biographies, we’re talking about today. So there’s a literary legacy of such efforts. Before we get to Rembrandt, tell us about the growing popularity then of writing about artists and the artists’ careers, over the course of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century.
How do these three texts fit into that history of the writing of the lives of artists?
WOOLLETT: Well, thank you, Jim. It’s a magnificent trajectory that we are visualizing here with the Rembrandt biographies. They owe much to Vasari’s example a century earlier. And in fact, it was a very important Dutchman, Karel van Mander, who published a treatise in 1604, which first translated into Dutch many of the lives that Vasari published, and therefore, brought the information to the north, about Italian painters, for example.
CUNO: How did he know of Vasari’s texts? Were they that broadly distributed over Europe?
WOOLLETT: They had become so. And van Mander himself was very informed about Italian artistic aspects. He was well-connected. And by the end of the sixteenth century, Vasari’s volumes were very important resource. And they offered a very pleasant and kind of exciting way to understand what was going on in other parts of the field, so to speak. So you know, Vasari’s chatty biographies, which include a lot of gossip— I’m sure Davide Gasparotto talked about the misinformation that appears in those lives, but that are nonetheless very entertaining. And illusions to Classical ideas about how artists worked and things, this offered a great model. And Karel van Mander is the link between Vasari and the three authors that we are talking about today. But by the seventeenth century, an interesting phenomenon had started to take place. And that is the growth of the academy in the north. So formalized teaching.
CUNO: Were they private academies, or were they governmental academies, or were there patrons of the academies?
WOOLLETT: They were all very different, and they do change over the course of the century; but in the Netherlands, they start out in artistic studios. And in Rembrandt’s case, he’s associated with an academy that he runs with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenbergh. This is really the reason, it seems, he moves to Amsterdam. They’re in business together. Rembrandt paints paintings that van Uylenburgh sells; but he also teaches students. And it’s a structured learning environment that we know something about, not least from Rembrandt’s own drawings, but then the accounts of some of the students that were under the tutelage of Rembrandt.
CUNO: Were these academies, did they have a curriculum that was consistent from one academy to the next?
WOOLLETT: It wasn’t quite so formalized yet, although there were ideals. So we can tell from the Rembrandt drawings, for example, that it was important to draw from the nude, the live model. This was a difficult thing to arrange, something that was not easily done in the north yet. There were issues of propriety. But it was important, particularly from Rembrandt’s perspective. Someone who’s interested in drawing from life, he had to have a live person there. I’m sure that the students that came to him had already really learned the rudiments of the painter’s profession. So they weren’t learning how to grind paint or any of those essential basics; they were really learning to paint in Rembrandt’s manner. And that was Rembrandt’s role as the teacher, was to teach his students how to paint as he did, and to draw as he did. And then in other academies—so Joachim von Sandrart himself, one of our authors, was very instrumental in founding, I think, at least two academies in Germany, where the curriculum there was of a different nature. It stressed the Classical antiquity as an important source, and following certain precedents that were established in the Italian schools and that reflected von Sandrart’s own experience of Italy.
CUNO: Okay, so we have these three writer-artists, as I said before, a German, an Italian, and a Dutchman, writing about Rembrandt, a Dutchman. How did the German and Italian come to know about Rembrandt and his work? How widely known was Rembrandt in his lifetime?
WOOLLETT: Rembrandt was the most famous painter in Amsterdam, probably from the early to mid-1630s, at least. He was already quite well-known in Leyden, which is his hometown. And he was visited by an important art collector and critic, who was able to talk about the unique personal qualities that Rembrandt and his friend Jan Lievens had. Criticized them a little bit for not traveling to Italy. We know that from early on, Rembrandt was the source of some attention. But certainly, he was already quite famous by the time he gets to Amsterdam. He is the painter of very beautiful, striking, different portraits. And he’s painting history scenes. And we can see even in these biographies, there’re certain works of art with which he was associated—namely, The Night Watch. So when von Sandrart arrives in the late 1630s and into the early 1640s, he’s coming at a time when Rembrandt is at the pinnacle of his fame. Von Sandrart’s the same age; I think they’re born in the same year, 1606. He’s very well-traveled. Von Sandrart’s been in the southern Netherlands, he’s been in Italy, he’s well trained. He’s quite an accomplished artist himself, and a figure who represents a real interest in the classicizing approach to the art of painting. So he has a particular vantage point. So he could not but have known Rembrandt and been very, very well acquainted with the conversation of how— what Rembrandt was doing that was what fantastic, and maybe some of the other aspects that were challenging for his contemporaries.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Did he write other lives of Dutch painters?
WOOLLETT: Yes. And he really used his abilities as a writer and as a painter, someone who was invested in presenting a certain type of painting process to the world, one that was structured, one that reflected principles from the early sixteenth century, knowledge of Raphael and of the ancients, as well.
CUNO: Mm-hm. And he painted a painting which is now exhibited alongside The Night Watch of Rembrandt. And is it there out of respect for the painting? Or is it there out of respect for the contrast between the two kinds of painting?
WOOLLETT: Yeah, it’s a marvelous juxtaposition. It’s actually a super painting. It’s a vertical format. So The Night Watch is a big horizontal format with many, many figures, and von Sandrart, I think because of the position that painting occupied in the militia guild hall, has an upright format. It has sort of a sweeping composition, where the— there’s sort of a cascade of all these portraits. And then the focus, interestingly, is a marble bust of Marie’ de Medici at the— at the bottom. It commemorates her visit to Amsterdam. And it does provide a great contrast to Rembrandt’s remarkable multi-figure scene of this gathering of the militia companies, and it highlights, really, the difference in their styles.
CUNO: Mm-hm. We were talking before we started with this podcast, about the fact that these three writers disapproved of Rembrandt as a painter; that they saw him as a kind of threat to painting; and that they wrote about Rembrandt to warn their readers about his way of painting. Tell us about this, beginning with Sandrart. What did he see in Rembrandt’s work that he found so threatening?
WOOLLETT: He was threatened by Rembrandt’s choice to paint in his own manner. So that is to say, to put aside the deference and the very important principle, probably, of emulatio which he doesn’t necessarily state, but is implied in his criticism, that Rembrandt wasn’t trying to be like anyone else and that he chose to follow an approach to painting that emphasized the observation and response to nature, the ability to capture what was in front of him. And as part of that, to make unexpected choices, in the sense that he chose to paint with so-called real people. Old people, I think von Sandrart says twice, refers to the elderly, which is true. It’s part of Rembrandt’s painting that I think we all find quite remarkable today is the very sensitive study of the elderly, particularly elderly men, and their actual physical characteristics and their inner lives. This, for von Sandrart, was really not on the straight and narrow. And he’s drawing a distinction between the appropriate, proper way of training as an artist, which puts you into a continuum with the painters that came before you, and offers a model for those going forward.
CUNO: Did he come to Amsterdam because he knew those properties were in Rembrandt’s paintings and he wanted to see them for himself? Or did he come to Amsterdam and discovered those properties when he came across Rembrandt’s paintings?
WOOLLETT: He must’ve known something about Rembrandt’s approach well ahead of arriving, because he was so well traveled and connected. You know, von Sandrart was a very ambitious painter, of the same age. You know, he needs similar patrons. And he’s in Amsterdam, where there is a great deal of wealth, there’s a great deal of interest in art. The patronage is there. And so we should understand his commentary as coming from someone who sees himself as a rival and needs to distinguish himself, in a sense, from this extraordinary individual who’s really captured everyone’s imagination.
CUNO: One of the things he doesn’t seem to like about Rembrandt was the fact that Rembrandt didn’t visit Italy. And therefore, didn’t study from the antique and didn’t have an understanding of the values of the Classical style. Why didn’t Rembrandt go to Italy?
WOOLLETT: It’s such a fascinating question. And it’s truly the most consistent criticism one hears, almost in every case of commentary on Rembrandt’s art, going back to the early days when he’s a young painter in Leyden. Because he seems to have probably said, then and perhaps afterward, you know, he didn’t need to go. And he felt perhaps he could say that because he had access to art in local collections and in auctions, certain, of outstanding Italian paintings, for example. He also collected avidly, important drawings by leading Italian artists of the Renaissance. So he had albums of drawings, and we know which artists he collected, and they’re labeled, from the inventory taken in 1656. So he, in fact, had many sources at his disposal, without having to leave the city. But he may also have felt a committee pride about his Dutch heritage and the quality and the richness of the artist milieu around him, because he comes of age in the mid-1620s, when the Dutch Republic, it’s not independent, but it’s getting there. It’s achieved a level of independence, it’s wealthy, it has its own culture, and it has a real sense of self. And I feel, in a way, that Rembrandt’s attitude reflects that kind of youthful, vigorous Dutch Republic.
CUNO: Yeah. I know that Amsterdam was a center for the trade in the arts, and therefore, a lot of pictures from the south—that is, from Italy—came through Amsterdam on the market, as it were, and that Rembrandt saw a lot of Italian pictures that way, including the great portrait by Raphael, that he then copies himself. So he was not unattracted by the paintings that we know that he saw. But he chose to paint otherwise.
WOOLLETT: Absolutely, he chose. And I think that’s the really interesting key issue, in a sense, about Rembrandt, is that he was very aware of these great precedents in the work of Titian, for example. And you know, he had access, through van Mander’s book from 1604, to the life of Titian and to the characterization of Titian’s later style, which was kind of rougher and more broken. And it’s often been speculated that maybe Rembrandt even deliberately chose to follow that style himself. But you know, he may also have been aware of other aspects of the Titian mythology, if you will, of an artist who felt that he could never attain exactly the same recognition, should he choose to try and equal one of his models—for example, Michelangelo or Raphael. That the only way forward for him was to be separate and to have his own way. So it’s interesting to think that maybe Rembrandt also came to this conclusion. And it’s alluded to in these biographies, actually.
CUNO: In the biography or the life of Rembrandt that Sandrart writes, does he cover the entire career? When did Sandrart see him or come to the studio? Or how did he see him, his pictures?
WOOLLETT: So Sandrart is in the Netherlands and in Amsterdam in the late 1630s and early forties. And he certainly had contact with Rembrandt pupils and associates. And he writes really about this kind of moment in his career, a moment when we have a clear notion that Rembrandt was a notable, famous painter, with a key style. He’s finishing The Night Watch, the most important major public painting imaginable at the time, which was— received great acclaim, and also some criticism. And von Sandrart also goes on to write a bit about Rembrandt as a printmaker, which was a very important part of Rembrandt’s artistic output, which was very intriguing and somewhat baffling, I think, to some of his contemporaries. He persisted in his artistic approach to taking his own route, in some ways, with printmaking, and was someone that produced different states of compositions, and thereby generated a sort of collecting mentality. So if you were really a connoisseur, you needed to have all the states, because they were all a little bit different. And that kind of aggressive business approach. And there’re some other elements to that. You know, Rembrandt maybe manipulating the market as much as he is able, by buying and reselling his own prints, really caught the attention of his contemporaries because it’s quite proactive, very unusual behavior, and was seen as another aspect of his perhaps unpleasant personality, because it was really a very business-minded approach, something that ideally, an artist wouldn’t need to pursue in this particular fashion. They should be above that.
CUNO: Yeah, we’ll get to that a bit later in some of the other lives, but each of them has a lack of respect for the fact that Rembrandt was a businessperson, that he was stuck by the bug of business. But Sandrart did find a way to praise him, if only with faint praise, for mixing paint well and applying them vividly. Although, he says, “they had nothing in common with nature, but resemble the color boxes you see in shops or the cloths brought from dyers.” What did he mean by that? Why did the color attract him?
WOOLLETT: Yeah, it’s a very interesting comment, Sandrart’s observation about Rembrandt’s use of color and of painting. And essentially, in a way, it’s also about trying to describe Rembrandt’s approach to light and to separating the figure from its surroundings. So he is describing Rembrandt’s approach to capturing what can be seen in nature, as opposed to artificially defining forms with contour lines or with more clear-cut classicizing kind of style in mind. The comment about the color box
I was rereading this passage because it is a little bit confusing. But I’m thinking, actually, that this passage is von Sandrart praising Rembrandt’s mixing of colors, in contrast to some of his contemporaries who don’t mix them very well. And it alludes to a more complicated theoretical aspect of painting that’s being discussed, about friendly colors and relative color use in the Dutch language, which Rembrandt really was a master at. About juxtaposing colors that then offset one another in such a way that it reveals the form to us. So it is a way of painting that requires a great deal of sensitivity and development over time, and that isn’t one of the standard modes of approaching painting that you might teach a student, necessarily.
CUNO: Von Sandrart also says that Rembrandt painted old people well, but he painted few subjects from Classical poetry.
WOOLLETT: Well, von Sandrart—
CUNO: This was not a compliment, [inaudible].
WOOLLETT: Yes, this is all about von Sandrart’s concern with Rembrandt’s focus on nature. And that statement about painting old people, he does return to more than once in his relatively short biography. It seems very striking to him. He seems to be positively amazed that a painter would use an older person as a subject.But he cannot help, I think, also be very impressed, because Rembrandt’s painting of these elders in his community or amongst his group of models is unlike anything else that’s happening at the moment, except perhaps in the work of Jan Lievens. And it helps to signal to von Sandrart, this is not an elevated subject. You know, artists are supposed to aspire to these higher echelons of subjects, the top which is history painting. But of course, Rembrandt did paint wonderful history subjects, and he was constantly aspiring to be a history painter. And we have from the early thirties, which Joachim von Sandrart would have known, the series of paintings of subjects from Ovid, from the Metamorphosis, these little mythological scenes that are remarkable and that are unlike their precedents in the work of other artists.
CUNO: We have this extraordinary picture by Rembrandt in the Getty’s collection of the rape of Europa, clearly not a scene one observed, but a scene one imagined.
WOOLLETT: And that painting, the Abduction of Europa by the god Zeus, who was turned into a bull, is absolutely marvelous evidence of several things. First, of Rembrandt’s Classical education. We know that he read Ovid. He follows the account actually rather closely, because the princess Europa is sitting there with her right hand on the right horn of the bull, which is exactly how Ovid describes it. But what he brings to the subject that we don’t see often, if ever until this moment, is this wonderful emotional tension between the princess and her companions. As she’s bounding across the ocean unexpectedly, she’s looking back at her companions, who were distraught, and it’s a very moving scene. But also there’s a little bit of subversive humor. You know, the god Jupiter is— has a kind of a smirk, if that’s possible for a bull. And the landscape is this very dramatic backdrop. And Rembrandt is painting that painting for a very prominent merchant of the Dutch East India Company, so he’s painting for the kind of patrons that all those painters in Amsterdam are looking for.
CUNO: So Sandrart also says, at the very end of his book, he said that he, Rembrandt, “died in Amsterdam and is survived by a son, who is said also to have good artistic judgement.” Also not a high compliment.
WOOLLETT: Yes. So Sandrart’s referring to Titus and yes, it’s not a very satisfying ending, I have to say, to this biography. It leaves out a highly productive late career that isn’t really discussed here, and which is maybe something that other biographers do tackle. But, it leaves sort of suspended, in a sense, Rembrandt’s legacy.
CUNO: What was the legacy of Sandrart’s life of Rembrandt? How widely was it published? How widely was it read? How often was it referred to? Was it an important book?
WOOLLETT: Yes, von Sandrart’s commentary was very important. Not least because it was written by a near contemporary of Rembrandt, really an exact contemporary, and another artist, essentially. An accomplished artist, someone who would go on in his long career to be associated with academies and with outstanding paintings commissions. Someone who painted in a completely different style, a much more refined style, high color, elegant. But certainly, very far from natural.
CUNO: So von Sandrart is followed in this list, this collection of lives, by an Italian, Filippo Baldinucci, who published his book eleven years after von Sandrart. And he said of Rembrandt that, “Rembrandt was a painter much more highly esteemed than his worth.” What did Baldinucci know of Rembrandt’s work? Had he seen any his paintings? I gather there was one in Rome and then he had a self-portrait in Florence, painted for the Medici.
WOOLLETT: Baldinucci had two sources for understanding Rembrandt’s art. One of the person Bernard Kyle, a Danish artist who then came and studied with Rembrandt in around 1640, and then moves to Rome. And he provided personal commentary and some recollections for Baldinucci, which gives us I think a first biography in which we have a really strong sense of Rembrandt’s character, that might’ve been a little bit rougher than was evident in other descriptions. And Baldinucci had access to the painting that was in the Medici collection, which is a self-portrait from probably the very last year of Rembrandt’s life, 1669. Cosimo III de’ Medici made two trips to Amsterdam with his entourage, and he visits Rembrandt both times. And we believe that although he certainly met the artist on the first visit in the mid-sixties, it’s on the second visit in 1669 that he obtains this late, late, late self-portrait, which is a bust-length painting painted in the rather somber palette with the broad and textured brushwork we associate with the late Rembrandt.
CUNO: Did he buy it from Rembrandt? Or was Rembrandt flattered by the request and so Rembrandt gave it to him?
WOOLLETT: It appears that Cosimo III bought it from Rembrandt. And he was buying other artist self-portraits. So he has a painting by Frans van Mieris, also from the trip, for example, and some others. So it’s really an interesting last chapter, last kind of insight into Rembrandt’s late career, a time that we don’t have a lot of information about how he was living and how he was doing. But it really shows how very famous he still remained, even though his manner of painting was quite opposite to what was the fashion.
CUNO: And Baldinucci was surprised that Rembrandt took so long to paint a portrait. He commented upon that. He said they looked so quickly painted he couldn’t figure that it would take so long. And he said that portraits by Rembrandt took some two to three months to complete, starting the same picture over and over again, making changes along the way. Is that accurate? And how would he have known that?
WOOLLETT: Such a fascinating comment. I’ve puzzled over this a little bit, and I wonder too— You know, it really depends on what stage of Rembrandt’s career we’re talking about. The later works really have the impression of being painted with great verve and facility, as do some of the earliest paintings that we have. So the Getty’s small painting on copper, the Rembrandt Laughing, is done with great assurance and broken brushwork. In a way, a miniature form of the late manner. And it’s done by someone with great skill and verve, and he’s not belaboring any of that. It’s possible that it’s really during the main part of the career, when Rembrandt is quite famous and he is really earning his bread and butter, in a sense, through the production of these many portraits in Amsterdam, which are more meticulously painted, that possibly, yes, these products did take longer. But it’s hard to see that as a sort of universal kind of descriptor for Rembrandt’s working method. It’s possible that as a result of Kyle’s experience in the studio, he observed the process in which there were many paintings underway at the same time. And that would seem to be pretty reasonable, in fact. I always imagine the studio having several things happening, because you have to wait, of course, between your phases of oil paint. And Rembrandt was an excellent technician and he would work on one thing and then I’m sure, move on to something else.
CUNO: So Baldinucci also said of Rembrandt that he was a temperamental man who despised everyone. First of all, why would that come to Baldinucci’s mind? Why would he have to say such a thing? But secondly, how would he know that? Would that be through Kyle himself? Or were there other people?
WOOLLETT: Yeah, one of the things I love, in a way, about the Baldinucci biography— Well, it’s not something to love per se, but it certainly really equates personality with personal appearance. He’s very unflattering about Rembrandt’s appearance, and he equates it not only to his painting style, but to his personality. I think Rembrandt was known as a difficult character. He was not easy to communicate with if you were a patron. Some recent archival material has come to light which shows his interactions with other patrons in Italy. That it was difficult and he was very demanding. He asked for top dollar, top guilder.
CUNO: And these are patron— Italian patrons who went to Amsterdam to talk with Rembrandt? I mean, it wasn’t that they somehow wrote him a letter and asked for a painting and he sent a painting back on demand.
WOOLLETT: Ye— So these are changes by correspondence.
CUNO: Oh, really?
WOOLLETT: Or sometimes through an intermediary. We have an instance like that, where someone orders a painting through an intermediary, and then they have to kind of negotiate through the intermediary, and Rembrandt puts the intermediary off a few times. So yes. He seems to have been a character. But Baldinucci would have perhaps heard about Rembrandt’s manner through this Danish artist, Kyle, who was in Rome.
And perhaps also just by the late seventeenth century, through the accounts of others in Italy who were, you know, eager to obtain paintings and had found the process difficult.
CUNO: He also said of Rembrandt that he bought soiled and smelly clothes as props for his paintings. First of all, again, how did he know that? But secondly, he might’ve been just saying that because he didn’t like that kind of subject matter, these kind of exotic old-man’s clothes that would’ve attracted Rembrandt for the kind of character that it would’ve represented with the figure. But for Baldinucci, it would’ve been a very strange thing, probably. So did he make up that? Did Rembrandt buy soiled clothes that were smelly?
WOOLLETT: It’s one of our really pressing questions, is whether Rembrandt had a costume collection. So this reference by Baldinucci is a really colorful and evocative window onto what Rembrandt might’ve been up to. So he would go to auctions, and sometimes he would pay quite a bit of money for outstanding prints from the sixteenth century. But equally, he bought rarities of nature, and he bought, apparently, textiles for use as sources and for use in his paintings. He also bought potentially old clothes or, theater costumes—it’s hard to know from any of these descriptions, what they were—also for use in his history paintings to give him ideas or to suggest some kind of ancient past. And that is a really quite unusual activity. We don’t really have evidence of anyone else doing this. And in a sense, it seems to make perfect sense now; but at the time, this was very notable. In part, because he was so famous and because presumably, you could see the results of these acquisitions in his art.
CUNO: He also said that he was a better printmaker than a painter. Was Rembrandt’s printmaking reputation that strong in Italy that he could say that? There were enough examples of his prints circulating through Italy that people could see them and have ideas about them?
WOOLLETT: Yes. So print connoisseurs throughout Europe were keenly interested in Rembrandt’s printmaking art, and they were disseminated widely. Made it challenging, in fact, for Rembrandt to sort of keep up with himself and to make sure that there were enough locally so that he could make sure they found patrons and he could have some input into the price. They were widely admired for their technique, which is described very interestingly in Baldinucci, who of course, is writing this biography in a treatise about printmaking. So he’s drawing attention to, again, Rembrandt, of writing outside the box. Having a technique and an approach which was hard to explain, but evidently, really quite beautiful and remarkable, making marks on the plate that are difficult to emulate, very characteristic. I think Baldinucci also talks about Rembrandt’s signature, with these kind of wavery, crummy little letters, as opposed to something very, you know, sober and elegant. And so again, showing his own approach to the process.
But the printmaking remained a subject of complete fascination for commentators on Rembrandt, who felt that he was never finished and this offered a very kind of challenging, and perhaps even threatening, model for someone to follow. That you complete a composition and it’s available, and then you go and you change it a little bit, and then you have a new composition, which is then available. And then you adjust it and then you adjust it, and create a real need amongst connoisseurs, if you’re really a connoisseur, to have every single state.
CUNO: He says something at the end of the book, or the end of the life of Rembrandt, that I have never heard before. He said of Rembrandt that he died in Sweden, working for the King of Sweden. Where did he get that information? Because we know that’s not the case. And was it widely thought that Rembrandt went to Sweden, died in Sweden, worked for the King of Sweden?
WOOLLETT: That’s a very strange conclusion, in the end, and it does, I think, highlight one of the problems often with these biographies of artists, especially those written sometime after, you know, the artist’s passing or based upon distant sources. This is a complete piece of misinformation. It may have to do a little bit with a relatively incomplete understanding on the part of an Italian writer, of the proximity of the countries in the north or the relationships between them. There were certainly many Dutch artists who did work for the King of Sweden and who moved north to follow their trade; but Rembrandt was not one of them.
CUNO: Yeah. What was the legacy of Baldinucci’s life of Rembrandt? And was that legacy entirely within Italy? Or was it a broader legacy within Europe?
WOOLLETT: Baldinucci’s legacy was really throughout Europe, and became increasingly important further on in time. So in particular, I think in the nineteenth century—again, where there’s an interest in understanding Rembrandt as someone who was a rugged individualist, in sense—his characterizations of this awkward, ugly, smelly artist-genius, I think, really began to ring true and was seen to get at the heart of Rembrandt’s true nature as a Dutchman. Of course, that’s too extreme in the other direction. But it had a certain appeal to it.
CUNO: Well, now I want to turn to the third author, Arnold Houbraken. Pronounce it for me.
WOOLLETT: Arnold Houbraken.
CUNO: Oh, that’s not bad. I was close. Who published his life in 1718, almost fifty years after the death of Rembrandt. As the other authors, Houbraken points out that Rembrandt was a successful artist. He said he made money and he kept his hand busy. Houbraken suggests that unlike Rembrandt’s Italian forebears and peers, Rembrandt painted for the market. Was that true, that he painted for the market?
WOOLLETT: I think Houbraken is making a very astute point here. He’s understanding, in a sense, a century earlier, if you will, that the major cities in the Netherlands, for example, offered increasing opportunities for commercial success. And I think he’s alluding to the fact that Rembrandt recognized this and actually seems to have taken very clear steps to engaging with it. It’s easy, I think, writing from maybe a theoretical perspective or seeing an artist’s life from the distance of history, to forget that in fact, it was an incredibly difficult life to succeed in and to make a living at. And even in the wealthy Netherlands in the Golden Age, artists had to work very, very hard. So there’s a little bit of criticism and also envy in these descriptions, which praise an artist like Rembrandt for having succeeded in a very difficult profession.
CUNO: Yeah, there wasn’t the same patronage system as there was in the south, in Italy. But what— since Houbraken was himself Dutch, wouldn’t he have been sort of understanding of that?
WOOLLETT: I think Houbraken probably admired that, frankly. And he’s talking, again, from a perspective of someone who was interested in a more structured way of teaching, painting, and of explaining the art of painting, and from presenting from an elevated perspective, in which it reflects learning and a great deal of training and taste and selectivity. So yes, he understands Rembrandt’s fame. It’s undeniable at that point. And it’s the kind of fame that brought glory and notice to Amsterdam and to the profession of painting. But it wasn’t a manner of painting that could be transmitted, in a sense, easily through treatises or through the academic model.
CUNO: Among the writers of the lives, Houbraken seems to be the most anecdotal, or includes anecdotes more than the others in his life of Rembrandt. He tells a charming anecdote of Rembrandt coming across a naked art student and model alone in a room, overhearing them say, “It’s just as if we were Adam and Eve in Paradise, us both being naked.” And then Rembrandt is reported to have said, “It’s because you are naked that you must be expelled from Paradise.” And he drives them out of the studio, still scrambling for their clothes.
WOOLLETT: [she laughs] Yeah.
CUNO: Where do these kinds of stories come from?
WOOLLETT: Well, in a way, that story could be rooted, potentially, in a first-hand account of a student in Rembrandt’s studio. There is the very strong likelihood that Rembrandt enabled his students to have their own sort of little cubicles in which to work. And it is certainly known that there were models for the students to draw and paint from. And we have drawings by Rembrandt and drawings by his pupils, showing these studio circumstances, in which there’s the model and there are art students. So it’s an anecdote that shows a little bit of Rembrandt’s humor, in sort of knowing exactly what the punishment should be for those two, for the— for the artist and his model. But yes, it’s also a story that sort of alludes to the lengths to which Rembrandt went with his students to give them this academic kind of exposure, essentially, drawing from the model.
CUNO: Uh-huh. He praises Rembrandt for sketching and altering his paintings as he goes, in the sense that the picture’s organic in its development and the process of its painting. And he especially points this out with regard to the faces of his subjects, as he tried to depict different emotions. He changes the emotions or refines them slightly. But then he criticizes him for making his work seem unfinished as a result of this, because they don’t come to a tidy ending, these paintings. They sort of stop at some moment when Rembrandt is satisfied with the depiction of character that he intended to capture.
WOOLLETT: Houbraken’s description of Rembrandt’s painting process is fascinating. The sense of things not being finished or only Rembrandt really being the one to determine when something was finished. Something that the process is continuous, that it can be altered. He’s talking about painting. We also know that this was how some of the printmaking technique was perceived. So you know, a real artistic engagement with the painting or the print over time, and only ending when the artist chooses to decide that it’s over. This is also an indication, I think, that Houbraken understands Rembrandt’s process as being really quite outside the norm, not something that should be emulated by any potentially successful artist, who should be very clear about the parameters of what they’re doing and when they’re finished.
CUNO: Yeah. Then there’s another anecdote that Houbraken tells, which you have to tell me is true. You have to promise me to tell me that it’s true, this anecdote. Because when Rembrandt’s pet monkey died suddenly when he was halfway through the painting, a large painting of a man, his wife, and children, having no other prepared canvas available, Rembrandt paints the dead monkey into the picture. And when the sitters of the portrait objected to this, Rembrandt kept the painting for himself, rather than paint out the monkey.
WOOLLETT: [she laughs] Houbraken really— This is extraordinary, and really somewhat hard to imagine. I have to say that the monkey, if there was one, does not appear in other works that we know of, except perhaps, you know, the portrait of Titus in the Norton Simon. Perhaps we could make an argument for that. It’s a hilarious anecdote. But you know, to a Dutch reader, that would’ve had really a second level of meaning because for quite some time already in Dutch and Flemish painting, from the sixteenth century—you can go back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and beyond, to Bosch—you know, monkey were this kind of parallel to human beings. They emulated human behavior and showed it for its basest self and its most animalian. So the introduction of a monkey into the— into the description of Rembrandt’s studio really does hit on a trope in Dutch painting that readers would’ve kind of chuckled at.
CUNO: Given what the other descriptions of the studio and the smelly, dirty clothes that were in the studio, and the various props in the studio, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a monkey rattling about the studio.
WOOLLETT: Well, a monkey is a— quite a luxurious item, so that is interesting to think that someone like Rembrandt might’ve had a monkey. I think we’re fairly certain he had a cat, but— But a money, that would’ve, you know, caused quite a lot of chaos.
CUNO: And of Rembrandt’s nudes, Houbraken writes, “His nudes are all sickening displays. And one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could’ve been so perverse in his selection of what to paint.”
WOOLLETT: Houbraken really hits on this notion that Rembrandt is not selective, or that his selections, in fact, are base. So this idea that he was so tied to the observation of life that he took the most common subjects, the most unremarkable subjects—which is opposite of what a painter should do. An informed and trained painter should choose the most beautiful women, the most beautiful bodies, the most beautiful landscapes to paint, not something that was average or every day. And I think that Houbraken, in some way, really finds it hard to understand how Rembrandt was drawn to these subjects—although he cannot argue that they are painted beautifully.
CUNO: Yeah. At some remarkable moment in the life, he compares Rembrandt to Caravaggio. Caravaggio was a slightly older Italian painter, of course. But was that a comparison that was often made?
WOOLLETT: I don’t think Houbraken’s comparison of Rembrandt to Caravaggio— And in fact, that insertion of the episode about Caravaggio in the biography of Rembrandt is very interesting. And it aligns the two painters in this anti-classicizing establishment. So Houbraken, writing in the early eighteenth century, part of an academic training process of his own, very keen to make sure that this profession is taught in a particular way, you know, can’t deny the importance and the contribution of Caravaggio to painting in general. But yes, he sees Rembrandt cut from the same cloth. Someone who paints in their own manner, in their own style, who does not pay homage to Classical sources, for example.
CUNO: Although each have very strong personalities. And it might be easy if you knew the reputations of the two personalities, you would compare them. Not only because of their vaguely similar painting style—dark colors, big gestural figures, common subjects, various things like that—but that actually, their personalities might be similar. Was that a comparison anyone else made?
WOOLLETT: I don’t believe it’s a comparison that is really widely made with Rembrandt, although in this context, it is an interesting shorthand for equating an artist’s refuen[sp?] personality with their way of painting. So with their style, with their way of applying paint, which is also something that Houbraken has real difficulties with or has criticisms about.
CUNO: Yeah. It’s not surprising that Houbraken has a difficulty with the way that Rembrandt paints from life. He says, “One must arrange the model before one paints it from life.” That’s a kind of academic notion. But Rembrandt, he says, “He satisfied himself copying life just as it appeared before him, without making a single choice from it.”
WOOLLETT: Yeah, Houbraken is generalizing, of course, because he wants to make a point that this is an artist who is categorically positioned opposite to the better way of proceeding if you’re an artist. But of course, Rembrandt was very familiar with the models and the compositions of Italian and northern forebears. He had quite a collection of drawings that were important sources for him, of prints by Italian printmakers, after examples like Raphael. He was also, of course, paying close attention to contemporaries like Rubens and van Dyke. So he makes his own choices, but they aren’t always as simple as they might appear. Which is to say, he wasn’t necessarily painting precisely what was in front of him. But in fact, his achievement was making it seem as if that nude female model, who might in fact, be a nursemaid or a washerwoman, just happened to be sitting on the mound in just that way.
CUNO: Now, a remark that’s common to all three lives of Rembrandt and something on which we’ve touched on earlier in this podcast, is the view that Rembrandt made a lot of money. They don’t mention that Rembrandt went bankrupt. Was that a
famous thing that they should’ve remarked upon?
WOOLLETT: In fact, Houbraken mentions Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, albeit not in great detail. He’s aware of the kind of change that happens in the middle of Rembrandt’s career, actually. But in a sense, these three biographers seize the mythology that Rembrandt himself was so eager to establish, in a sense, in his artistic circles, was that he was highly successful and that he was wealthy and affluent. And indeed, you know, in real terms, he was by the late 1630s and early forties, very well off. He happened to overextend himself by buying a large house that he couldn’t pay for. And then there were other extenuating circumstances that led to his bankruptcy in the late 1650s. But these biographers repeat, in a sense, the belief that he was entirely successful and in fact, wealthy.
CUNO: Mm-hm. So we have these three lives of Rembrandt written by a German, an Italian, and a Dutchman, over the course of some fifty years. We’ve brought them together for this publication of the Getty, but were they ever seen together at any other time? Was there common recognition of the lives of Rembrandt?
WOOLLETT: I think really only in the modern age, when we’ve started to examine this artist and try and understand what can be known about his life and personality from the closest perspectives to him in his own time. And you know, these biographies existed separately. They exist as part of a continuum, a tradition in the Netherlands particularly, that was growing and developing, of accounting for the artistic achievements in the low countries, making them better known; of sending out to the world as truthful and as engaging accounts of the artists of the north as possible. Which is really very, very important during the seventeenth century, a counterbalance to the great fame of Vasari’s Lives from the sixteenth century. And to put Dutch artists into a context where their diversity and their accomplishments can be appreciated, and Rembrandt, who was certainly very famous in his own time and famous in certain countries in the eighteenth century, then has a resurgence, of course, in the nineteenth century, as his art kind of reengages our imagination. And these commentators come forth as important sources. But in fact, it’s taken art historians some time to understand their meaning, to understand, in fact, the criticism that they offer of Rembrandt. And there’s still to be, I think, in the field, really, about how current the arguments for classicizing painting were being held even in the 1630s and forties. So the relevance of von Sandrart’s observations suggesting that these are dialogs that are active, that Rembrandt might’ve participated in himself, is something that we’re coming to today, which is really interesting. So as much as they represent a jolly and occasionally mistaken commentary on an artist, they also give us great insight into what was important to painters.
CUNO: Well, they work very well together, the three lives of Rembrandt brought together in the small chapbook, with quite beautiful illustrations of paintings referred to in the— in the lives themselves. So thank you, Anne, very much for your time this afternoon talking about this chapbook, and thank you for all that you taught us about Rembrandt.
WOOLLETT: Thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANNE WOOLLETT: As much as they represent a jolly and occasionally mistaken commentary on an artist, ...
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