Gestures of Embrace

Nicholas Penny

  • Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market by Svetlana Alpers
    Thames and Hudson, 160 pp, £20.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 226 01514 9
  • The Light of Early Italian Painting by Paul Hills
    Yale, 160 pp, £20.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03617 5
  • Italian Paintings in the Robert Lehman Collection by John Pope-Hennessy
    Metropolitan Museum and Princeton, 331 pp, £50.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 87099 479 4

In the first chapter of Rembrandt’s Enterprise, Professor Alpers devotes much attention to a small etching of 1655. This, she says,

depicts a goldsmith in his shop just putting the finishing touches to a figural group representing a woman (Charity, or Caritas) with two children. While his right hand works with a hammer to fasten the metal to its base, the artist lovingly embraces the women with a huge left hand. His fingers press up against her thigh. Lest we doubt that this is meant as a gesture of embrace, note the way the goldsmith’s cheek is bent to meet hers.

I cannot agree about the cheek. It does nearly brush the back of one of the infants, but this is because the artist is looking down at the base of the group which he is hammering into place. As for ‘pressing up against her thigh’, he is holding the group steady in the most obvious way – with care, even tenderness, but not with the infatuation of a Pygmalion, as Alpers implies. Let us hope that police officers and judges are more careful observers of ‘gestures of embrace’ than this senior art historian or we’ll be in trouble for helping infants and the infirm across the road.

If the idea of the artist’s mistress as his art or muse is invoked in this print it seems odd that she is so small in size and is given a pair of children. It is even odder that the artist is not looking with rapt admiration at her but at his hammering. As we scratch our heads over this, Alpers advances her argument: ‘In embracing the woman and her children as offspring of his own making, Rembrandt illustrates the misogynist desire as it was frankly uttered by Montaigne.’ Montaigne apparently uttered ‘misogynist desire’ when he said that he wasn’t sure whether he wouldn’t prefer to have produced one perfect work by communion with the muses than one perfect child by intercourse with his wife. Does this really amount to misogyny? And would an artist who showed a sculptor smashing a statue of a woman and children be displaying uxorious sentiments?

Finally, Alpers proposes, that ‘in the figure of the goldsmith with his statue’, Rembrandt ‘has accomplished his iconic aim’. This is because, she claims, Rembrandt, ‘rather uniquely’, tried to make ‘something relief-like and solid out of painting’. The print of a goldsmith might be intended by Rembrandt as a statement about his own art, but there seems to me no good reason for assuming that this is what it is. The goldsmith does not look like Rembrandt, who had no inhibitions about using himself as a model. His impasto – his thick paint built up and spread out and scraped off with a knife – is suggestive of certain types of modelling, but not at all of the casting, chasing and burnishing of the goldsmith’s craft. In some ways, Rembrandt is not at all sculptural. His paint surface is often thick, but it is hard to imagine the effective translation of his compositions into real reliefs in stone or metal (as has been done with paintings by other artists). There is no evidence that he tried his hand at sculpture, so it seems ridiculous to describe him as a ‘sculptor manqué’, as Alpers does. To strengthen this claim she remarks parenthetically that this ‘might account for some of the satisfactions he found as a printmaker in working or “sculpting” his plates’. But if he was especially gratified by cutting into metal it is strange that he did not make engravings (where a tool is driven into the copper) but etchings (where the plate is bitten by acid after the varnish covering it has been scratched away).

Earlier in this chapter Alpers makes some suggestions as to the cultural associations of the rough manner in which Rembrandt painted.

Even in Rembrandt’s time much art-making in the Netherlands was still bound to the craft world of guild and work-shop rather than to a privileged and literate society beyond. The smooth style was seen as marking a break with this. There was a certain justness about the criticisms of Rembrandt’s paint. In painting in the manner he did, despite the growing popularity of the smooth manner, Rembrandt called attention to his craft by effectively presenting his performance as that of a maker in the studio.

But critics of Rembrandt’s paint did not evoke the idea of a ‘craft world’. If anything, the suggestion that his work was dirty and messy associated him with labourers and the lower classes but that is not the same thing. It is true that neat and polished painting could be claimed as genteel or courtly, but it is no less true that finish and precision were the virtues of which craftsmen traditionally boasted (one looks in vain for the sketchy or rough in guild ‘masterpieces’), and the old art of the Low Countries, contrary to what Alpers implies here, was also ‘smooth’. One could even say that it has always been ‘privileged and literate society’ that has relished the rough in art – which is not to deny that it could also appreciate the smooth.

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