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.

There is no evidence of special resistance to Rembrandt’s painting in ‘privileged and literate society’. On the whole, as Alpers rightly emphasises, Rembrandt avoided close relations with patrons, but that was not because they disliked his way of painting. An exception among patrons was the wealthy merchant, noted connoisseur and poet, Jan Six with whom Rembrandt was for a while on very friendly terms. Rembrandt’s portrait of him remains in the Six house in Amsterdam (which may be visited by special appointment) and is painted with astonishing freedom, but less heavily and roughly than usual, the painting of the gloves and cuffs coming close to the manner of Hals. Alpers notes this and observes that it ‘must betoken an unaccustomed speed of completion’ – a rash conclusion if one thinks of the cancellations which lie behind the apparent spontaneity of Manet, for example. She thinks that Rembrandt was in a hurry because Six was in a hurry. ‘His coat is slung over his shoulder and with a certain purposefulness he is putting on his gloves to go.’ Surely he has an abstracted rather than a purposeful look, as if stopped by a thought as he performs the action (which might, it seems to me, be that of taking his gloves off rather than putting them on). ‘The speed of painterly execution and the imminent departure of the sitter dressed in his own street clothes represent Six as a sitter who got away. But in an important sense he did not. Rembrandt recorded him in the very act ... ’ Alpers does not remind us that the convention of men in portraits putting on, holding or playing with their gloves and suggestively half-attired for outdoors was not new. Since portraits were painted partly to console loved ones and family in the absence of the sitter it was a clever device to suggest their reappearance or recall their departure.

Rembrandt often added an imprecise narrative dimension to his portraiture: a striking instance of this is the way, in a double portrait of a ship-builder and his wife in the Royal Collection (and at present on display in the beautiful exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery), the wife is represented rushing in with a piece of paper. What it’s all about exactly we don’t know, but we are surely not supposed to think that the message on this piece of paper concerns Rembrandt. Why should we think of Six as being in Rembrandt’s studio? The idea of a 17th-century painter concealing in a commissioned portrait a message for future biographers about his uneasy relationship with his patron is surely anachronistic.

The issues that Alpers raises – about patronage and the art market, handling and finish – are some of the most important for our understanding of Rembrandt’s historical significance, and it is this which makes both her fanciful interpretations and her reckless speculations so regrettable. The question of whether Rembrandt’s paintings were ‘finished’ much exercised some of his patrons, as Alpers notes, and probably did his reputation no good, but the continuous revision of his prints was not harmful to his reputation. Alpers goes further: ‘His repeated re-workings of his plates and the resulting series of states were deployed as a marketing device which gained him great success ... By creating a demand for his work in progress, Rembrandt as an etcher established a remarkably successful marketing operation.’

It is hard to read this as anything other than a claim that Rembrandt’s re-workings were, if not determined by mercenary considerations, then certainly encouraged by them. Did he really take such trouble over the darkness of the sky behind the crucified Christ with an eye on the market? Was the effort involved in finding different inks and papers as well as in making constant revisions to the plate prompted by consumer demand? The way Alpers writes does not permit us to consider his motivation with care. It also conceals the fact that we know next to nothing about the way Rembrandt’s prints were sold or about the profits he made from them.

There is bound to be some hostility to Alpers’s book about Rembrandt because she presents him as so keen on making money and because she considers how this might be part of a psychology which is reflected in his handling of paint as well as in his choice of subject. What deserves censure is not the idea but her confused account of it. ‘Rembrandt’s attraction to paint was akin to his attraction to money ... Rembrandt associated hoarding not only with the traffic in money (gold), but also with a loving and lavish traffic in paint. In passages of certain paintings – the chain of honour in the Aristotle or the helmet in the Man with the Golden Helmet – the two are made one.’ Hoarding has surely never been associated with ‘traffic in money’, which must involve spending. Also, ‘loving and lavish traffic in paint’ suggests flow and exuberance, Rubens’s handling rather than the roughness of Rembrandt. Furthermore, while one can equate money with gold, one should surely point out that armour and golden chains are emblems of nobility and knighthood such as money cannot, traditionally, buy.

There is one major claim in Alpers’s book that I have not yet mentioned. It is that ‘Rembrandt contrived to see or at least to represent life as if it were a studio event’ – a ‘studio event’ implying for her a piece of improvised theatre. Quasi-theatrical events took place in Rembrandt’s studio and he is said to have urged his pupils to perform roles in order to devise poses. One may also feel that there is something ‘stagey’ about some of his early self-portraits and about some of his early action-filled paintings such as the Belshazzar’s Feast in the National Gallery. It is, however, hard to believe that this was intended. And anything less like a ‘studio event’ than the Woman taken in Adultery or the Woman Bathing (to mention two other very different paintings also in the National Gallery) would be hard to imagine. The claim that Alpers is making here denies the narrative power for which Rembrandt has always been admired. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba in the Louvre elicits our sympathy by the mixed feelings on her face as she holds the king’s letter and watches her old servant; the stillness and solemnity enhanced by the surrounding shadow provide a perfect foil for her thoughts, and the vulnerable beauty of her body. Here we read that this painting ‘can be described as the memorial in paint of what it is to view a woman acting as a nude model’. The Death of Lucretia, that unbearably poignant painting in Minneapolis of a violated woman stabbing herself, is for Alpers something far more complicated and far less moving: ‘the act of a person representing herself and the artist’s view of this performance’.

To support her case Alpers also distorts what Rembrandt’s contemporaries wrote about his art. The famous passage in Constantijn Huygens’s manuscript autobiography in which Huygens praises Rembrandt’s command of expression and gesture was concentrated on the depiction of Judas in Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver – ‘wild, wailing ... his whole frame twisted’. Anxious to demonstrate that Rembrandt’s art is about ‘performance’, Alpers claims that Huygens calls attention to the fact that Judas is ‘in a sense putting on a show’. What Huygens observes, however, is that Judas, although entreating forgiveness, has no real hope – in other words, is desperate. He does not say that Judas is shamming!

At various points in this book Alpers likens Rembrandt not only to Manet, but to Picasso and to Mondrian. Despite the interest she takes in a wide variety of 17th-century sources, she has created a Rembrandt who is congenial to modern academics, a Rembrandt whose art is about art, as so much modern art, often tediously, is. But I should add that there is at least one passage of oracular obscurity in her book which perhaps presents a more historical Rembrandt, a Rembrandt located in the period between Shakespeare and the Impressionists. ‘Retirement to rule, and the delight mixed with horror in the discovery that the self alone is what one rules, is a familiar scenario from Prospero on his island to Monet in his garden. To these examples I would add Rembrandt in his Studio.’ Prospero was kicked out of his kingdom. Far from discovering that ‘the self alone is what one rules,’ he relentlessly demonstrates his control over every creature on his island, relinquishing his power only when he leaves it, with neither delight nor horror. How Monet’s attitude to his lily ponds resembles Rembrandt’s feelings about his models and sitters is not explained.

Rembrandt had many pupils and imitators and has intermittently been a great influence on other artists ever since his death. We can never forget that we know an old master’s descendants. They may have imitated or developed one aspect of his work, thereby both magnifying its significance and diminishing its novelty. They may have rejected the artist’s ideals, in which case, when we seek relief from their ideals, the old master may come to attract us all the more because he seems to have resisted what he never knew. Problems of this kind may present an obstacle to our understanding of Rembrandt’s intentions as an artist but it is not the major obstacle it is when we study Raphael, say, or Titian, or any art which is considered preliminary to one of the great European traditions – Rembrandt has never been considered as preliminary in this way. His imitators never advanced on his achievement.

Art which certainly is regarded as preliminary is Greek sculpture of the late archaic period. We admire it for its restraint, contrasting it with the more expressive and mobile sculpture which took its place. However, such archaic sculpture may originally have appealed because it was dynamic when compared with earlier sculpture. There are similar problems involved when we study Italian paintings of the mid-13th to the mid-15th century, which is the subject of a remarkable book by Paul Hills. The Light of Early Italian Paintings opens with a reminder that ‘the preoccupation with representing light that is characteristic of the Western tradition from the Renaissance to the Impressionists is a peculiarity.’ And whilst Hills examines the origins of this preoccupation he is careful not to ‘chart the acquisition of descriptive skills as a linear unfolding’: his book is designed to ‘frustrate any attempt to interpret the sequence of chapters as embodying a progression or advance’. No book has ever been devoted to reconstructing the expectations and standards of the artist’s public in this period with more care or sympathy – the sympathy may be measured by the emphasis upon loss as well as gain in the account he provides of successive innovations in Florence, Rome, Siena and Venice.

Hills ponders the idea of splendour as it appears in poetry and theology; traces the vocabulary for light and colour, and the theories of optics then available; explores the recipes in craftsmen’s treatises (noting how lead’s incompatibility with verdigris and orpiment limited the possibility of highlights in white on some colours); informs us about the import and imitation of patterned silks from the East; describes with subtlety the opportunities and limitations of mosaic, fresco, tempera and gilding. The chapter on Giotto’s use of colour and light in the Arena Chapel is especially remarkable for making us realise what he did not do, but might have done: ‘The number of near neutral and pale colours in which slight tonal gradients are as telling as shadows on an eggshell is increased ... strident patterns, rainbow wings, tartan gowns, chequerboard inlays, are virtually banished ... integrity of form is now matched by unity of tone.’ Hills does not ignore the larger implications of Giotto’s preferences.

One further advantage of Giotto’s soft-focus modelling should be underlined. It allows the visible parts of the body – usually head and hands – to appear at one with the draped figure: the same broad lights and blurred edges of shadow give shape to the rotundities of cloth and flesh. Thanks to this generalised modelling we apprehend the physical and spiritual integrity of each human being. Such modelling affects us as ontological metaphor.

The art collection inherited and extended by Robert Lehman, vice-president of the Metropolitan Museum in New York from 1941 to 1967 and chairman of the board there from 1967 until his death in 1969, was presented posthumously to that museum by his Foundation in accordance with his wishes. The terms dictated that, instead of strengthening the main collection there, it had to be admired in a separate Lehman wing – a sad instance of qualified devotion to, and understanding of, a public educational institution on the part of an affluent private individual who was (under a system which we are urged to imitate here) one of its bosses. Of course the present director is obliged to applaud the creation of the wing in print. The collection has been catalogued separately also. The volume devoted to the Italian paintings is the work of the former Consultative Chairman of the Department of European paintings at the Metropolitan, ‘primus inter pares among present-day scholars and connoisseurs of early Italian paintings’. He has done a good job.

Most of the paintings date from the 14th and 15th centuries, and looking at this handsome volume, having read Hills, makes us constantly pause to ask ourselves questions very different from those which – properly – exercise the cataloguer. How and why was gold applied where it was? Was it intended to represent mundane illumination or miraculous splendour? What effects of space, or of solidity, what descriptive purpose does it assist or frustrate? Does it help us see the painting as a dazzling thing or as a representation of dazzling things?

The Lehman collection includes masterpieces by Lorenzo Monaco, Giovanni di Paolo, the ‘Osservanza Master’ and Botticelli. In the Annunciation by the last-named artist we find the system of single vanishing-point perspective perfected. The painting is perceived as a room – the Virgin’s home – into which light penetrates, illuminating the verticals of grey stone door-jambs and the pilasters of the screen which divides the kneeling angel from the Virgin. The light falls on the Virgin’s face as she turns towards it and catches the angel’s feathers and cloak, which still flutter and float from his recent landing; it also marks the fold of the curtain, and those of the diaphanous veils over the virgin’s lectern and the settle behind her. A few rays are drawn in gold, but it is light – daylight such as those of us who are not blessed, but just lucky, can witness – which is now equated with the miraculous passage of the Holy Spirit.

We have met this painter’s descendants: not only does light penetrate into the precisely articulated interior space of 17th-century Dutch inventions by artists such as Vermeer, but there, too, it can be intended as a metaphor for some sort of revelation. Light breaks into Rembrandt’s dark interiors, striking us as sacred, even when the divine is not involved, as it dramatises human mortality, the corrugations and creases of the ‘corporeal rind’, set off by less perishable materials, an embossed helmet, golden chains, encrusted robes and temple interiors – symbols, or at least trappings, of ancient sanctified authority. The oddest thing about Alpers’s book is her refusal to consider Rembrandt as a painter of light. To discuss his impasto and his painting of gold without doing so is a bizarre achievement.