Oud Holland

Review of Rembrandts plan: De ware geschiedenis van zijn faillissement (2019)

WEIXUAN LI

Review of: Machiel Bosman, Rembrandts plan: De ware geschiedenis van zijn faillissement, Amsterdam [Athenaeum] 2019

On 4 October 1669, the Dutch painter, printmaker and draftsman Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) died, insolvent. Ever since archivists in the nineteenth century unveiled materials around the master’s financial failure, scholars have cast Rembrandt in an unfavourable light. Especially since the 1970s, the master has been repetitively portrayed by (art) historians as egotistic, unreliable and morally unsound due to his love affairs, and fiscal disaster.1 This rather negative image of Rembrandt is so entrenched that, for years, the studies around the master have mostly resorted to the same sources and have reinforced – consciously or unconsciously – the perception of him as having a disagreeable character. Rembrandt’s bankruptcy is thus seen as a tragedy that befell him owing to his unpleasant temperament and his professional and financial mistakes. This view of Rembrandt and his insolvency has tended to go unchallenged, for decades, condemning the master as an improvident money manager who was trapped in a massive amount of debt that would eventually cost him his house. After Paul Crenshaw published his seminal work on Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 2006, one may wonder what else could be said about the matter.2 And yet, in 2019, 350 years after the master’s death, a year hailed as Rembrandt’s year, Machiel Bosman brings the master’s fiscal turmoil back into the spotlight. In the book Rembrandts plan, he presents a surprising argument: Rembrandt might have initiated his own insolvency to protect his family, especially his unwed lover, and their illegitimate child.


Left: Cover of Rembrandts Plan. De ware geschiedenis van zijn faillissement.
Middle: fig. 1 Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus in a Monk’s Habit, 1660, oil on canvas, 79.5 × 67.7cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-A-3138.
Right: fig. 2 Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrikje Stoffels, ca. 1654-6, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 83.7 cm, London, National Gallery, inv. NG6432.

Bosman’s audacious claim provides a remarkable turnaround in the rendering of Rembrandt’s character, and marks a fundamental revision of his financial ruin. Bosman’s confidence, which enables him to go against the tide of existing scholarship, lies in his thorough historical research and careful fact-checking. Although the author does not bring forth any new archival evidence, he employs auxiliary documents to shed new light on the existing materials, while calling the ignored ones to our attention. Bosman demonstrates an impressive prowess in commanding scores of archival sources concerning financial and juridical proceedings in the seventeenth century, stringing them together with the well-known yet misinterpreted materials about Rembrandt. Informed by broad and eclectic reading, Bosman explicates that Rembrandt was not forced by his creditors to declare insolvency (p. 112); instead, the master initiated his bankruptcy himself, with a plan in mind.

The first half of this book reconstructs Rembrandt’s ‘plan’, whereas the second articulates the supporting evidence. Bosman stages the development of Rembrandt’s insolvency in three chapters: the inception, the execution and the aftermath. Chapter one introduces the financial situation Rembrandt faced before his fall. The author opens the story recalling the master’s obligation under the terms of his late wife Saskia’s will to turn over a portion of the estate to their son, Titus (fig. 1). Bosman stresses that Saskia’s will had made Titus the largest and preferential creditor of Rembrandt, meaning that, if Rembrandt went insolvent, the will would have made Titus the first person to be paid off, before any other creditors could step in.

How much exactly did Rembrandt owe his son? The amount was up to the value of the couple’s (Saskia and Rembrandt) common estate, as half of their common possessions would now belong to Titus, according to the will. We know that, in an inventory drawn up in 1647, at the request of Saskia’s family a few years after she died, Rembrandt reported the appraised asset value as high as 40,750 guilders. Although scholars often use this number to denote Rembrandt’s wealth; Bosman first brings to our attention, that this self-reported appraisal value was, significantly inflated. He points out that the Hoge Raad (High Council) later corrected the value to a much lower number of, “at least 22,000 guilders”, during the settlement of Rembrandt’s insolvency (p. 84).

The author argues that Rembrandt may have deliberately exaggerated the property value, as the pricy joint estate purports that Rembrandt’s dues to his son were as much as 20,375 guilders – more than the worth of the house he purchased at 13,000 guilders, with money he borrowed. Bosman further suggests that Rembrandt schemed to use insolvency to default his loans, redistributing his assets to Titus, the preferential creditor, through the bloated liability. Had Rembrandt succeeded in using the overvalued appraisal during the liquidation, he would have transferred most of his possessions to his son, with the actual creditors walking out empty handed. Following his plan, Rembrandt could have been insolvent on paper, but in fact, out of debt and free to remarry.

Bosman reasons that, in 1654, the birth of Rembrandt’s daughter, Cornelia, with his lover out of the wedlock, Hendrickje Stoffels (fig. 2), may have propelled the master to act on his plan (p. 30). The author delineates that Rembrandt had taken five preparational steps before filing bankruptcy. First, in October 1655, Titus made a will two months after turning 14 years old (the minimum age by law to make a legitimate will). In the testament, Titus appointed his father to manage his inheritance while shutting out his mother’s family from his estate, unless he died with no children. Second, two months after Titus’ will was made, Rembrandt sold some of his possessions in an auction, about which we know little – as we do not know what was sold, nor how much it yielded. Bosman suspects that the money fetched there was probably divided between Titus and Hendrickje, for this sale was made to collect emergency funds in preparation for insolvency. Third, in May 1656, Rembrandt transferred the deed of his house to Titus, presumably to meet the term of Saskias’ will. Then, two weeks after the deed transfer, he borrowed 3,150 guilders from Daniel Francen, the brother of his good friend Abraham Francen. Since there was no cash found in Rembrandt’s estate inventory drawn up after his bankruptcy a month later, Bosman argues that the loan may have ended up in the hands of Titus and Hendrickje, in order to get through the forthcoming insolvency period. The last step was applying for brieven van cessie, which surrendered the debtor’s property to creditors, while securing the debtors from being arrested. With all provisions completed, Rembrandt claimed bankruptcy in the hope of walking away, debt-free, ready to remarry Hendrickje, which would make Cornelia a legitimate heir.

Things did not go as Rembrandt planned – as we already know. The creditors, not willing to accept Rembrandt’s default, opposed fiercely. To make things worse, the auction of the master’s possessions did not yield enough to pay off his loans, and he was therefore forced by “some creditors (eenige van de crediteuren)” to sell his house (p. 49). The master’s earlier transfer of the deed to his son couldn’t save the house from being sold, and the money collected from the sale went (wrongly) to Isaac van Hertsbeeck, the second largest creditor of Rembrandt who issued loans for his house. It took Titus and his guardian years to appeal, court after court to acknowledge Titus’ right as a preferential creditor entitled to Rembrandt’s property, and to get Titus’ share back from Hertsbeeck. Rembrandt clearly did not foresee either the legal complication or the low yield in the auction, as he never planned to sell his house (p. 59). Consequently, as we already know, Rembrandt’s bankruptcy would not only cost him his house, but it also buried him deep in debts and juridical complications up until the end of his life – Rembrandt’s plan, flopped.

Even though Rembrandt’s scheme was botched, according to Bosman, he did not fail to protect his family – Titus, Hendrickje and Cornelia. The author underscores that Rembrandt was able to ensure Titus’ inheritance was paid in full in the insolvency settlement (p. 158), and tried to distance them from his fiscal turmoil. In 1657, Titus made a new testament, indicating his half-sister Cornelia, instead of his father, as his universal heir (p. 43). Then Titus and Hendrickje formed a legal household without Rembrandt – they paid rent together, presumably for the house that the, then-penniless master also lived in (p. 61). All money was now under Titus and Hendrickje’s control. Rembrandt did not marry Hendrickje, in the end, probably to keep her out of his liabilities. Nonetheless, he sought alternative means to make sure that Cornelia, his illegitimate daughter, who was entitled to her mother’s legacy though not her father’s, would be taken care of after his death. In 1660, Titus and Hendrickje formed a company that owned all of the family possessions – including new paintings Rembrandt made or money he later earned – intentionally keeping the master penniless on paper so that all remaining assets could go to their heirs. Through this arrangement, Cornelia could at least inherit her mother’s share of the company – half of the family estate, which was then considered the company’s possessions, instead of Rembrandt’s (p. 66).

Furthermore, Bosman tries to absolve Rembrandt from the incarceration of his former lover Geertje Dircx in Gouda, for which the master has been chided by many historians as his own moral wrongdoing.3 Bosman articulates that the evidence used to assert such blame, does not point to the master, but rather Geertje’s own family, especially her brother Piet. Through exculpating Rembrandt from Geertje’s imprisonment, besides highlighting his intention to protect his family, Bosman attempts to cast a favorable light on Rembrandt as a family man, in sharp contrast to the existing image of an egotistic autocrat. However, had Rembrandt managed his bankruptcy as Bosman describes, his plan was in fact a ploy, an astute tweak of the law endeavouring to default his debts, and exempt from his fiscal onus. Rembrandt’s own plan, therefore, does not change much of his entrenched negative image, even if he did have good intentions for his family.

This otherwise superb book is slightly marred by its focused, yet rather narrow scope. We miss here a context of the broader economic conditions outside Rembrandt’s immediate circle. For example, the author attributes the unexpected low yield in the auction of Rembrandt’s estate merely to the difference of prices fetched from auctions and through a dealership, and denies the effect of external factors such as the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654). Nevertheless, the art market had already shown stagnation in terms of new painting production and the size of the painters’ population in the mid-1650s, precisely during or after the war.4 The contraction in the art market had started when Rembrandt drew up his plan, which included putting his collection under the hammer at auction. The master’s negligence of the market conditions may have made his plan doomed for failure, yet we then fall back to the existing narrative that his bankruptcy was a result of his own arrogance and mistakes. More importantly, one can hardly imagine that Rembrandt incubated the plan all by himself. Bosman only briefly mentions the possible source of influence, however, I am curious if any of Rembrandt’s own contemporaries had successfully executed a ploy of the same kind, which might have convinced Rembrandt that he could replicate their success. Therefore, evidence of successful cases of bankruptcy, and their possible links to Rembrandt, will significantly strengthen Bosman’s argument.

Rembrandt is one of the few masters who are so well-researched that it is rather daunting to say anything new about this, “endlessly fascinating and infuriatingly cagey” Old Master.And yet this book manages to shed surprising new light onto his bankruptcy, with a wealth of evidence on Rembrandt’s fiscal, legal and relational matters. This book is an indispensable addition to Rembrandt's story, and urges scholars to revisit and re-examine the existing material thoroughly, and with an open mind.

Weixuan Li
PhD researcher, Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands

NOTES:

1 Examples of such claims, see G. Schwartz, Rembrandt: Zijn leven, zijn schilderijen, Maarssen 1984, p. 362.
2 P. Crenshaw, Rembrandt's bankruptcy: The artist, his patrons, and the art market in seventeenth-century Netherlands, Cambridge 2006.
3 S. Schama, Rembrandt’s eyes, New York 1999, p. 547.
4 W. Li, ‘Innovative Exuberance: Fluctuations in the painting production in the seventeenth-century Netherlands’, Arts 8 (2019), nr. 2, p. 72.
5 In the words of S.S. Dickey, see S.S. Dickey, ‘Review of Nicola Suthor, Rembrandt's roughness, 2018’, CAA reviews, February 2019.

CITE AS:

W. Li, ‘Review of Rembrandts plan: De ware geschiedenis van zijn faillissement', Oud Holland Online Reviews, April 2020.