Oud Holland

Review of: 'Rembrandt: The complete paintings' (2019)

March 2021
CHRISTOPHER WHITE

Review of: Review of: Volker Manuth, Marieke de Winkel and Rudie van Leeuwen, Rembrandt: The complete paintings, Cologne [Taschen], 2019

With its companion volume, Rembrandt: the complete drawings and etchings by Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding; Rembrandt: The complete paintings – by Volker Manuth, Marieke de Winkel and Rudolf van Leeuwen – offers reproductions of all the works considered authentic by the authors, and much else besides. Published simultaneously in Dutch, German and French; it represents an ambitious project to cover the totality of the master’s oeuvre in two volumes, a project which is to be warmly welcomed.

Regrettably, I must begin this review by saying that several aspects of the book are not user friendly. Even larger and heavier than the volumes of the Rembrandt Research Project, the size and weight of the book does not make for easy reading or perusal. Physical strength has become a sine qua non for the Rembrandt admirer. It calls out for one of those stands, which were once found in libraries permanently displaying an English dictionary. Secondly, the colour illustrations are printed with a black frame on paper, which although with a different finish, rough as opposed to smooth, makes it difficult – except when viewed from a certain angle – to distinguish Rembrandt’s all too often dark pictures from their surround.

And then there are two editorial matters. The captions to the large-scale illustrations, which are arranged chronologically, do not provide a reference to the catalogue, arranged by subject, which makes moving from the former to the latter, a laborious process. Finally, the concordance only works from this catalogue outwards to the catalogues of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP, vol. VI) and Bredius/Gerson (1969). As a result, it is not easy to ascertain what has been accepted in the latter two works but which has been omitted here.

But to redress the balance, one can report that the letterpress, both essays and the catalogue entries, are first rate and offer an up-to-date study of Rembrandt’s paintings; of value to scholars and accessible to the general reader. With Ernst van de Wetering’s excellent concluding volume, published in 2015, to the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP, vol. VI), written, however, in a different vein, we now have a Rembrandt the painter for our own times. The present volume easily offers the best overall study of the subject.

Left: Cover of Rembrandt: The complete paintings.

Middle left: Rembrandt, Marten Soolmans (Taschen pp. 134-5), signed and dated 1634, oil on canvas, 207 x 132.5 cm., Louvre, Paris, inv. RF 2016-1.

Middle right: Rembrandt, Self-portrait (Taschen p. 367), signed and dated 1658, oil on canvas, 133.7 x 103.8 cm., Frick Collection, New York City, inv. 1906.197.

Right: Perspective view of Rembrandt: The complete paintings (showing spine).

The volume opens with the large-scale colour reproductions, including fold-outs for the larger works – which are of excellent quality. Going through them one by one gives a full sense of the artist’s achievement. The plates are arranged in four chronological groups: ‘Rembrandt’s Early Years in Leiden 1606-1631’; ‘Amsterdam 1631-1639’; ‘Illusionism and Reorientation 1640-1651’; and ‘Rembrandt’s Late Works’. A good number of the pictures, given their format, are spread across two pages, which presents the inevitable problem of the missing middle. Although illustrated in small often murky images in the catalogue itself, just over 60 paintings out of a total of the 329 pictures are not reproduced on a large scale. For the most part, these are works of lesser importance or works about which there is a slither of doubt. But these omissions are, to a certain extent, compensated for by the inclusion of a large number of stunning details – which are spread throughout the volume, such as that of Marten Soolman’s white stockinged legs in shoes with extravagant rosettes or those of the head in a whole series of late self-portraits. Never before in a book has Rembrandt’s unique brushwork been so transparently laid out for our delectation and study. That alone, almost justifies the book.

Interspersed between the illustrations are four introductory essays, each of which is divided into sections, devised according to themes relevant to that particular period. The third essay, for example, ‘Illusionism and reorientation 1640-1651’, consists of sections on ‘Portraits 1639-1642’; ‘The Night Watch’; ‘Famous examples: Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Leyden’; ‘Self-portrait’; ‘Geertje Dircks, landscapes and a time of transition; and ‘Reorientation’. The essays are very good on biographical detail, as well as at offering a good analysis of individual works. Overall they provide an excellent overview of the artist, discussing the artist/s stylistic development, iconographical features and unusual characteristics of the work in question.

Although understandably not aspiring to the massive coverage of each picture offered by the Rembrandt Research Project; the catalogue entries are well informed, up-to-date and eminently readable. They address the usual questions, adding for good measure a selected bibliography for each picture up to 2015. But provenance, apart from pictures identified in seventeenth-century collections, is not discussed, and for this one is, it is hard to believe, forced to go back to Hofstede de Groot (1915); which, of course, is now seriously out of date. (Compiling a history of collections of Rembrandt’s paintings would be a rewarding project for a provenance-minded scholar.) Dating is dealt with succinctly without getting immersed with minutiae. The coverage of iconography is exceptionally good, giving not only the authors’ opinions but also those of others – such as in the entry devoted to the painting of Danae (Hermitage, St Petersburg) (no. 105), listing all the very varied thoughts on this matter. Thanks to the co-authorship of Marieke de Winkel, costume is described in more detail than in any other catalogue of Rembrandt’s paintings. This covers not only what is being worn in a particular picture, but also how far it relates to fashion, such as the beret in the painting of Titus (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) (no. 374). This not only became a distinguishing mark of the artist but was adopted up by his pupils who portrayed themselves in similar headgear.

As the authors write, ‘the main focus does not lie in the problems of attribution.’ If a work is not in the book, it is not – in the authors’ opinion – by Rembrandt. Some 41 pictures about which they have some reservations are marked with an asterisk, but in general these doubts are not examined in detail. On the whole this works out well, but there are occasions when one regrets the authors’ reticence; as in the case of three well known paintings, regrettably not illustrated on a large scale – namely The mill (no. 140) (National Gallery of Art), David playing before Saul (no. 26) (Mauritshuis) and The Polish rider (no. 131) (Frick Collection). All three were greatly admired for three centuries, but were recently rejected, and even more recently restored to the fold by Van de Wetering (2015), yet not to universal acclaim.

Left: Interior of Rembrandt: The complete paintings.

Middle: Interior of Rembrandt: The complete paintings.

Right: Interior of Rembrandt: The complete paintings.

It is natural for Rembrandt specialists to want to compare the oeuvre as defined by Manuth with that laid down by Van de Wetering. Owing to the limited concordance it is, as already mentioned, time-consuming to discover what pictures are accepted by Van de Wetering yet are not included here. In fact, the difference between the two lists amounts to no more than about a dozen works, some of which are limited to heads. I will restrict my comment to two pictures. I was able to study the Self-portrait (Van de Wetering, no.134), at Buckland Abbey (National Trust), when it was being restored, and became convinced it was entirely by Rembrandt. The case of Hendrickje Stoffels (Van de Wetering, no. 277), Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, is more difficult to decide; but I became convinced by Van de Wetering’s extensive analysis. The objection that it is on panel – which Rembrandt did not, apart from in one or two small pictures – use at this late stage in his career, is not entirely persuasive since throughout his life he showed himself technically varied and not to be pinned down to hard and fast rules.

Manuth plausibly adds two paintings to the oeuvre not included by Van de Wetering; a brunaille of Samson and Delilah (no. 4), in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, often attributed to Jan Lievens but more convincingly to Rembrandt; and the Self-portrait with a gold chain (no. 163), dated 1655, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which was included in Corpus IV (no. 11), but excluded from Corpus VI.

I would like to end by bringing back into contention, two paintings either formerly in or still in the British Royal Collection, which have been omitted by both Manuth and Van de Wetering. Namely, the early Self-portrait (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and the Head of an old woman (Rembrandt’s mother?). Both were described as being by Rembrandt in Charles I’s inventory of 1637-1639, compiled by Abraham van der Doort, and although attributions made in the past are just as fallible as those made today, I believe, firmly in the case of the former, and on balance in the case of the latter. The alternative attribution for the Self-portrait to Isaac de Jouderville, made by Van der Wetering, [A corpus of Rembrandt paintings, IV, 2005, pp. 91-92.] has to be unconvincingly based on his only documented work, the distinctly odd painting of a Young man, in the National Gallery of Ireland. Although acknowledging the force of the argument; I still prefer an attribution to Rembrandt rather than to Lievens for the Head of an old woman (Rembrandt’s mother?) [See: C. White with R. de Sancha, Dutch pictures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London 2015, pp. 302-306]. Both works were firmly reattributed to Rembrandt; the former by Christopher Brown and the latter by Christiaan Vogelaar, in the recent Leiden/Oxford exhibition (2019/20), entitled 'Young Rembrandt' [catalogue of Young Rembrandt, nos. 3 and 27, respectively.]

From the design and presentation, Rembrandt: The complete paintings was clearly intended as a luxury volume for the reinforced coffee table, but it has proved to be a much more serious contribution to Rembrandt studies than might have been anticipated. It is to be hoped that no one seriously interested in the master’s paintings will be put off by its size, weight and cost.

Christopher White

CITE AS:
Christopher White, 'Review of: Rembrandt: The complete paintings', Oud Holland Reviews, March 2021.