Oud Holland

Review of: Rembrandt's roughness (2018)

JUNE 2021
David de Witt

Review of: Nicola Suthor, Rembrandt’s roughness, Princeton and Oxford [Princeton University Press], 2018

If Arnold Houbraken’s (1660-1719) chief lament with Rembrandt was the lack of finish within his work; roughness has since become one of his most celebrated aspects, from at least the nineteenth century onwards. Subsequent generations have read their own meanings into Rembrandt’s rough manner/style, while conceding its brilliance and expressive power – and has spawned imitations in various modes. Only in the last decades, however, has there also been an effort to peel away later layers, in order to retrieve the context and that thinking, which generated these works.

The reader picking up a copy of Nicola Suthor’s 2018 book, Rembrandt’s roughness, might expect extensive engagement with some of these prominent recent developments in scholarship on the artist. Yet there is no mention of Ernst van de Wetering’s discussion of Rembrandt’s experiment with a rough style in The laughing man in the Mauritshuis (fig. 1), to demonstrate a painterly equivalent of the genera dicendi in speaking, or even Van der Wetering’s proposition that Rembrandt took Vasari’s description of Titian’s late style (as translated by Van Mander) as a model in pursuing roughness in his own late style.1 It is in the book’s introduction that the author instead takes as her starting point, recent contributions by Svetlana Alpers and Mieke Bal,2 while seeking to reset the discussion by engaging with the methods and priorities of phenomenology.

Suthor's book is an English version (no translator is mentioned) of her 2014 German publication Rembrandts Rauheit: eine phänomenologische Untersuchung; Alpers and Bal subsequently resurface, along with many other sources. Indeed, this book is strangely riddled with quotations of writers from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries so much – that they even begin to feel like a substitute text. This tendency extends to the book’s premise (introduction, p. 12), which is a reaffirmation that, “Alpers’ ‘precondition' for understanding the meaning of Rembrandt’s works is his impasto", which creates a, “disturbance of semantic balance.” With an artist like Rembrandt however, who commanded many elements, and their interactions, such an effort at encapsulating them raises questions from the start, and even more throughout.

Left: Cover of Rembrandt's roughness.

Middle: fig. 1 Rembrandt, The laughing man, c. 1629/1630, oil on panel, 15.3 × 12.2 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. 598.

Right: fig. 2 Rembrandt, Moses with the tablets of the law, c. 1659, oil on canvas, 168.5 × 136.5 cm., inv. 598. cm., Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. 811.  

Suthor is not engaging with phenomenology as a whole, with no mention of its dominant figure, the controversial Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) for instance. Her encounter with this very broad movement instead draws attention to several French philosophers in this camp who published on art and on Rembrandt – such as Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).The author also makes regular references to later French writings, especially Roland Barthes (1915-1980). But it is still up to Suthor to demonstrate what, exactly, this philosophical approach offers the reader, and the viewer of Rembrandt's art. Despite its convoluted path, the exercise winds up being reductive. Vast swaths of Rembrandt scholarship are missing here; iconography is dismissed as the ‘mere’ pursuit of symbolism. The demarcation does not always hold: iconographical research/analyses by Christian Tümpel (1937-2009) is allowed on stage, for instance, when the occasion suits the author. Indeed there is nothing to suggest that study of subject matter, or the individual, cultural and intellectual contexts they address, should not be part of phenomenological experience of a work of art.

These and other approaches evidently do not suit the aspirational energy that surfaces in the interpretations to which the author steers in the conclusion of chapters. These are often phrased in tortuous, evasive language that evokes an atmosphere of mystery – which seems to mimic the philosophers cited above. The term ‘mystery’ is even used several times. It does not, then, surprise us that we build up to a grand climax centring on Rembrandt’s confrontation with the ultimate mystery: death itself, within the final chapter. The only thing missing is Faust (as the index confirms). The book is loosely structured into a succession of discussions of several dozen works, mostly well-known paintings, by Rembrandt, in five chapters, with thematic titles: Claire-Obscur I: Shadow play, Deepened insight: On the visibility of Rembrandt’s imprimaturs, Claire-obscure II: Light play, The colour red as visionary space. Suthor constructs an experience of each work by weaving together quotations by various writers, accompanied by comments, observations and interpretations. These are Suthor’s phenomenological readings; here a kind of collective experience of each work, engaging a community, flagging alliances with frequent quotations, and conspicuously excluding others.

The fourth chapter, for instance, in which the title keywords are reflectivity and translucence, focuses on the late, and sketchy depiction of Moses with the tablets of the law (fig. 2). First is formal commentary, and iconographical analysis (including Tümpel); Suthor then describes the light it as we see it, coming from the left side, consistent with the light on the arms: it appears to graze the side of the mountain and illuminate the upper half of Moses' body. Following Joseph Koerner (and overlooking Van de Wetering),4 the light serves as a sign of the painting’s being finished and completed. The buildup of bold brush strokes in a “mass of lead white” provides “spatial extension” (p. 131). Toward the end of the chapter the reader is asked to imagine that the light striking Moses’s head is instead coming from the back of the tablets Moses holds above his head. The description of the painting’s technique as “diverse execution” is converted to “inconsistency of facture” (p. 131) in the next paragraph, beginning a discussion of Aristotle with the bust of Home(fig. 3). Here, Suthor adopts Svetlana Alpers’s claim that the colour of Aristotle’s hand is aligned with that of the stone.However, not only is it clearly distinct, even darker and redder than Aristotle’s face, but Rembrandt’s remarkable evocation of the figure in thought, through his command of subtle elements of restrained facial expression, is demoted to superficial linking by colour (a link sufficiently established by gesture). Simultaneously, no reference is made to Walter Liedtke's (1945-2015) epic exposition of the work’s meaning, and Jonathan Bikker’s considered response to it.6

Left: fig. 3 Rembrandt, Aristotle with a bust of Homer, 1653, oil on canvas, 143.5 × 136.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 61.198.

Middle: Detail of fig. 3.

Right: fig. 4 Rembrandt, Self-portrait as a laughing soldier, c. 1628, oil on copper, 22.2 x 17.1 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, inv. 2013.60.

It appears that with "inconsistency" that (p. 131) Suthor is referring to Rembrandt’s range of facture; from smooth to rough, from fine to sketchy. At other times we get the impression that the author's concern is not brushwork per se, but surface texture (known as kenlijkheid, a critically important term excavated by Van de Wetering,7 and completely missing from this text). It could also simply be open facture. There can be no doubt that Rembrandt's late Moses showcased the potential of combining such elements in a single painting. While it appears that the artist regarded this work as finished, it remains a question whether elements such as the bold black lines reflect what would normally be a preparatory stage, or whether they transfer the open technique used in drawings to evoke large, hard, rough rocks not far back from the foreground, in a completely daring way.

Suthor’s use of such negative terms as “inconsistency” begs the question: where does one place the boundary of “consistency”; the hint of error denies Rembrandt his conscious experiment. But Rembrandt simply commands a wider range of brush work and finish within a given work than his peers. There are indeed so many instances of brilliant strokes and combinations, that one gets the idea that Rembrandt started increasingly to lean on his capacity for spontaneous performance, in direct application of paint, much like the naked performance of drawing, where decisiveness is one of the main criteria that scholars such as Nicola Courtright and Peter Schatborn (also not mentioned here), apply in identifying his hand.8

The premise of such extended ‘phenomenological’ experiences of each work is that we are compelled by Rembrandt’s technique. This is in turn based on a baffling premise, namely, that Rembrandt generates a difficult or frustrated experience of the space in his works, through his impasto. It yields a “disturbance”, which, “generates opacity and prevents a direct view of what is being represented through the paint medium” (p. 13). Here, and at various points in the book, Suthor repeats this assertion and variations on it as a given. However, it makes no sense, as the artist applies the overlying paint for us to see, and there is nothing underneath that constitutes something that ‘is being represented’, which is covered up. The function of Rembrandt’s impasto is of course, inevitably in interplay, built up in layers or set against translucent areas (an even, opaque layer yields a flat effect). It catches and welcomes the viewer’s eye, sparking the experience of space and form, and serving to heighten our perception of a third dimension.

It will by this point be clear that the author is completely uninitiated with respect to a core art theoretical term vital to understanding Rembrandt’s work: namely, houding. The index confirms that this crucial term appears only once in the entire book, in a note.9 As Paul Taylor elucidated in a brilliant article, Sandrart provides the clearest explanation of the concept’s use and meaning, while also crowning Rembrandt as its greatest practitioner.10 The effect of forms and surfaces advancing and receding in space is not only mastered, but also rendered a pleasurable experience. Rembrandt corralled dozens of elements in its service, but none so spectacularly and singularly as the bold, decisive stroke of the loaded brush. This striking element merits further study. Besides available art historical methods, one could also explore emerging approaches to examining experience of art works, including research on brain and neural activity, experimental study of behaviour and response, in order to better understand aesthetic response, as well as recognition of forms and space in two-dimensional art works consisting of loose marks. Rembrandt’s situation also poses questions about the role of wider questions of human behaviour such as personality types and group formation. Tellingly, research in these areas, leaning on observation, data and analysis, have generally not referred to phenomenology – whose aspirational extravagances and embrace of mysteries betray a fascination with the hierarchical impulses of past political, religious and social systems.

As many claims here are presented at face value, without references, and presumably the product of experience and writerly invention, it is disconcerting to note their frequent unreliability. Suthor asserts that the text on the page in the Self-portrait as St. Matthew (1661) has been “crossed out” (p. 139), whereas the horizontal bands serve as a common abbreviation for printed lines. Later (p. 183), we read that it is, “remarkable that Rembrandt would disfigure his face with laughter,” in apparent ignorance of his etched physiognomic studies of emotion in his own face (NH67-70), and the celebrated rediscovered oil on copper now in the Getty (fig. 4). Coming to the man in the tall hat in the Hundred guilder print, Suthor fails to recognise Erasmus, and Luther beside him, and Socrates as well, but Winner’s overreaching identification of the old woman and the young black woman as prostitutes is uncritically adopted. We have Houbraken playing on the word “nose” as a term referring to sagging paint, in deriding a thickly-painted nose in a portrait (p. 17),11 but there is no evidence that he or anyone else used this term in this way, and no supporting reference to the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal or even directly to a contemporary text. The claim that “Rembrandt’s painting style, in the mid-seventeenth century [was] still considered the only one worth imitating…” (p. 31) is at least five years too late in its timing, as the literature on the Oranjezaal, and on Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) and Govert Flinck (1650-1680) reveals.12

In one of the book’s most interesting moments, and promising contributions, Rembrandt’s statement that a piece is finished when the artist has achieved his intention, is linked to a passage from Spinoza (p. 28), about the need to know the maker’s intention for a work in order to judge its completeness and perfection.

For Suthor, the key to Rembrandt’s work has already been located, in his impasto, and some readers may well welcome the present volume’s repackaging of Rembrandt. It leaves out much of the scholarly discussion, however, though admittedly, one cannot cite all the literature on Rembrandt. Vast as it is, there does remain room for another study of the roughness in Rembrandt’s oeuvre; one giving greater priority to his thinking about houding, kenlijkheid and other ideas; his development; his oil sketches; and the interchange between painting and drawing. As recent scholarship and exhibitions confirm, there is a fundamental human interest in making things, and in how things are made; one that is perhaps especially applicable to Rembrandt’s complex works.

David de Witt
Senior curator, Rembrandthuis

1 E. van de Wetering, A corpus of Rembrandt paintings IV: Self-portraits. Dordrecht, 2020, p. 170, and: ‘Rembrandt’s Method–technique in the service of illusion’, in: Rembrandt. The master and his workshop, Amsterdam/Berlin/ London 1991, pp. 12-39. 

2 S. Alpers, Rembrandt’s enterprise: the studio and the market, Chicago 1988; M. Bal, Reading ‘Rembrandt’: beyond the word-image opposition, Cambridge 1991.

3 Various titles, mainly: E. Husserl, Phantasy, Image consciousness, and memory (1898-1925), trans. J. B. Brough, Dordrecht 2005; M. Merleau-Ponty, The prose of the world, C. Lefort (ed.), trans. J. O’Neill, Evanston 1973.

4 J. L. Koerner, ‘Rembrandt and the epiphany of the face’, RES: Anthropology and aesthetics12 (1986), pp. 5-32.

5 S. Alpers 1991 (note 2), p. 25.

6 Entry on the painting in: W. Liedtke, Dutch paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 2, New York 2007, pp. 629-654, no. 151; J. Bikker, in: Rembrandt: The late works, London/Amsterdam 2014, pp. 216.

7 E. van de Wetering, A corpus of Rembrandt paintings IV: Self-portraits. Dordrecht 2010, p. 117.

8 N. Courtright, ‘Origins and meaning of Rembrandt's late drawing style,’ The art bulletin 78 (1996): pp. 485–510; P. Schatborn, Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils: Telling the difference, Los Angeles 2009.

9 N. Suthor, Rembrandt’s roughness, Princeton/Oxford 2018, pp. 205, note 2.

10 P. Taylor, ‘The concept of houding in Dutch art theory’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55 ( 1992), pp. 210- 232.

11 A. Houbraken, Groote schouburgh der Nederlandtsche konstchilders en schilderessen, The Hague 1718, p. 269.

12 J. G. van Gelder, ‘De schilders van de Oranjezaal’, Nederlands kunsthistorisch jaarboek 2 (1948/1949), pp. 119-164; and: N. Middelkoop, L. van Sloten, T. van der Molen, D. de Witt, Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck: Rembrandt's master pupils, Amsterdam 2018.

David de Witt, 'Review of: Rembrandt's roughness', Oud Holland Reviews, June 2021.