Oud Holland

Review of: 'A Rembrandt invention: A new baptism of the eunuch' (2020)

June 2021

Review of: Gary Schwartz, A Rembrandt invention: A new baptism of the eunuch, Leiden [Primavera Press], 2020

One of the most insightful displays in the exhibition ‘Young Rembrandt – Rising Star’, held at the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden (2 November 2019-9 February 2020), thematised Rembrandt’s early versions of the theme of the baptism of the eunuch. The combination of a painting by Rembrandt’s teacher Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), with Rembrandt’s own version from 1626 and three works after his design, invited close study of the young artist’s approach to what became one of the most popular scenes from the New Testament in seventeenth-century Dutch art.1 The display included one formerly unknown work that is now in the collection of Bernard Allien (fig. 1). The cataloguers Christopher Brown and Christaan Vogelaar attribute the painting to Rembrandt and studio, and date it to c. 1630-1635. This painting is the topic of a little book by Gary Schwartz. In circa 15.000 words and 90 figures, he examines its relationship to several prints and one painting after Rembrandt, to conclude that there are, "powerful indications that the painting emerged as an original product of Rembrandt’s studio, designed by the master, and painted under his supervision, perhaps with his participation, in the workshop" (p. 77).

The text opens with some general but valuable considerations about the baptism of the eunuch as a topic in Dutch art. Schwartz shows that, ignoring the complexities of the Biblical text in Acts, chapter 8, verses 26-39; artists reduced the narrative to the moment of the baptism of the nameless treasurer of the Ethiopian Queen Candace by Philip – one of the seven deacons assigned by the apostles to spread the faith. Following attempts from Rome to forge unions with eastern Christian churches, including that of Ethiopia, the earliest known depiction is in the Bible of Evert Soudenbalch from circa 1465. During the sixteenth century the topic was often invoked to honour patrons named Philip, such as Philip the Good (1396-1467), Philip II (1527-1598) and Philip de Ligne (1533-1583). By 1575, it was popular enough to be included in Maarten van Heemskerck’s (1498-1574) printed suite of the acts of the apostles. But it was Lastman who established the visualisation that would dominate throughout the seventeenth century. The appeal of the scene, Schwartz argues, lies in the opportunities to explore contrasts between landscape and figures, opulence and simplicity and black and white, in combination with a widely appealing message of conversion and redemption.

Left: Cover of A Rembrandt invention: A new baptism of the eunuch.

Middle left: fig. 1 Here attributed to Rembrandt and studio, The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1630-1635, oil on panel, 64.8 x 95.3 cm., Bernard Allien Collection (Photograph: Doro Keman).

Center: fig. 2 Jan Gillisz. van Vliet after Rembrandt, The baptism of the eunuch, 1631, etching, 592 x 49.1 cm., Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam, inv. 278.

Middle right: fig. 3 Here attributed to Rembrandt and studio, The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1630 and later, oil on panel, 115.1 x 90 cm., The Kremer Collection, New York.

Right: fig. 4 Claes Jansz. Visscher after Rembrandt, The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1650, engraving 36.9 x 31.5 Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. L 2014/1 b 109 (PK).

As is well known since Henri Defoer’s discovery of the painting he was able to acquire for the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht; Rembrandt painted his own version of his master’s model in 1626.2 Schwartz convincingly demonstrates that the puzzling garment of the eunuch must be a sheep skin mantle – a meaningful detail that Rembrandt may have taken from Erasmus (1466-1536), who had written in his Paraphrases that the eunuch would be dressed in ‘the snow white fleece of the immaculate lamb’, as an obvious reference to his conversion to Christianity. Rembrandt revisited the topic a number of times between 1626, and circa 1655. A drawing by his own hand, an etching by Jan van Vliet (1600/1610-1668) after his design (fig. 2), an anonymous painting in the Kremer Collection (fig. 3), the painting in the collection of Bernard Allien (fig. 1) and an engraving by Claes Jansz Visscher (1586-1652) with the same composition (fig. 4) all point to Rembrandt’s fascination for the topic in the early-1630s. Schwartz’s conclusion that the newly discovered painting should be placed in Rembrandt’s studio rests on the hypothesis that it is the model from which all other versions are derived, contrary to the conventional idea that Visscher’s engraving (fig. 4) is a reworking of Van Vliet’s etching (fig.2).

His first argument is the print by Visscher that closely resembles the painting and that bears the inscription ‘Rembrandt invent’, which unambiguously names the master as the inventor. Next, Schwartz points to similarities between motives in the Allien painting and works of Rembrandt from the early-1630s. Although there are some clear connections, many fail to convince because they are too generic. Also, the execution of some of the details is so awkward that it is difficult to place the painting in Rembrandt’s studio. For example, the comparison between the folds in the sleeve of Philip and the folds in the sleeve of Europa in the Abduction of Europa from 1632 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), does not convince: their pattern follows a well-established model, they are painted entirely differently and are of different materials, which makes them difficult to compare (figs. 76 and 77, in the book).

The technical features as described by Regina Costa Pinto, the conservator who treated the painting, are a third argument to place the painting in Rembrandt’s studio. However, these too are not very specific for Rembrandt: the work was painted from back to front, some areas were kept in reserve and there are a few slight pentimenti. The panel, ground, underpainting and ‘some other features’ (p. 65, just which features is not indicated) are said to resemble early Rembrandt painting – but without more detail, this is difficult to assess. Also, Rembrandt’s materials and techniques varied widely, making it hard to point out specific procedures.3 The right edge of the painting is clearly damaged, but it is not clear whether it really has been trimmed, and if it has, to what degree. Schwartz points to the similarity between the edges of the composition in the Allien painting (fig. 1) and the prints of Van Vliet (fig. 2) and Visscher (fig. 4), to argue that the prints were made after the painting was trimmed. But the reverse option cannot be entirely excluded: the painting was made after Visscher’s print, and the damage to its edge is only slight. This in fact is the old scenario, in which Visscher’s engraving is a variant on the composition that is known through Van Vliet’s etching.

Dendrochronology dates the latest of the three planks that constitute the Allien panel between 1629 and 1631, but Dr. Klein, who carried out the research in 2012, places the panel a bit later in the 1630s. However, Schwartz prefers the early date because, "it seems highly unlikely that a painting with this look would have emerged from Rembrandt’s studio, when his own approach to history painting had moved so far away from his work in Leiden" (p. 65). The alternative, that the painting was not made in Rembrandt’s studio, and maybe not even in the 1630s, but possibly in the 1650s, based on Visscher’s print rather than inspiring it, is not further explored. Such a scenario is not entirely unlikely. Stylistically, the painting is far removed from Rembrandt, as Schwartz acknowledges. Schwartz also explains that it was painted over another work, representing a still life. The logical assumption would be that this still life is the painting that was made on the panel in the 1630s, which puts the overlaid painting of the Baptism of the eunuch automatically at a later point in time. 

‘Young Rembrandt – Rising Star’ beautifully demonstrated how important the topic of the baptism of the eunuch was to Rembrandt, and that in the early-1630s the artist had created a composition that was widely appreciated. Gary Schwartz’s detailed study defines and elaborates on that important moment. He certainly presents an interesting new hypothesis about the new painting, but as long as alternative scenarios remain an option, his argumentation does not entirely convince. In fact, Christiaan Vogelaar, in the exhibition catalogue Young Rembrandt, has introduced another possibility. Technical analysis of the Kremer painting (fig. 3) has shown "that it was painted over an original painting in shades of brown." 4 This original painting (assuming it is not an elaborate underpainting corresponds entirely to Van Vliet’s etching, which leads Vogelaar to consider whether the lost modello for this etching lies hidden under the colourful work we see today. The fact that Rembrandt did occasionally make modelli in shades of brown for his prints supports this hypothesis, although these modelli are normally much smaller.5 If the hidden modello was indeed Rembrandt’s original design, there is no need to look for another one. Yet Vogelaar also suggests Visscher’s print was based on the Allien painting, which would mean that there were two models for two related compositions: a horizontal and a vertical one.

One of the values of Schwartz’s book is that it does not end a discussion, but rather seems to start one. The wider context for it is provided by Vogelaar’s essay for Young Rembrandt, wherein he discusses Rembrandt’s workshop in Leiden, and how the painter may have travelled back and forth between Leiden and Amsterdam from 1631 until 1634, to manage the Leiden workshop.6 This important issue was not addressed in the predecessor to Young Rembrandt – the exhibition ‘The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt’, from 2001.7 Schwartz’s carefully constructed arguments highlight just how little we know about Rembrandt’s workshop, and how important it is that we soon learn more about it.8 Uncovering that knowledge will be a challenging yet rewarding task, and its results would make a great exhibition. 

Elmer Kolfin
University of Amsterdam

1 They were: Pieter Lastman, The baptism of the eunuch, 1615-1620 (Fondation Custodia, Paris); Rembrandt, The baptism of the eunuch, 1626 (Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht); Jan Gillisz van Vliet after Rembrandt, The baptism of the eunuch, 1631 (Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam); Rembrandt and studio, The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1630 and later (The Kremer Collection); Claes Jansz. Visscher after Rembrandt, The The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1635 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam); and Rembrandt and studio, The baptism of the eunuch, c. 1630-1635 (Bernard Allien Collection). See, also: C. Brown et al. (eds.), Young Rembrandt, Oxford 2019, pp. 144-151.

2 H. L. M. Defoer, ‘Rembrandt van Rijn. De doop van de kamerling’, Oud Holland 91 (1977), pp. 2-26.

3 The most valuable text remains: E. van de Wetering, ‘Painting materials and working methods of the young Rembrandt’, in E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The painter at work, Amsterdam 1997, pp. 10-46.

4 C. Brown et al. (eds.) 2019 (note 1), p. 146.

5 E. van de Wetering, ‘Remarks on Rembrandt’s oil sketches for etchings’, in E. Hinterding et al. (eds.), Rembrandt the printmaker, Amsterdam/Zwolle, 2000, pp. 23-36.

6 C. Vogelaar, ‘Ten years of struggle: Rembrandt in Leiden and Amsterdam, 1624-1634’, in Brown et al (eds.) 2019 (note 1), pp. 28-31.

7 E. van de Wetering and B. Schnackenburg (eds.), The mystery of the young Rembrandt, Amsterdam/Kassel 2001.

8 This is also borne by the essay of Martin Bijl, ‘Gerrit Dou as a pupil of Rembrandt’, in S. Dickey (ed.), Rembrandt and his circle: Insights and discoveries, Amsterdam 2017, pp. 169-189.

Elmer Kolfin, 'Review of: A Rembrandt invention: A new baptism of the eunuch', Oud Holland Reviews, June 2021.