Oud Holland

Review of: ‘Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and competition’ (2021)

May 2022

Review of: Stephanie S. Dickey and Jochen Sander (eds.), Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and competition, New Haven/London [Yale University Press], 2021

In his 1968 book Rembrandt en Amsterdam, Rudi Fuchs sought to enhance the understanding of the artist by examining his output in the context of his relationship with his adopted city of Amsterdam. Fuchs proposed that the competitive commercial markets, which generated vast amounts of spendable wealth, combined with a certain level of intellectual freedom to attract the ambitious Rembrandt (1606-1669) from Leiden in 1631. It was there, in Amsterdam, that he, “could be who he was, and whom he wanted to be…,” Fuchs proclaimed.1 The artist’s relocation at the age of 25 to the metropolis, the Republic’s most dynamic city and one from which he would never move, was therefore one of the most defining moments of his career. The catalogue Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and competition, which accompanied an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main in 2021-2022, significantly extended Fuchs’s analysis by teasing out the multidimensional relationships with the artists, collectors, dealers and art objects that holistically produced such compelling work.As such, the catalogue immerses the artist deeply within the cultural milieu of his city.

The catalogue concentrates loosely on the intermediate years of the artist’s career (1630-1655), beginning with his work for the dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and ending just before his declaration of cessio bonorum. This was an incredibly rich period for the artist, one which produced the arresting and ghastly Blinding of Samson (fig. 1), but also his masterpiece in light and shadow, Christ preaching (The hundred guilder print) (fig. 2). This era sees Rembrandt’s exploration of new genres, his investigation of new techniques and the growth of his network of patrons. Focusing on a slice of the artist’s production, this volume fits nicely into the sweep of recent exhibition catalogues that concentrate on specific periods of the artist’s career, including: Rembrandt: The late works (2014), Rembrandt’s late pupils (2015), and Young Rembrandt (2019). It also harmonises with publications that locate artists in relation to their peers, like Eric Jan Sluijter’s Rembrandt’s rivals: History painting in Amsterdam, 1630-1650 (2015), Vermeer and the masters of genre painting: Inspiration and rivalry (2017) and Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt emerges (2019).3 By studying one period of the artist’s oeuvre in the scope of a broader artistic landscape, this catalogue privileges Rembrandt’s relationships with other artists at mid-career as a primary factor in his “genius.”

Cover of Rembrandt and Amsterdam: Creativity and competition

Middle left: fig. 1 Rembrandt, The blinding of Samson, 1636, oil on canvas, 236 x 302 cm., Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Middle right: fig. 2 Rembrandt, The hundred guilder print, etching print, drypoint print and burin on paper, c. 1646-1650. 28 x 39.4 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Right: fig. 3 Rembrandt, Portrait of a young woman, 1632, oil on panel, 63 x 49.8 cm., Allentown Museum, Allentown

The catalogue’s co-editors, Stephanie S. Dickey and Jochen Sander, have structured its content similarly to the 2017 Vermeer catalogue, with a series of wide-ranging contextual essays followed by shorter chapters that consider groups of objects by Rembrandt and those in his orbit, alongside a timeline. In varying ways, the 19 texts present him as an astute artist, one who grasped the subtleties of the art market and his evolving place in it. In her preliminary essay, ‘Becoming Rembrandt’, Dickey traces the artist’s beginnings in Leiden through his time in Amsterdam, naming, in particular, the many students who are represented in the catalogue. It grounds the unfamiliar reader in the artist’s life and highlights his intentional self-positioning on the Amsterdam market. Maarten Prak, in ‘Rembrandt’s Amsterdam’, offers a concise overview of the city’s historical and cultural profile in the seventeenth century, highlighting the international character of its inhabitants and its trade networks. This historical summary is particularly welcome, as it introduces the city as a vital protagonist in the publication.

Sander’s ‘Rembrandt as a brand’ elaborates the ‘Rembrandt model’ of product development, in terms of his signature and his singular imagery. A shorter essay that raises many good points, Sander’s text could draw more upon the artist’s workshop practice to reinforce his point. ‘Rembrandt and the Amsterdam art market’, written by Jasper Hillegers, explores the artist’s self-positioning on the local market, raising some interesting questions regarding a Leiden branch of Uylenburgh’s workshop,4 and the impact of large-scale history paintings by Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), Pieter de Grebber (1600-1662/3) and Jacob Backer (1608-1651) in Uylenburgh’s stock. Jonathan Bikker’s essay, ‘Rembrandt’s international ambitions’, investigates the collections of Italian art that Rembrandt may have known in Amsterdam, including that of Balthasar Coymans (1618-1690) – one of the city’s most affluent inhabitants and father-in-law to Uylenburgh. ‘Rembrandt’s portrait commissions outside Amsterdam’, by Rudi Ekkart and Claire van den Donk, analyses the striking number of sitters that the artist depicted from The Hague, Leiden, Rotterdam and Leiden in the early-1630s – positing that he connected with these patrons through Uylenburgh’s contacts, as well as his own.

The catalogue’s shorter thematic statements focus on the portraits, images of women, history paintings (including a transcription of the 1639 letter from Rembrandt to Huygens about The entombment of Christ and The resurrection of Christ),5 landscapes and genre scenes that appear in the exhibition, and are penned by Dickey, Friederike Schütt and Martin Sonnabend. These chapters provide insights into the artist’s sources and collectors’ taste, which resulted in Rembrandt’s continual reinvention of familiar subjects, as noted by Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) in his Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen.Meatier commentaries by Sonia Del Re and Robert Fucci round out the consideration of works on paper. Del Re’s essay, ‘Drawings in and out of Rembrandt’s studio’, emphasises the strong and varied output of drawings that was produced during the period covered by the exhibition, including the artist’s Two butchers at work from Frankfurt, dating to the late 1630s, which bears a chilling description reinforcing that the artist had sketched it from life.Fucci’s essay, ‘Rembrandt and the business of prints’, stresses the artist’s shrewd practices aimed at fanning the flames of collecting desire, such as regularly reworking his prints ‘mid-edition’ and sending them in bulk to eager connoisseurs.Finally, Jan Blanc’s essay ‘Why Rembrandt?’, charts the ways in which the artist’s biography and oeuvre have been marshalled, often with razor-sharp marketing savvy, to support everything from the cultural identity of the newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands to commercial toothpaste. His final point – that Rembrandt sought to reflect the “shameful and tragic realities” of the enslavement of African peoples, the marginalisation of the poor, the incarceration of the mentally ill and the imprisonment of atheists in his art as a deliberate witnessing of the complexities of the Golden Age,9 is an ambitious statement – one that invites further contemplation.

Even though many of the objects in the exhibition are frequently exhibited and well documented, the catalogue presents new attributions and research findings. Among the latest additions to Rembrandt’s oeuvre is Portrait of a young woman (fig. 3) of 1632, from the Allentown Art Museum, included as an example of a single figure in fanciful costume that elides history, allegory, portrait and genre in a deliberately cultivated ambiguity.10 When compared to a contemporaneous painting of the same sitter in The Leiden Collection, reproduced opposite it, significant variations in quality become apparent in the Allentown picture, though its attribution is not discussed: the execution of the lace collar appears summary, the definition of the body in space is particularly ill defined, and the face lacks the cranial definition and placement of features that makes the New York picture so alluring. That said, clarifying attribution is not the ambition of this volume. Rather, its objective is to map broad connections across Rembrandt’s oeuvre and those of his peers, sometimes with startling juxtapositions not commonly observed in the Rembrandt literature (with artists like Jacob van Loo (1614-1670), Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1659), and Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677), for example), or between his followers and his competitors. In a chapter titled ‘The life of Christ’, an unusual comparison between Samuel van Hoogstraten’s (1627-1678) Adoration of the child (1647, Dordrechts Museum) and Jan Baptist Weenix’s roughly contemporaneous Rest on the flight into Egypt (c. 1647-1650, Philadelphia Museum of Art) demonstrates how the ‘Rembrandt’ mode and the rising Italianate mode diverge at mid-century. Van Hoogstraten’s earthy palette and loosely-defined environment lend a solemn atmosphere to the narrative, while Weenix conjures more drama by starkly illuminating the Virgin Mary and Christ Child within a crisply defined classicising space and pressing them against the picture plane.

New ideas, such as Ekkart’s identification in 2020 of the representations commonly referred to as the ‘Van Beresteyn portraits’ as the treasurer-general to the stadholder, Thomas Brouaert (1581-1635), and his wife Johanna van Clootwijk,11 lead to tantalising conclusions. In this case, it is that Brouaert, and not the secretary to the stadholder Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), may have commissioned and presented Rembrandt’s portrait of Amalia van Solms (1602-1675), the stadholder’s consort, thus potentially relieving Huygens of some of his connoisseurial authority at court. Another fresh research nugget comes from Bikker, who discovered that Alphonso Lopez, the purchaser at a 1639 auction of Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514/5, Musée du Louvre, Paris) by Titian (1488/90-1576), had connections to Coymans’s sons in 1634, and may have come into contact with Rembrandt through them (or Huygens) earlier than scholars previously assumed.12 This leads to the hypothesis that Lopez could have acquired Rembrandt’s Balaam and the ass (1626, Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris) years earlier than was previously thought, perhaps even while living in Paris – which would expand the reach of the artist’s international reputation early in his career. Though the catalogue dispenses with questions of attribution, it also reaps the bounty of current archival investigations.

This exhibition catalogue marks the informal conclusion of 2019’s Rembrandtjaar activities – a year in which many Dutch museums commemorated the 350 years since the artist’s passing – and it demonstrates, in spades, the artist’s insatiable thirst for visual stimulus. It also reveals just how tirelessly he worked at his craft, from cultivating a highly personal collection of objects to keeping abreast of market sales to maintaining relationships with passionate collectors, despite the challenges that these behaviours posed. This beautifully produced volume is also a pleasure to read: it has copious full-page illustrations, a typeface that feels at once elegant and contemporary, and a solid binding and robust paper weight that withstand flipping between texts to consult the illustrations. Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and competition contextualises this master in a way that seamlessly emphasises his agency and his virtuosity, while also acknowledging his dialogue with the historical past and the ever-evolving present. As such, this publication secures its place among the foremost recent exhibition catalogues of the artist’s work.

Jacquelyn N. Coutré
Eleanor Wood Prince Associate Curator
Art Institute of Chicago

1 “In Amsterdam kon hij zijn wie hij was, en wilde zijn...” See: R. H. Fuchs, Rembrandt en Amsterdam, Rotterdam 1968, p. 10.

2 16 July-6 September 2021, Ottawa; 6 October 2021-30 January 2022, Frankfurt.

3 J. Bikker, G. J. M. Weber, M. E. Wieseman and E. Hinterding, Rembrandt: The late works, London/Amsterdam 2014; D. de Witt, L. van Sloten and J. van der Veen, Rembrandt’s late pupils, Amsterdam 2015; C. Brown, A. van Camp and C. Vogelaar, Young Rembrandt, Leiden/Oxford 2019; E. J. Sluijter, Rembrandt’s rivals: History painting in Amsterdam, 1630-1650, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2015; A. E. Waiboer, A. K. Wheelock, Jr. and B. Ducos (eds.), Vermeer and the masters of genre painting: Inspiration and rivalry, Dublin/Washington/Paris 2017; and J. N. Coutré (ed.), Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt emerges, Kingston/Edmonton 2019.

4 J. Hillegers, ‘Rembrandt and the Amsterdam art market’, in S. Dickey and J. Sander (eds.), Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and competition, New Haven/London 2021, p. 98.


6 S. Dickey, ‘Angelic Messengers’, in Dickey and Sander 2021 (note 4), p. 244.

7 The drawing is inscribed, ‘the skin on it and furthermore the rest trailing’ (‘t vel daer aen / ende voorts de rest / bysleepende). See: S. Del Re, ‘Drawings in and out of Rembrandt’s studio’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 305.

8 R. Fucci, ‘Rembrandt and the business of prints’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 332.

9 J. Blanc, ‘Why Rembrandt?’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 354.

10 S. Dickey, ‘Powerful Women’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 191.

11 R. Ekkart and C. van den Donk, ‘Rembrandt’s portrait commissions outside Amsterdam’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 146.

12 J. Bikker, ‘Rembrandt’s international ambitions’, in Dickey and Sander 2021, p. 125.

Jacquelyn N. Coutré, ‘Review of: Rembrandt and Amsterdam: Creativity and competition'', Oud Holland Reviews, May 2022.