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Book review: “Lives of Rembrandt: Sandrart, Baldinucci and Houbraken,” introduced by Charles Ford

Rembrandt had been dead for half a century when Arnold Houbraken wrote in one of the earliest biographies of the painter:

And as to his female nudes, the noblest subject for the artist’s brush, the representation of which earned the fullest attention of the most celebrated old masters, well, as the proverb says, “too sad a song either to be sung or to be played.” His nudes are all sickening displays and one is astonished that a man of so much talent and imagination could have been so perverse in the selection of what to paint.

Later, Houbraken quotes poet Andries Pels:

If, as he sometimes did, he painted a naked woman,
He took no Grecian Venus as his model but rather
A washerwoman, or a peat-treader from a barn.
He called this idiocy “copying nature”
And everything else vain ornament. Flabby breasts,
Contorted hands, even the creases left by straps
On the body, or garters on the leg,
They must all be copied else nature was not satisfied,

His nature, that is, which tolerated neither rules
Nor principles of proportion in the human figure.

So, here is Rembrandt, one of the giants of Western art, being excoriated for his “sickening” nudes of washerwomen and other non-Venuses.

And that’s just an example of how Houbraken and two other early biographers, Joachim Sandrart and Filippo Baldinucci, take Rembrandt to task for being so bad while being so good,

Being so bad while being so good

These three biographies are collected in a short (95-page) book, “The Lives of Rembrandt,” published in 2007 with an introduction by Charles Ford, an expert on 17th century Dutch art.

As much fault as these writers find with Rembrandt, they can’t dispute his great popularity in their era (and ever since), and, to one extent or another, acknowledge his great skill. For instance, Sandrart, writing in 1675, six years after the artist’s death, notes his “high eminence…gained through immense hard work, his innate predilection and natural talent.”

Still, he criticizes the painter because, instead of addressing high-faluting topics, he “mostly painted ordinary subjects, subjects without special significance, subjects that pleased him and were schilderachtig [painterly] as the people of the Low Countries say.”

Eleven years later, Baldinucci credits Rembrandt’s success mostly to luck, and holds not only the painter’s religion against him but also his physical appearance. He was, says Baldinucci, a believer in “a false religion” as a Mennonite — modern scholars aren’t sure if he really was a member of that group — and he was hard on the eyes:

The ugly and plebian face by which he was ill-favored, was accompanied by untidy and dirty clothes, since it was his custom, when working, to wipe his brushes on himself, and to do other things of a similar nature.

“Laid on with a trowel”

Then comes Houbraken who is upset that, working rapidly, Rembrandt applied his paint with thick, sharp strokes:

This was especially the case during his last years when, seen from nearby, his paintings looked as if they had been laid on with a trowel…It is said that he once painted a portrait with paint so thick that one could pick it up by its nose.

Even so, Houbraken is honest enough to note that “it is on account of this manner of working that his pieces appear so powerful, even when seen from a distance.”

What’s going on here?

More than three centuries after Rembrandt’s life, his paintings and other art are still considered among the masterworks of western humanity. So why were these three critics, all painters, so quick to pick nits?

Coloring outside the lines

It boils down to the final two lines of the quote from the Pels poem: “His nature…tolerated neither rules/Nor principles of proportion in the human figure.”

Rembrandt was a rule-breaker. That’s the indictment these three level against him. They know he was esteemed. They know he was talented — and worked hard. But they are aghast at his unwillingness to color inside the lines.

This was not the first or last time a great artist was denigrated by the art establishment.

As representatives of that establishment, the Sandrarts, Baldinuccis and Houbrakens of any era play an important role in attempting to understand what makes art art. Their commentaries help artists and the public understand why and how art happens.

Houbraken has a rather touching paragraph in which he describes how Dutch artists, unschooled and unprepared, try to paint nudes from life and fail miserably.

Training and preparation are essential for most artists.

“What he set out to do”

But, then, there are the Rembrandts of history. They ignore the “proper” way of creating art, and just create art.

Houbraken, in particular, complains in several places of Rembrandt’s failure to paint “beautiful” things as opposed to ordinary and even ugly subjects. But Rembrandt didn’t give a whit about beautiful. At least, not the “beautiful” as defined by the art establishment.

Instead, he looked at the lumpy bodies and worn faces of the real people around him and turned them into masterpieces.

He was, of course, arrogant in his way. But that’s what the Rembrandts of history — the few and far between — have a right to be.

One other thing Houbraken finds fault with is Rembrandt’s tendency to leave his works seemingly unfinished. And he supplies the artist’s own response to that critique:

A painting is completed if the Master has achieved what he set out to do.

That says it all.

Patrick T. Reardon

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