Title: Rembrandt’s Jews
Author: Steven Nadler
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
There is currently a major retrospective of the works of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn at the Fine Arts Museum in Boston. Rembrandt, who was born in 1606 in Leiden, the Netherlands, became one of the most prolific painters of all time.
Rembrandt, who is particularly known for his psychological insight, worked in many media, including oils, charcoal, and, famously, in copperplate etchings from which he “pulled” numerous prints in various editions. He experimented with colors, chiaroscuro (light and shade), pigments and artistic materials.
Moving his artist’s atelier and workrooms from Leiden to Amsterdam was particularly propitious, both for his own livelihood and for his many new patrons - and willing subjects – Amsterdam’s Jewish community. In this book Mr. Nadler provides not merely some biography of the artist, who is called the “Master of Masters,” but quite a bit of history of the Amsterdam kehilla and some of its members who were among Rembrandt’s subjects and patrons.
Seventeenth-century Amsterdam must have been an exciting place to live and work in. Located at the center of several trade routes, and with a very liberal attitude among its ruling elite, it became a magnet for Jews who were escaping persecution from Germany, Poland and Russia to the east and from the Iberian Peninsula to the south. As was the case in America, the Spanish and Portuguese conversos and other Sephardic Jews were the first to arrive, followed by their Ashkenazic brethren in later years.
Rembrandt established his atelier in the home he purchased at No. 4 Breestraat, which is now a museum incorporating many extant examples of his work. Within short walking distance are the Portuguese (Sephardic) and Ashkenazic synagogues, at which many of his subjects and patrons attended religious services.
Why were they such willing subjects and such avid patrons? According to Nadler, a “great and abiding fiction about Judaism is… wholesale rejection of visual arts,” that we don’t issue or collect representational art of people, animals or nature (i.e., landscapes). This is based on a literal interpretation of the second commandment, forbidding “graven images.”
Nadler points out this fallacy, and at least partly attributes the patronage of Amsterdam’s Jewish community to their need for “public relations” to demonstrate their arrival and success as a community, and their need to memorialize their lifestyle and momentous occasions. Remember – they didn’t have cameras. Many attribute the prominence of Jewish artists and collectors in abstract art to this cause. The Jewish community in Amsterdam and in the Netherlands in general achieved much success, and the art of Rembrandt and other artists of his time served to demonstrate their achievements.
Rembrandt is depicted as the only artist of his time who accurately included Hebrew phrases – in Hebrew – in various works. It is said that he studied Hebrew while a student at the University of Leiden, and that his portrait subject and patron, Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, and others assisted him in accurately representing the Hebrew text exactly as it appeared in the siddur. Most other artists of his time merely “scribbled” lines of hieroglyphics as representational of Hebrew in their own works.
Professor Nadler is director of the Moses/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and is also the author of Spinoza: A Life, for which he was awarded the Year 2000 Koret Jewish Book Award for biography, as well as other titles. Although the present book is also quite nuanced with art history and historical biography, Nadler covers a lot of ground in a succinct, very readable, style. He touches on economics, geography, architecture and ethnography of the Jewish communities of the time. This thin volume (6×9 quarto, less than 250 pages, with index and chapter endnotes) packs in as much
information as a textbook, with the readability of a novel. This difficult-to-categorize book can even have its place as a Baedeker – a travel guide – the next time you make the “Grand Tour” and visit the artist’s studios and the synagogues and former Jewish residences in Amsterdam.