As Jewish devotees of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn are fond of noting, he lived and worked in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter during the “Golden Age” of the 17th century. He painted dozens of portraits of Jews and had a relationship with at least one prominent Jewish figure — Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. As conventional wisdom goes, he must have had a deep connection to his Israelite neighbors.
Not so, says a new exhibit at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum.
Called “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” the exhibit aims to differentiate “what is myth and what is fact,” according to its curator, Mirjam Alexander. “We don’t think there’s any factual evidence to support this idea that Rembrandt was a special friend to the Jews,” she told the Forward. Part of the Netherlands’ yearlong Rembrandt 400 Festival, in honor of the artist’s quadricentennial birthday, the exhibit runs through February.
“Their take is absolutely right,” said Steven Nadler, author of “Rembrandt’s Jews” (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s been this myth of Rembrandt as this extraordinarily sympathetic philo-Semite who lived among the Jews because he had this deep feeling of identification with them,” he told the Forward. “In fact, he moved into what was the Jewish neighborhood only because it was also the center for Amsterdam’s art world.”
Indeed, one of the first installations that visitors to the exhibition will encounter is a large, interactive map of the Jewish quarter in the 1600s that shows the proximity of Rembrandt’s home to those of not only such prominent Jewish figures as Ben Israel and Baruch Spinoza, but also such important artists as Hendrick Uylenburgh, Paulus Potter and Pieter Lastman.
The subjects of Rembrandt’s portraits have provided another clue that museum representatives say has misled aficionados to associate Rembrandt with the Jews. Abraham Bredius was a 19th- and early 20th-century art collector who compiled what is still viewed as the definitive catalogue of Rembrandt’s works. It contains no fewer than 36 paintings, with such titles as “Portrait of a Young Jew” and “Portrait of an Old Jewish Man.” Two of Rembrandt’s most famous works are a portrait of prominent Jewish physician Ephraïm Bueno and an etching of Ben Israel. However, a closer look reveals that most of these paintings were either not actually done by Rembrandt or were not paintings of Jews, after all.
As a painter, Rembrandt was known for his sensitive renderings of faces and expressions. He “was famous for his humanness, for his sympathy for his portrait subjects,” Netherlands-based art historian and Rembrandt expert Gary Schwartz told the Forward. Indeed, Alexander concurred, the artist’s reputation led to the self-fulfilling prophecy whereby “any [painting of a] man with a beard, looking a bit tragic, or having a certain sensitive expression, it’s considered a rabbi, by Rembrandt.”
As part of the preparation for the current exhibition, Alexander and her team tracked down 22 of the 36 portraits in storerooms, galleries and private collections around the world. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, they researched when the paintings acquired their Jewish titles and when they were attributed to Rembrandt. They subjected the paintings to X-rays and expert scrutiny. In the end, they found “only [one] certain portrait of a Jew Rembrandt ever made”: that of Dr. Bueno. The rest were either revealed to be not by Rembrandt or to have acquired their “Jewish” titles later on, after the myth about Rembrandt and the Jews had achieved wide circulation.
It is not disputed that Rembrandt had a relationship with Ben Israel; in 1655, Rembrandt provided illustrations for an early edition of the rabbi’s book, “Piedra Gloriosa.” However, there is no evidence that the men were friends. Even the etching of Menasseh Ben Israel was given its title long after Rembrandt’s death. The Jewish Historical Museum exhibition includes Rembrandt’s etching alongside another etching; that one is by Jewish artist Salom Italia and is known to be of Ben Israel. “People can compare themselves,” Alexander said. “Do these two men look like each other? Do I see the same man?” The answer, according to art historians, is a resounding no. “The face, while there is a family resemblance — and even making an allowance for Italia’s artistic shortcomings — is not close enough,” Nadler wrote in his book.
Throughout the remainder of the exhibit, each aspect of the myth of Rembrandt and the Jews is painstakingly dismantled. Rembrandt’s painting “Jews in the Synagogue,” for example, which depicts the inside of a building that some say closely resembles Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue, is revealed to have been painted long before the synagogue was even built. The Jewish title was not given to the painting until the 18th century; a 17th-century catalog called it “Pharisees in the Temple” — “which,” Alexander said, “it clearly is.” Some of Rembrandt’s paintings, for another example, contain well-formed Hebrew characters; however, they also contain Hebrew mistakes — enough to demonstrate that Rembrandt wasn’t particularly familiar with the aleph-bet. “Belshazzar’s Feast,” in particular, mistakenly ends an Aramaic phrase with a zayin instead of with a nun sufit. An X-ray of the painting, on display in the museum’s exhibition, demonstrates Rembrandt’s process: In an attempt to make the nun sufit look like it is in the process of being written, Rembrandt simply painted over the bottom half of it — without realizing that a truncated nun sufit is actually a different letter.
In the end, the myth about Rembrandt and the Jews has “as much to do with the image people have of Jews” as it has to do with Rembrandt, Alexander said. “What most fascinated us was the perception of Jews as suffering, and Rembrandt as suffering, and that Rembrandt’s Jews would reflect his suffering.” Plus, Nadler said, the truth “helps us understand the art. Our appreciation of the art can only benefit from a deeper understanding of the life and the thought behind it.”
Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is working towards a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at The New School.