Per Contra

Summer 2007


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Rembrandt and the Jews, Revisited by Larry Silver


Sometimes important local work abroad, if it does not appear in English, goes unnoticed.  Thus when the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam recently staged a serious re-examination of the topic on the subject of Rembrandt’s relationship to the Jews, their Dutch catalogue failed to make a splash during the busy latter months of last year’s “Rembrandt year”—his 400th birthday anniversary.  Titled (in translation) The “Jewish” Rembrandt, that catalogue bore the significant subtitle “The Myth Unraveled.”  Some intimations of that viewpoint had already appeared earlier last year in Gary Schwartz’s magisterial opus, The Rembrandt Book (New York: Abrams, 2006, 299-305), but this catalogue certainly provides a bombshell of revisionism to the prevailing received wisdom on Rembrandt and his Jewish neighbors in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.


This topic has certainly received its share of thoughtful and learned book-length exposition lately.  Most notably Steven Nadler’s monograph on the subject of Rembrandt’s Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction) spelled out the historical circumstances of the issue: simply put, Amsterdam was a haven of relative tolerance for Jewish immigrants in the wake of the Inquisition persecutions in Iberia as well as pogroms in Central Europe.  Nadler reasserted the important conjunction of Rembrandt’s House in its neighborhood a mere block away from what became the Portuguese Synagogue—not to mention the later synagogue structures that have become today’s Jewish Museum in Amsterdam.  The modern tourist can visit both heritage sites, Rembrandt and the Jewish community, in the same Amsterdam excursion.           


Nadler is a historian of philosophy, a noted biographer of Spinoza.  Art historian Michael Zell also published a serious monographic study devoted to Rembrandt and the Jews (as well as Christian millenarians) in his Reframing Rembrandt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).  His subtitle claims to discuss “Jews and the Christian Tradition in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam,” but his focus remains primarily on the years of the 1650s, when many Christians in both Holland and England and some Jews, led by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, anticipated the (second) Coming of the Messiah.  It is noteworthy, though Zell does not take up the later movement, how many Amsterdam Jews were committed to the false Messiah a decade later in Asia Minor, Sabbatai Zvi (on whom see Gershom Scholem’s definitive monograph, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).


Together building on a good foundation built by Jewish and Dutch historians over the past couple of decades, both Nadler and Zell make the claim that Rembrandt fits squarely within a “philo-Semitic” climate towards the Jews in Amsterdam.  By their reckoning, the artist’s frequent depiction of Old Testament subjects, from Abraham to Daniel and Tobit, stemmed from his careful reading of the entire Bible and his sympathy for both the Jews as “People of the Book” as well as his universalizing approach to the human content of these primal stories.   Of course, philo-Semitism is largely defined by its predominant opposite, anti-Semitism, so that any toleration of Jewish life and religion in a society like Holland seems like a positive, the way sunspots for all of their heat look dark against the surface of the glowing star.  Of course, Jews were not full citizens of Amsterdam: they were excluded from local guilds, forbidden to hire Christians, and certainly proscribed from inter-marriage with the dominant culture, yet some became relatively wealthy in the new import industry of tobacco (where Jews established relative parity in the Dutch Brazil settlement in Recife), sugar, and coffee.  An important new anthology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006), edited by Jonathan Israel and Stuart Schwartz, proclaims The Expansion of Tolerance: Religion in Dutch Brazil (1624-1654).


So what, then, are we to make of the relationship of Rembrandt with his Jewish neighbors?  Sympathy and engagement, with their Bible, perhaps even their leaders?  We do know that Rembrandt etched a portrait of the Jewish physician and philanthropist Ephraim Bueno (1647), and he doubtless conferred with Menasseh ben Israel for his use of Hebrew letters in Belshazzar’s Feast (ca. 1635; London, National Gallery), prior to producing etched illustrations for Menasseh’s 1654 publication, Piedra gloriosa (“The Glorious Stone”), as leading European scholars established half a century ago.  What well-researched and thoughtful conclusions on this issue are reached by the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, which has interests in both parties of the dialogue?


These locals start with their own city’s historic district.  The Breestraat (Broad Street) district was shared by the artist and the Jews, but had other residents as well, notably merchants,.  Although Rembrandt is the figure singled out as the companion of his neighbors, other artists--the animal painter Paulus Potter, the portraitist Bartholomeus Van der Helst, and Rembrandt’s own pupil and successor Govaert Flinck, the latter another painter of Old Testament subjects—also resided nearby but never seem to draw the same assessment.  Rembrandt’s main teacher, Pieter Lastman, and his early Amsterdam business associate, the Mennonite Hendrick Uylenburgh, also lived in this area.  As the Dutch saying goes, “Good fences make good neighbors,” so proximity need not imply engagement, let alone sympathy for the other residents of a district.  Indeed, the archives document Rembrandt as litigious, and his closest dealing with a Jewish neighbor was a lawsuit next-door by Daniel Pinto over his non-payment of a promised shared basement construction (for these documents, see the 2006 study by Paul Crenshaw, Rembrandt’s Bankruptcy, Cambridge University Press).


Any  “life and works” biography of artists reminds us that the biographical data need not find expression in their creations (Shakespeare reputedly was at his happiest when he penned Hamlet).  The proof of the philo-Semitism thesis needs to be grounded in the works themselves, not in municipal archives.  But even here the more “documentary” imagery falls short on closer inspection.  For example, the 1648 etching, usually titled Jews in the Synagogue, surely does not depict contemporary Jews and verges on harsh caricature, though it is quite possible that the site is intended to represent the historical Jerusalem Temple (though some authories, notably Rachel Wischnitzer, have argued that it is neither the Temple nor even an interior—certainly not a contemporary synagogue space with any typical furnishings).



Links To Works:

Balshazzar’s Feast

Moses with the Tablet’s of the Law (1659, Berlin)

Jews in the Synagogue

John the Baptist Preaching (Berlin, 1634-35)

Ecce Homo (1634- London)

Judas Bringing Back the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629, private coll.)

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Kassel)