Old Art History Books/Artists as Writers: Duelling Biographies…Rembrandt

Multiple books, multiple authors, each writing about the same subject.  The subject?  Rembrandt.  Both books center around four paintings the artist did during his lifetime.  I will show you these paintings to act as a visual aid.

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp

In his book, painter Jozef Israels focuses more on the financial aspects of Rembrandt.  He shows that the artist grew up in a wealthy family, but ended up in bankruptcy near the end of his life.  If you want to read his book, click here.  Israel’s obsession with Rembrandt’s finances emanate a sense of anger and frustration.  Probably because this comes from the fact that Rembrandt had such great talent with art, it still left him penniless and obscure at death.  Especially with the fame he held.  Speaking of the fame, Josef claimed that Rembrandt’s fame did him in.  He also portrays Rembrandt as a flighty person, especially when it came to money.  At the same time, he also condemns Dutch society for judging this man just because of his hard partying lifestyle.  Israel also perpetuates the Nightwatch Backlash” myth.  However, after the biography on Rembrandt ends, Josef then talks all about his art and how he tries to imitate Rembrandt’s style.  He does make a curious assumption that a person cannot enjoy Dutch paintings unless they see all of them.  I enjoy them, and I have yet to see all of them.  This last section left me a little cold and put off by this man’s arrogance.  I know a lot of artists start out by imitating earlier artists, but were they ever like this man?

Nightwatch

The book by etcher Mortimer Luddington Menpes takes a vastly different angle.  To read his essay, click here. In a way, it almost acts as a historical fiction drama, with Rembrandt and his art acting as a supporting actor that affects a man identified as a golfer and his family.  I do not know how to feel about it, except that it sometimes annoys me.  However, Menpes does provide insight on how John Ruskin hated Rembrandt.  In between writing about the golfer’s son, Menpes gives descriptions of many of Rembrandt’s works and providing historical to each of them.  However, he too also perpetuates the “Nightwatch Backlash” myth.  On the other hand, Menpes does mention the Dorcas Society who supported the painting.  Interestingly, Menpes claims that the everyone recognizes Titan, Velasquez, and Rembrandt as the geniuses of the art world.  No da Vinci?  No Michelangelo?  Granted, the earlier artists focused bringing back the Classical era of Greece, where Menpes claims that genius shows us new ideas.  With this, one can see where he’s coming from.  He also refutes a lot of Rembrandt’s critics who accused the artist of not painting reality.  Ah, says Menpes, but Rembrandt only painted what he saw.

The Syndics of the Cloth Hall

All in all, both of these books talk about Rembrandt, but they also talk about themselves.  A lot.  Come to think of it, I hope I do not do much of that on my blog.  On a positive note, both authors praised Rembrandt for refusing to conform to whatever rules the art world tried to put upon him that still exist today.

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