Rembrandt: Entrepreneur Or Artist?
It has recently been discovered that many attributions of paintings to the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt may be false. The contested paintings are not minor works, whose removal from the Rembrandt corpus would leave it relatively unaffected: they are at its very center. In her recent book, Svetlana Alpers uses these cases of disputed attribution as a point of departure for her provocative discussion of the radical distinctiveness of Rembrandt's approach to painting.
Alpers argues that Rembrandt exercised an unprecedentedly firm control over his art, his students, and the distribution of his works. Despite Gary Schwartz's brilliant documentation of Rembrandt's complicated relations with a wide circle of patrons, Alpers takes the view that Rembrandt refused to submit to the prevailing patronage system. He preferred, she claims, to sell his works on the open market and to play the entrepreneur. At a time when Dutch artists were organizing into professional brotherhoods and academies, Rembrandt stood apart. In fact, Alpers portrait of Rembrandt shows virtually every aspect of his art pervaded by economic motives. Indeed, so complete was Rembrandt's involvement with the market, she argues, that he even presented himself as commodity, viewing his studio's products as extensions of himself, sent out into the world to earn money. Alpers asserts that Rembrandt's enterprise is found not just in his paintings, but in his refusal to limit his enterprise to those paintings he actually painted. He marketed Rembrandt.
Although there may be some truth in the view that Rembrandt was an entrepreneur who made some aesthetic decisions on the basis of what he knew the market wanted, Alpers' emphasis on economic factors sacrifices discussions of the aesthetic qualities that make Rembrandt's work unique. For example, Alpers asserts that Rembrandt deliberately left his works unfinished so as to get more money for their revision and completion. She implies that Rembrandt actually wished the Council of Amsterdam to refuse the great Claudius Civilis, which they had commissioned for their new town hall, and she argues that he must have calculated that he would be able to get more money by retouching the painting. Certainly the picture is painted with very broad strokes but there is no evidence that it was deliberately left unfinished. The fact is that the look of a work like Claudius Civilis must also be understood as the consequence of Rembrandt's powerful and profound meditations on painting itself. Alpers makes no mention of the pictorial dialectic that can be discerned between, say, the lessons Rembrandt absorbed from the Haarlem school of paintings and the styles of his native Leiden. The trouble is that while Rembrandt's artistic enterprise may indeed not be reducible to the works he himself painted, it is not reducible to marketing practices either.