Daily RC Article 71

Rembrandt: Entrepreneur Or Artist?


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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.

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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.

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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.

Topic and Scope:  

Rembrandt’s approach to art; specifically, how one scholar treats the issue of art vs. commerce in Rembrandt’s aesthetic.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to evaluate the persuasiveness of Alpers’ argument that Rembrandt’s art was largely if not wholly determined by his (Rembrandt’s) view of the art marketplace. In the end, the author finds this view too limited, granting some of Alpers’ points but arguing that the view of Rembrandt-as-businessman misses some of the importance and validity of Rembrandt-as-artistic-genius. Both viewpoints have merit and should be part of the (pardon the pun) picture.

Paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1 begins with two fact-filled sentences that mention the possibly false Rembrandts that Alpers (according to sentence 3) uses as a jumping-off point for her “provocative discussion” of Rembrandt’s work.

The alert critical reader will notice that Alpers, or a pronoun referring to her, is mentioned in virtually every sentence in Paragraph 2. This fact alone ought to indicate the role of the Paragraph : to describe Alpers’ interpretation, or more specifically, to provide evidence for Alpers’ claim in the first sentence (lines 11-13) that Rembrandt controlled his art to an “unprecedented” degree. The most potent sentence is the fifth one: According to Alpers, everything to Rembrandt was money.

Paragraph 3 may have surprised you. Prior to third paragraph, our author gives every indication that she agrees with Alpers all the way, but suddenly there’s a shift: Everything we’ve just read in Paragraph 2, we suddenly realize, puts too much emphasis on commerce. In the extended example, the author contrasts Alpers’ interpretation of Claudius Civilis (i.e. Rembrandt left it undone in order to get more cash) with her own (i.e. the painting isn’t undone but simply exemplifies the artist’s “meditative style”). Paragraph 3 continues with other non-commercial factors that ought to be considered (lines 51-54), and ends with a clear reference back to the first sentences of Paragraph 1: Yes, every painting that’s signed “Rembrandt” may not be a Rembrandt, but his art isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents (or guilders), either.

The Big Picture:

  • Anything the author mentions often is a strong indicator of her interest. Watch for heavy repetition (such as the word “Alpers” in Paragraph 2) as a signal of what the author’s focus is at any given time.
  • The author appears to be 100% in favor of Alpers’ interpretation until Paragraph 3. Be ready for such shifts, but don’t be worried about failing to predict them: They’ll usually be announced pretty prominently.

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