Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2017
Ernst van de Wetering Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 340 pp.; c. 300 color ills. Paper $49.95 (9780520290259)

It is hard to imagine that a painter as provocative and awe-inspiring as Rembrandt created his oeuvre without having a theory of art. His works are outspoken, offering robust statements (as Hubert Damisch and Mieke Bal would say) about the nature and status of pictorial representation. To have such pictorial statements further articulated and contextualized would have made a great book. However, in Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking, Ernst van de Wetering approaches with great caution the idea that Rembrandt possessed a theory of art, revealing from the outset an ambivalent view of art theory as such. In his preface, Van de Wetering implies that Rembrandt’s art theory concerns his “mental activity” (viii) and that the book’s objective is to unearth what, during the process of creation, the artist “could have thought” (viii). Put as such, this project is doomed to fail since, among the many methods art historians have at their disposal, reading minds is not one of them. Moreover, Van de Wetering deliberately chooses “to avoid as far as possible the use of the loaded term ‘art theory’” (100), though he makes this claim just before delving deeply into the art-theoretical writings of Karel van Mander and Samuel van Hoogstraten. Does this book promise insights into Rembrandt’s art theory while disregarding the term art theory altogether? Even if it does, its main problem is not an unstable definition of art theory, but a general lack of engagement with contemporary art-historical research. It is firmly stuck in debates from the 1980s and 1990s that were fought out mostly on Dutch soil that are no longer relevant for the wider practice of art history today.

This lavishly illustrated volume on Rembrandt’s theory is presented as the “pendant” of Van de Wetering’s celebrated Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), which focused on the artist’s practice. Like its predecessor, Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking largely comprises material from earlier publications. The book is divided in three parts. The first deals with the professional life of seventeenth-century artists and the reigning modes of art production, including pupil training, guild regulations, and workshop practice. It also offers rich information about art lovers whose pompous attitudes usually evoke the master’s contempt and the pupils’ laughter, as the quoted anecdotes confirm. A rather general discussion of the benefits of oil paint over tempera suggests that this part is geared toward a museum-going audience not terribly familiar with Rembrandt and his historical context. In contrast, the second part shifts registers to appeal to an academic readership when it attempts to reconstruct Rembrandt’s art theory by presenting his oeuvre as a kind of mediator between the two main art theoretical texts written in the Golden Age: Van Mander’s didactic poem Grondt der edel vrije schilder-const (Foundations of the Noble and Free Art of Painting; 1604), likely to have been a source of inspiration to Rembrandt—and Inleyding tot the hooge schoole der schilderconst (Introduction to the Lofty School of Painting), published in 1678 by Rembrandt’s pupil Van Hoogstraten, who was deeply influenced by his master’s practice.

Van de Wetering argues that the young Rembrandt took on the challenge posed by Van Mander’s text, which attempts to formulate painting’s laws and principles in sections on drawing, proportion, attitude, ordonnance, etc. Following the structure of the poem, Van de Wetering explains how Rembrandt appropriated each topic, paying close attention, for instance, to the artist’s specific treatment of light and shadow (schrikschaduw), positioning of figures (sprong), and visibility of brushstroke (kenlijkheid), which were to typify his style. Subsequently, Van de Wetering examines to what extent Rembrandt’s particular ideas about these topics return in Van Hoogstraten’s treatise, whether or not in altered form, to further distill the specificity of his working principles. In “Rembrandt as a Searching Artist,” the book’s third part, Van de Wetering concludes that Rembrandt did not work according to a fixed set of rules but rather, throughout his career, continued to search for the “most natural effect,” something that Van Hoogstraten recommends and Joachim von Sandrart echoes when he writes that an artist “should bind oneself solely to nature and follow no other rules” (246).

In this elaborate discussion of art-theoretical texts, Van de Wetering appears to build on important commentaries such as Celeste Brusati’s Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Walter Melion’s Shaping the Netherlandish Canon: Karel van Mander’s Picture-Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), but he mostly fails to acknowledge their work—while Brusati is briefly discussed, Melion’s crucial work, somewhat surprisingly, is not mentioned at all. Two other important works by Dutch scholars, Hessel Miedema’s 1973 edition of Van Mander’s Den Grondt der Edel vrij Schilder-Const, originally published in 1604, and Thijs Weststeijn’s The Visible World: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), are presented by Van de Wetering merely to be dismissed. Even though he has previously published such views elsewhere, once more Van de Wetering takes issue with Miedema’s argument—put forth in the 1970s!—that Grondt should be considered a literary rather than a pedagogical endeavor, arguing instead for a narrower view that the poem’s singular function was to instruct young artists. Van de Wetering then extends the same argument about the didactic value of Grondt to Weststeijn’s The Visible World by stating that Weststeijn is wrong to argue that Van Hoogstraten’s treatise revived the tradition of art theory in the Netherlands (which it certainly can be seen as doing). Van de Wetering’s continued focus on these issues is occurring during a time when Dutch art history has seen the rise of collaborative projects (by Caroline van Eck and Stijn Bussels), an intensifying dialogue between art history and contemporary art practice (in the work of Amy Powell and Alexander Nagel, and in museum interventions and the debate on artistic research), and an even greater embrace of interdisciplinarity (in the work of Marisa Bass and Claudia Swan).

Therefore, the most pressing shortcoming of Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking is its limited engagement with contemporary art-historical discourse. Most publications in the bibliography are by Dutch scholars working within the Dutch field of art, while only a few date from after 2000 (Arthur K. Wheelock is an exception on both accounts). This tendency to be inward- rather than outward-looking is further reflected in the overload of references to Van de Wetering’s previous publications. In an unusual gesture, two appendices have been included, comprising summaries of the book’s “pendant,” The Painter at Work, and of a chapter from the author’s fourth volume of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (Berlin: Springer, 2005), which partly overlaps with the present work—an unusual practice for a university press that one hopes will not become common.

Hanneke Grootenboer
Professor of the History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Oxford