Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2019
Nicola Suthor Rembrandt's Roughness Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 240 pp.; 25 color ills.; 57 b/w ills.; 82 ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780691172446)

The Dutch painter, printmaker, and draftsman Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) died three hundred fifty years ago (the anniversary this year is being marked by exhibitions and events worldwide) and for much of that time, his art has been the object of avid consumption, artistic emulation, and scholarly scrutiny. Responses have ranged from adulation to disgust, but apathy has seldom been one of them. Thus, it is a daunting challenge to say something new about this endlessly fascinating and infuriatingly cagey old master, whose own literary record can be summed up in a handful of financially motivated letters and pithy (possibly apocryphal) quotes passed down by former pupils. Rembrandt was also a prolific teacher and role model, paradoxically inimitable and widely imitated, and mainstream Rembrandt scholarship for the past several decades has been dominated by the application of increasingly sophisticated technical methods to address perplexing questions of attribution and authenticity. This pragmatic focus has overshadowed the kind of imaginative interpretation practiced by authors such as Mieke Bal or Simon Schama. With Rembrandt’s Roughness, Nicola Suthor revives a tradition of articulate verbal description based on deep reading and close looking. And like any literary performance of its kind, this book may reveal more about potential responses to the subject than about the subject itself.

Rembrandt’s Roughness was originally written and published in German (Rembrandts Rauheit: eine phänomenologische Untersuchung, Paderborn: Fink Wilhelm, 2014). The translators of the English edition are not formally acknowledged on the title page or colophon, but the introduction states, “Joel Golub rendered a first translation which was turned into legible text by Lisa Lawrence.” Given the complexity of syntax and content here, Golub and Lawrence deserve high praise. The English text is not a literal transcription, but rather a “revisited and enlarged” version of the original book (15).

The text comprises an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction and first chapter establish a theoretical foundation for visual analysis as a means to discern artistic intention (more on this below). Chapter 2 examines the evocative power of cast shadows, seen as a key feature in Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch (1642, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and Hundred Guilder Print (ca. 1647). Chapter 3 gets to the heart of the topic: the materiality of Rembrandt’s paint and his preference for daubing, scratching, and layering it in ways that seem to privilege surface over content. Compositional tactics are also analyzed as key to meaning in paintings such as The Blinding of Samson (1636, Frankfurt, Städel Museum) and Still Life with Peacocks (ca. 1639, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Chapter 4 considers the question of finish (without, surprisingly, invoking theories of the non-finito) and Rembrandt’s treatment of light, but also delves into the religious iconography of The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage) and several later works. Chapter 5 explores the semantic power of color, particularly the warm red that enriches many of Rembrandt’s late paintings. In chapter 6, on Rembrandt’s self-portraiture, the author rediscovers meaningful motifs such as the brilliant stroke of light that edges the large panel (not canvas) in the early Artist in His Studio (ca. 1628, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 186) and the blurred conflation of hand and palette in the late Kenwood Self-Portrait (ca. 1665–69, London, Kenwood House, 192). The epilogue reprises the book’s themes and philosophy.

The account opens with familiar anecdotes from early critics such as Samuel van Hoogstraten (1678), Joachim von Sandrart (1675–80), and Arnold Houbraken (1719–21) that purport to shed light on Rembrandt’s mentality. The notion that critics derived a roughness in Rembrandt’s character from the roughness of his facture will not surprise readers familiar with these tropes. (Omitted from the bibliography is the first and still essential synthesis of the early sources, Seymour Slive’s Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630–1730, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1953.) Although Suthor argues for the intersubjective validity of description (8), and practices it vividly, her terms of engagement are essentially philosophical. She acknowledges a debt to the aesthetic theories of mid-twentieth-century thinkers such as Ernst Cassirer and Edgar Wind (14), but, as the original German title suggests, her primary model is Edmund Husserl (1905–6), whose phenomenological approach to conscious experience informs her method (see esp. 25–26, 196). Phenomenology as a basis for firsthand observation is presented as a means to reverse the “death of the author” instigated by Barthesian poststructuralism and to validate close analysis of form as a key to artistic intention and iconographic content.

Suthor argues that critics in Rembrandt’s own time were concerned enough with discerning Rembrandt’s intentions that we can be, too. Sandrart, as quoted in translation, advocated “allow[ing] paintings to trickle into our mind and comprehension slowly” (30), and this kind of sustained attentiveness is practiced throughout Suthor’s text. She offers complex readings of works ranging from Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), which she interprets psychoanalytically (101–9) to the so-called Jewish Bride (here titled Rebecca and Isaac, 1662, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), filtered through sources as diverse as Georg Simmel (1916) and Jean Genet (1988) (159–71). Her core subject, however, as referenced in her title, is facture: the sculptural manipulation of paint and dramatic deployment of light and color that together constitute Rembrandt’s most inventive and influential contribution to the history of art. His evocative approach to printmaking is also addressed, especially through close readings of The Three Crosses (drypoint, 1653), and The Hundred Guilder Print (65–91). Suthor’s project is evidently to intuit content through facture, which is construed as inherently “semantically charged.”

While tracing the interplay between form and content is a worthy goal, the dense web of theoretical rhetoric framing visual analysis here can sometimes be more distracting than illuminating. Suthor gathers numerous supporting sources, often represented with apt quotes. Having published previously on Italian art, she brings fresh eyes to the study of Rembrandt and to the vast body of literature about him. It sometimes appears that she has not discerned the difference between the reliable and the marginal, but her wide-ranging citations renew interest, if only historiographically, in old monographs by authors such as Carl Neumann (1922) and Werner Weisbach (1926), as well as studies by sociologists, religious scholars, aestheticians, philosophers, literary theorists, and a number of German publications that have yet to gain international traction. One becomes acutely aware, in fact, of the gap between specialized scholarship on Rembrandt and the broader cultural impact of his art.

It is in the broader arena, as an erudite manifestation of “the beholder’s share,” that this book will make its contribution. For specialist scholars of Dutch art, there is too much here that glosses over factual evidence. For example, Rembrandt is said to have “had contact” with Jan Cornelis Sylvius, whom he etched twice, overlooking the preacher’s familial relationship with the artist’s wife, Saskia (43). We do not in fact know that Rembrandt began The Hundred Guilder Print in 1642 (46) but we do know that Roemer Visscher’s given name was not Robert (99). More importantly, recourse to the literature on technical examination and what it reveals about Rembrandt’s actual methods and materials is surprisingly minimal for a study concerned with facture. A discussion of The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) fails to take into account the picture’s poor state of preservation or to address doubts about its attribution (99–101). Interpretation of the enigmatic Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (ca. 1655–60, Berlin Gemäldegalerie) acknowledges that the canvas has been cut down, then proceeds to read meaning into the truncation of the figures (149–52). Moreover, the evolution of Rembrandt’s style is barely mentioned: the perceptible difference between the finely crafted Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem and the boldly scumbled Jewish Bride painted three decades later goes unaddressed. For the purposes of a philosophical argument, it may be sufficient that both display an inventive concern for the paint surface, but it does a disservice to Rembrandt not to acknowledge the radical development that sets him apart from the many talented contemporaries, such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Steen, who all found a profitable métier and essentially stuck to it.              

Rembrandt’s Roughness is not a book that tells us something new about Rembrandt. Rather, it demonstrates the profound effect his art continues to have on its viewers. While Rembrandt’s intentions may remain as enigmatic as ever, for this reader a renewed sense of his significance emerges: the enduring importance of Rembrandt’s art lies not only in its intrinsic originality but also in its ability to elicit such a rich array of emotional and intellectual responses. Rembrandt’s Roughness offers thought-provoking readings of some of Rembrandt’s best-known works and celebrates the conscious act of close looking. Despite its broad theoretical framework, the argument is ultimately subjective, but it has its value. Based on this reader’s experience, it will inspire you to go and look at Rembrandt’s art for yourself, even if you have done so a hundred times already. That in itself makes this a book worth reading. 

Stephanie S. Dickey
Professor of Art History and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University