Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2004
Stephanie S. Dickey Rembrandt: Portraits in Print John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2004. 368 pp.; 172 b/w ills. Cloth $270.00 (9027253390)

The cover of Stephanie Dickey’s Rembrandt: Portraits in Prints reproduces the artist’s Self-Portrait at a Window from 1648, which is a cannily deceptive etching. The first impression it makes is of modest sobriety and straightforward presentation. But look a little further, a little longer, and the probing nature of Rembrandt’s self-examination, united with its representational ambiguity (Is he drawing? Is he etching?) lures the viewer into what is ultimately a virtuosic performance. This cover image not only stands as an appropriate, even intriguing introduction to the subject at hand, but it also hints at Dickey’s own achievements within. For this book is a subtle work of first-rate scholarship and cultural engagement, written in a lucid, approachable manner, yet revealing the depth of the author’s knowledge of her subject. While building on her 1994 dissertation and a number of subsequent articles addressing portrait prints, Portraits in Prints is the most extensive treatment of Rembrandt’s achievements as a portrait etcher to date. Through it, we also gain a detailed understanding of the milieu from which his works arose, as prints that depict a select world in Amsterdam of preachers, merchants, physicians, and artists, with interests in and strong connections to the worlds of literature and the visual arts. Dickey is scrupulous throughout in citing the work of other scholars and generous in assessing their contributions, while maintaining an appropriately critical sense and her own independence of thought. The results of her extensive research and concentrated thinking about the issues are presented in this highly original and compelling contribution to Rembrandt scholarship.

As Dickey mentions in her introduction (17), Rembrandt’s seventeen portrait etchings constitute a small part of his printed oeuvre of over three hundred etchings. They form a distinct group, however, and not just through their subject matter, for they also constitute the majority of Rembrandt etchings for which commissions can be posited or, at the least, for which connections to a specific person can be made. Even more than as a painter, Rembrandt the etcher worked for an open market, and he likely chose his subjects, style, and technical approaches for the prints himself. But with the majority of these portraits, he had to satisfy a sitter’s taste and sense of identity. Thus the “patron’s share” (12) is appropriately highlighted throughout. The only exceptions are his few but significant self-portraits and the posthumous print of the preacher Jan Sylvius, made in 1646. Even there, however, Rembrandt made his portrait consonant with traditions of portraying Protestant ministers and with posthumous-portrait conventions. Much to Dickey’s credit, we come away from the book cognizant of both the singularity of his portrait prints and how very connected they nonetheless were to other contemporary prints by way of conventions of representation and their audiences.

Dickey’s discussion is organized both chronologically and thematically, with chapters that follow Rembrandt from the end of his Leiden period, with the Self-Portrait with Hat and Patterned Cloak of 1631, to his decades-long career in Amsterdam. She devotes chapters to his portraits of ministers and preachers, the portrait of the Receiver-General Jan Wtenbogaert, the Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill of 1639, the portrait of Jan Six in His Study of 1648, the etchings of the painter Jan Asselijn of ca. 1647–48, and the silversmith Jan Lutma of 1656. In a chapter entitled “Parnassus on the Amstel,” Dickey discusses the portrait prints depicting Dr. Ephraim Bueno, the printseller Clement de Jonghe, Dr. Arnout Tholinx, the print collector Abraham Francen, and the famed calligrapher Lieven van Coppenol. As the title of this last chapter indicates, she is able to connect what would at first glance appear to be a somewhat disparate group of sitters to the rich culture of literature and the visual arts of Amsterdam in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Each chapter provides fresh readings and a deeper understanding of prints long familiar. For instance, in her first chapter she describes the “Van Dyckian swagger” of the earlier states of the Self-Portrait with Hat and Patterned Cloak and links this print with the likely influence of Anthony van Dyck himself, resident in The Hague for six months in 1631–32. Dickey argues that as the preeminent master of the international court portrait style, van Dyck served as a potential model for Rembrandt at a time when a court career in The Hague may have seemed tempting or possible. Certainly Rembrandt developed a working process akin to van Dyck’s for portrait prints, touching up proofs and counterproofs while finalizing his designs. Through this discussion, Dickey provides an important corrective to the literature on Rembrandt that so often emphasizes the role of Peter Paul Rubens as a career model to the exclusion of van Dyck.

Dickey also helps to resuscitate the career (and reputation) of Jan Lievens as a maker of portrait prints. While Rembrandt scholarship has tended to dismiss Lievens as a factor in Rembrandt’s career after the two both left Leiden, there were distinct “points of contact” (134) between them in the 1640s and 1650s, after Lievens, who had been working in London and Antwerp, returned to the northern Netherlands. Settling in Amsterdam, as Rembrandt had in the 1630s, Lievens obtained important patrons. In several cases Rembrandt worked for the same patrons: both artists depicted in print Wtenbogaert and Bueno. But Lievens, not Rembrandt, was chosen to portray the poets Joost van den Vondel and Jan Vos. Dickey demonstrates how Lievens’s ability to hew a line between the systematic approach of professional engravers and the seemingly more spontaneous style of the peintre-graveur may well have earned him admiration, as well as certain commissions that Rembrandt did not receive.

In her attention to the work of other printmakers of the time, Dickey performs an important service. Rather than ignoring professional portrait engravers, who, like Lievens, sometimes depicted the same sitters as did Rembrandt, or simply assuming the inferiority of their product compared to the genius of Rembrandt, she makes it clear that Rembrandt himself was well aware of the styles and compositional devices of competing printmakers. She also considers earlier traditions of print portraiture, reminding us of how acutely Rembrandt scrutinized the work of his predecessors. Her Rembrandt strikes the reader as a real artist, looking around him intently, borrowing ideas and concepts while still asserting his individuality. In these discussions Dickey is able to balance two difficult goals: to describe and analyze in full individual prints as fully realized works of art, and to place them in a larger cultural context. While this is often asserted to be a goal of a certain type of art history, it is more often honored in the breach than the observance. With her scrupulously inclusive approach to these works and her literary gifts, Dickey is able to fluidly move back and forth between stylistic and technical discussions and the framing of their cultural emplacement.

The definition of what actually constitutes a cultural context, that is, what information is or is not relevant, can be thorny. Dickey’s choices, however, inspire confidence. By working from a base of information provided by the scholarship of Dutch archivists, historians of Netherlandish culture, and art historians, she weaves together a cohesive narrative about the major cultural circles of mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam and Rembrandt’s relationship to such circles. We learn much about sitters such as the Receiver-General Jan Wtenbogaert, what it meant to be a high-ranking civil servant in a financial post who was also a well-known print collector, and how these different sides of Wtenbogaert’s life might well have been expressed in Rembrandt’s 1639 portrait of the sitter. But Dickey goes further in analyzing potential clues such as the tilted scales in the print, which certainly referred to the act of just weighing as a tax collector but which had also appeared in slightly earlier Dutch prints as a symbol of the use of political or military power in the controversy between the Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants (87). Since Wtenbogaert was a member of a prominent Remonstrant family at a time when this faction was in the ascendance in Amsterdam governance, the possibility that such a symbol could be multivalent in its meanings seems entirely appropriate. While I cite only this one instance, such valuable scrutiny of telling details can be found for every print treated in this book.

One particularly noteworthy contribution to our comprehension of seventeenth-century “print culture” is found in her compilation of poems written about Rembrandt’s portrait prints (and some related paintings) during his lifetime, published as an appendix to her text. Surprisingly enough, this task had never been done before, yet the fruits of it in Dickey’s careful evaluation of what such literary discussions actually “meant” in the seventeenth century provide a means for tracing, at least in part, the contemporary reception of his prints.

In sum, the value of Dickey’s book should not be defined as simply a fine contribution to our understanding of Rembrandt as a printmaker, though it certainly is this. Rather, it is a work of singular importance for our understanding of Rembrandt as an artist writ large, of his patrons, and of their shared culture, and should be required reading of anyone with a serious interest in Dutch art. My only complaint about this book lies with its production, not with the author. Multitasking is fine, but trying to consult both the notes and the illustrations at the back of the book is almost physically impossible. Finally, while I am sympathetic to the plight of publishers in the arts (especially smaller houses) trying to produce and market texts for the slimmest of profit margins, the fact that the cost of this book at over $200 is nearly prohibitive for many of those outside the smallish circle of Rembrandt scholars and art libraries is a shame. Anything that might limit the audience for such an exemplary work of scholarship is to be lamented.

Catherine Scallen
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University