Rembrandts legacy

Rembrandt was one of Europe’s greatest painters, but his legacy for Jewish audiences went far beyond the images on canvas. Rembrandt provided a visual record of enormous meaning, documenting without necessarily intending to do so the Jews of Holland, in the first half of the 17th century, as a special people bringing important values to the Dutch nation.

“Rembrandt’s Jews,” by University of Wisconsin philosophy professor Steven Nadler, is a portrait of Amsterdam’s Jewish community in prosperous times, and of Rembrandt’s sympathetic depictions, contentious dealings and penchant for Jewish themes. Rembrandt’s prodigious production of portraits with Jewish faces (like “An Old Man in an Armchair”) and biblical stories (like the etching of Abraham and Isaac) support the artist’s mythic relationship with Jewish neighbors.

But his selection of Jewish “models” for portraiture and of religious tableaux based on Old Testament subject matter was not unusual, though no other artist was as persistent in their use as Rembrandt. Jewish society in Holland’s mercantile economy was well integrated, commercially and culturally. Jews symbolized the emancipation from tyranny, a condition that the Dutch had suffered under Spanish rule.

The nation’s search for religious freedom from Catholic oppression was reflected in the biblical story of the Israelite struggle. As Nadler puts it, “The Netherlands was the modern Israel. Dutch nationalists found in Hebrew Scripture “a rich source of models for both mercantile and civic virtues.” One playwright compared Phillip II of Spain to Pharaoh.

Interest in the Jews was therefore fashionable in the 17th century. Widespread tolerance in the Dutch republic gave Jews the opportunity to succeed, often becoming wealthy merchants in a country that would define mercantile achievement. Some of these Jews were patrons of Rembrandt. But others were Christian collectors who acquired Rembrandt’s “Jewish” paintings.

Since art was relatively inexpensive, many people displayed these tangible expressions of cultural values in their homes. Many artists, like Rembrandt, lived off commissions. But Jews ordered mostly landscapes and interior scenes, and few portraits, due perhaps to over-scrupulous regard for the Second Commandment.

Certainly Rembrandt became the pre-eminent painter of Amsterdam’s Jews, and likely understood these people as no artist before him. So we take satisfaction in knowing that Europe’s greatest painter was at least a friend of the Jews.

Actually, the touching picture of Rembrandt smitten with Jews is based more on conjecture than evidence.  While his contacts with Jews are not contradicted, his emotional disposition and attitudes are more difficult to ascertain and document. One cynic attributed Rembrandt’s motives to a conversionist persuasion, which would not have been unusual among his 17th century Christian patrons and friends.

The author goes well beyond Rembrandt to describe Jewish Amsterdam and the life and social milieu of the place, where Portuguese Jews in particular were sometimes among the cultural elite. There is a buoyant satisfaction in realizing how Jews thrived in the Dutch nation, and how their connection with the visual arts through Rembrandt became an important part of its material and mercantile popular culture.

“Rembrandt’s Jews,” by Steven Nadler (250 pages, University of Chicago, $15).