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Rembrandt the collector: a rich man, a beggar, a weirdo

In the summer of 1638, Rembrandt and the van Loo family filed counterclaims against each other. The Van Loo, distant relatives of Rembrandt’s wife, accused the artist and Saskia of exorbitant waste. All Amsterdam knew this, eventually the rumors reached Friesland, where Saskia’s relatives lived: the artist was a regular at art rarities and antiques auctions. Like a madman, he bought masterpieces and jewelry, weapons and books, clothes and trinkets. And, probably, he was about to sneak Saskia’s legacy to the last guilder…
Rembrandt the collector: a rich man, a beggar, a weirdo
Rembrandt did not even think of denying it. He filed a counterclaim for libel, arguing that Albert and Mike van Loo had defiled him and Saskia, so they owed 64 guilders to the couple for moral damage. The amount was quite symbolic and rather ridiculous, and certainly not comparable to Rembrandt’s spending on auctions. But Rembrandt did not claim that he did not spend money on the passion that captured him completely, the collecting. He claimed that he could afford it!

In other words, the couple was rich enough so that "a cousin seven times removed" could easily accuse them of dishonesty. The representative of Rembrandt insisted in the trial: "Without any praise, he and his wife have immense and inexhaustible riches, for which they never tire of thanking the Almighty Lord!" In his self-portrait with Saskia on his knees, Rembrandt was raising his glass higher, as if echoing his lawyer, "Amen!"

Under the lucky star

Of course, Rembrandt not only supposed to get inheritance of Saskia. Ambitious and at first very self-assured native of Leiden, he moved to work and live in Amsterdam, as he understood that money, connections, prospects were accumulated there.

He was very lucky: he quickly became popular among wealthy Amsterdam burghers, his fees and popularity were growing. The influx of pupils, each of whom paid Rembrandt 100 guilders a year, did not run out. Soon the Hague nobility has known about him, and the Hague was the capital of the Republic of the United Provinces then. The commossions began to come from there too. And in 1636, the chairman of Holland (something like the president, as after the revolution the state was no longer governed by the king) ordered Rembrandt three large compositions on the subjects from the New Testament, for which Rembrandt, not embarrassed at all (he was already the author of the acclaimed "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp") asked 1200 guilders to start from.
Having a decent income and breathtaking prospects, with all the strings he pulled for people with perfect business acumen and taste for a beautiful life, in the middle of the 1630s, Rembrandt discovered the world of auctions and trade of art objects and luxury goods.

Biographies of Rembrandt are full of reports of his purchases. "At the auction of things belonging to Jan Basset, the artist purchased 50 engravings, drawings and shells" (Melissa Ricketts). "He bought a wonderful pearl, which his wife is wearing in her last portraits" (Jozef Israëls). "Slowly his expenses were growing. For example, on March 14, 1637, he returned home with a folder of engravings, for which he paid 36 florins (guilder and florin — synonymous names of the Dutch currency — Arthive) and 6 stuivers, and with Raphael’s prints for 12 florins. Two days later he bought a stack of white paper for 4 florins and 12 stuivers, and on March 19 he spent 655 florins and 10 stuivers on several different works, including one of Constable’s works, and a series of prints of Lucas van Leyden (the auction price of one was 637 florins)" (Pierre Descargues).

Apparently, the passion for the acquisition of art objects captured Saskia, the wife of Rembrandt, too. In any case, it is documented that on October 8, 1637, in the shop of trader Troyanus Maestris, she bought a huge painting of Rubens (an artist, whose career achievements her husband at that time wanted to repeat, or even surpass) under the title "Hero and Leander".

Hero and Leander is the Greek myth relating the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (today's Dardanelles), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way. But one stormy winter night, the waves tossed Leander in the sea and the breezes blew out Hero’s light; Leander lost his way and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.

Rubens gives additional intensity to the story by combining consecutive events to produce one highly dramatic scene: the death of Leander, the way his pale, lifeless body is accompanied by thirteen nereids through the churning waves, and finally Hero’s plunge into the depth. It is known that Saskia van Eilenburgh paid 424 guilders 10 stuivers and 8 duiten for this chilling canvas of more than two meters wide.

Dutch stores and auctions

The demand for art was not the prerogative of a certain narrow social layer at the time of Rembrandt. It can be said that it was general. To decorate the walls of a house (even if these walls have cracked from excessive moisture) with a dozen of engravings or a pair of large paintings was quite common for an ordinary Dutchman.

Pieter de Hooch. Dutch interior
Dutch interior
1650-th , 63.3×80.4 cm
Book stores were happy to sell not only the works of ancient authors and good copies of the Bible, but also paintings and engravings. The most popular were Lucas van Leyden, Quentin Matsys, Peter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, and marine
Marine art or seascape is a kind of landscape that depicts the sea. Specific paintings or engravings of a sea theme are also called marines. The word marine (it. marina) comes from the Latin marinus — “of sea”. Read more
artist Jan Porsellis.

Large city fairs, where you could also buy all sorts of things, were held infrequently, just several times a year, but almost every week there were auctions, which sold the property of the deceased or bankrupt. At a fair price you could buy there not only leather chairs, wallpapers or silverware, but also paintings and various rarities. Rembrandt visited such places with undisguised pleasure.

Rembrandt’s art researcher Melissa Ricketts says: "His passion for collecting continues unabated. When in February 1638, goods of one Russian merchant goes to auction, Rembrandt buys thirty two lots, including works by Albrecht Durer, Hendrick Goltzius and Lucas van Leiden, as well as several sea shells of unusual shape. At these auctions Rembrandt offers large amounts of money for items he considers unique. His strategy is to immediately cut off other participants and simultaneously announce his status."

This manner of Rembrandt, by the way, often resented his compatriots: the supporters of reasonable prudence regarded as empty and brazen bragging the way how abruptly Rembrandt lifted the price of the objects he liked. But Rembrandt explained: if he saw that he had a masterpiece before him, he would immediately give a high price as a sign of respect for the art and work of the artist. Doing this way he consciously raised the prestige of his craft. Durer and Raphael should be expensive! Rembrandt was convinced in this.

The house for 13 thousand

It was only six months after the trial with relatives of Saskia, when Rembrandt decided on a risky deal with real estate. For 13 thousand guilders, which at the time was a considerable sum of money even for him and Saskia, he purchased the famous "house in the Breestraat," an elegant mansion in a rich quarter.

Rembrandt did not have the necessary sum, but he managed to issue something like a mortgage. In those days, the artist was at the zenith of popularity, so he got credit quite willingly. To this very house with a narrow facade, decorated with a stone in the classical style, the artist would bring his "treasures" - all those items that he hunted with excitement at auctions; over time they would form an impressive collection of rarities and art objects.

Almost two decades of Rembrandt’s life passed in this house in the Breestraat, he had some affinity to his new home, decorated and furnished it according to his taste, filled it with various objects that would be unique for him and his pupils — and very complete! — encyclopedia of world history and art. This house and the name of Rembrandt will remain forever inextricably linked — now it is Rembrandt`s museum.

The exterior of Rembrandt’s house did not change much for almost four centuries. 
Here and below: pi
The exterior of Rembrandt’s house did not change much for almost four centuries.
Here and below: pictures of Rembrandt’s house.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the house in the Breestraat four of his and Saskia children would be born — two daughters and two sons, of which only the last child, Titus, would survive. And when the first boy of van Rijn, Rumbartus, died from the plague, many people would say that this monstrous epidemic had been sent to the inhabitants of Amsterdam as punishment for extravagance and an unforgivable love for luxury. Did Rembrandt project these terrible words upon himself?..

In 1642, Saskia died in the house in Breestraat, and Rembrandt would stay. Apparently, he might have not even imagined himself without this house and these objects, they became an important part of his inner world.

But when the popularity went away from the wayward artist to his more accommodating colleagues, who were better able to satisfy the tastes of the "new Dutch", a quickly formed layer of rich people, Rembrandt would find it increasingly difficult to repay debts for the house. Then friends turned away from him and orders almost ceased. He had to sell things from his collection. In 1656, he had to move to a much more modest dwelling, and his property was sent for a subsequent sale.

The inventory

On June 25 and 26, 1656, the Amsterdam bailiffs had to work a lot. The work was generally simple and habitually monotonous, but probably somewhat tedious because of the endless row of small and large items they had to inventory in a solid house in the Breestraat, owned by the ruined artist Rembrandt van Rijn. They had to list everything that remained of the famous collection of rarities and antiquities once owned by Rembrandt.

It took the appraisers two days. The "catalog" compiled by them totaled 15 paragraphs, each of which included from several units to several hundred listings. The paragraphs were called: "in a small kitchen", "in the corridor", "in a large workshop", "in a cabinet of curiosities", "in the hall of the cabinet of curiosities", "in a small office", "in a side room", "on the back shelves."

The short final paragraph titled "laundry for washing" included the following inventory items: 3 men’s shirts, 6 handkerchiefs, 12 napkins, 2 tablecloths, several collars and cuffs.

It may seem that the intention of the appraisers was to humiliate the artist by rummaging in his underwear and throwing out his dirty underwear (in a literal and figurative sense) for everyone to see. But over time it became increasingly clear that this was invaluable for memory about Rembrandt. Their meticulous inventory (it was officially called "Inventory of paintings, furniture and household utensils belonging to Rembrandt van Rijn, living on the Breestraat street, near the gateway of St. Anthony"), kept in the archives of the Amsterdam Town Hall, provided biographers with the richest materials to judge about Holland’s mores and the personal tastes of Rembrandt, the furnishing of his house and the origin of the "props" of many paintings, about the composition of his collection and, indirectly, about the amount of his income; and finally about the books he read and used in his work, and the artists Rembrandt preferred to collect.

The collection of art in Rembrandt`s house

According to the inventory, the rooms of Rembrandt`s house — which was too big and too consuming for the artist even at the time of his greatest success — were entirely covered with paintings. Not all of them were bought by Rembrandt: the walls were decorated with his own paintings and the works on religious subjects belonging to his teacher Pieter Lastman, and a friend of youth Jan Lievens, as well as small landscapes or "tronies" - images of expressive heads with various grimaces and characters. There were paintings of Rembrandt’s favorite Flemish genre painter Adriaen Brouwer: his drunks having fun and fighting in smoke-filled taverns brought Rembrandt into raptures. There were landscapes of Hercules Segers and rustic views of Govert Jansz (called Mijnheer), the marine
Marine art or seascape is a kind of landscape that depicts the sea. Specific paintings or engravings of a sea theme are also called marines. The word marine (it. marina) comes from the Latin marinus — “of sea”. Read more
paintings of Simon de Vlieger and the Dutch "Raphael among the marine
Marine art or seascape is a kind of landscape that depicts the sea. Specific paintings or engravings of a sea theme are also called marines. The word marine (it. marina) comes from the Latin marinus — “of sea”. Read more
" Jan Porsellis. There were drawings of Raphael and sculptures by Michelangelo, although it is difficult now to judge whether they were originals or copies.

Rembrandt the collector: a rich man, a beggar, a weirdo
Rembrandt the collector: a rich man, a beggar, a weirdo
Rembrandt the collector: a rich man, a beggar, a weirdo
Rembrandt had a large collection of busts of outstanding persons of antiquity — he had the heads of all 12 Caesars, as well as Socrates, Homer, Aristotle, Seneca. However, unlike Rubens who also owned a large collection of busts, among which there were genuine antiques, Rembrandt was satisfied with the later copies. Rubens managed to sell for a good price his collection of "outstanding heads" to the Duke of Buckingham, while Rembrandt did not want to get rid of his. He seemed to have an endless silent dialogue with them, seeking a hidden support in the wisdom of Socrates and in Seneca’s stoicism.

Rembrandt’s pupils used the busts and other sculptures for copying. Sometimes Rembrandt used them himself.
Clothing, weapons, household items existed as full-fledged artifacts in the collection of Rembrandt. For example, according to the inventory, in the artist`s large workshop Rembrandt kept a male and a female costumes of South African Indians, "giant helmet", as many as five cuirasses, "a wooden trumpet" and "child by Michelangelo".

But it was less than his small workshop contained, Rembrandt called it "a cabinet of curiosities". It was the place where one could hardly turn around! All shelves were filled with curious objects. There were antique, Middle Eastern and Indian weapons: bows, arrows, darts and spears, bamboo flutes from America, dolls from the island of Java, African calabash and pumpkin flasks, a Japanese helmet. There were also arquebus pistols, a set of canes and the death mask of Moritz, two globes, a box with minerals, a flat bowl "with a small Chinese", a tank and a sewing box from the East Indies, many porcelain figures, and "eight large plaster casts".

Analyzing the inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions, Simon Schama, who wrote a fundamental book about the life and work of the artist, "Rembrandt's Eyes", observed: "If you look at this carelessly compiled list, there is a feeling that the bailiffs struggled to squeeze through the piles of rubbish, left from the property of the ruined wastrel, bumping into an elephant tusk, then on the Carpathian saddle, and the collection of Rembrandt inevitably appeared as a monstrous mountain of garbage, collected without any analysis, somehow sloppy perched on the shelves, quite in the spirit of his impulsive, greedy for life experiences, omnivorous personality. However, just as behind the external freedom and immediacy of his painting the scrupulousness of techniques and careful calculation laid, whether in composition, whether in performance, this set of objects was something more than a coffin’s nest. Perhaps amounting this collection, Rembrandt was not guided strictly by scientific classification principles, as did the collectors; nevertheless, the set of these objects testified to his instinctive Aristotelian belief that in the endless miraculous variety of the world, sooner or later the Creator’s plan will reveal to the loving gaze".

Rembrandt’s collection also listed "Caucasian leather, musical instruments, zither and bells, gongs and nasal flutes, eastern and medieval."

Perhaps, Rembrandt’s collection of costumes, armor, weapons, various accessories is represented most fundamentally in his art. In the artist’s collection, as Schama notes, "there was a place for exotic objects: Chinese and Japanese costumes, swords and helmets, strange headdresses with horns and turrets, Turkish and Persian fabrics with pattern of a thrushes, jumping joyfully over fields with lilies."
Various headgears were, apparently, a special passion for Rembrandt, one can judge it by the variety of berets and hats that crown his own head on self-portraits. Rembrandt’s younger contemporary, Arnold Houbraken, testified: "Many of his pupils told me that sometimes he had sketched some face in ten different ways before painting it on canvas, and was able to spend the whole day or even two days, draping turban on the head to his taste."

The gifts of nature

The only theoretical postulate that Rembrandt, who normally did not tolerate theorizing, agreed unconditionally, was to follow nature in everything. But in order to follow, you need to know. And in order to know — you need to observe and learn. Probably, that was the reason for collecting natural objects besides the artifacts related to war, science or art.

According to the inventory, the back shelves contained a large number of shells, sea plants and corals, "a lion and ox modeled from nature" (unfortunately, it was not indicated whether this was a painting, an etching or small molding), and for some reason several cane stems.

In a small workshop, the horns of a deer were found, in the hall — skins of a lion and a lioness. The cabinet of curiosities (Kuntskamera) was richer in this respect. There were "47 samples of sea animals and amphibians, etc." and "23 pieces of marine animals and amphibians" kept there.

If you look at the furnishing in the Rembrandt Museum, which is now housed in the Breestraat House,
If you look at the furnishing in the Rembrandt Museum, which is now housed in the Breestraat House, you will see the horns mounted on the walls and the stuffed crocodile under the ceiling. Photo: rembrandthuis. nl
We need to mention that the interest in overseas creatures was on a big rise at that time in Amsterdam. XV — XVII centuries was a period of great geographic discoveries, and the Holland was a powerful sea state. And if Rembrandt himself did not travel much (apparently, it was a peculiarity of his temperament: he deliberately refused to go even to Italy!), then the Amsterdam merchants, who supplied foreign wonders, could partly satisfy his curiosity.

In his vast and informative book, Simon Schama described the interest of the inhabitants of Amsterdam in the imported animals, and we can well imagine Rembrandt among the crowd in the market square coming to gaze at the unprecedented and buy into his house something for a memory — a scarecrow, horn, claw or skin.

Schama writes: "Nothing in the world could be hidden from the greedy and curious gaze of the Amsterdam inhabitant. He was fascinated to watch tropical animals: the East Indies elephants and tigers, capybara brought from Brazil, tapir and armadillo, or a "pig in armor," monkeys as tall as a fist or a tall soldier and the most striking creation — a bird unable to fly, a dodo from the island of Mauritius, alive and surprisingly ugly, first shown to viewers in 1626. In those cases when a live specimen could not be shown entirely to the public that was ready to pay for extraordinary show, then the most striking parts of his body were presented to it, most often tentacles and outgrowths, for example the whale penis, the horn of the monstrous "renoster", or rhinoceros, and the spiral narwhal tusk, by pointing to which connoisseurs could convince gullible simpletons that "een-horn," a unicorn, actually lived in the depths of the sea. On the Botermarkt (now Rembrandtplein), reptiles, conservated in formaldehyde, were shown, including especially popular giant, coiled serpents and some strange scaly object, according to the authoritative experts, being the belly of a dragon. In the same place, gawkers stared at huge turnips, tumors of fantastic outlines, and living monsters — for example, Siamese twins, fused with hips, dwarfs and giants, Laplanders and Eskimos, with a smell, as Trinkulo noted, more reminiscent of fish than man, half-naked Indians, painted in blue and purple patterns, with rings in their noses, speckled with specially inflicted scars, and so steeped in barbarity that, according to rumors, they preferred a human hip among all the meat dishes in the world."

However, Rembrandt’s interest to the animal world was very moderate. In his artwork wewill not find such breathtakingly detailed images as, for example, "Rhinoceros" or "Wing of a European Roller" by Albrecht Durer. Horses, donkeys and lions needed for biblical stories, cute dogs, peacocks and a couple of broken birds in Rembrandt’s infrequent still-lifes must be the whole list, we guess.

Talking about Rembrandt’s love for exotic animals, a funny story was told by the Dutch writer and painter Arnold Houbraken: "I recall an example of his (Rembrandt`s -Arthive) willfulness. He worked on a large portrait depicting a customer, his wife and children. When Rembrandt was half way through with the portrait, his beloved pet monkey died, and because he had no other canvas at hand, he painted the dead animal in the portrait. His clients naturally objected, but Rembrandt refused to paint out the monkey, so he lost the commission. This painting for a long time served as a wall separating the workshops of apprentices. "

Books in the Rembrandt's collection

In the register of Rembrandt’s property, only "15 books of various formats" were mentioned. It would suggest that Rembrandt was not an encyclopedically educated person, like Rubens who did not imagine himself outside a rich library. The misconception about the lack of education of Rembrandt is refuted by the facts. First, the bailiffs described the remnants of the Rembrandt’s library — perhaps most of it had already been sold. And secondly, there remained only what was really dear to Rembrandt: the Bible, Horace and Tacitus, Ovid and Pliny.

In addition, it is proved that while drawing his paintings, Rembrandt used specialized literature. For example, when he painted "The Night Watch", he borrowed poses from the then well-known Wapenhandelinghe (the Exercise of Arms) with engravings by Jacob de Gheyn II of 1608.
In the painting based on the story from the Old Testament "The Book of Tobit", not included in the canonical version, Rembrandt needed to depict Tobias giving back sight to his blind father. A conditional "magic" could not satisfy Rembrandt. He depicted a real ophthalmic surgery: the old man was held by the head, they lifted and fixed his eyelids, put the needle into the eyeball — Rembrandt could not think up all these details himself. He drew them from medical treatises — "The Medical Handbook" by Oswald Gabelkover and German physician Georg Bartisch’s book "Ophthalmodouleia. Deases of the eye".

If the actual literature in the collection of Rembrandt was not so rich, then his collection of drawings and engravings, art albums and prints was really huge. Those who researched the collection of the artist claimed: he had a complete collection of Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian in prints, and thus both Rembrandt and his students had access to the treasures of the Italian Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
and the masters of a later period — Caravaggio and Carracci. The inventory also features Mantegna’s "precious book" and the book about Durer’s proportions. Of course, there were many "northern" artists there: Lukas van Leiden, Bruegel, Jacques Callot.

"The indifference of Rembrandt to the books," argues Simon Schama, "seems all the more strange that he experienced a genuine passion for their physical appearance and did not tire of depicting them on his canvases, turning them into something like monuments and awe-inspiring reminders of times."

  • Rembrandt. Portrait of a scientit
  • Rembrandt. Portrait of a scientit (detail)
Nowadays, many of the surviving items of the Rembrandt collection — engravings and sculptures, spears and helmets, shells and corals, paintings and books — can be seen in the Rembrandt House Museum, in the same historic house in the Jodenbreestraat, bought for 13 thousand guilders by the artist in the middle of his collecting insanity.

Author: Anna Vcherashnyaya