Almost Gone: Rembrandt and the Ends of Materialismby Steven Goldsmith

New Literary History


Literature and Literary Theory



New Literary History, Volume 45, Number 3, Summer 2014, pp. 411-443 (Article) 3XEOLVKHGE\7KH-RKQV+RSNLQV8QLYHUVLW\3UHVV

DOI: 10.1353/nlh.2014.0029

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New Literary History, 2014, 45: 411–443

Almost Gone: Rembrandt and the

Ends of Materialism

Steven Goldsmith

In this collection there appeared many sad results of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s experiments on colours—a very fine copy made by him of

Rembrandt’s own picture of himself—all but the face so black as to be unintelligible—the face so good as to encrease regret that it must go too and that it is almost gone. —Maria Edgeworth,

Letters from England, 1813–1834

It would not be bearable for human subjects to have the world offer itself every second as a fully material thing, a constant proximity, a presence, a place of mere events, all of them physically impinging on us—part of us, touching us, winding themselves into our very subjectivity. Materialism, in this sense, is a great and intolerable vision.

Painting therefore constantly moves toward it, but as constantly draws back. —T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death

T he Apostle BArtholomew (fig. 1) is a little known but unmistakable example of late Rembrandt. We know the type: a contemplative, half-length figure, spot-lit against deep shadow, emblematic of

Rembrandt’s inward turn toward spiritual struggle and away from theatrical virtuosity or spectacle. Entering his last decade, Rembrandt was rendering local seventeenth-century Dutchmen as saints and evangelists, sacralizing ordinary people in a gesture we recognize as Reformation humanism. Rembrandt included himself in this series. His Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (fig. 2), like Bartholomew signed and dated 1661, seems to espouse the Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace alone, available even to a feeble old man surprised to receive it.

Yet there is room to debate Rembrandt’s personal identification with these religious portraits, despite the obvious appeal of rooting their empathy in the painter’s late life struggles: his falling out of fashion new literary history412

Fig. 1. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, St. Bartholomew (1661). The J. Paul Getty Museum,

Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Fig. 2. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661). Rijksmuseum,

Amsterdam. 413rembrandt and the ends of materialism and patronage; his sexual scandals; the crushing debt that led him to seek relief in solvency court. Circumstances make it unlikely that

Rembrandt painted solely out of inner need at this time rather than for the marketplace. Under a new legal arrangement begun in 1661,

Rembrandt worked for his common-law wife Hendrickje and his son

Titus, trading future output for room and board, thereby sheltering the family’s property from creditors. Working himself out of debt, he produced more paintings in the year of Bartholomew and Paul than he had at any time since 1634,1 and it is difficult to know how his outpouring of half-length saints fits into this financial context. Despite the substantial archive documenting Rembrandt’s transactions, scholars cannot trace the provenance of any of these pictures back to the seventeenth century.

No one has identified the model in Bartholomew. If Rembrandt pulled him off the street and into the studio, he never employed him again, unlike an earlier Bartholomew (fig. 3, 1657) who later reappeared as The

Apostle Simon (1661). The distinctive features of the 1661 Bartholomew (fig. 1)—his modern dress; his unfashionable, close-cropped hair; his heavily wrinkled face, so obviously rendered from life—may indicate that this painting is an example of portrait historié, but given the gruesome fate for which Bartholomew is famous—flayed alive and then beheaded—it is hard to imagine why even a severely melancholic patron would choose such an archetype. The assumption that this painting must be a specific portrait and therefore cannot be a generic Bartholomew prevented its identification from becoming widely accepted until the twentieth century.

Both Bartholomews enter the historical record in eighteenth-century

London. How they got there no one knows. The Timken Museum painting (fig. 3) was briefly owned and properly identified by Joshua

Reynolds, though it reverted to the title Man with a Knife after passing from his hands. By 1757, the Getty Center version (fig. 1) was owned by the Scottish merchant John Blackwood, who began his London career in the slave trade, married up, and eventually served in Parliament. He also seems to have made a side living trading Rembrandts at the peak of Britain’s mid-century Rembrandt craze. His Bartholomew was popular enough to be copied twice for the commercial print market, though no one seems to have understood its subject. Besides the default title

Man with a Knife it also passed under Rembrandt’s Cook and (in an awful rendition) The Assassin (fig. 4).2 Blackwood may have commissioned

Richard Houston’s etching (fig. 5) to enhance the painting’s value for future sale. When Houston sold this print from his house at Charing

Cross he packaged it with other mezzotints after Rembrandt, including a Man Mending a Pen and an Old Woman Plucking a Fowl. He seems to have mistaken it for a Dutch genre piece.3 new literary history414

Fig. 3. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Bartholomew (1657). Timken Museum, San

Diego, CA. Photography by the Putnam Foundation Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA.

Fig. 4. Charles Phillips, The Assassin. Mezzotint with etching (circa 1750s–70s). British

Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum. 415rembrandt and the ends of materialism

Clearly, identification of this painting turns on a single piece of information: the saint’s iconographic knife, the instrument of martyrdom conventionally included with his image.4 The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century viewers who projected various identities onto this figure were not wrong to think “the knife was . . . introduced to indicate the calling of the sitter,” as Wilhelm von Bode still insisted in 1902.5 Their mistake, like Bode’s, was to assume the sitter is an agent and the knife a tool of his trade, leading them to conclude he is either an unusually thoughtful cook or a rather cynical assassin—or any type whose vocation requires a blade: a surgeon, an artist with a palette knife, even a suicide.6 In portraiture, so powerful is the assumption of selfhood that it never occurred to such viewers this man might be an object rather than a subject, a figure acted upon by the knife he holds rather than an agent instrumentalizing it. Even the Romantic-period owner of this