Genius as Debtor: 'Rembrandt and His School' at the Frick

Fifth Avenue always connotes money, but stories of fortunes lost are now in the air, and as if on cue Rembrandt is on at the Frick. In fact the New York Rembrandt is there, Self-Portrait (1658), the largest of his signature self-portraits, painted two years after his infamous bankruptcy, returned home to the mansion’s Oval Room after a long absence.

This painting is literally as you have never seen it before: Draped in fur, wearing the floppy hat that signifies “artist,” the fleshy old man has a new sparkle to the canny gleam in his eye and a particularly silvery cane tip and (perhaps too?) pristine expansive lap thanks to the removal of layers of varnish by the restorative ministrations of Dorothy Mahon of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections” presents five paintings, including the newly cleaned self-portrait; 52 drawings; and 12 prints by Rembrandt and his multitude of studio assistants, peers, imitators and forgotten contemporaries. It is a chance not only to see the Frick’s reinstalled self-portrait and several rarely viewed drawings borrowed from the Paris-based Frits Lugt collection but to revisit the life of one of the 17th century’s most ambitious and resilient masters of self-invention and reinvention.

The exhibition features a dozen drypoints and etchings (the collector Frits Lugt found these eminently covetable, buying his first Rembrandt print at the precocious age of 15). The most enjoyable etchings are the self-portraits. These are not exercises in introspection but assertions of greatness: Rembrandt as an aristocratic figure, fur-draped with sword in hand (Self Portrait with Raised Saber, 1634), from around the time he started painting for the court; Rembrandt as a powerful artist, leaning heavily forward on his left elbow, his massive frame pressing close against the forward edges of the composition (Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639), the same year he bought a disastrously expensive home. Rembrandt helped to define the genre of self-portraiture, and you can recognize how these little squares of intensity influenced Courbet and Gauguin and even the way you look at yourself in the mirror on a particularly momentous occasion or after a bad night out.

As for the drawings, a room of “Rembrandt’s School” yields some attentive spatial studies by Samuel van Hoogstraten, and plenty of examples of why not everyone can be a Rembrandt. His drawings are characterized by plays of dark and light, the thickness and thinness of lines and a confidence that shows in the variety of marks and a quick, loose, wristy way of moving ink on paper. This style was so widely copied during his time, and “Rembrandt drawings” are dis-attributed with such regularity, that here you might start to play “is it or isn’t it?” games as the connoisseurs do. With the news this week that the Rembrandt Research Project, begun in 1968 to definitively authenticate his oeuvre, has been disbanded, your best guess becomes more defensible than ever.

Of the five paintings in the Oval Room, three, at best, are considered to be and two are agreed not to be Rembrandts (although they were all purchased by Frick as the real thing). Of the two no longer attributed to Rembrandt, Carl van der Pluym’s Old Woman with a Book (mid-1650s) was purchased for $200,000 in 1916, a record sum. (Frick subsequently and against all available evidence refused to admit that this painting was not a Rembrandt, probably out of pride.) This portrait is not usually on view, and it is worth seeing as a minor work of Dutch art and as a monument to an American collector’s obstinacy.

What to make of all this uncertainty about what is and isn’t by the artist? Because of these clouds of mis-attributions, but more so because of the powerful social function of his name, Rembrandt the great, isolated genius is, like few other artists, ultimately plural. The mark of Rembrandt’s importance is having a style signature enough to influence widely and profitable enough to copy. Jeff Koons knows this paradox, as does any artist who employs a large number of assistants and yet builds his reputation partly on the sign of his name. Having declared bankruptcy to escape his debts and mortgage in 1656, the middle-aged artist lost his home. (This is the era of the Frick Self-Portrait, 1658.) He became, for legal reasons, an employee of a business run by his wife and son–a company that just happened to produce and sell original Rembrandt paintings.

This savvy at destroying the legal entity and marketing the irreducible individual speaks to a contradiction at the heart of capitalism. The debt-laden American comes to mind as its modern-day heir. We were asked first to define ourselves by the size of our pre-qualified mortgages, then by our credit ratings, and finally to explain ourselves to our creditors–Rembrandt has been through it all. Again and again, he is presenting not just a brave face but a magnificently defiant one, refusing to be reduced by the exigencies of his enormous enterprise. He was a proto-Romantic individualist embattled by the rules of his mercantile society, and these two strains of thought, both of which we have inherited, are still in urgent conflict today.


Genius as Debtor: 'Rembrandt and His School' at the Frick