Looking over Rembrant’s shoulder while he painted, who would not have wanted that? To get so near to his painting practice? Ernst van de Wetering chanced it in his books Rembrandt. The Painter at Work and Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking.
Of course, he studied the paintings of Rembrandt for years to establish their authenticity. Besides art history he received an academic education as a painter. This way he was equipped with a painter’s eye and professional expertise. That came in useful as an art historian.
The world’s greatest authority on Rembrandt, he passed away this year. 1)
Ernst Gombrich, auteur van The Story of Art, wrote:
“Among the countless books on Rembrandt, that by Ernst van de Wetering comes closest to conveying something of this experience because the author combines the qualifications of a trained connoisseur and of a practicing painter.” 2)
He was reputed to be passionate, brilliant, unique. He was famed as a raconteur, his lectures were memorable, students would cheer his lessons spontaneously. He knew how to explore a subject by including other academic disciplines. Experience was essential in seeing art.
A former student remembered an art excursion to Russia:
“In our preparation we also immersed ourselves in Russian litterature and music. Travelling through the country we all had to step out of the bus at some point in the middle of nowhere. ‘Look around carefully!’, were our orders. But it was raining! But still, we had to, in the rain, here and there was some snow and a group of birch trees. Not very comfortable. But later in the museum we were extremely grateful, we saw the Russian impressionist landscapes with different eyes, the experience was much more intense. You really saw more!”
I remember very well the lecture on ‘Rembrandt and light’. Van de Wetering told us that it was a common belief that Rembrandt’s famous clair-obscure was based in his childhood. Didn’t he grow up in a windmill, in semi-darkness, because of the small windows?
And then we we were invited to look at the light in the enormous college hall. That was a strange experience, lamps of all different kinds, and then there was the daylight coming in through the stained-glass windows. After a few minutes the audience was like a plowed land thirstily absorbing the story in all its complexity. Like the numerical decrease of daylight falling into a room, expert knowledge to be found at that time in painters’ manuals.
Rembrandt at work
Rembrandt. The Painter at Work was published at the beginning of this century. I read it in one go and published articles about it in the Dutch art review Palet. 2) I had to ask Van de Wetering for photo materials, and that is how we first had contact.
The book makes you aware of the process of observation and reproduction. I marveled reading about painters’ practices in the Dutch Golden Age of painting. There was an extraordinary high level of expertise among the painters.
The creation of a credible illusion of reality, that was the aim in the classical tradition. Plasticity, correct proportions, a credible skin colour, yes, countless aspects had to be mastered by the artist. Linear and atmospheric perspective had been major discoveries. It proved to be possible to evoke the illusion of reality on a flat surface!
Last November I saw the exhibition of Renaissance portraits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: Vergeet me niet / Remember Me. Afterwards I passed through the Honour Gallery, with Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals.
I stopped, taken aback, what was this? It had to be the amazing sense of space in the 17th century paintings! What a difference with a century before! What a giant artistic leap!
Most particularly in the Northern Netherlands new ways of evoking space were developed, for instance the use of ‘the thickness of the air’ 4) That is how it was called, air forming a body between the different objects, even at close distances. That this was discovered at that time still amazes me. Other ‘tricks’ were the varying roughness of the paint surface, the alternation of sharp and soft contours, the placing of a pet dog: diagonally, alongside, or ‘in depth’…
Especially Rembrandt applied a lot of these techniques, as can be seen in the Night Watch. Just look at the little dog, on the right hand side, in the shadow. Also the placing of the figures makes it very life-like, indeed spatial. In short: the figures are breathing, the Night Watch is breathing.
The insights of those days are still valuable for contemporary realism, especially when artists rely on photos, because this can unwittingly lead to ‘flat’ pictures.
Then there is the chessboard theory. I can still hear this teacher telling us that you can enliven a painting by placing the contrasts like a sort of chessboard. This idea stems more from the tradition of abstract painting. In Rembrandt’s age a chessboard disposition was anathema. Because the eye would ‘read’all contrasts one by one and make an addition sum of the painting. Especially where people were represented in all kinds of mutual relations, this should be avoided. No, one should limit the alternation of light and dark, put less light tones next to light ones, so the light tones would shine even more, and the other way round. The main subject should stand out, and a sharp contrast would help that. Thus, you would create a ‘unified’painting, ‘one being’ in one compositionary grip. In other words: you should be able to see this picture in one glance. Rembrandt was admired for this by his contemporaries. 5)
Was Rembrandt’s (and others’) spontaneous painter’s hand a manifestation of vitality or temperament? An aim in itself? A trade mark? This is often said, but no, thought Van de Wetering. “With Rembrandt and other great artists with a spontaneous hand (…) you register unconsciously that the spontaneity has itself no deliberate aim, it is not even a means, it is a self-evident and integral part of their artistic skill. (…) it serves more specifically a quite different factor in their artistry, perhaps the most important of all: the imagination.”
Rembrandt could compose this through his expertise, hardly fathomable nowadays, an expertise obtained through expermiment and endless practicing since his youth. Van de Wetering: “With great art (…) it seems that there must have been a powerful image lying at the root of the whole process. The artist appears (…) to move within that image while he is at work. He is what he is making.” 6)
After reading this book Iwrote to him asking for more information on 17th century ideas. Where could I find this? After some time I received a number of unpublished texts, plus invitations for his lectures and book presentations.
Etches, paintings and camping at the printer
In 2008, when I published my book Gezien van de Riet. In ’t leven vindtment al I sent Van de Wetering a copy. After that, he wanted to visit my workshop. He came in, with an etch in his hand. He had made that in the art academy.
It is a funny picture, free flowing, loose, but still very much on the mark. On his knee is the etching plate on which he is drawing his knee, feet, hands, and the etching plate itself. A drawing about drawing.
Left: When you hold the etch upside down you see what he himself saw while doing the drawing. But wait, the etch is printed in reverse. So it should be turned horizontally.
Right: This must have been the image that he drew from observation.
He also painted, and once we participated in an exhibition together. Both our works were too big for a normal car. A good thing that besides our love for painting we shared a love for camping. The paintings were transported in his camper car, and returned in our caravan.
His van also served him as his lodging at the printer’s in Zeist. He had to proof-read his last book on Rembrandt, there was a lot of time pressure. He wanted to pass the night in the printing shop, instead, he used his van.
Rembrandt the thinker
Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking appeared in 2016.
The rich treasure of 17th century art practice was systematically explored – Courbet would have loved it.
Treatises on art theory and painting practices were being unearthed and compared to each other. A perplexing image of well thought-out painting practices was recreated.
In 1604 painter and poet Karel van Mander published Het Schilder-boeck (‘The Painter’s Book’ or ‘The Painting Book’), following the footsteps of Vasari. This book was one of the crucial sources of knowledge on Rembrandt and his contemporaries. The influential art historian Hessel Miedema, internationally respected, wrote several studies on Van Mander in the last decades of the 20th century. He saw the book as a didactic poem, mainly literary by nature, obviously aimed at art lovers and of hardly any meaning for (beginning) artists. It was mostly about reciting knowlegde that was circulating anyway.
The strange thing however is that the first part of Het Schilder-boeck is full of advice and criteria, a true teaching manual for painters. That was even expressed in the subtitle….
Waer in voor eerst de leerlusti-
ghe Jueght den grondt der
Edel VRIJ SCHILDERCONST in
Verscheyden deelen Wort
The Painters Book (or Painting Book)
In which for the fist time for the studious
Youth (is exposed) the basis
of the Noble FREE ART OF PAINTING
in Several Volumes
More than ten chapters dwell on subjects like the portrayal of human feelings, landscape, cattle, reflected light, textiles, draperies, paint application…
All kinds of concrete things were treated, like:
- How to suggest velvet? By painting the high light very close to the contours.
- Reflection of a dark form in water? Make it lighter than the form itself.
- Tin: slightly bluer than silver.
Deeper meaing of eggs
A hilarious example illustrates Miedema’s misconception. It’s a simple instruction for the drawing of the human head, an egg-shaped outline with cross in it, from different poses. Those kinds of diagrams were common in those days.
“The emphatic repetition of ’t cruys’ (the cross) would clearly seem to refer to the Christian doctrine of redemption. It is more difficult to make out precisely what role Van Mander attributes to the ‘eye-rondt’, but it seems likely to me that by this term he is alluding to the world. ’t Menschen beeldt (the human figure) then becomes the microcosmos: the reduced reflection of the world, but under the sign of Christ’s Cross.” 7)
This interpretation should be categorically rejected, wrote Van de Wetering. Miedema’s search for a deeper meaning had stripped the manual of its real content
The recommendations and criteria in the manual were related to illusionism, as stated, the creation of a credible illusion of reality. Vasari and Van Mander approvingly used terms like ‘nature’ (meaning reality) and ‘just life-like’.
Gombrich had already pointed out that illusionism was the cornerstone of European art: artists had developed techniques to improve the illusion, ever since the classical Greeks down to the 19th century (with an interruption in the Middle Ages).
But painting practice was not a subject in art history. That should be rewritten in that respect, he suggested.
Rembrandt’s mainspring was to capture ‘de waerheyt’, truth, life in its ‘most natural liveliness’ or mobility. As a young painter he got an overwhelming compliment from the authoritative art connoisseur Constantijn Huygens: he had surpassed the ancients and the great 16th-century Italians in the representation of emotions, as expressed by his figures in historical pieces.
The representation of emotions was very highly valued in the classical tradition and Huygens’praise must have been a tremendous boost.
The etch The Return of the Prodigal Son shows how Rembrandt had pondered human feelings, and how best to express these.
Manuals and other 17th-century sources from Rembrandt’s days had existed for almost four centuries. But the art treasure of workshop practices had remained hidden for a long time, apart from certain exceptions. 8)
Van de Wetering points out that illusionism had fallen from grace ever since Cézanne, and banned completely in the 20th century. Art history was mostly concerned with style and the succession of styles. 9) The concepts used, like linear and picturesque, multiplicity and unity, closed and open form, had been developed in the time that abstract art arose. They didn’t need to refer to any representation of reality whatsoever. Art history didn’t concern itself with ‘just like’ and all that was involved with that. The peculiar aspects of illusionism became a blind spot.
The great merit of Van de Wetering is the creation of an unsurpassed written portrait of Rembrandt the painter. His capacity to identify himself with the painter’s practice must also have been owed to a certain natural talent for observation.
Drawing and painting himself, he had learned what to pay attention to. Painting is most of all the art of looking. By his many years of studying Rembrandt’s work he developed that art ever more.
But even so. Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking – meaning: thinking painterly – was slippery ground. Acute observation and artistic intuition had to be linked to facts. Only scientific method could shield him from speculation: laboratory research, and painstaking analysis of sources.
By comparing different manuals it was possible to distill what every artist of that day could know and practice, and thereby also where Rembrandt deviated and added. What was rendered by observation was transparantly explained. Laboratory research was essential in the process.
Another merit was that he put the finger on starting-points in art history that hindered research into painting practices in the classical tradition.
Like a true explorer, Van de Wetering has uncovered Rembrandt’s painting practice and made it accessible. Writing art history through focusing and that practice, like Gombrich advocated, has been a resounding success.
Simon Schama, himself the author of a hefty book on Rembrandt, thought that Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking was an astounding accomplishment, that would alter the course of Rembrandt studies for many generations. 10) I think that is a striking statement.
Mapping out the work of one of the world’s greatest artists was Titans’ labour. In his last years Van de Wetering struggled with his health, while the sixth volume of the RRP had not yet been finished. He has been able to complete it with the help of his life partner Carin van Nes, who assisted him in all possible ways. She had worked at the Centraal Laboratorium voor Onderzoek van Voorwerpen van Kunst en Wetenschap where Van de Wetering had a job and where the Rembrandt Research Project also worked. 11) She was closely involved in Van de Wetering’s work. She kept herself modestly in the background, but her contribution was all but modest.
To me, Van de Wetering was a great supporter. I also enjoy his legacy.
1) In 1986 Van de Wetering was involved in the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), becoming its chairperson in 1993. The RRP established the authenticity of paintings ascribed to Rembrandt. In 2014 the last of the six books on this subject was published. He was professor of art history at the Amsterdam University from 1987 till 1999.
2) Ernst Gombrich on the cover of Rembrandt. The Painter at Work and Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking
3) Palet nr 202 en 203
4) Rembrandt. The Painter at Work. Amsterdam, 2000. p. 187
5) Idem, p. 253
6) Idem, p. 276
7) Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking. p.87
8) J.A. Emmens: Rembrandt en de regels van de kunst. 1967
Bakker, Boudewijn. “Natuur of kunst? Rembrandts esthetica en de Nederlandse traditie.” In: Christiaan Vogelaar e.a., Rembrandts landschappen. Zwolle, 2006
9) Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking. p.280
10) Simon Schama on the cover of Rembrandt. The Painter at Work and Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking
11) Concerning restauration Carin van Nes said: “We worked close together in the realm of restauration ethics. Ernst was very important for the restauration world. Thanks to him the training of restaurers reached a higher level. Finally it became an academic discipline.
Thanks to Jeroen Strengers, Yvonne Melchers en Carin van Nes.
Translation NL-EN by Jeroen Strengers