Rembrandt's Jews

Rembrandt's Jews

by Steven Nadler


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There is a popular and romantic myth about Rembrandt and the Jewish people. One of history's greatest artists, we are often told, had a special affinity for Judaism. With so many of Rembrandt's works devoted to stories of the Hebrew Bible, and with his apparent penchant for Jewish themes and the sympathetic portrayal of Jewish faces, it is no wonder that the myth has endured for centuries.

Rembrandt's Jews puts this myth to the test as it examines both the legend and the reality of Rembrandt's relationship to Jews and Judaism. In his elegantly written and engrossing tour of Jewish Amsterdam—which begins in 1653 as workers are repairing Rembrandt's Portuguese-Jewish neighbor's house and completely disrupting the artist's life and livelihood—Steven Nadler tells us the stories of the artist's portraits of Jewish sitters, of his mundane and often contentious dealings with his neighbors in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, and of the tolerant setting that city provided for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe. As Nadler shows, Rembrandt was only one of a number of prominent seventeenth-century Dutch painters and draftsmen who found inspiration in Jewish subjects. Looking at other artists, such as the landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael and Emmanuel de Witte, a celebrated painter of architectural interiors, Nadler is able to build a deep and complex account of the remarkable relationship between Dutch and Jewish cultures in the period, evidenced in the dispassionate, even ordinary ways in which Jews and their religion are represented—far from the demonization and grotesque caricatures, the iconography of the outsider, so often found in depictions of Jews during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Through his close look at paintings, etchings, and drawings; in his discussion of intellectual and social life during the Dutch Golden Age; and even through his own travels in pursuit of his subject, Nadler takes the reader through Jewish Amsterdam then and now—a trip that, under ever-threatening Dutch skies, is full of colorful and eccentric personalities, fiery debates, and magnificent art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226567372
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/01/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 704,463
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Steven Nadler is a professor of philosophy and director of the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author, most recently, of Spinoza: A Life, which won the 2000 Koret Jewish Book Award for biography, and Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind.

Read an Excerpt

Rembrandt's Jews

By Steven Nadler

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Steven Nadler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36061-4


On the Breestraat

IT IS THE SUMMER OF 1653, midweek in early August. The afternoon is warm and humid, as these months tend to be in Amsterdam, even in this century of intensely cold winters. There is a bustle on the avenue along the canal called the Houtgracht, where the floral and vegetable markets overflow with shoppers trying to complete their daily errands. Some people congregate in small groups to catch up on local gossip or trade rumors about the war with England, where things are not going well for the Dutch. Off to the side, just before the little drawbridge over the canal, a number of well-dressed men conversing in Portuguese file into a house. They gather to conclude a deal or settle some pressing legal matter. A few doors down, children tumble out of a school. They run helter-skelter over the cobblestones and skip stones across the canal. A shout goes up whenever a stone reaches the other side.

One must wait to cross the canal. After a masted boat has passed through, the drawbridge comes down very slowly. On the other side of the narrow waterway, the street continues straight ahead, where more flower stalls offer fragrant enticements. Just one block down is Sint-Anthonisbreestraat — Saint Anthony's Broad Street. A neat row of houses, all with similar redbrick facades and steeply pitched gables, lines each side of the street. Breestraat, as it is called, is wider than the thoroughfare that leads over the canal, with more pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, and well-apportioned carriages stationed in front of houses. To walk safely down the street at this time of day, one must stay close to the side and out of the way of the traffic.

At the end of the block, on the corner on the left and just back from the row of trees that line the lock on the canal, stand two large houses. Like many of the other dwellings, they are attached to each other by a common wall. The second house from the corner, the left one of the pair, is No. 4; it is the home of a prominent painter of portraits and histories.

It is an impressive house — not a true mansion, like the one Isaac de Pinto built for himself across the street, but even so it is a stately place. The three-story facade is made of brick with inlaid stone. It is quite wide, thirty-two feet across. Its tall front windows are topped by half-moon arcs of brick and stone. Above the roofline rise two thin dormer windows, each with a beam and pulley-hook sticking straight out into the street. The only way to move things to the upper floors of these narrow Dutch houses is to hoist them up and through the windows. In the center above the uppermost row of windows, crowning it all, is a decorative stone relief.

There is a tumult in front of the two houses. The street has been turned into a construction site. Building materials are strewn about — lumber, bricks, sand, mortar — and workers tramp in and out of both homes. Most of the work is going on in No. 2, on the right, the corner house, but repairs are also being made to the foundation of its companion.

Two wide steps lead up the stoop of No. 4. The front door, its threshold caked with dried mud, is propped open. The house is filthy. There is dust everywhere: plaster dust, sand dust, dust from the stones, and dust from the wood. It comes floating in from the worksite on the street through the open windows. It is tracked in on shoes and it falls off the shaken walls. Dust covers the floors and carpets, the windowsills, the sheets on the bed, the table, the food. Dust coats every surface of the house. It is even in the studio, complains the owner. The bare canvases are covered by a thin layer, enough to interfere with their priming; all of them will need to be cleaned. The paintings that were still wet — works in progress and recently finished pieces — are ruined. The dust that worked its way onto them is there for good. It is of no use to sweep up at the end of the day, he complains; by the time the air settles in the night, everything is covered again. The place is a goddamn mess, he sighs, and there is no end in sight.

Then there is the rattling. The house shakes with every swing of a sledgehammer, with each attempt to ram a beam into place; the windows chatter every time a nail is driven into lumber, and whenever a new brick is tapped into line. The construction required in No. 4 is in the basement, but it makes the upper floors reverberate. There is no escaping the tremors. They reach right down into a man's soul.

Worst of all is the noise: the incessant banging and cutting and hammering and chopping and knocking, the shouting and the yelling, the sharp cracking sound of wood thrown on top of wood, and the ringing of stones tossed from a wagon onto the street. It is enough to drive one mad.

* * *

It took the contractor Pieter Swense six months — six bone-jarring, nerve-shattering months — to jack up the house of Rembrandt's neighbor in No. 2 Breestraat, the Jewish merchant Daniel Pinto. The house had to be raised by "three feet and two thumbs" (about eighty-six centimeters). One reason the project took so long was the shortened workweek. The Dutch contractor and his men certainly would not have worked on Sunday, God's day; and Pinto must have stipulated that they could not labor between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, either. There may have been other factors, too. In addition to paying Swense thirty-three guilders, Pinto agreed to throw in "half a keg of good quality beer [that can be] consumed on the job." This was presumably a daily ration. The workmen were free to imbibe "more frequently" if they wished, but it is explicitly stated in the agreement that this additional refreshment "will be at the expense of the contractor." As the days grew warm, half a keg of beer would not have gone very far.

Swense died before he could complete the job. The master bricklayer Arent Reyessen and the carpenter Jan Janszoon were brought in to shore up the foundations and finish the repairs. Maybe it was more complicated than they originally thought, or perhaps there were many delays. Whatever the cause, the work went well past deadline. The project took over a year in the end. By that time, Rembrandt's patience was gone and his concentration shot. From the time construction began in early 1653 to its completion in May 1654, he had been unable to work with any consistency. The extant records indicate only one dated painting from that year, the Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rembrandt's living area, his work space, his art — they were all a wreck.

So were his finances. That is why it must have been particularly galling when Pinto started complaining that Rembrandt was not bearing enough of the cost of the restoration work. It was not an unreasonable objection. After all, Rembrandt benefited from the project. Their attached houses shared a wall, and extensive rebuilding of that joint property was required. Pieter Pieterssen, a local lumber merchant, had been directed to keep track of whether the wood he delivered to the job site was for the supports and beams of Pinto's side of the wall or Rembrandt's, "so he could charge each of them separately." Instead, he gave a single bill to Pinto. When asked by an irritated Pinto "why he [Pinto] had been charged on the same bill for lumber rented and bought for Rembrandt, and why not each of them had been charged separately, as agreed," Pieterssen replied — according to the witnesses who testified to the notary Benedict Baddel, recorder of the dispute —"that it was none of his business and that he knew of no one but Pinto and had no desire to claim any money from Rembrandt." It seems that Rembrandt's reputation as a delinquent debtor was well known. Pietersson was a smart businessman.

I doubt that Pinto ever received any money from Rembrandt for the wood. He could have pressed the matter, but, like the lumber merchant, he probably had no desire to add his name to the ever-expanding list of the painter's creditors. There were other, long-standing members of that club with higher priority. What Pinto could do, however, was try to get some relief from the rent he was paying to Rembrandt for the use of the artist's cellar. Pinto had been storing rolls of tobacco, one of the goods in which he dealt, in half of the basement of No. 4. (Rembrandt seems not to have had much use for this part of his house, for the rest of the cellar was being rented by other Jewish merchants, the brothers Jacob and Samuel Pereira.) But with all the work being done on the house, and especially on the supporting wall in the basement, it was impossible to keep anything down there, much less use it as a base for business. By withholding the rent, Pinto could make up what Rembrandt owed him for the restoration work. Or at least he could escrow the money and use it as leverage to get Rembrandt to pay up his share. The notary, Baddel — who was one of the notaries of choice among Amsterdam's Portuguese-speaking Jews because he had an assistant who knew their language — reports that two witnesses came forward on behalf of Pinto. One was the mason Reyessen, who was intimately acquainted with the condition of Rembrandt's cellar. The other was Mordechai d'Andrade, a fellow Portuguese Jew who worked for Pinto and who "was always present during the renovations and therefore had seen everything." Reyessen and d'Andrade testified that Rembrandt's basement "was so noisy because of masons and carpenters that the requirant [Pinto] was unable to use it during that period of time." Why should he pay rent for a cellar he could not use? Of course there is no mention of the fact that Pinto could not use it because of the renovations he himself had undertaken.

Pinto's house had been sinking. It had been built, perhaps hastily, on saturated landfill almost fifty years earlier. It rested on ground reclaimed from water and marshes in the city's 1593 expansion project. This substantial urban annex was constructed because municipal leaders had recognized that old Amsterdam could no longer contain its rapidly expanding population. As the Dutch Republic's war for independence from Spain wore on toward the end of the sixteenth century, more and more immigrants — many of them fleeing the Inquisition — were arriving in the cities of the Protestant north from the Catholic provinces of the southern Netherlands that remained loyal to their Spanish rulers. The refugees came from all over those Hapsburg territories, but especially from Antwerp — once the shining commercial center of northern Europe but now worn down by blockades and eclipsed by the new glory of Amsterdam.

The influx did wonders for the new nation's economy and culture by creating fabulous wealth and ushering in its renowned golden age. But it was difficult for Amsterdam to accommodate all these newcomers. The buildings of the city, wedged between the canals and the river, were already packed in tightly. A metropolis surrounded by water can usually build only upward; thus, the great towers of Manhattan, once known as New Amsterdam. But skyscrapers and high-rises were not an option in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. The only solution was to create more land.

The Dutch were brilliant at this. In fact, compared to the great land reclamation projects on the North Sea, the Amsterdam expansion would be simple. Within a few years, where once there had been waterways, wetlands, and grazing fields outside the city limits, now there were neighborhoods, with wood and brick houses, wide streets and narrow alleyways, market squares and wharfs. What had been Sint-Anthonisdijk (St. Anthony's Dike) that directed the flow of the Amstel River along the east side of the city, was, by 1600, Sint-Anthonisbreestraat, the central avenue of the city's newest quarter. The neighborhood itself was called Vlooienburg, from the Dutch word for flood, vloed.

The landfill was soft, mostly sand and sod. As the waterlogged material shifted and settled, so did the pilings that had been driven into it and on which everything rested. Crooked houses were the result. These are charming to the twentieth-century tourist but were a nightmare to the seventeenth-century homeowner. Plaster cracked, doors did not close properly, paintings hung askew. When the houses sank and went cockeyed, they needed to be raised and leveled. Pinto's house was certainly not three feet off kilter. More likely, he had decided that as long as the house had to be straightened up, a major job in its own right, he might as well have it raised substantially to increase the storage space in the basement for his tobacco. A successful businessman, Pinto had the resources for such a major project. So in early 1653, he decided to take care of the problem, whatever the inconvenience to Rembrandt. The homeowner behind them raised his house five years later, in 1658. Rembrandt, however, could not afford to do so. He could barely afford the house itself. No. 4 Breestraat was not resettled until 1661, several years after Rembrandt had moved his family to less expensive quarters in another part of the city.

* * *

Things were not supposed to turn out this way. It had all looked so promising twenty years earlier. The house seemed just the right place. It was perfectly situated at the heart of Amsterdam's art world, a neighborhood that was also home to many of the city's social and political elite — including well-connected members of regent families. If you were an artist in seventeenth-century Amsterdam who wanted to be surrounded by galleries, dealers, and other artists, not to mention wealthy patrons who desired — even needed — portraits and "history" (including biblical- and religious-themed) paintings to adorn their walls, you could pick no better place to live. Vlooienburg and its environs were where much of the city's art was commissioned, made, displayed, and sold. Just across the street from Rembrandt lived the painter Adriaen van Nieulandt, at No. 5 Breestraat. Two doors from van Nieulandt (at No. 1 Breestraat) was a house built around 1605 for another painter, Pieter Issacszoon. By the time Rembrandt moved in, however, Issacszoon was living farther down Breestraat, just across the Sint-Anthonissluis, or Saint Anthony's Lock, on a block that included the painters Dirck Santvoort, David Vinckboons, and Roelandt Savery. Down the street from Rembrandt in the other direction, toward the new Saint Anthony's Gate, lived the painter Paulus Potter, with yet another artist, Thomas de Keyser, right next door. The house where Daniel Pinto now lived, at No. 2, had once belonged to the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh, who still lived on Breestraat but closer now to Santvoort and the others. Pinto himself had bought the place from the painter Nicolaas Eliaszoon Pickenoy.

The Vlooienburg quarter did not have the cachet of the older, more established parts of town. The wealthiest of the wealthy in Amsterdam tended to live on the upscale canals that form the concentric half-rings of the city center. Such people as the van Beuningens and the fabulously rich Trips lived on the Old Singel. Addresses on the Prinsengracht and in districts like the Jordaan carried even more prestige. But that did not stop Pieter Codde, a member of one of the city's leading families, from living on Breestraat. And one of the dwellings across the street from Rembrandt's No. 4 was owned by Joan Huydecouper, a most distinguished neighbor indeed and who is on record as having bought "a head by Rembrandt" in 1628. That house was now rented to Jan Cocq, the father of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, whose militia company was immortalized by Rembrandt in the painting commonly referred to as The Night Watch. There was certainly no lack of patrons in Rembrandt's immediate neighborhood.

The house that Rembrandt bought in 1639 from Christoffel Thijs for the exorbitant sum of thirteen thousand guilders was built together with Pinto's in 1606. It was being rented at the time of Rembrandt's purchase by Balthasar Visscher, a merchant. The elegant home came with a garden in the back, a real premium in a crowded, watery city like Amsterdam. This was a stunning purchase for a painter of Rembrandt's means to make. It was eventually his undoing.

This was not Rembrandt's first residency on Breestraat. In 1624, he had come from his hometown, Leiden, to Amsterdam to work in the studio of the history painter Pieter Lastman. Lastman was living on Breestraat at the time, but on the far side of the Sint-Anthonissluis, closer to the Zuiderkerk and just beyond the vague and unofficial boundaries of the Vlooienburg quarter. Rembrandt stayed with Lastman for six months, before returning to Leiden to begin his career as a master painter. He encountered serious competition in Leiden, however — the talented and popular Jan Lievens. Lievens, too, had studied with Lastman, and excelled in just the kind of history painting that the local patrons favored. Leiden was not big enough for both Rembrandt and Lievens. Or maybe it was just not big enough for a painter of Rembrandt's ambitions. Seven years later, Rembrandt was back in Amsterdam, living right next door to the house he would later buy — living in the same house, in fact, that would be raised "three feet and two thumbs" by Daniel Pinto in 1653.


Excerpted from Rembrandt's Jews by Steven Nadler. Copyright © 2003 Steven Nadler. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. On the Breestraat
2. Graven Images
3. The Unhappy Rabbi
4. Esnoga
5. The World to Come
Selected General Bibliography

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