“Rembrandt and the Jewish Experience: The Berger Print Collection,” now on show at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, is an excellent introduction to a more intimately scaled form of art by one of the greatest of all Dutch Old Masters, Rembrandt van Rijn (1608-1669).
These works demonstrate not only Rembrandt’s long and fruitful study of the creative possibilities afforded by printmaking, but also his fascination with the local Jewish community whom he observed and interacted with in Amsterdam. Even centuries after its creation, the works in this exhibition challenge us to think whether we are so very different or so much more advanced today than the people Rembrandt depicts.
In the 17th century, Amsterdam had a thriving, growing Jewish community, which helped to expand Dutch influence across the globe. Most of the Jews Rembrandt would have known when he first moved there from the city of Leyden in 1631 were of Sephardic origin. For example, Rembrandt’s 1636 engraving of a gentleman in a fashionable, broad-brimmed hat in this exhibition is believed by some scholars to be a portrait of Rabbi Samuel Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657).
Menasseh was born on the Portuguese island of Madeira, but fled with his family to Amsterdam as a small boy. Later in his career Menasseh became an internationally famous writer and diplomat, but he initially rose to prominence when, at the age of 18, he opened the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam.
At the same time, as his enigmatic engraving “Jews in a Synagogue” (1648) demonstrates, Rembrandt was also familiar with the growing Ashkenazi community in his adopted city, who by the time of Rembrandt’s death comprised the largest Jewish group in Amsterdam. Compared to the sober, all-black clothing that was considered mandatory among many of the well-to-do of the time, whether Dutch Calvinist or Sephardic Jewish, the traditional dress of this latest wave of immigrants caught Rembrandt’s eye as something far more interesting and challenging to depict in his art.
It was easy to imagine, as some scholars did after Rembrandt’s death, that this print depicted the artist’s imagining of the Pharisees milling about inside the Jewish Temple, rather than contemporary Jews inside what is clearly a building more recent to Rembrandt’s own day.
Like many artists before him, Rembrandt often used what, to Dutch eyes, seemed a more exotic form of costume in order to portray biblical figures to a contemporary audience. To our eyes, it’s perhaps the mixture of ancient subject with modern interior that is more jarring.
His depiction of “David in Prayer” (1652) for example, shows the king of Israel kneeling at his bedside, his emblematic harp fallen over at his feet. He wears a strained, pleading expression which, in conjunction with the fallen harp, might suggest that he is pleading for God’s forgiveness for his sins. Notice, however, that King David’s bedroom is not located in some vast palace, but in the home of a wealthy Dutch merchant of the 17th century, who can afford a four-poster bed with fringed velvet hangings.
Rembrandt’s best-known painting supposedly depicting a contemporary Jewish theme is the much-loved “The Jewish Bride” (c. 1667)—except that Rembrandt never gave the picture that title, and the subject is more likely a biblical one. Similarly, two of the works in the Telfair show are also known as “Jewish Brides,” but these incorrect titles were ascribed after Rembrandt’s time. While not helpful from an art historical perspective, they do show how, long after his death, Rembrandt’s appreciation of Amsterdam’s Jewish community affected how his work was itself appreciated by later generations of artists, collectors, and scholars.
For starters, the lady depicted in the etching known as “The Little Jewish Bride” (1638) is neither Jewish nor a bride. (“Talk amongst yourselves.”) Rather, this delicate little piece, slightly smaller than a five-by-seven-inch photograph, is a portrait of the artist’s first wife, Saskia (1612-1642), dressed as the early Christian martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria. We know this because the implement of the saint’s martyrdom, a spiked wheel, appears in the background.
In this case, 18th century scholars argued—incorrectly—that because the lady in the picture wears her hair loose with a top headband, a traditional wedding day hairstyle among the Jewish brides of Rembrandt’s day, that the image was probably a wedding portrait of the daughter of Ephraïm Bueno (1599-1665), a prominent Sephardic physician Rembrandt knew in Amsterdam. As it happens, Rembrandt’s 1647 elegant etching of Bueno is in the Telfair exhibition, and it shows the same kind, highly intelligent eyes that we see in the artist’s beautiful circa 1645-1647 portrait of the same gentleman in the Rijksmuseum. However, Saskia Rembrandt was most certainly not his daughter.
Meanwhile, the etching known as “The Great Jewish Bride” (1635), so-called because it’s larger than “The Little Jewish Bride,” also features Saskia as the model. Again, we see loose, parted hair and a headband made of pearls, giving rise to the suggestion that the subject is a Jewish lady on her wedding day. However it’s now generally accepted that in this image, Saskia is not portraying a Jewish bride per se, but Queen Esther, whose heroism in saving her people served as the foundation for the Jewish Feast of Purim.
In “The Triumph of Mordechai” (c. 1641), another engraving in the Telfair exhibition depicting a scene from the Book of Esther, Rembrandt imagines the moment the tide changed for the Persian Jews. Queen Esther’s cousin and adoptive father Mordechai, who refused to prostrate himself before the evil Persian vizier Haman, is shown riding a magnificent horse in parade through the streets of Susa, led by Haman himself, as the royal couple look on from a balcony.
Rembrandt depicts the ex-vizier with an angry look, furious that all of the people who were once forced to prostrate themselves before him are now prostrating before Mordecai. Haman clearly has no idea that he’s about to be executed for attempting to bring about genocide.
One of the more interesting takeaways from the exhibition was the inclusion of Rembrandt’s engraving of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1636). While not a Jewish subject, the exhibition maintains that the idea of returning to one’s roots explored in this print would have resonated with the Sephardic Jews of Rembrandt’s acquaintance, many of whom had been forced to hide their Judaism before being expelled from their homes and forced to settle in (comparatively) more welcoming cities such as Amsterdam. Interestingly however, there is a rather curious Spanish twist to this print, which isn’t mentioned in the catalog but still worth pointing out.
Rembrandt’s print was not the basis for his much later, more famous painting of the Prodigal Son from the 1660s, which is now in the Hermitage. Rather, the print in the Telfair show is Rembrandt’s take on an earlier 16th-century engraving of the Prodigal Son by artist Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1575).
Yet when I saw the Rembrandt version, my mind immediately flew to the large, rather similar painting of the same subject by Rembrandt’s contemporary, the Spanish Golden Age painter Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), which is clearly influenced by one or both of these Dutch prints. It’s an example of how small-scale prints such as Rembrandt’s would have served as a kind of paper currency in ideas, for both artists and patrons alike, even long after they were printed.
Finally, for those with a more technical interest in understanding how an artist produces prints such as these, the Telfair helpfully provides materials that introduce visitors to the methods Rembrandt employed in producing his art. A video in one part of the exhibition demonstrates how a printmaker goes through multiple stages between creating one of Rembrandt’s images on a prepared sheet of copper, all the way through the execution of the resulting print. Meanwhile, a nearby display case contains the tools of the engraver and printmaker’s trade, which have changed little in the last several centuries.
While he lived in a time marked by wars of religion and laws condemning specific creeds or entire faiths, in many of his innovative prints touching on Jewish subjects and themes, Rembrandt tried to transcend the religious differences of his time by emphasizing the humanity of his subjects. Because they could be circulated easily, and featured elements of contemporary Jewish culture that appealed to an artistic eye, these images could serve as points of communication and exchange among artists, thinkers, and writers.
Living as we do in an age marked by a renewal of violence tied to conflicting ideas concerning religion, perhaps Rembrandt’s example of simultaneously appreciating both “otherness” and commonalities in the people he met ought to be reexamined—and emulated—more often.
“Rembrandt and the Jewish Experience” is at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center in Savannah through June 30, 2019.