Of all the paintings by Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art, none has provoked stronger feelings over the years than has The Mill. The enormous fame accorded it in the nineteenth century, when it was admired by artists and critics alike, culminated when it was sold in London in 1911 for the extraordinary sum of £ 100,000. The purchaser was Peter A. B. Widener, the millionaire collector from Philadelphia. Before The Mill left England, it was brought to the National Gallery in London to be put on public exhibition for two brief days. Newspaper reports indicate that some eleven thousand people visited the painting each day [fig. 1]. Somewhat later, Wilhelm von Bode, director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, and the greatest Rembrandt scholar of his day, visited Widener’s son at his residence in Philadelphia, Lynnewood Hall, and pronounced the painting “the greatest picture in the world. The greatest picture by any artist.” The prominent status of the painting at Lynnewood Hall was upheld at the National Gallery of Art after the Widener bequest of 1942. It has always been viewed as the most important Rembrandt painting in the collection. When John Walker retired as director of the Gallery in 1969, he posed for photographers in front of The Mill.
Despite the painting’s renown, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century when it was in the collection of the Duc d’Orléans, and the enthusiastic endorsement of Bode, the attribution of The Mill has been a matter of great dispute throughout the twentieth century. The expert who seems to have first questioned the attribution was Woldemar von Seidlitz. Although Seidlitz had raised the question in newspaper articles since 1902, his first serious analysis of the stylistic problems concerning the attribution of The Mill appeared in the art journal Kunst und Künstler just after the sale of The Mill. Seidlitz objected that the concept of this painting was different from other Rembrandt landscapes, that its low horizon, its lack of multiplicity, and above all, the strong contrasts of light and dark were uncharacteristic of Rembrandt. Seidlitz suggested that Aert de Gelder (1645–1727) might be considered as the artist, seeing that De Gelder preferred the warm transparent colors found in The Mill. Seidlitz, however, also admitted that landscapes by De Gelder were not known.
Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Seidlitz’s article were newspaper reports that a recent cleaning of The Mill had uncovered the signature of Hercules Seghers (Dutch, c. 1590 - c. 1638), an account that encouraged further speculation about the attribution. Subsequent clarification of these reports revealed that the painting in question was not The Mill but another landscape. The associations between Seghers and The Mill, however, remained strong for many years. As a result of these attacks on the attribution of The Mill (including the quite unfeasible idea that the painting was a nineteenth-century English forgery), Wilhelm von Bode, Abraham Bredius, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Woldemar von Seidlitz, and Jan Veth wrote a series of short essays on The Mill in the October 1912 issue of Kunst und Künstler. Bode, Bredius, Hofstede de Groot, and Veth all emphatically defended the Rembrandt attribution and rejected the arguments advanced by Seidlitz in his previous article. Seidlitz agreed that The Mill could not have been painted by Seghers but continued to question the attribution to Rembrandt.
After the flurry of excitement in 1911 about the sale of The Mill and the issues of attribution, the painting, interestingly enough, was not again seriously discussed in the literature for more than sixty years. Although the painting continued to be admired in the United States and was accepted as a Rembrandt by scholars working in this country, primarily Jakob Rosenberg and Wolfgang Stechow, a number of important Rembrandt scholars working in Europe quietly eliminated the painting from the artist’s accepted oeuvre. Bredius, after having defended the attribution of The Mill in 1911, omitted it in 1935 from his corpus of Rembrandt paintings. Neither Kurt Bauch (in 1966) nor Horst Gerson (in 1969) included the painting in his catalog of the oeuvre.
Interest in The Mill, however, peaked once again in 1977 when the decision was made at the National Gallery of Art to conserve the painting. The Mill was found to be structurally unsound, reason enough for the proposed conservation treatment, but an added incentive was the issue of attribution. Only by removing the heavy layers of discolored varnish that had come to obscure the surface of the painting could anything be learned about the existing color tonalities and painting techniques—information, it was hoped, that could help determine whether or not the image had been executed by Rembrandt.
The decision to treat The Mill, however, unleashed a storm of controversy in the United States that eventually even threatened the existence of the conservation program at the National Gallery of Art. The main point of contention for those who believed in the Rembrandt attribution was that the removal of the varnish would alter irreparably the emotional impact of the image. What became clear during the controversy was the unique position this work occupied among Rembrandt’s paintings. The Mill was greatly admired for its inherent drama, while, at the same time, its darkly brooding character was central to the mythology surrounding Rembrandt’s life. At issue was not just concern about the appearance of the painting but also the way changes in its appearance would threaten fundamental beliefs about the artist.
The myths that so integrally linked this painting to Rembrandt’s life grew in the romantic era, when the dramatic lighting and stark silhouette of the mill against the stormy sky struck a particularly responsive chord. An old tradition that the painting represented the mill of Rembrandt’s father added a personal aspect to the work that appealed to nineteenth-century sensibilities. A number of descriptions of the painting interpreted the foreboding mood of the stormy sky as an indication of the personal traumas many believed Rembrandt experienced late in his life. One writer saw in the “dark, forbidding clouds . . . the symbols of his financial worries, social stress, and personal bereavements.” Another critic wrote: “Dating from the late 1650’s, when Rembrandt had drunk to the dregs the cup of sorrow, The Mill is by general consent, alike in conception and treatment, the most profoundly impressive landscape in Western art.”
Such interpretative assessments of The Mill were encouraged by the layers of discolored and darkened varnish that had accumulated on the painting. These thick layers of varnish, which had given the painting a golden tone, also obscured many landscape details, allowing for a more generalized effect. The chiaroscuro effects so admired by nineteenth-century critics were enhanced in 1911 when The Mill was cleaned selectively to bring out the contrast of the dark mill against the light sky.
Just how distorted this image had become over time is evident by comparing the painting as it appeared before its restoration with an etching of it in reverse in the 1786 catalog of the Duc d’Orléans’ collection [fig. 2]. Whereas in the print the mill is the dominant motif, other elements, including the surrounding buildings, little figures on the hillside and near the water, the cows on the far shore, and the church steeple beyond the dense profile of the distant trees, are clearly articulated. In the accompanying description, The Mill is found to be picturesque rather than dramatic:
This painting, as all those of this master, is of a vigourous and animated effect which has the principal interest of a site copied faithfully after nature. This simple composition does not owe to Rembrandt any other richness than that of harmony, and the magical effect which nourishes and revives everything. He possessed to an eminent degree this portion of picturesque genius, above all so essential in the genre of landscape [painting] where nature herself dictates the disposition of the scene, in determining the planes, the masses, and creates the borders that the fire of enthusiasm is unable to go beyond without risking to disfigure it.
Neither the description nor the engraving emphasizes the effects of light and dark—the deep brooding, almost mysterious mood—so admired throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In 1793 the painting was acquired for £500 by William Smith, a prominent politician from Norwich and friend of the artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775 - 1851). Its subsequent impact on English art and aesthetics was enormous. By 1806 The Mill was included in an exhibition of old master paintings at the British Institution. It was also among those works selected from the exhibition for artists to copy, as is evident in a drawing by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780–1860), which depicts three artists copying The Mill [fig. 3]. The artist wearing a top hat in this drawing is none other than Benjamin West (American, 1738 - 1820).
The numerous copies, variants, and descriptions of The Mill in the early to mid-nineteenth century provide further information about its appearance during these years. A watercolor copy probably made between 1806 and 1811 by William Marshall Craig (British, active 1788/1828) emphasizes, as does the Duc d’Orléans catalog, the picturesque qualities of the scene. The blue sky in Craig’s watercolor, as well as the vividly blue sky in a free derivation of The Mill painted byJames Ward (British, 1769 - 1859) around 1806, Ashbourne Mill (on loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), also demonstrates how different the color tonalities were before the accumulation of discolored and perhaps tinted varnish, affected the appearance of the painting.
It is with Turner that the first truly romantic interpretation of The Mill is to be found. His notes on Rembrandt’s “celebrated” picture stress Rembrandt’s forceful use of extreme contrasts of light and shade in the painting rather than its picturesque qualities: “But the sails of the mill are touched with the incalculable(?) ray, while all below is lost in inestimable(?) gloom without the value of reflected light, which even the sky demands, and the ray upon the Mill insists upon.” The strikingly different appreciation of the painting may have to do with Turner’s mindset, but the actual appearance of The Mill was also changing as the result of discolored or tinted varnish. In 1834 the painting was described by C. J. Nieuwenhuys in the following manner: “It is toward the approach of evening, when the remaining light of day illumines the horizon, and with the reflection of the water, throws the surrounding scenery into solemn gloom. The mysterious tone of the whole conveys to the mind a poetical effect.” By midcentury writers had begun to attribute much of the poetic charm of the painting to its rich golden tone, a legacy that continued unabated for 130 years.
Not surprisingly, the conservation treatment of 1977–1979 revealed that much of the painting’s somber mood was the result of darkened varnish. The most dramatic changes were in the sky, where the golden tonalities had been so prominent. The sky is now blue on the right and steel gray on the left and along the top edge. White clouds swirl across the sky behind the mill, creating a sweep of movement that adds drama to the setting. The water in the lower right is gray and blue, reflecting the color of the sky.
The land changed as well, although the transformations were not as dramatic as in the other areas. Instead of a large undifferentiated mass of brown in the foreground, a rich range of earth tones and blacks articulates the ground, the foliage, and the bricks that form the wall of the bulwark. The figures have emerged from the darkness, in particular a man climbing the hill on the left, who was virtually indistinguishable in the painting’s former state. On the far shore are two cows and what appears to be a herd of sheep. The reflections in the distant water are soft and lucid and add to the greatly enhanced feeling of depth that the painting now has.
Finally, the appearance of the classic post-mill itself changed: it does not appear as massive as it formerly did. It is painted in a wide range of earth tones that culminate in a soft salmon color at the ends of the sunlit sails. The mill, moreover, is clearly not situated in the foreground plane, but in the middle ground, behind the bulwark rising above the water. Just below the mill, fences help integrate its architectural character with the surrounding landscape.
The changes that occur after a painting has been cleaned are often dramatic. In this instance, they carried even added weight. Few paintings have been revered in the way that The Mill has for qualities that were derived from darkened varnish. Many feared that the impact this painting created would be destroyed if the varnish were removed, that it somehow could lose its sense of mystery. Fortunately, that fear was groundless, and the painting continues to impress the viewer with the profundity of its conception. The drama is still present, only it is richer, more varied, and less somber. The appearance is now quite comparable to that found in early nineteenth-century copies and variants of The Mill, although it is probable that viewers then were able to see even more detail in the landscape than is presently possible. These areas of relatively thin paint may well have darkened over time as a result of linings that affected the color and texture of the support and ground.
Although the 1977–1979 conservation treatment of The Mill did much to correct the misinterpretations of the mood of the scene, it did not immediately solve the controversy about the attribution. While this author and Cynthia Schneider firmly supported the attribution to Rembrandt, neither Gary Schwartz nor Christian Tümpel included the painting in their monographs on Rembrandt, and Josua Bruyn, in an essay for the Rembrandt Research Project, attempted to attribute The Mill to Rembrandt’s pupil Ferdinand Bol. Over time, however, a broad consensus has arisen that the attribution to Rembrandt is correct, with Ernst van de Wetering writing about the painting in 2006 in words that echo the enthusiasm of Wilhelm von Bode.
The problem of attribution was partly due to the fact that The Mill departs from other Rembrandt landscape paintings. It focuses quite dramatically on a single motif, rather than integrating a number of smaller elements as do both his fantasy landscapes of the late 1630s and his small Winter Landscape of 1646 (Gemäldegalerie, Kassel). Furthermore, The Mill is painted on canvas rather than on wood, Rembrandt’s normal support for his landscapes. Nevertheless, neither of these differences is reason to exclude the landscape from Rembrandt’s oeuvre. The use of a canvas support here is related to the painting’s large size, larger than that of other Rembrandt landscapes. The paint is applied more thickly in The Mill than in Rembrandt’s panel painting Landscape with a Castle, c. 1640–1642 (Louvre, Paris), for example, but in a manner that is consistent with his paintings on canvas. Rembrandt invariably painted quite fluidly and thinly on panel, using glazes to create translucent effects. He utilized a canvas support differently, particularly by dragging a fully loaded brush across its rough surface to create variety in his textures. This technique is used effectively in The Mill where Rembrandt’s loosely painted water left the black sketch visible [see Sketching], suggesting the broken ripples circling out from where the woman is washing her clothes at the water’s edge. Despite this fundamental difference of paint application, the two paintings share other techniques. The sequence of brown and then black painted sketches in the bulwark below the mill is comparable to Rembrandt’s definition of the dark architectural forms in Landscape with a Castle.
Although The Mill was consistently dated in the 1650s by earlier scholars, particularly those who wanted to associate the somber character of the image with Rembrandt’s hardships during that decade, the color tonalities that emerged after the restoration are more consistent with his work in the 1640s. Compositionally, moreover, the combination of dramatic elements (swirling clouds and silhouetted mill) with prosaic ones (figures washing clothes at the water’s edge) has its closest parallel in Rembrandt’s etching The Three Trees of 1643 [fig. 4], in which a multitude of figures go about their daily lives within a landscape threatened by dramatic storm clouds. Also reminiscent of Rembrandt’s work of the 1640s are the Adam Elsheimer–like qualities of the reflections of trees and animals along the distant shore, effects that Rembrandt developed most explicitly in his Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647 [fig. 5]. Comparable as well in the two paintings are the blocky, somewhat generalized forms of the staffage figures. The figure types in The Mill are the same as those found in Rembrandt’s drawings from the mid-1640s. The old man walking along the path is similar to his Three Studies of an Old Man, c. 1643–1644 (British Museum, London), while the man rowing the boat is reminiscent of Two Men Rowing from the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest [fig. 6].
The painting as we see it today is not how it was originally conceived. In an initial stage of the painting (revealed by X-radiography) a landscape mass rose behind the mill and a stone bridge on large piers spanned the water before the bulwark [fig. 7]. The reflection of the bridge can even be seen in the calm water below. The information gained from the X-radiographs provides a number of clues about the nature of this image. To begin with, the changes in composition required that the artist paint over the right part of the sky as well as the distant landscape and water above the level of the boat, reworkings that added to the dense quality of paint in these areas.
The X-radiographs have also revealed that no thread distortions in the weave of the canvas exist along either side or the top of the painting, an indication that the support may have been trimmed in these areas, but particularly along the top and left edges (see Technical Summary). Ernst van de Wetering has examined the proportional relationships of width to height in Rembrandt’s other landscapes and has convincingly proposed that The Mill’'s original dimensions may have been approximately 90 by 120 centimeters. He rightfully notes that the mill would then have been more to the right of center and that the drama of the light and dark contrasts in the sky would have had an even greater visual and emotional impact than it has today. Just how much time elapsed before the changes were made cannot be said with certainty, but distortions to the underlying paint layers suggest it was not long, and it may well be that Rembrandt himself reduced the size of the painting (see Technical Summary).
Such major compositional changes demonstrate that Rembrandt was not attempting to paint a topographically accurate view, although he may well have been inspired by windmills situated on bulwarks outside of Amsterdam or Leiden. The shape and isolated character of the mill in this painting call to mind the bastion “Het Blauwhoofd” on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a site Rembrandt drew frequently in the 1640s and early 1650s. Another possible visual source is the Pelikaansbolwerk in Leiden. As is seen in a 1649 drawing byJan de Bisschop (Dutch, 1628 - 1671) [fig. 8], a stone bridge supported on arched piers joined the bulwark with the tree-lined far shore, much as it appeared in the initial stage of The Mill. The mill on the Pelikaansbolwerk was, in fact, the mill of Rembrandt’s father, thus Smith’s romantic associations may well have more validity than one might expect.
Whether or not his father’s mill was one of Rembrandt’s sources of inspiration, the compositional changes he brought about during the course of the painting’s evolution served to give the mill an imposing grandeur. As it stands by itself on a rise just beyond the walled bastion, the mill becomes an almost iconic image, imbued with symbolic significance. In this respect, as well as for the compositional reasons mentioned above, The Mill is comparable to the etching The Three Trees, which almost certainly is a symbolically conceived landscape. Whereas the symbolism traditionally associated with The Mill has been personal to Rembrandt and seen as a reflection of the tragedies that so affected his life in the 1650s, a closer examination of the painting in its cleaned state makes it clear that the symbolism is positive rather than negative. The storm clouds have passed, and the salmon-colored sails face clear skies. Beneath the mill’s reassuring presence, a male figure leans over the bastion’s wall to gaze at the water and pastoral landscape beyond while others meander along the path in the foreground or go about their daily tasks on and near the water.
As Hans Kauffmann has persuasively argued, the windmill had numerous associations in Dutch literary traditions, ranging from temperance to religious imagery. Zacharias Heyns, for example, in his emblem book of 1625, draws a parallel between the mill, which turns only when the wind blows, and man, who is dead in his heart until the spirit gives him life and makes him whole. Another emblematic interpretation of the windmill that Kauffmann does not mention, however, may have more direct relevance to The Mill. Roemer Visscher, in his extremely important emblem book Zinne-poppen, published in Amsterdam in 1614, gave political, rather than religious, symbolism to the mill. His emblem “Ut emergant” (That they may rise up) depicts a post-mill quite similar to the one in Rembrandt’s painting [fig. 9]. His text compares a windmill, which endures the onslaught of winds and harnesses them to remove the water from the land to make it viable for the populace, to a good prince who works tirelessly for the greater good of his people. One cannot help but sense that Rembrandt’s painting conveys something of this same sentiment. Whether or not he associated the mill with Prince Frederik Hendrik or, in a broader sense, with a strong, watchful government cannot be said, but the mill does seem to act symbolically as a guardian. Silhouetted dramatically in the evening light, it faces a calm sky and still waters as storms threaten the landscape behind it. With its image comes a reassurance that peace and prosperity are at hand, and people can go about their daily lives without fear of war or uncertainty.
Political associations are often found in Rembrandt’s work, most explicitly so in his allegorical painting The Concord of the State (Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), which he probably completed in the early 1640s. Although the exact meaning of that painting is not understood, the issues of unity and concord that he addressed there are related to the same underlying concerns for peace and prosperity evident in The Mill. These concerns were of particular interest in the 1640s as efforts were being made to finalize a treaty with Spain. Indeed, the years in and around the Treaty of Münster of 1648 saw a great number of paintings by Dutch landscape artists that seemed to celebrate their cultural and political heritage. The Mill, in its imaginative re-creation of a characteristic Dutch landscape feature, is one of the most profound of all of these works.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014