Skip to Main Content
    Ground view of the National Gallery's glass pyramids looking towards the East Building

    Research Reports

    H. Perry Chapman
    Center 43

    H. Perry Chapman

    Rembrandt’s Art History

    Rembrandt van Rijn, Man Drawing from a Cast, c. 1641, etching on laid paper, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7184

    Rembrandt van Rijn understood that art has a history, and he envisioned his place in it. Rembrandt’s vast knowledge of art—both of the past and of his immediate milieu—was central to his creative process and artistic production, and to his self-making. Rembrandt was acutely aware of ambitious early modern artists who, in the wake of the revival of antiquity and the artists’ biographers Giorgio Vasari and Karel van Mander, operated with heightened art-historical self-awareness. In this age of art history, virtuous rivalry—as opposed to envy—was the “spur of wit” that prompted new heights of artistic excellence, as evidenced by the emulative rivalries of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian; Annibale Carracci’s self-conscious assimilation of past styles; Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s imitation of Michelangelo; and Peter Paul Rubens’s appropriation of the antique.

    In the 17th-century Dutch Republic, when portrait, landscape, still-life, and genre painters took to narrowing their art histories, Rembrandt—irrepressible borrower, thief, and imitator—stood out for his voracious artistic appetite and for the breadth of his art-historical reach. He understood that Netherlandish painting had a distinctive history founded in color, beginning, as then believed, with Jan van Eyck’s invention of oil paint. He drew inspiration from the art of Italy and antiquity. At the same time, he was aware that the classical system of learning was under siege from Caravaggio, whose reliance on nature and artistic irreverence were legendary. Rembrandt, too, chafed at the rules of art, even while learning from, appropriating, and subverting the vast array of works that were essential to his inventiveness, and to his ambition to forge a new universal art that united Northern and Southern Europe. 

    Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam, today’s Museum Rembrandthuis, establishes the scope of Rembrandt’s art history—of his understanding of art’s history. Its juxtaposition of Rembrandt’s schilderkamer (studio) and his art collection and kunstkamer (art cabinet) provides a locus for positioning Rembrandt in his liefhebber (art lover) culture of learned collecting and discourse. Rembrandt’s education and formative years fostered his imitative approach. He trained in a system that was rooted in learning through copying, and that championed collaboration, productive exchange, and friendly rivalry. His teacher Pieter Lastman nurtured his competitive ambitions. Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the stadtholder, challenged Rembrandt to surpass Raphael and Michelangelo and to give “the Italians cause to come to Holland.” A period of extreme co-creativity with Jan Lievens cemented Rembrandt’s ethos of emulative rivalry. 

    Rembrandt van Rijn, Abraham Francen, c. 1657, etching, drypoint and burin on Japan paper, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7157

    At the Center, I have made substantial progress in exploring Rembrandt’s relation to the art of Italy vis-à-vis his Northern heritage. Rembrandt’s distinctive rough late style is rightly associated with Titian. Yet its origins can be located earlier and more locally, in his oppositional stance to the smooth style of his first pupil, Gerrit Dou, and in his early encounter with the painterly handling of Frans Hals. Rembrandt established his artistic authority and forged his identity through an emulative critique of the art of Rubens, in the face of which Rembrandt developed a more natural naturalism, in emotional expression, in narrative action, and in rendering the female nude. Although Rembrandt’s early critics were blind to his assimilations of exemplary—classical and Italian—models, reams have been written about Rembrandt’s complex, varied, lifelong relation to Italian art. A selective assessment of Rembrandt’s early attention to Caravaggio’s irreverent realism, display of learning from Leonardo’s Last Supper, embrace of Raphael as serial imitator, and late attention to Titian’s rough brushwork reframes the impact of Italy for an artist who notoriously never traveled there. As an experimental etcher, Rembrandt advanced printmaking through rivaling the Netherlanders Lucas van Leyden, the great Dutch engraver of the 16th century, and Hercules Segers, the most innovative and original printmaker of his time.

    Late in life, Rembrandt returned to his origins and took to reprising his early works and, in effect, to emulating himself. By the end of his career, Rembrandt had forged his own art history, with himself at its center. My book project “Rembrandt’s Art History” draws on my four decades of studying Rembrandt to explore the deep roots of his artistry in his art history. It argues that, because he understood art’s long history—and aspired to a place in it—he made his works not just for his contemporaries, but for posterity. In a sense, he made them for us. Their deliberate universality explains their lasting power.

    University of Delaware (emerita)
    Kress-Beinecke Professor, 2022–2023

    H. Perry Chapman will continue to research and write, and to serve as editor in chief of the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. In 2023 she begins her (un)retirement project of learning to paint.