Riches of the Lowlands in Rembrandt’s time
This will no doubt be a helpful starting point for anyone interested in discovering how so much artistic and intellectual accomplishment could arise in 17th century Netherlands. Unfortunately it is written in a scholastic prose that sucks the life from a story so full of passions as the rise and fall of the once-vast Dutch commercial empire, with its religious wars, its freebooters, its slave-holders and adventurers, its madmen and visionaries and of course the scientists, philosophers and extraordinary artists who flourished in its brief but brilliant prosperity. Professor Silver has written a book that is concise, useful and dull.
As concerns Rembrandt, 1606-1669, the essential facts are that the beginning of his career (1630s) coincided with the beginning of Dutch domination of the seas, as Amsterdam surpassed the older ports of Bruges, then Antwerp, and rivaled even Portugal for transoceanic trade. Dutch cities, first among them (but not only) Amsterdam, became rich from Asian spices, porcelain and silks, African slaves, and American timber and other agricultural products as well as all kinds of riches from the seas —pearls, shells, whale-oil, and all manner of curiosities. All these products commanded high prices in Europe, and the newly-enriched burghers competed in ostentation, in costume, mansions, and works of art. Thus Rembrandt, who was especially skilled at producing portraits and other works for this demand, could become immensely rich from painting, etching, teaching (his classes were expensive), and selling his own and colleagues’ work. So rich that in 1639, the same year that Amsterdam’s grandiose new city hall was constructed, he was able to purchase the big, centrally located house, with room for his studio, classes, and family, het Rembrandthuis, still standing 350 years after his death and now a fascinating, complex museum.
But then came the crash. “Indeed,” Silver writes, “1672 is known in Dutch history as the ‘Year of Disaster.'”
That year, the combined fleets of England and France attacked “and nearly overwhelmed the country and with it the relative autonomy of the separate cities and provinces.” But Rembrandt’s problems had begun even earlier. With the turmoil and wars between cities and countries, Rembrandt’s clientèle became scarcer, his debts overwhelming, his creditors no longer as forgiving, and his personal sorrows — the deaths of his wife and children — overwhelming. He was forced to sell his enormous house and move into a much humbler rented place. He had spent extravagantly in his boom years, purchasing whole art collections for models, costumes, and so forth. When he went bankrupt, the authorities made a detailed inventory of all his possessions, which didn’t do him any good but have served to restore Rembrandthuis — his former abode — and fill it with the same or similar objects as he had had.
We were fortunate to tour that great house and also to catch the big Rijksmuseum exhibit of “all of Rembrandt” on its last day. Besides the marvelous live-seeming portraits and the very famous “Nightwatch” scene (militiamen preparing to go out to patrol the city), I was very impressed by the landscapes and scenes of the countryside around Amsterdam.
You may find this book helpful for the chronological and social framework for this extraordinary period of Dutch splendor, but if you are looking for stirring emotions, best to spend time contemplating the works of Rembrandt and his contemporaries and near-contemporaries.