Rembrandt's Jews, by Steven Nadler

Article excerpt

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 250 pp. $25.00.

Readers of this exemplary book are in for a series of pleasant surprises. They start at the very beginning, with the book's title. Despite the grandeur suggested by its two terms, the title is restrictive and modest. In choosing it, Steven Nadler, an intellectual historian and celebrated biographer of Spinoza, seems to have been guided by the ancient rabbinic principle of ethically parsimonious speech: emor me `at ve-' aseh harbeh. The book accomplishes far more than its title promises. The book indeed probes deeply into all aspects of Rembrandt's personal, financial, and artistic relationships with Amsterdam's Jews. The book also probes to equal depth and with equally impressive sophistication many other aspects of the seventeenth-century intersection between Dutch Jewry and Dutch culture. Borrowing a term from Salo Baron's monumental social and religious history of the Jews, the book might fairly and more prosaically have been called "The Multiple Visual Dimensions of Dutch Jerusalem."

Consider the List of Illustrations. Of the twenty-five handsomely reproduced black and white figures, seven originate with Rembrandt; of the eighteen even more splendidly reproduced color plates, again only seven originate with Rembrandt. Among the black and white figures are five drawings and etchings produced by Romeyn de Hooghe, including Circumcision in an Amsterdam Sephardic Family, View of the Portuguese Synagogue with Bridge, and The Jews' Cemetery. Among the color plates are two paintings by Emanuel De Witte (Interior of a Church and Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam) and four paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael (Wheatfields, Landscape with Blasted Tree by a Cottage, and two renditions of The Jewish Cemetery). Admirably avoiding the common pitfall of using illustrations merely to adorn or accompany the text, Nadler subjects all of the figures and plates to well-informed critical scrutiny. He consistently offers persuasive and insightful accounts of their formal traits and iconographic significance. With Ruisdael's paintings of The Jewish Cemetery and its potentially messianic implications firmly fixed in our mind's eye, Nadler cautiously rejects the messianic implications. He summarizes his general conclusions with these words: "Perhaps. Or maybe Jacob van Ruisdael, that most recognizable of Dutch painters, an artist who saw the sublimity in the flat, low-lying land in which he lived, was, once again, simply exploring the dramatic possibilities of a landscape. If so, he unwittingly contributed -- like de Witte with his Synagogue, de Hooghe with his prints of Amsterdam's Jews at services, and Rembrandt with his paintings and etchings of his [Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish] neighbors -- yet another Dutch icon to the history of Jewish art" (p. 221).

Nadler conscientiously specifies what he considers to be the salient characteristics of these Dutch icons. On the one hand, they profoundly differ from the medieval stereotypes and traditional portrayals of the despised Jew: "And then we come to seventeenth-century Dutch art, where we find...nothing. Utter plainness. There is a uniformity in the depiction of all walks of life. Ugliness and deformity are there, but they represent the common sins and foibles of all mankind.... There is no special iconography reserved for the Jews. The depictions of Jews and their activities are generically no different from those of wealthy regents, middle-class merchants, and indigent laborers. The naturalistic renderings, the settings of everyday life, and the easy integration in their dress, architecture, and habits into Dutch culture make the Jews in the art of Holland's golden age perfectly ordinary" (p. 221). Similar conclusions are reached regarding the stark contrast between Albrecht Altdorfer's sixteenth-century negative depiction of the synagogue in Regensburg and "de Witte's respectful portrayals of the Jewish congregation and the architectural achievement of which it was so proud" (p. …

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