Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Do Mistakes Always Matter? Jakob Rosenberg's Rembrandt Life and Work

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Do Mistakes Always Matter? Jakob Rosenberg's Rembrandt Life and Work

Article excerpt

When the Harvard art historian and curator Jakob Rosenberg died in April 1980, his New York Times obituary described his book Rembrandt as 'definitive'.1 His younger colleague and coauthor, Seymour Slive, was quoted as saying it was 'the most profound book that has ever been written on this topic'. In his thematically-organized monograph Rosenberg offered an eloquent interpretation of the artist as one simultaneously attentive to both surface and depth, exterior and interior worlds, whose work conveyed a kind of spiritual depth unseen in other Dutch artists of the time in Rosenberg's view.

The publication history of Rosenberg's Rembrandt book indicates its positive reception over time. First published by Harvard University Press in 1948, a slightly revised edition with an additional preface appeared in 1964 through the Phaidon Press.2 This revised edition was republished in 1980 (with a second new preface) by Cornell University Press in collaboration with Phaidon in a series called 'Landmarks in Art History'.3 While it was later superseded in currency by monographs by Christopher White (1984) and Mariet Westermann (2000), it was the text that most Anglophone Rembrandt scholars first turned to for two generations.4

Indeed, when it first appeared, Wolfgang Stechow wrote that

Overlooking the development of research on Rembrandt's art which has taken place between, say, Adolf Rosenberg (1904) and Jakob Rosenberg (1948), one becomes somewhat optimistic about the chances of an eventual 'complete' understanding of the master so far as that can be reached independent of the idiosyncrasies of a given generation (and there is still hope, I think, for that kind of objective progress). That research, to which the author himself repeatedly contributed, has been admirably utilized in this book and blended with a freshness of individual approach and a skill of presentation which make it one of the outstanding monographs of our time.5

If one reads this landmark text today, however, one thing is striking: while the majority of works discussed and reproduced are of works of art considered to be touchstones for the master, a number of the interpretive descriptions concern paintings that are no longer generally accepted as autograph Rembrandts. What does this mean for Stechow's hope for 'objective progress' in understanding Rembrandt? Were the readers of 1948, 1964, and 1980 misled in their understanding of the artist by the mistakes in connoisseurship that can be found in Rosenberg's book?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to consider some aspects of Rosenberg's career and scholarship. Rosenberg, born in Germany in 1893, was a noted connoisseur of northern European drawings, who had also studied the painted oeuvres of German and Netherlandish artists such as Luca Cranach and Jacob van Ruisdael.6 He received his doctorate in Munich in 1922, working under Heinrich Wölfflin, and his advisor's comparative approach to formal analysis and interpretation left a powerful trace on Rosenberg's work, as witnessed by his discussion of pairs of drawings in his book On quality in art.7 Yet Rosenberg was at least as influenced by his museum mentor, Max J. Friedländer, with whom he worked in the Berlin Print Room. Friedländer, then at work on his multi-volume corpus of fifteenth and sixteenth century Netherlandish artists, believed that connoisseurship decisions were intuitive, a position that Rosenberg disputed in On Quality in Art. Instead, Rosenberg believed that there were objective criteria in excellence. Yet in practice the connoisseurship of the two men seemed more akin than different. In a remembrance of Friedländer published in 1959, Rosenberg wrote,

If I ask myself now, after a quarter of a century, what it made Friedlaender's judgement so authoritative and the answer is, I believe - apart from his extragifted eye, combined with clarity of mind - his direct relationship with the work of art. Never did abstract theories intervene, as they often do with more theoretically-minded art historians. …

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