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A Life of Struggle

Rembrandt’s life story is one of genius and struggle. Born the ninth of ten or more children in 1606, his personal life was as marred by tragedy as his artistic life was of triumph. He suffered significant losses, including his beloved wife Saskia Van Uylenburgh, who died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1642. A drawn out affair with Geertje Dircx resulted in a legal battle in 1649-1650 followed by her ultimate committal to an asylum. Of the artist’s five children, three did not survive childhood and his remaining son Titus pre-deceased him by one year. Rembrandt’s 1656 bankruptcy also separated the artist from his own home and his personal art collection.

Biblical Themes and the Heads of Christ

Supper at Emmaus, c. 1628
Supper at Emmaus, c. 1628
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch
Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris. Bredius 539
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Though his life was often fraught with woe, Rembrandt was long fascinated by biblical themes, and judging from his existing oeuvre, Jesus was his favorite protagonist. He took a distinctive approach to religious narrative, however, and making innovative images of Christ had been a focus of his ambition from early in his career. He often combined different moments from the Bible into a single image, and sometimes distilled a holy figure into a portrait-like representation. This particular, personalized imagery emerges most succinctly in the artist’s powerful depictions of the adult Jesus on his mission, based on Rembrandt’s careful reading of the Gospels.

Following the path of his master, the Amsterdam artist Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt had built an astonishingly broad repertoire of biblical subjects, as well as a formidable reputation as a history painter, the most honored rank in the hierarchy of specializations. In addition to his dramatic, groundbreaking early Supper at Emmaus of about 1629, with Christ shown entirely in silhouette, and his theatrical Raising of Lazarus of about 1630, Rembrandt had also painted a Passion of Christ series (1633–39) for Frederik Hendrik, the stadtholder of the United Provinces. The face of Christ in a key work connected to the development of that series, Christ on the Cross of 1631, already shows Rembrandt seeking to break from tradition. The face, with its coarse features and defiant expression, bears no small resemblance to Rembrandt’s 1630 print Self-Portrait with Open Mouth. A slightly later drawing of the Entombment shows the face of the dead Christ with the kind of graphic realism for which Rembrandt was known.

It is in the sketches of the late 1640s, however, that we really see the most radical shift in Rembrandt's oeuvre. 1648, the year that marked the end of eight decades of war between the Netherlands and Spain (and the latter’s unprecedented recognition of the United Provinces, as the fledgling Dutch Republic was then known), also saw Rembrandt begin a different version of Supper at Emmaus. Around this time a modest but closely related project was also started in his studio: a series of small oil sketches on oak panels of a young man in a white tunic and simple brown cloak, in different poses and expressions and under different lighting conditions. His long hair is parted in the center, and he has a short beard; several panels also include his folded hands. Although the figure lacks other identifying attributes or symbols, it was clear to Rembrandt’s contemporaries that these sketches were intended as depictions of Christ, with attitudes and expressions varying to show aspects of Christ’s character: his humility, his mildness, his vulnerability, and his inner preoccupations. Probably begun as models for Supper at Emmaus, the heads of Christ stand out as the largest such group among his many small oil sketches, suggesting that the project to develop a new model of Jesus "after life" expanded once underway.

Rembrandt and the Jewish Community of Amsterdam

The Temple before Its Destruction, 1574-1578
The Temple before Its Destruction, 1574-1578
Tobias Stimmer
Printed in Flavius Josephus, Juedische Geschichten, Strasbourg, Rihel: 1578
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Living in Amsterdam amid a growing Jewish community that included large numbers of Sephardic Jews who found asylum from the Spanish inquisition, followed by Ashkenazi refugees from eastern Europe, Rembrandt took an enormous interest in Jewish history to inform his art. He owned the 1574 German translations of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish Wars illustrated by Tobias Stimmer, which he likely consulted for the appearance of Herod’s temple in his 1659 etching Peter and Paul at the Temple Gate, as well as for the temple and details of dress in his earlier print Triumph of Mordecai of about 1641.

The level of sympathy the artist exhibited for his Jewish neighbors has been the subject of considerable debate in the last century. As scholar Michael Zell notes, sources closer to Rembrandt’s time confirm that he indeed sketched the Jews on his street, and details of clothing distinguish some of his subjects as Jewish. Even the beggars and cripples in his etchings are often thought to be based on sketches of impoverished Ashkenazi refugees. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s portrayals of Jews evolved over the course of his career from the caricatures common in Netherlandish iconography to more humanized depictions based on his own sketches from life. Two etchings of Christ before Pontius Pilate (Ecce Homo) illustrate this point. Rembrandt’s etching of 1636 held to the tradition of portraying the members of the crowd mocking Jesus with stereotypical “Jewish” features. This changed considerably in his 1655 etching of the theme, in which the same figures seem to be sympathetic characters drawn from life.

Amsterdam’s Jewish community provided Rembrandt not only with subjects but also with patrons, who commissioned him to produce portraits and book illustrations. His work for the Portuguese-born rabbi and scholar Menasseh ben Israel is well known. In 1655 Rembrandt etched four biblical episodes as illustrations for Menasseh’s book Piedra Gloriosa: the colossus in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, Jacob’s dream, David slaying Goliath, and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (in which Rembrandt includes an anthropomorphic figure of God!). Through his connection to Menasseh, Rembrandt was closely connected to an extraordinary project of Jewish-Christian rapprochement taking place in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, one that finds an echo in the heads of Christ.