Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt, 1659 (National Gallery of Art)
Rembrandt (1606-1669) was of course one of the greatest of the great painters in the western world. His portraits and histories reveal an uncanny ability to find and capture the psychological essence of his subject. He understood and portrayed psychological nuance. He went deep below the surface to explore character and humankind. He was a painter of both power and subtlety.1
Rembrandt also brought to painting a new subject matter: namely, paint. Paint by itself was now a subject of the painting. If he painted an apple, for example, the subject of the painting was both the apple and its paint. Paint by itself was now an object to contemplate. Paint now existed by itself without any reference to nature. The drama of the painting was now also in the paint. He painted an impassioned impasto. Rembrandt’s paint is as tactile as it is visual.
Genius, however, does not generate goodness. Creativity does not create compassionate character. Insight into others does not inherently induce self knowledge and self control. Rembrandt was, in fact, dishonest, malevolently manipulative and viciously vindictive. As a consequence, he was often involved in highly contentious legal proceedings.2
Rembrandt’s arrogance and cruelty involved him with Family Court and the Department of Correction. Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, died in June 1642 in their eighth year of marriage, leaving their only child, Titus, nine months of age. Within months, Rembrandt took Titus’s nurse, Geertje Direx, as his mistress. He gave her some of Saskia’s jewelry. She thought, with reason, he would marry her.
But a seven year itch in 1649 begot Rembrandt to take a second mistress, his housekeeper, 20 years younger, Hendrickje Stoffels.
Geertje brought an action before the Commissioners of Matrimonial Affairs and Damage Claims. Arrogantly, Rembrandt disregarded twice their summons to appear, incurring a fine.3 He offered an out of court settlement of paying her 160 guilders a year (equivalent to a year’s earnings for a low paid laborer) for life and use of the jewelry, on condition that she make a will leaving it to Titus. She refused.
Finally, both appeared before the commissioners. Hendrickje testified that Geertje had agreed to Rembrandt’s settlement offer. The commissioners awarded Geertje 200 guilders annual maintenance, but they did not, what apparently they had authority to do, impose marriage.
Rembrandt took revenge. First, he conspired with Geertje’s brother, Pieter, to take Rembrandt’s 200 guilders (which should have been given to her) and redeem the jewelry. Next, he conspired with Pieter and another to give false testimony that Geertje was mentally unsound, and consequently she was committed to a house of correction, every description of which makes Riker’s Island sound like a haven of health and happiness.4
In her fifth year of incarceration, Rembrandt further conspired to elicit additional adverse testimony from her family with the goal of keeping her in custody. The conspiracy backfired; Geertje was released.
Rembrandt was litigious. Shortly after Rembrandt and Saskia married, he made arrangements to collect a debt her brother-in-law’s family owed her. Allegedly, some members of that family spread rumors that Saskia was a spendthrift and had wasted her dowry. Rembrandt brought suit for libel, arguing, not that he and Saskia lived modestly, but, arrogantly that they were so wealthy they could not possibly be accused of thriftless spending. The court did not award damages.
That was not the only time Rembrandt was in court. While Saskia bequeathed her entire estate to Titus, she made Rembrandt sole executor, expressly excluding the Orphan’s Court from having an administrative role which it normally would have had under such circumstances. Because Rembrandt later sabotaged his own finances, the Orphan’s Court eventually administered Saskia’s estate, requiring Rembrandt, always arrogantly argumentative, to make many court appearances.
Rembrandt committed a number of gross improprieties, if not crimes. The winter of 1637 was not good for Rembrandt’s artistic career, having alienated a major benefactor. To supplement his income he began to dabble in the Amsterdam art market. In one instance it appears that Rembrandt was paid to bid on paintings at auction in order to artificially raise prices, and in return he was allowed to purchase directly a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, his most important artistic influence.5
In another instance some two months later, Rembrandt sold an etching and promised the purchaser he would not sell any prints from the plate, but apparently he did just that.
Rembrandt’s financial fiasco had its origin in 1639 when he purchased a marital home which was over priced, and he could not afford. The terms of sale provided that title would pass only upon full payment, which had to occur no later than 1646. By 1653, Rembrandt had still not fully paid. He then borrowed more money, but again failed to pay the balance.
Instead, Rembrandt conveyed his interest in the house to Titus, and in December 1655 he had a lawn sale of his most valuable possessions, keeping all the proceeds without paying his creditors. Some eight months later, Rembrandt filed for insolvency, which if successful would have stuck his creditors with a greatly reduced amount of money resulting from the court sale of his remaining far less valuable possessions.6
To Rembrandt’s chagrin, much of his debt was earlier sold to politically important people who did not favor him, with the result that the Orphan’s Court could not protect the house for the benefit of Titus, and the house was sold and the proceeds awarded to Rembrandt’s creditors.
Maybe it was not accidental, but one of Rembrandt’s last paintings is The Return of the Prodigal Son, a majestically sublime portrayal of atonement. Maybe.
1. The best one volume on Rembrandt is Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (Viking, 1985).
2. For another example of mean spirited genius who self-inflicted legal wounds, see my essay “Take a Lesson from Beethoven”, New York Law Journal, May 17, 2000.
3. How else to characterize an artist who painted some 50 self-portraits? And unlike other great painters who often painted themselves as a bystander in a history painting, Rembrandt painted himself as a principal in several histories, for example, as a participant in elevating Christ on the Cross!
4. Said as a former member of the New York City Board of Correction, 1981-2001.
5. If this so-called shill bidding occurred, then today it would be a violation of New York General Business Law Sections 340-347.
6. A U.S. bankruptcy trustee can of course void preferential or fraudulent transfers made within two years prior to filing, see 11 U.S.C. Section 548.