From the Old Testament and the Jews of Holland, Rembrandt Drew Inspiration and Materials of His Art
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From the Old Testament and the Jews of Holland, Rembrandt Drew Inspiration and Materials of His Art

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If you go to Holland you go to see Rembrandt. For Rembrandt is the greatest man Holland has produced, and the greatest figure in the history of art of the last century. No other artist has delved so deeply into human suffering as Rembrandt, has expressed so thoroughly the innermost feelings of the human soul.

Some people think of Rembrandt as he was in his youthful period, full of light and joy, in the midst of his success. But Rembrandt is essentially the Rembrandt of his later period, that descent into suffering and despair, in which he magnificently realized himself and his art. This second, tragic period began about 1646, when his wife Saskia died. It is the tragic year of his painting, “The Night Guard”, the master work that was not understood, which began his economic ruin. Henceforth his road went steadily down until his death.

Jewish themes always attracted Rembrandt. The Old Testament was his field. It is true that the number of works representing themes out of the New Testament are almost double the number of his Old Testament paintings, yet the Old Testament seems much closer to him.


To a large extent, he is in this the product of his age. The Netherlands in the seventeenth century were under the influence of Calvinism, and even more so of the numerous sects whose teachings approximated very much those of Judaism. People speak of this period of Dutch history as the Jewish period. It is also the Dutch classic period, the century in which Holland’s political power and her art were both at their peak. Johna de Witt, Spinoza and Rembrandt are contemporaries, and they are the three great men of Dutch history.

Rembrandt felt not only this proximity to Jewish thought, but also physical proximity to the Jews of the great Portuguese community in Amsterdam. He felt their tragedy and he gave it expression. He was their friend, he loved them, and made his home voluntarily with them, in the ghetto which they had erected in Amsterdam. There were two Jews who were his nearest friends, both men born in Portugal: One was Rabbi Samuel Menassa Ben Israel, the teacher of the young Spinoza, and the “father” of Anglo-Jewry, the man who obtained from Cromwell the Charter for Jewish settlement in England. Rembrandt illustrated his book “La Piedra Gloriosa” and learned from him the religion of true humanity. The illustrations are witnesses to his love and respect for Judaism. His etching of Rabbi Menassa Ben Israel that he made in 1632, is world-famous. The other was Ephraim Bonus, the Portuguese doctor whose portrait Rembrandt painted in 1647. He painted innumerable portraits of Jews, numerous portraits of Rabbis, now dispersed in all the art galleries of the world. He poured out all his affection for them in his paintings. He clad these men, who in reality lived very humbly and drably, in rich stuffs, lavished on them all the glory of his palette. That was his way of showing his love for his friends.


Rembrandt had also painted several Jewish subjects in his youthful period. There is “Samson Threatening his Father-in-Law”; there is his “Blind Samson”; there is the “Sacrifice of Isaac” and the “Jewish Bride”. In his maturer period he painted “Susana in the Bath”, the “Marriage of Samson”, “Tobias and the Goat”, “Abraham Receiving the Three Angels”, and ever so many other pictures out of the Old Testament. But it was in his later period that he painted his greatest works: “Jacob Receives Joseph’s Blood-Stained Coat”, the “Blessing of Jacob”, “Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther”, and finally, in 1665, what is regarded as his greatest work, “David Before Saul”.

It is in these later works with their Jewish subject matter that the power of Rembrandt and his feeling emerges. This Dutch master has felt more Jewishly than any other artist, Jew or non-Jew. He has been compared with the ancient Hebrew prophets, with whom he has indeed a great deal in common, his deep religious feeling, his vision of the divine. He was an artist who saw God even as the prophets saw Him. He was a man who felt with religious fervor, with religious abandonment. Mediocre people did not understand him, and they do not understand him now.

He was deprived of his happiness, bit by bit. He was hounded, scoffed at, mocked. His house in the Joder Breestraat was taken away from him, and his honor besmirched. But it only threw him more completely into the arms of art. He painted and etched like one possessed, and in his paintings and etchings he poured out his love of Jewish thought and Jewish feeling.


This is not the place for a critical examination of Rembrandt’s Jewish works. But there is irrefutable evidence in his work of his profound Jewish feeling. Take his painting “David Before Saul”, which is now in the Museum at The Hague. It depicts King Saul carried away by the playing of the youthful David, lifting the heavy curtain that divides them, and with his head averted, so that the boy should not see, wiping away the tears from his eyes. This aged, weeping Jewish king, overwhelmed by the music and by the solitude of his life, expresses the utmost extremity of human suffering and dumb anguish. It is full of the anticipation of death.

Not long after he had completed this picture, Rembrandt died. It is a symbol; it shows one of the rarest and most moving of sights—a man weeping. Children weep differently than grown-ups, girls differently than women, boys differently than men. When a man weeps in the prime of his life, strength and power, after the experience of a lifetime, when no restraint can keep the tears back, that is the greatest anguish the human species knows. In Saul it is Rembrandt who is weeping, weeping at the tragedy of his life. The colors, the light and the lines weep, and the contrasts weep. For the picture is full of contrasts: Saul and David, anguished age and sweet youth, anticipation of death and the threshold of life, tears and music, despair and confidence. And in the tears which Saul wipes on the royal curtain all these contrasts dissolve. There is also the contrast in the two parts of the composition. For there are actually two paintings. There is a Saul painting and a David painting. Saul lives in his pain as in a narrow chamber. While over David’s youthful head rolls the whole wide world. Saul is tired, weary, broken by fate. David is youth, rising upward through music. There is the boy playing the harp, and the King weeping silently. Words fail to express one’s feeling as one stands in front of this picture in The Hague Museum.


Those wo look at this painting and do not realize how Rembrandt felt about this Jewish king, how he identified himself and his own fate with him, have not understood Rembrandt, have not understood the period, have not understood what Holland was in this particular century, how it felt towards the Jews of Holland at that time. And if one does not understand all that, the picture cannot convey its message. All these things are part of it, as much part of it as the canvas and the paint, for the Jewish part in this tragic vision is as great as the part of Rembrandt’s own life tragedy.

Emile Verhaeren once wrote of Rembrandt: “He stands upon the heights that rise above all times, all races and all countries. He belongs to no place, because he belongs to all places”. And on this solitary height he stands amid the figures and the legends of the Old Testament, amid his Jewish contemporaries, whom he loved and with whom he felt himself at one. And when he painted his last picture, the synthesis of all his life’s strivings, the expressions of all that his life meant, and took his farewell of the world that had made him suffer so much, he expressed it in the figure of the weeping King of Israel, with whose fate he felt himself so intimately identified.

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