- The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt: Reinventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France
The year 2006 marked the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), a master whose critical fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, but whose ability to provoke strong reactions from viewers has never disappeared. The run-up to this event produced a spate of new publications and museum exhibitions not only in Leiden and Amsterdam but in cities as remote as Auckland and Istanbul. While many American museums and authors joined the celebration, Rembrandt's anniversary passed quietly in Canada. Yet Canadian collections boast a number of significant works by Rembrandt and his circle (the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University, home to an important collection of Dutch paintings donated by Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader, lent several paintings to this year's exhibitions in Europe), and Canadian scholars past and present have contributed to the voluminous literature on the artist.
A noteworthy recent study anticipated the birthday bash by several years: The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt by Alison McQueen of McMaster University. This thoroughly researched and clearly written book examines the appreciation of Rembrandt by artists, authors, and collectors in nineteenth-century France. This phenomenon, which peaked in the 1850s to 1890s, is an essential contributing factor to the artist's enduring fame and current status, not only as an indispensable member of the Western canon, but as a household name recognized far beyond the sophisticated world of connoisseurship. Indeed, McQueen opens her book with an amusing preface detailing some of the many ways in which Rembrandt's persona has infiltrated popular culture, including the adaptation of one of his numerous self-portraits for a popcorn product marketed by Loblaw's grocery chain. This connection is less frivolous than it seems: as the Paris salons turned art appreciation into public entertainment, and engraving and photography made visual imagery more accessible than ever before, Rembrandt's expressive art, idiosyncratic appearance, and supposedly tragic life story inspired novels, plays, and newspaper cartoons as well as serious study by artists and critics. In an introduction and five pithy chapters, McQueen surveys the exhibition of Rembrandt's works in the public collections of France, his place within the fascination for Dutch art expressed by critics such as Charles Blanc and Euge'ne Fromentin, his adoption by French artists as a role model, and the increasing value of his works on the art market. She demonstrates convincingly that Realist and Impressionist artists invoked Rembrandt as an antecedent primarily because certain perceived aspects of his art and character legitimized their own desire [End Page 242] to be appreciated for qualities such as originality, independence, diligence, and truth to nature. McQueen builds her arguments upon hundreds of documents, reviews, catalogues, visual interpretations, and related sources. Perhaps because of the need to deal concisely with this wealth of data, some of her conclusions are presented quite summarily, but in chapters 4 and 5, she delves more deeply into an important facet of Rembrandt's impact: the contribution of his brilliant printmaking style to the so-called Etching Revival. This international movement manifested itself in France through the Société des Aquafortistes and the growing respect accorded the practice of etching in the salons and art criticism of the later nineteenth century.
As McQueen shows, practising artists such as Felix Bracquemond and Felix Buhot contributed actively to lively critical debates about the authenticity of the many paintings in Rembrandt's style appearing on the market, some of which were produced by his students, and some by later imitators. This is a debate that still rages today, while the list of 'Rembrandt' paintings accepted by experts has shrunk from around nine hundred to three hundred. McQueen's book dovetails nicely with another recently published historiographical study. In Rembrandt, Reputation and the Practice of Connoisseurship (2004), Catherine Scallen explores the central role of the German art historian Wilhelm Bode and his protégés Abraham...