Articles

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rembrandt Van Rijn and His Jews



Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride (1662) remains one of his more famous paintings though it was a commissioned wedding painting by the couple themselves in Amderstdam. The painter Vincent van Gogh was so overcome by this painting that he said he would give up ten years of his life just to be allowed to sit in front of it for a fortnight. The sense of intimacy and love that radiates from it is a lasting memorial to their love for each other caught on that moment when they were beginning their lives together.

Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter and had many Jewish friends in the Sefardi community there at the time, the couple in the painting may very well have been friends or acquaintances.


(Jewish Rabbi by Rembrandt)

"Vlooienburg was, then, not only the center of Amsterdam’s art market and lumber trade. It was also the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish world. And Rembrandt settled right at its center. Every house immediately contiguous with or facing his own was owned or occupied by a Jew. And an overwhelming majority of the households on his block, on both sides of the street, were Jewish. From his front stoop he could see into Rabbi Mortera’s windows; from his top floor he had a view of the community’s synagogue. He could not help but hear the sons of Jewish families chattering in Portuguese on their way to school in the morning. On Friday afternoon, he could smell the slow-cooking Iberian foods they prepared for the Sabbath. Before the Lower East Side of New York, before the Marais district in Paris, even before London’s Park Lane, there was Vlooienburg. And much of what we think about Rembrandt and his art stems, ultimately, from his decision to live there."



(The physician Ephraim Bonus by Rembrandt)

"Among his Jewish acquaintances were the distinguished rabbi, author, and printer Menasseh ben Israel and the physician Ephraim Bonus; he made portraits of Bonus and perhaps one of Menasseh too. Menasseh, who lived near Rembrandt, commissioned the artist to illustrate one of his own books and he most probably provided him with the form of the cryptic Aramaic Menetekel inscription from the Book of Daniel that appears on the wall in his spectacularly dramatic Belshazzar's Feast."



(Jewish scholar by Rembrandt)

At a time when even in relatively tolerant Protestant Holland, at least relative to its former colonial master Catholic Spain where Jews were tortured and murdered, Jews were despised and legislated against and even there Converos found it difficult and dangerous to return to Judaism; Rembrandt expressed his sympathy and friendship with paint and brush. The pictures he draws, the men he illustrates have depth and wisdom, inner strength and fortitude.



We can look at Rembrandt's paintings and recognize these faces on the streets of Williamsburg and Crown Heights, in Washington Heights and Teaneck, in Bnei Brak and Tsfat, in Golders Green and the remains of Amsterdam's Jewish community today. In his paintings Rembrandt depicted the Jews he saw, knew and lived among with the love and affection of a great artist. He did what few others had done, he captured the passing faces of a Jewish community in a time long past allowing us to look at their faces and see in them our uncles and our cousins.



(portrait of a young Jewish scholar by Rembrandt)

It goes without saying that there was hardly a great market for Jewish portraits at the time. Rembrandt who was often impoverished and faced great debts nevertheless continued to paint such portraits and his biblical paintings were heavily derived from those same Jews as well. The first painting here The Jewish Bride was also called Isaac and Rebbecca referencing the first Jewish couple we ever see married with the Jewish couple being married here and now.

Unlike the dominant Christian view of the time, Rembrandt did not disconnect the Jews of his time from the Jews of the bible but understood that they were one and the same and the affection and tenderness with which he depicted them was one and the same as well as we see once again in Jacob Blessing his Children. The picture may not meet our expectations or interpretations and like many biblical scenes painted at the time, the clothing is european. The emotions that come through, the love of fathers for their sons, comes through and is eternal.

3 comments:

Matt said...

Great piece of work there knish.
Read all the back posts , saw the comments.Some of these fascists clothing nazis need to put more red meat in their diets.
Enjoyed the art of Rembrandt with my lunch(healthy hamburger on bun with lettuce and tomato. Glatt kosher,plenty of ketchup, touch of mustard. You of the tznious patrol need to eat more of this. Will mellow you out a bit).

Keliata said...

Fascinating post, and gorgeous paintings! Thank you for this wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for enlightening us about Rembrandt. This is a very nice piece.

I am sure there is so much more to this brilliant painter in his relationship with the Jews of his time that has not been brought to light. Your first post on Rembrandt seemed incongruous to real Jewish life. However, your research has opened my eyes,and I presume many others.

Kol HaKavod!

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