Rembrandt’s Interiors

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Jan Uytenbogaert, 'The Goldweigher’ 1639
Etching and drypoint on paper, state i
250 x 204 mm
Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan in 1905, inv. RvR 391

Rembrandt’s portrait prints of secular patrons—city officials, physicians and apothecaries, dealers, collectors, and fellow artists—generally depict individuals he knew well. While in most cases, the focus is chiefly on the sitters, in a handful of highly ambitious works, the artist places them in carefully described interior spaces. We encounter these figures in well-appointed environments, dwarfed by carefully arranged furnishings, books, instruments, and artworks. The focus on interiors in such portraits signifies the growing importance of domestic and private spaces in seventeenth-century Holland. Indeed, as suggested by inventories and legal documents, the middle and upper classes of Dutch society were increasingly concerned with the creation of neat, well-ordered, even luxurious home environments. That said, the resultant images can hardly be treated as proto-photographic snapshots of the everyday. Instead, they present carefully orchestrated interiors that blend reality and fancy, highlighting particular aspects of the sitters’ identity.

The portrait of Jan Uytenbogaert (1608–1680), Receiver General of Taxes for the province of Holland, is the earliest portrait etching in which Rembrandt made a concerted effort to place his sitter within a fully described interior. In the first state of this print, illustrated here, the artist  appears to have completed every aspect of the work except for Uytenbogaert’s face, which, as the worked-up counterproof at the Baltimore Museum of Art suggests, was finished at a later stage, most probably from life. Although at first glance, the setting might resemble an official place of business, some very early viewers of the print described it as a “comptoir”—a private office, library, or study. Nevertheless, Rembrandt’s description of the scene certainly emphasizes Uytenbogaert’s professional role as a tax collector. The foreground is dominated by a large chest, which could be used to store valuable items, and barrels filled with coins. A ledger lies open on the table, right in front of the sitter, while a very large scale, used for weighing small bags of coins, hangs over it.

A large framed picture, showing the Old Testament subject of Moses and the Brazen Serpent, is clearly legible on the back wall. The biblical story (Numbers 21:4–9) describes God sending “fiery serpents” to punish Israelites for complaining about their fate on the way to the Red Sea. After many were killed, others repented. This led God to command Moses to make a serpent out of brass and raise it on a pole. The sight of it would act as a kind of antidote, and those who had been bitten would live. While this fearful subject might seem out of place in a portrait of a successful and prosperous individual, Rembrandt scholar Stephanie Dickie has convincingly argued that the prominently placed image was used to emphasize Uytenbogaert’s faith and, in turn, his integrity as a tax collector even in the face of material temptation. The presence of the painting may also signify Uytenbogaert’s activities as an avid art collector and connoisseur. In fact, the unusual format and high degree of detail in Rembrandt’s depiction of the panel has led scholars to argue that the image was based on an actual object belonging to either Uytenbogaert or the artist himself.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Jan Six, 1647
Etching, engraving and drypoint, printed on Japanese paper, state iv
244 x 190 mm
Purchased by Mr. J. S. Morgan in 1909, inv. RvR 400

In some cases, the focus on the physical interior could also encourage a more focused exploration of a different kind of interiority—the inner world of Rembrandt’s human subjects. This dynamic seems to be at play in the full-length portrait of Jan Six—one of Rembrandt’s most celebrated portrait etchings. A magistrate, author, and art collector, Six is shown standing on a low wooden platform next to an open window. The portrait, executed with densely packed cross-hatching, showcases Rembrandt’s mastery of the manière noir (dark manner) and rewards prolonged and attentive looking. Heavy curtains and carpets are draped over various surfaces of the room. A soft-brimmed hat, cloak, walking stick, sword, and dagger, all barely legible in the dark, refer to Six’s activities outside of the home. For now, however, the sitter has traded all of them for a book or a booklet, which he is reading. A folder with papers and another open book also rest on a low chair in the foreground. At left, a framed painting is partially obscured by a short curtain. Such coverings were used at the time to protect valuable pieces from damage through exposure to light, smoke, soot, or scratches. While the presence of standing figures suggests that it depicts a narrative scene, the subject of the painting remains unknown and unknowable. Still, its presence goes a long way to communicate Six’s activities as a wealthy and discerning collector.

The Morgan’s impression of the portrait was printed on Japanese paper. Its warm, golden hue is particularly effective in conveying the feeling of bright sunlight entering a shadowy room and illuminating the upper body of the sitter. Rembrandt’s attentive rendering of the interior and the effects of light, and the way in which he isolates the relatively small-scale sitter within the pictorial space, allow him to focus the viewer’s attention on Jan Six’s intensely introspective state. As described by Mariët Westermann, the etching transforms “the sitter into the paragon of proto-Enlightenment scholar, absorbed in thought and the acquisition of knowledge, turned away from the window that figures the world outside his very private study.”

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Abraham Francen, Apothecary, ca. 1657
Etching, engraving and drypoint, printed on Japanese paper, state iv
158 x 208 mm
Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan in 1905, inv. RvR 373

The atmosphere of quiet intellectual absorption, which characterizes Rembrandt’s portrait of Jan Six, is also palpable in the etching of Abraham Francen, executed a decade later. Although Francen was an apothecary by profession, the print obscures this aspect of his identity, focusing instead on a more leisurely activity of art appreciation. A liefhebber (an art lover and amateur), Francen is depicted inspecting a work on paper—a drawing or a print. The horizontal format, which was unusual among Rembrandt’s portrait etchings, allowed the artist to cram the image with collectables: a large album, used for storing drawings and prints; three paintings (a triptych with a Crucifixion, and two landscapes); a statuette of a Taoist deity; a dimly lit skull.

Taken together, these items suggest considerable wealth, vigorous collecting activity, and eclectic interests. Yet scholars have noted that Francen never owned a curiosity cabinet and, more generally, was probably not wealthy enough to live in such sumptuous surroundings. Therefore, the portrait is better understood not as a transcription of his sitter’s lived surroundings but as an image of an ideal collector, constituted primarily through the careful orchestration of the interior.

Austėja Mackelaitė
Annette and Oscar de la Renta Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints
The Morgan Library & Museum

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