Jewish museum explodes myth Rembrandt was a Jew

AMSTERDAM (AFP) – Was the Dutch 17th century master Rembrandt, a Jew? In the last of a series of exhibitions marking the artist’s 400th birthday, the Jewish Historical Museum here sets out to examine the myth of the painter’s Jewish links.

“According to some catalogues from the last century, almost a third of Rembrandt’s works have a Jewish connection,” either because they portray Jews, or scenes in which he used Jewish models, one of the exhibition’s curators, Eduard van Voolen, told AFP.

The myth that Rembrandt had close links with Jews or could indeed have been a Jewish convert can be dated back to the 19th century, according to van Voolen: an increasing number of Jews came to live in the district of Amsterdam where the artist worked and where there was already a synagogue, thereby establishing its reputation as the city’s “Jewish quarter”.

“Beards, skullcaps, almond eyes and big noses, the frequent use Rembrandt made of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, are all found in a good number of the master’s works, and, particularly in the 19th century, fuelled theories in the minds of Jewish collectors especially that Rembrandt had a special affinity with Jews.”

“Some even suggested he had been initiated into the cabbala, and still today, at conferences in
Israel and the United States, I am asked whether Rembrandt had secretly converted to the faith,” the curator chuckled.

The exhibition mercilessly demolishes the myth. It retraces the history of the “Jewish quarter”, which in Rembrandt’s day in the 17th century was the “artists quarter.” His portraits are of ….priests, with beards, wearing skullcaps and reading Hebrew texts with their almond-slit eyes.

And what about his “Moses and the Tables of Law”?

“If Rembrandt had really painted with the help of a rabbi, he would not have let through the spelling mistakes in the Hebrew text,” suggests van Voolen.

What about Rembrandt’s Christ painted from a model met at the synagogue? Not true: archives have enabled historians to establish that the picture was painted according to a description made up by a medieval monk.

Even the celebrated canvas, “The Jewish Bride” is not spared close scrutiny. Does it really portray a Jewish couple? According to art historians, it recounts an episode in the Old Testament when Jefta promised God, while fighting the Ammonites, that he would sacrifice the first person he met after the battle — which turned out to be his daughter.

“In fact, only one picture stands up to analysis: the portrait of the Jewish doctor Ehraim Bueno, his neighbour, which is definitely by Rembrandt,” van Voolen concludes.

There are only two authentic traces of the painter’s contact with Jews: a letter about a dispute with a Jewish neighbour and a statement from a Jewish merchant certified by a notary saying that the portrait of his daughter, commissioned from Rembrandt, looks nothing like her.

The “Jewish” Rembrandt exhibition, at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, runs until February 4.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 13, 2006.
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