An artist needs to use more than singular vision or learned skill to make a living. Though not as high-minded, it helps to know your market. That goes for the Old Masters as well.
“Obviously, Rembrandt was very conscious of who his audience was. There’s no indication he was particularly devout but he understood who his audience was, and it was highly ecumenical,” Dr. Charles Rosenberg explained.
Rosenberg should know. He’s Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Notre Dame, an author and internationally respected authority on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. He’s held numerous fellowships, including with the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence and the American Academy in Rome.
Notre Dame has a collection of around 70 Rembrandt van Rijn etchings, all but a couple of religious subjects. Rosenberg just completed a catalog of them and that’s what brings him to Mobile as the initial speaker in Spring Hill College’s 2018-19 Christus Lecture Series.
The remaining lectures stretch through the autumn and into next spring. An Oct. 18 presentation covers the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. A Nov. 15 assembly will look at Mobile’s sacred architecture.
In the Sept. 27, 7 p.m., launch at Byrne Hall, Rosenberg will take the audience through an analysis of Notre Dame’s collection and how they sketch Rembrandt’s vision of the nature of spirituality and the nature of the family. Examples from the Snite Museum’s Fedderson Collection of Rembrandt prints will be utilized.
“They not only were aesthetically extraordinary but they delve into issues not only about spirituality, represented by the Holy Family, but also about human relations as well, in particular the relationships within a family, because it is basically the story of Christ reaching maturity and going out on his own,” Rosenberg said.
One of Western Civilization’s most heralded artists, the 17th century genius was firmly a product of his place and time. Rembrandt studied under a pair of mentors who specialized in narrative or history painting and worked on commissions toward that end.
Commissioned projects weren’t as numerous as hoped. While painters and sculptors in Catholic nations could work for the church, the Netherlands were a Calvinist nation. Their reformed church frowned upon certain figurative imagery in places of worship, yet individual Calvinists weren’t averse to buying imagery for personal use.
Their size — “some as small as three and a half by four inches” — and a little larger meant they were accessible for average people.
“You could buy one of these small prints for the price of a loaf of bread,” Rosenberg said.
Amsterdam was a busy international port. That fact cultivated a diverse population with varied beliefs, although non-Calvinists like Jews and Catholics weren’t welcome to use public venues. They found private worship.
But all of them shared religious traditions. And all could buy Rembrandt’s small pieces.
“They could paste them into Bibles, as illustrations in the back. They made albums,” Rosenberg said.
Amsterdam also had a lively art market, one of the best in Europe, where auctions were a regular event. Although Rembrandt never traveled beyond his home nation, his reputation spread across the continent.
“There is a letter written by a famous artist who is asked to do an image for a collector in Sicily and the collector had also solicited two paintings from Rembrandt. The artist said he knew Rembrandt’s work, he hadn’t seen any paintings but he knew his prints,” Rosenberg said.
An inexpensive Rembrandt etching would have been tempting, especially if its subject appealed to religious sensibilities. It’s surprising more haven’t turned up in the centuries since.
The artist’s chosen compositions reflected his own journey as he aged. His concerns over his sole child — three others died in infancy — bubbled up. That lone son’s mother died shortly after childbirth.
“His son, Titus, was about the age of Christ at the time of the dispute in the temple, when Christ announces he’s about his father’s work. So it’s a moment in the gospel narrative when the young man is about to embark upon his mission, and his son, Titus, is the same age, 12 at this point, and he along with Rembrandt’s common-law wife are going to have to take over responsibility. He’s going to have to become, in essence, an adult, as it were,” Rosenberg said.
For more information on the entire lecture series, go to shc.edu.
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