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Excerpts from "The Dutch Group Portrait"

Alos Riegl; Benjamin Binstock


October, Vol. 74. (Autumn, 1995), pp. 3-35.
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Excerpts from
TheDutch Group Portrait *

ALOIS RIEGL
Translated by Benjamin Binstock
When the young Rembrandt left his hometown of Leyden for a short time
in order to complete what remained to be learned about his art in the studios of
famous Dutch masters, the precocious youth did not seek o u t a city such as
Haarlem-the home of Frans Hals, whom we are accustomed to seeing as the
pioneer of Dutch national painting at this time (the 1620s)-but Amsterdam.
Here, it was likewise not the most Dutch among the portrait painters, such as
Werner van Valckert or Thomas de Keyser, from whom Rembrandt believed he
had something to learn, but Pieter Lastman, who had traveled to Italy. Hence the
seeming paradox that Rembrandt was the true Italianist among his countrymen at
that time. Among his numerous points of connection with the Italian manner, the
most important was his resolute embrace, from the outset, of subordination as a
principle means of expression.1 Yet Rembrandt's ultimate aspiration was nevertheless the utmost realization of the external unity with the beholding subject that we
have recognized as the indispensable prerequisite and actual raison d'itre of all
group portrait painting.
It must have become clear to the master early on that a complete external
unity-specifically an individualized one, connecting the represented figures with
the beholder-could be attained only when the internal unity, the subordination

*
The following excerpts on Rembrandt from Alois Riegl's "Das Hollandische Gruppenportriit,"
Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhochsten Kaiserhauses 23 (1902), pp. 71-278, published
here in English translation for the first time, appear in the final section, devoted to the third period of
Dutch group portraiture (1624-62). These excerpts, published here in cooperation with Zone Books,
are taken from my complete English translation. I would like to thank several individuals who helped
with this project in important ways: Jonathan Applefield, Mieke Bal, Robert Binstock, Jonathan Crary,
Frederick Ilchman, Steuart Osha, Ilan Safit, Leo Steinberg, Saga Vojkovit, Marek Wieczorek, Gary Wolf,
and Chris Wood. Trans.
1.
Riegl's thesis is that romanisch, or Latin, paintings show figures physically subordinated to one
another on the picture plane in a narrative "internal unity," whereas Dutch painting resists subordination and accordingly depicts figures as separate from and "coordinated" with one another in space,
looking out of the picture to establish a subjective "external unity" with the beholder. In the initial section of his study devoted to the preliminary stages of group portraiture, Riegl traces the appearance of
subordination back to Near Eastern art. Trans.
OCTOBER 74,Fall 1995, pp. 3-35. Translation O 1995 October Magazine, Ltd., and Massachusetts Institute of
Technology.

OCTOBER

of the figures within the picture, had first been achieved. This internal subordination, however, belonged to the domain of Italian art. The Italian manner and
Rembrandt's artistic aim therefore had to come into direct contact with each
other on this point. Admittedly, a full century of Netherlandish painting had
already sought to introduce subordination into Northern art as a means of subjectivizing the individual figure, as we have seen in the history of the group portrait.
Yet the Dutch aversion to external constraint continued to struggle against
subordination. By entering anew and in greater depth into the fundamental
principle of Italian art, Rembrandt was able to bring about a new flowering-in
our view the greatest flowering-of Dutch painting. The generation after him was
no longer able to convert the Latin into its own idiom and was consequently
defeated by it when it began to penetrate into Holland in the form of French art.
The alien Italian influence had always proved fertile, stimulating new forms in
Holland; the half-kindred French influence had an immediately paralyzing effect
on Dutch art and, after a short time, finally killed it off completely.
The three group portraits by Rembrandt's hand that have come down to us
intact have always been esteemed by artists, art lovers, and art historians for the
reasons suggested in the introduction.2 As a result, an entire literature has gradually
grown up around them. What this literature has brought to light that is worthwhile
and enduring will by no means be disputed here. Yet almost every writer who has
hitherto concerned himself with this subject has sought to explain it from the point
of view of the artistic evolution of the personage of Rembrandt and applied the
criticism of modern taste as a criterion. In the context of this study, by contrast, the
three pictures in question can be conceived merely as links in the large chain of
development that connects Jan van Score1 and Dirck Jacobsz with the great masters
of the mid-seventeenth century. If one observes how Rembrandt's earliest solution
to the problem of the group portrait remains closely dependent upon the works of
his direct predecessors-and how, in his later pictures, he further pursues the same
problem in an entirely consistent fashion-one becomes convinced that Rembrandt,
too, was primarily merely an executor of the artistic volition of his people and his
time, although the most ingenious of these and at that moment the furthest
developed. In the following account, the three pictures will therefore be examined
not from the point of view of a problem specific to Rembrandt, but of a common
Dutch artistic problem. I must be excused if, due to space limitations, I can only
in the most pressing cases explicitly reflect upon the views expressed by my predecessors concerning the relation of the pictures to one other.
When he created The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. TuF, now in the Mauritshuis in
the Hague, Rembrandt was at most twenty-six years old (his birth date is a point of
In his introduction Riegl explains: "Among all of the many hundreds of extant group portraits,
2.
only those that contain a unified narrative, such as Rembrandt's Nightwatch, have received notice until
now, and the observations of researchers have almost always fixed exclusively on this narrative. It is
therefore precisely the non-portrait-like and the un-Dutch that has hitherto interested researchers in
the group portrait." Trans.

The Dutch Group Portrait

controversy, as is well known).s Neither the master's signature nor the date of
1632 on the painting are needed to establish its authenticity, since it provoked a
great sensation at the time of its creation. For the people of Amsterdam of that
generation, insofar as they were concerned with the visual arts, this was simply a
picture that appeared to contain the essence of all that one demanded of the most
national artistic category, namely, the group portrait. In surveying later developments, one might almost believe that the people of Amsterdam had at this time
temporarily espoused a taste that deviated somewhat from the strictly national
one. Yet in terms of what they imagined and desired at the beginning of the 1630s,
Rembrandt apparently was the right man for them.
The content of The Anatomy Lesson of D7:Tulp can be described succinctly as
follows: the renowned surgeon Dr. Tulp demonstrates certain muscles of the
forearm of a male corpse on the dissecting table for seven of his colleagues from
the surgeons' guild, and thus delivers a lecture. That is to say, the picture contains
an internal unity, comparable to the one we have already observed in the case of The
Anatomy Lesson ofDr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij of 1619 by Thomas d e Keyser.4 Let us
examine how this is achieved by Rembrandt. The professor seizes the muscles in
question by means of an instrument in his right hand, accompanies his speech
with the customary gesture of his left hand, and looks not at the object of demonstration as in d e Keyser's painting (there a skeleton) but at the audience, with
whom he establishes an immediate and momentary psychological connection.5
The listeners subordinate themselves to him through their attention, but each in
a different way. T h e r e is a common psychological attention a m o n g t h e m ,
although this expresses itself physically in an independent, individual form in
every case. It is most animated, because most externalized, among the three surgeons placed at the head of the corpse: one leans forward in order to see better,
and his neighbor in order to hear better-so that his face almost takes o n an

3.
Riegl is referring to a debate concerning the birth date of July 15, 1606, given in Jan Orlers's
Description of Leyden of 1642, then thought by some to be one year too late, but now unanimously accepted. There are good reasons to believe that the date is one year too early, however. Rembrandt himself
indicates his age three times: as twenty-four in the drawn additions to the second and fourth states of
his etched self-portrait of 1631, Bartsch 7; as twenty-six in a request for publication of the banns of his
marriage on June 10, 1634; and as forty-six in a legal document from September 16, 1653. See The
Rembrandt Documents, ed. Walter Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen (New York: Abaris Books, 1979),
pp. 76, 107, 305 (where the earlier birth date is nevertheless adopted). If Rembrandt knew the correct
date of his own birthday, this must have been between June 10 and September 16, 1607; the etched
self-portrait of 1631 specifying his age would then have been created after June 10, when he had just
moved to Amsterdam, perhaps on the occasion of his first birthday alone in his new home. Trans.
4.
The attribution of this painting, discussed in the previous section of Riegl's study, has since
been disputed, but the issue remains unresolved. See most recently, the exhibition catalogue Dawn of
the Golden Age (Zwolle: Waander, 1993), pp. 595-96. Trans.
5.
William Shupbach has since argued that Tulp's left hand demonstrates the operation of the
muscles in question, an insight it is useful to keep in mind in following Riegl's argument. See William
Shupbach, The Paradox of Rembrandt 's 'Anatomy of D1: Tulp' (London: Wellcome Institute for the History
of Medicine, 1982), p. 7ff. Trans.

Rembrandt. The Anatomy Lesson of


Dr. Tulp. 1632.

Thomas de Keysm The Anatomy


Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz
de Vrij. 1619.

The Dutch Group Portrait

expression of suffering (pathos=internal movement)-and the third figure probably


does so for both purposes.
Both internal movement (will and feeling) and external movement are
increasingly quelled toward the periphery. The doctor with the list of participants
in his hands looks coolly out toward the beholder, although his gaze is not consciously directed at a target, but is rather a look of recollection, for he likewise
manifests absolute attention. The same applies to the doctor at the left below,
whose gently inclined head is turned slightly outward, if only to avoid the po$l
perdu pose inimical to portraiture. His downcast gaze and the deep wrinkles
around the eyes prove that he, too, does not make coquettish glances at some
beholder but painstakingly follows the words of the professor. His neighbor at the
lower left, who has taken on a completely rigid profile pose, aims a calm gaze
directly at the speaker.%That leaves the seventh doctor, who, in a no less rigidly
vertical pose, rises high above all the others and constitutes the single exception:
he turns en face with his full gaze toward the beholder and points with his right
index finger to the demonstration scene. Whereas the remaining seven figures
appear connected in an internal unity-insofar as six surgeons subordinate
themselves through attention to the speaking professor-the eighth figure
establishes an external unity with the beholder, whom he subordinates through
his pointed finger and thereby connects with the lecture scene. The picture
accordingly contains a double unity through subordination: first, between Tulp
and the seven surgeons, all of whom subordinate themselves to him as the lecturer
and, second, between the crowning surgeon and the beholder, the latter
subordinated to the former and indirectly through him to Tulp in turn.
This basic conception certainly is not entirely new in itself, for we already
encountered it in de Keyser's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. De Vrij of 1619. There the
doctor also subordinates three listeners through their direct attention to him
while demonstrating on a skeleton, and a fourth figure calls the scene to the
attention of the beholder (or beholders). This fourth figure, however, is not the
sole one connected to the beholder, but is accompanied by a fifth figure, who aims
his glance in the same direction. In Rembrandt's painting, the number of persons
connected with the beholder as an external unity is restricted to one, which
represents a notable difference. A further deviation is that Rembrandt has the
professor turn directly to the audience, whereas de Keyser uses the skeleton as an
intermediary. The subordination to one speaker has become direct, unified, and
thus stronger in Rembrandt's painting, whereas in de Keyser's painting it is as

6.
Subsequent cleanings and X rays have revealed that this last figure, who barely has room within
the composition, and whose face is closest to the corpse's in color and modeling, was a later addition.
The list of names on the sheet of paper held by the figure at the back was likewise painted later, over an
anatomical drawing of an arm, which would have lent further support to Riegl's interpretation of this
figure's gaze as "a look of recollection." See Rembrandt in the Mauritshuis, ed. Ary de Vries (The Hague:
Slijthoff en Noordhoff, 1978), pp. 83-86,98. Trans.

OCTOBER

though divided between the professor and the skeleton, and its effect is weakened.
But the most important difference does not concern this problem either. It does
not reside at all in the what, but in the how of representation.
The two active, subordinating figures are emphasized by Rembrandt in a
completely different and more striking fashion than by de Keyser. Whereas de
Keyser's professor is artfully pushed back into a row and coordinated with the
others, so that one first has to seek him out, there can be no doubt on this score
in Rembrandt's painting. The broad space occupied by Tulp, the fully detailed
activity of both his hands, his gaze at the audience, his costume, all this together
immediately communicates to us the location of the person who enforces the
internal unity in the picture. The figure that subordinates the beholder and
thereby establishes an external unity is also more vigorously emphasized now. He
is admittedly displaced from the foreground to the rearmost position, yet insofar
as he towers above the others as the crowning apex, he draws the beholder's gaze
and can by no means be overlooked. His removal from the intrusive nearness of
the earlier picture makes a more intimate and accordingly more lasting impression
on the beholding subject. The significance and effectiveness of both the dominant
figures in the picture are thereby increased.
Conversely, t h e d e p e n d e n t character of t h e audience is substantially
enhanced by Rembrandt in contrast to de Keyser. The neutral attention that was
only very weakly individualized in de Keyser's picture as a feeling of delight-in
the manner of Frans Hals (specifically in the gaze)-is replaced in Rembrandt's
picture by a dose of will or feeling. Will is manifested in the animated external
movements, specifically in the inclined heads and upper bodies, and feeling is
revealed in the emotional state of the figures, which is especially successfully
expressed in the case of the doctor at Tulp's right. T h e exhaustive studies
Rembrandt made in this connection back in Leyden, particularly in the medium
of etching, are certainly well known. It seems to me that it has never been articulated with sufficient emphasis, however, that this struggle with mastering emotional
states must likewise be understood as a symptom of Latinism in the artistic volition
of the young master.
The psychological expressions of will and feeling allow themselves to be
translated into physical movement in a more drastic and animated way than the
neutral expression of pure, selfless attention. This explains what could be called
the almost vehement activity-for a group portrait-of the three central figures in
particular, activity that is gradually quelled toward the periphery as it increasingly
makes room for motionless attention. We should nevertheless immediately clarify
what Rembrandt did not do with the heads at the center: he did not attempt to
depict the great brilliance and superior intellect of these figures, which would
impress the others and especially the beholder and thus isolate these individuals
in relation to us. It never occurred to Rembrandt to represent pure willful
grandeur, which an Italian would have imparted at least to the professor. All these
educated people, including the famous Dr. Tulp, display genial Germanic faces,

The Dutch Group Portrait

and one can hardly misunderstand Rembrandt's volition more grossly than to
impute to him a distribution of portrait heads in the picture according to their
"mental worth."
If one wishes to define what is new in Rembrandt's conception of the
anatomy picture, it kill not be the double subordination as such. In this regard, he
irrefutably proves himself to be a product of the common Dutch tradition of his
immediate predecessors. His contribution consists instead in the heightened
individualization of the psychological connection (attention) in space and time.
In de Keyser's painting, the professor still looks at the object of the demonstration,
whereas in Rembrandt's painting he looks directly into the eyes of the audience,
which discloses in turn its inward attentive participation through momentary
physical and emotional movement. This individual animation also brings the
different psyches into even closer connection than in the cool, reserved, objective,
and more general attention of a de Keyser. This early work by Rembrandt already
displays in clear outlines the goal of all his artistic aspiration: the interfusion of
souls with one another and with the soul of the beholder. What stands in the way
of achieving this goal for the moment are the ancillary physical factors that
Rembrandt believed he first had to address: the movement stimulated by external
senses and the affect of pathos (if not the affected as such) in certain heads.
As with the conception, the composition immediately discloses a double
unity as well: the objective one on the picture plane and the subjective one in
space. The spatial composition is dominated by a central space in the manner of
militia banquets, here constituted by the dissection table with the cadaver on it,
which moves into depth diagonally from right to left and appears enclosed on
four sides by Tulp, two groups of two surgeons each, and the upright folio at the
feet of the corpse. At the head of the corpse, however, the master arranged three
more figures to establish a strict triangular composition, which, through its
operation on the picture plane, was meant to balance the one in spatial depth.
Taken by itself, this fusion of spatial and planar composition is no more innovative
than the double unity and subordination in the conception mentioned above. We
have already encountered the pyramid with a central apex in de Keyser's anatomy
picture, and the militia piece of 1632 by the same master introduces a fusion of
central symmetry with spatial construction in which diagonals also play a role. The
original aspect of the composition of Rembrandt's anatomy picture lies again in
the heightening of the two contrasting elements: the operation of the picture
plane, on the one hand, and the operation of space on the other.
One will search in vain for this kind of strict pyramidal composition with
proportionate descending sides in previous Dutch art. In Rembrandt's youthful
works in Leyden, however, we often see the high triangle with steeply raised sides,
filled with figures diligently positioned one behind another in space. What he had
in mind, apparently, was to force into one plane figures distributed at different
depths. This is the old Baroque problem of Michelangelo, yet insofar as the
Dutchman Rembrandt was concerned with the space between the figures at least

OCTOBER

as much as with the figures themselves, he was able to place them at much greater
distances behind one another. The symmetrical, pyramidal, linear composition on
the picture plane had significance for Rembrandt solely as a curbing, attenuating,
regulating element. His actual problem was heightening the effect of depth created
by the space between the figures.
Among the means painting has at its disposal for producing spatial depth,
the two haptic ones (overlap and foreshortening) serve to render the cubic space
of the bodies of figures. Of the two optical techniques, shadow can be used both
as body shadow (modeling shadow) for rendering cubic space and as spatial
shadow or chiaroscuro for depicting free space; cast shadow embodies the middle
position between these two effects. The second optical technique is based on a
dissolution of outlines and a distinct modification of local colors, and is identified
as aerial perspective, which serves exclusively to depict air-filled free space.
It is characteristic of youthful work by Rembrandt (such as his anatomy
picture) that foreshortening, which was mastered with such virtuosity by the
Italians but always taken up with reserve by the Dutch, still plays a relatively
important role. The way that the man with the pointed beard at the feet of the
corpse is bent over almost horizontally, that the man behind him leans over at a
relatively steep angle, and, finally, that the figure farthest back and highest up
reaches a pure vertical, was noticed long ago and even identified as the backbone
of the entire composition. . . . Nevertheless, one must still ask how Rembrandt's
three surgeons found sufficient space behind one another. In other words, one
sees the tangle of figures more clearly than the space that penetrates into the
cavities and openings. Much more important is the role that shadow plays in
Rembrandt's treatment of space. He employs it in part for modeling, except that
it is no longer sharply bordered and already reveals varying intensity, giving
roundness to forms, but without the tactile hardness displayed, for example, in
Valckert's heads and even those of de Keyser's earlier period. What is decisive,
however, is Rembrandt's relation to spatial darkness or chiaroscuro.
Every spatial shadow is, in the final analysis, body shadow, for it, too, is
brought about by an object blocking the light source. The difference between the
two resides solely in the fact that body shadow, or modeling shadow, displays a
fixed haptic border, whereas spatial shadow flows into the boundless realm and
gradually passes through every possible stage between dark and light. The
cheekbone casts a shadow on the cheek that is clearly delineated and is obviously
produced by something directly before our eyes (i.e., the cheekbone). Body
shadow approximates spatial darkness to the extent that its boundaries appear to
be drawn indistinctly, as is increasingly the case with Rembrandt's work. Cast
shadow, on the other hand, is cast by one body onto a neighboring body. We do
not remain uninformed as to the origin of the shadow in this case either; the fixed
boundaries of cast shadow clearly indicate its source. Spatial shadow lacks both
clarity as to its origin and fixed boundaries. A dark corner of a room, for example,
is undoubtedly placed in shadow by the two walls that abut. Yet nowhere do these

The Dutch Group Portrait

walls make themselves clearly and sharply felt as the source of the shadow; the
darkness merges into brightness in imperceptible degrees, which can be richly
varied by objects in the corner. This spatial darkness is not absolute darkness, for
then it would simply be nothing, not even space. Neither is it absolute brightness,
however, for then one would see only the brightly whitewashed walls and not the
space between them.
Painting that seeks to represent the space between figures as something
autonomous and therefore sensual-that is, optically observable-could hardly
find a better means to this end than chiaroscuro. Dutch painting was such a type,
and it set about depicting this space between figures as equal and equivalent to
the figures themselves at exactly the time that Rembrandt began to make his
appearance. . . . It is Rembrandt's name that is inseparably linked with the idea of
seventeenth-century chiaroscuro, and with good reason. In his anatomy picture
the chiaroscuro is still very moderate, but we will find it applied in a much more
thorough manner in his later group portraits, even though portraits are naturally
less suited to an unrestrained deployment of this artistic technique than other
pictures.
It will be helpful first to define the actual purpose that Dutch painting pursued
with chiaroscuro. Representing the space in the picture as something that exists
apart from the figures and is visibly different from them was not the exclusive
goal, but rather a means to an end. The aim was to sublate this dualism and to
represent figures (cubic corporeality) and space as a single homogeneous whole.
Just as the conception of Dutch painting would construct a bridge between figures
through the representation of a selfless psychological element (attention), by
means of which the individual psyches were forged together as a whole in the
consciousness of the beholding subject, space would similarly constitute merely a
quantitative interruption between the bodies of figures, and no longer a qualitative
one. Space, like the figures, was to be endowed with sensual characteristics.
Figures, on the other hand, had to give up their disruptive boundaries and, for
this reason, were deprived of their stark, linear outlines and connecting local
colors. Both goals were accomplished through light and shadow: the figures are
merely closer conglomerations at specific points within space, which reflect light
in endless gradations and more powerfully than empty air.
Chiaroscuro was so indispensable for the realization of this task that one can
safely say no Dutch painter of the seventeenth century could completely forgo it.
Yet within this mutuality, we encounter numerous levels of variation. There were
many masters, especially in the later period, who did not overlook the fact that
the figures would still be visible within the darkness in clear and distinct, yet also
loose, boundaries, and who therefore never allowed the darkness to become too
intense. Masters such as Care1 Fabritius and especially Vermeer of Delft were just
as much painters of light as painters of chiaroscuro; that is, they placed more
importance on brightness than on darkness. Rembrandt's peculiarity resides in
the fact that he assigned paramount importance to darkness. He truly meant to

OCTOBER

transform everything tactile into varying intensities of light and shadow. This is
presumably what Karl Neumann meant when h e characterized Rembrandt's
chiaroscuro as a metaphysical principle, although it is difficult to understand why
the same scholar denies the obvious fundamental importance of chiaroscuro as
spatial darkness.' In reality, figures come forward more powerfully than the space
between them, and the strong darkening of the visible elements in Rembrandt's
pictures appears to us today as an unwarranted exaggeration, since we now have a
different view of the relation of body to space. Even the majority of Rembrandt's
Dutch contemporaries in the second half of the seventeenth century judged his
works in this way, since they too had already advanced beyond Rembrandt's view
in the direction of our own.
The anatomy picture of 1632 already manifests chiaroscuro as Rembrandt's
favorite problem, although not yet in the extreme application of his later period.
It adheres partly to the figures and partly to space but does not yet connect the
two with each other as a homogeneous whole, as in later paintings. Shadow is
spread over the chest of the doctor with the suffering expression, for example, but
i n s along his neck ruff in a relatively sharp boundary. The shadows on the ruff of
the doctor below the crowning figure, as well as those on the left hand and cuff of
Dr. Tulp, are similarly contained. They remain more cast shadows than spatial
shadows. Only the brightening reflections allow for the move toward an actual
chiaroscuro to be recognized. These cast shadows, which are brought about by the
7.
Neumann complains explicitly at one point in his book of the outbreak of "endless chatter"
about space in the more recent art historical literature, and there appears to be an inclination among
other, younger scholars to second him in this regard. This must certainly be the result of a misunderstanding. What the visual arts represent and are able to represent are primarily things, i.e., limited
plane (two-dimensional extension) or limited space (three-dimensional extension), and secondarily
their context, i.e., unlimited plane or unlimited space. The means of representing these are line and
color. Modern subjectivism no longer wants things to count as things at all, i.e., as objects present
outside us, but rather as merely subjective sensations of color. But this can only go so far. One attempts
today to forget all the other qualities of things for the sake of their color even in relation to earlier
periods that had emphasized the tactile quality above all in the art work. Yet things (i.e., extension)
continue to exist as the necessary substratum of color, and a color without a thing, a "metaphysical
principle," as Neumann would put it, is not possible, at least not today. A painted human figure
remains simply a human figure, even if its color particularly excites the beholder. It is therefore
fundamentally incorrect when the modern artistic problem is identified as a color problem, for color
too is merely a means to an end here, just as line had been earlier and is recently about to become
once more. Rather, the modern problem, like every earlier one, is a problem of space, of a differentiation between the subject on the one hand and things (i.e., extension, space) on the other. It is by no
means a complete absorption of the object by the subject, which would mean the end of the visual arts
altogether. When according to modern aesthetics things are said to be colors, this means nothing
other than that things are the plane, although not the earlier haptic, polychromatic plane but an
optical, coloristic one that makes the thing together with its environment visible as a whole, without
simply suppressing its individuality. Now if this is already true of modern art, it is that much more
questionable to impute the modern conception, as if things were purely subjective sensations, to
artists of earlier periods of art. What is instructive and arresting about the Baroque style in both the
South and the North resides precisely in the fact that it shows us clearly in a long, coherent, and yet
richly varied development how the newly awakened and increasing subjectivism gradually resolved its
struggle with the given object and its tactile and visible qualities.

The Dutch Group Portrait

influx of harsh light, serve primarily to fragment brightly colored and palpable,
self-contained objects such as neck ruffs and thereby to deprive them of their
haptic, corporeal coherence. . . . If one observes how the dark figure looking out at
the lower left forms a sharply delineated silhouette against the bright corpse, it is
again clear that shadow is not applied in its connecting function but in its earlier
isolating one. It serves here to make the bright object appear to lie behind the
darker one in space in the manner familiar since the sixteenth century. The
existence of space between the two objects is thereby clearly indicated. On the other
hand, every possible connection between them is negated through the sharp
silhouette, and the near object is strictly isolated from the one behind. The dividing
line along the arm of the doctor appears sharp, despite frequent buckling. This is
a constant phenomenon in Rembrandt's youthful works, which later disappears in
favor of a chiaroscuro obliterating all boundaries.
Rembrandt already applies chiaroscuro extensively in this early work in order
to depict the interior space surrounding the figural group. Darkness plays under
the barrel vaulting, along the walls on either side, and in the niches between pillars,
becoming lighter here and there, especially in the corner of the wall behind Dr.
Tulp's head. This application of chiaroscuro is not absolutely new either, having
been gradually anticipated since the sixteenth century. Rembrandt's artistic property
consists entirely in the fundamental darkening of the entire room, with weakly
vibrating lights of fluctuating, uncertain boundaries: a qualitative increase, in
other words. . . . In Rembrandt's anatomy picture we encounter for the first time
an interior sufficiently articulated that we recognize not just one but two corners
and even see the vaulting. The interior is enclosed not only to the right and left,
but also above. To the right we then see space extend around a pillar in the corner.
This room and the spatial darkness filling every corner make us aware, in an
unprecedented manner, that the figural scene takes place in open space. We see
not only the figures, as before, but also the space flowing around them.
When one investigates the relation between the figure group and the surrounding space, however, one clearly perceives the limitation that nevertheless
exists. Figure group and open air are present beside each other but are not yet
sufficiently connected. We are not adequately informed as to the dimensions of
the room in relation to those of the figures and sense here an echo of the fifteenthcentury manner, which represented endless space as separate and autonomous
behind the figures. Furthermore, the strict pyramidal composition of the figures
connecting them on the picture plane is in conflict with the disintegrating effect
of space. The spatial darkness of the room entices us back into depth, whereas
the composition of the figures challenges us to hold them together on one
plane in front. In the end, one must conclude that the chiaroscuro of the space
and that of the figures d o not come together or flow into each other at any
point. The figure group comes forward sharply in relation to the space of the
room behind, like a pattern on a ground. The ample lights and shadows at the
edges that dissolve outlines are sufficient to make the figures themselves appear

OCTOBER

engulfed by space but not to immerse them completely in the interior. In this
regard as well, Rembrandt's chiaroscuro has not yet evolved into its later allconnecting function.
A unified mood of color nevertheless predominates in the picture. This is
not due to chiaroscuro but to the greenish tone that covers all the local colors and
draws them closer together. Tone serves exactly the same purpose in Dutch
painting as chiaroscuro, and its origin is the same. The tone of Dutch painting is
n o t t h e m o d e r n o n e , which emanates from t h e figures themselves, whose
numerous local hues more or less constitute the resulting picture. It is simply the
color of space, which lies spread out before and between the figures and to a
certain extent forces its own coloring upon them. Tonal painting was the earlier
stage of development in Holland, practiced particularly in the first third of the
seventeenth century. The disadvantage of tonal painting, however, is that in order
to connect the figures it alienates them from reality to an even greater extent than
chiaroscuro painting. Tone also reappears as uniform local color, since only tiny
modulations are possible within such a simple color tone (compare genre and
landscape painters in the style of Duck and van Goyen). Yet, within certain limits,
tone constitutes an indispensable postulate of aerial perspective, and just as it was
said earlier that no Dutch painter entirely ignored chiaroscuro after 1630, it can
likewise be said that n o painter remained completely free of tone. Insofar as
Rembrandt maintains a greenish tone in his anatomy picture, as in almost all of
the pictures from his early phase, he demonstrates his connection with the earlier
artistic period as the foundation of his first attempts. Rembrandt never abandoned
tone in his later development either, but in place of the greenish tone he
employed his so-called gold tone, which functions less as local color than as
beaming, glowing light.
It is remarkable that despite the apparent coup Rembrandt achieved with his
anatomy picture, none of the numerous Amsterdam militia pieces from the 1630s
is by his hand. He could hardly have been considered incapable of executing such
a task, so one can assume that Rembrandt himself, who was certainly not at a loss
for other work, did not solicit this type of commission. There was not much appeal
for him in a subject that offered relatively little in terms of his attempt to probe
the psychological relations between persons. So we are surprised to find that ten
years after his anatomy picture Rembrandt nevertheless decided to paint a large
militia piece for the people of Amsterdam. This was the company of Captain Frans
Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh, called The Nightwatch,
which now hangs in the Rijksmuseum, provided with a signature and the date
1642 by the artist himself. It is entirely characteristic that one can by no means say
exactly how many persons are actually portrayed in this picture. We do know how
many paid for this privilege, but many more are visible in the picture, and even
more figures are not visible, that is, are only to be guessed at through small fragments
(specifically lances and hats). . . .
Since we are aware of Rembrandt's fundamental decision in favor of subordi-

The Dutch Group Pwtrait

nation, we can predict the type of conception he would choose as a basis for the
composition. Since Dr. Tulp subordinated an audience of outwardly equal rank
(surgeons with diplomas), we can certainly expect the captain to do the same with
his troop. Rembrandt's intention is also documented by the description of the
picture found in an album belonging to its primary patron, Captain Frans
Banning Cocq, which reads as follows: "The captain gives his lieutenant the order
to have the troop move out." Rembrandt's choice of a completely specific moment
is significant, although this is not historical but genre-like insofar as it presumably
was often repeated. We see here the extent to which the Dutch of this period were
subject to a steadily increasing tendency toward individualization, or localization
in space and at one moment in time, observable since Cornelis Ketel. Six years
later, the Westphalian peace treaty-admittedly a highly significant event-would
repeatedly be seized upon as the occasion for a completely determined historical
moment to be immortalized in a militia piece.8
The internal unity of The Nightwatch therefore resides in subordination to
the captain. With his powerful stature, towering far above all the others, he
strides toward the exact center of the picture and straight out toward the
beholder. He extends his left hand with a commanding gesture in the direction
of the march and half turns his head toward his lieutenant at right, who follows
with shorter steps beside him, holding his head humbly and receiving the
command with a gaze raised obediently to his captain. The lieutenant thus
appears to be psychologically subordinated to the captain. Rembrandt did not
even attempt to express this idea through the dozen and a half other militiamen.
Their subordination is pictorially mediated within the picture by the lieutenant,
who, according to the caption cited above, is meant to transmit the command.
The militiamen behave exactly as if well aware that they will be given the
command to move out immediately. Each one is occupied with himself, or more
precisely with his weapon, in a variation that only Rembrandt's inexhaustible
fantasy could have invented.9 Yet each distinctly reveals that all were meant to
move about in some fashion, and this has also always been understood. The
notion is already expressed in the older identification as a "night watch," which is
meant to signify a nighttime deployment. Criticism in o u r day has simply
replaced night with day and torch with sunlight.
The internal unity is certainly as evident as in Rembrandt's anatomy picture.
The new and surprising element is that the subordinating effect of the spoken
word (here the command) is now a directly psychological one, represented in a

8.
The people of Haarlem appear to have been more advanced in this respect, since one of the
militia pieces by Frans Hals from 1627 was intended to commemorate a specific banquet of 1622.
9.
Aside from the captain and lieutenant, only two other persons at the far right are placed in a
relation of reciprocal exchange, likewise o n the basis of subordination. The underlying idea here
seems to be that the group waiting to the right has to be joined with the middle group that is already
in motion, and a minor officer is in the midst of imparting the command in question to a militiaman.
The value of this partial group of two people for the composition will be demonstrated below.

OCTOBER

single figure (the lieutenant) and manifested in all the others as physical activity.
In view of what we already know of Rembrandt's artistic volition, with this type of
conception he must have deemed it necessary from the start to use all possible
means to push the captain and the lieutenant into the foreground and to place
them in direct psychological connection with each other, while treating the
remaining figures and their physical activity-despite all the variation in detailas a completely uniform background. The captain's command to the lieutenant is
the subject, and the troop is purely accidental, like a back room or a landscape
background.10
Once he adopted the principle of subordination, Rembrandt drew the
furthest reaching conclusions from it. It is also undeniable that once this principle
was conceded, the development of his painting was inevitably forced in an
extreme direction. We observed this tendency among Rembrandt's predecessors,
as in de Keyser's group portrait of 1632, in which the officers present themselves
to the beholder as being of superior importance to the other figures. De Keyser
may have gained some experience with the people of Amsterdam in the process,
since, as noted above, he reestablished coordination to a greater degree in his
militia piece of the following year, allowing all the heads to assume equal importance once again. But Rembrandt was not capable of such restraint. He pursued
his aim as an artist beyond the point where his contemporaries wished to follow
him.
We have repeatedly observed that the group portrait distilled as in a mirror
all the fundamental characteristics of Dutch painting, and in its deepest essence
was based on coordination. A conception that willfully suppresses and levels one
and a half dozen heads in order to allow two heads to stand out as animated
portraits signifies a near complete annihilation of coordination and thereby of
the group portrait itself. If one can speak of a group portrait at all, this would be a
double portrait of captain and lieutenant before a background animated with
figures. This is also what the majority of those portrayed, together with numerous
persons among the Amsterdam public who were not involved, immediately

10.
Neumann also recognized and stressed this subordinated role of the militiamen, but he
assigned the dominant role to the captain alone rather than to the group formed by the captain and
the lieutenant. This misunderstanding would be completely incomprehensible if it were not the logical
consequence of Neumann's way of thinking. In his view Rembrandt was exclusively concerned with
solving color problems in his paintings. Since the lieutenant is dressed in the most remarkable fashion,
in pure yellow, he has a particularly challenging effect upon the modern beholder, who is schooled in
impressions of pure color. Yet Rembrandt undoubtedly chose this coloration primarily to protect the
small lieutenant from being overwhelmed by his powerful neighbor and to allow him precisely enough
autonomy to emerge together with the captain as the dominant group within the whole. Neumann's
book o n Rembrandt demonstrates at length the advantages art historical research can draw from the
application of criticism based o n modern taste, for in order to recognize what people wanted earlier,
one has to know first of all what they want today, so that one gains a criterion for judgment. Yet the
case in question serves by contrast as a warning against the errors that one commits when one attributes
modem "color problems" to the old masters without regard for their period and its mental and artistic
development.

Rembrandt. The Nightwatch. 1642.

objected to in the picture. Even today there is relative agreement that those who
followed this reasoning were correct and deserve reproach only insofar as, in
their annoyance at the way their own worthy persons had been neglected, they
entirely forgot the artistic value of the picture in and for itself. Yet I think an
injustice is done to these good people in this regard as well, since The Nightwatch
was completely unprecedented not only in group portraiture, but in Dutch painting
altogether.
What a strange sight to see the most distinguished practitioner of the
"painting of attention" representing more than a dozen persons in the midst of
physical activity! Rembrandt surprises us here once again as the one painter
among his countrymen who most completely embraced the goals and techniques
of the Latin artistic manner. Whoever attentively observes his works from the
1630s easily recognizes The Nightwatch as the result of a long, continuous, and
logical development. We have already noted the significance of the fact that the
figures toward the center in his anatomy picture disclose their attention through
animated external activity (leaning over, expressive disclosure of internal strain),
whereas toward the periphery the poses were resolved into vertical axes and the
facial expressions into neutral attention. The aftereffect of this conception is
evident in The Nightwatch, for here too we encounter vertical and calmly attentive
figures precisely on the extremes: the militiaman sitting at the top of the steps to
the left who looks over at the main group and another figure on the right who
listens to the instructions of a minor officer. The figures in the center that provide

OCTOBER

closure at the back are also represented simply as looking and observing. The
militiaman on the right behind the ensign glances calmly out to the front, and his
neighbor, emerging from the darkness and visible only to the left of his head, is
staring at something above as if he wanted to see what the weather was like. Yet
within these limits the latitude for activity in The Nightwatch has been considerably
broadened and its intensity increased.
One must remember that until 1640 an artist had been active in the neighboring southern Netherlands who had mastered the representation of momentary
physical movement in a manner unequaled in any other period or nation. It was
also recognized long ago that in the 1630s Rembrandt took the half-Latinized
Fleming Rubens as a direct model, not only in general terms but often in particulars.
This relationship lasted even beyond the death of the great man from Antwerp.
For precisely at the same time that he painted The Nightwatch, Rembrandt also
etched his lion hunt-a subject that, together with the Battle of the Amazons or
the Massacre of the Innocents, clearly conforms to Rubens's artistic volition. The
purpose Rembrandt attached to this exercise was completely different from that of
the Fleming, however, both as a whole and in the particulars.
For Rubens, the individual actions were meant to be cumulative and to
establish a single powerful action. For Rembrandt they were meant to cancel each
other out and to provide a relatively calm foil for the primarily psychological
central scene in the foreground. The individual actions were also treated accordingly. Compared with the movements of Rubens's figures, those in Rembrandt's
pictures are leaden and cumbersome. This is essentially because Rubens always
depicted the moment that most acutely characterized the action and allowed one
to foresee the conclusion. His lion hunts provide perhaps the most compelling
and concrete evidence of this tendency. By contrast, Rembrandt, as a Dutchman,
primarily painted not so much the action itself as its initial stages. He depicted
the psychological aim, the intellectual conception, and the attention directed
toward what was to take place. This is clear from the activity of the militiamen in
his Nightwatch. One alertly reaches for his ramrod, another tests the lock of his
flint; the hands of a third, who fires his gun, are not visible, while yet another
deflects the barrel of the gun being fired. The raising of lances into new positions
is also especially characteristic, as is the flourishing of banners-all determined by
the march to be undertaken, although everything consists in preparation rather
than in the action itself. This displacement of action into its initial stages is
essentially no different than the truly Dutch one-sided exchange seen in the
earlier group portraits, which remains suspended and requires completion by the
beholder and his experiencing consciousness.
T h e result is twofold. O n the o n e hand, the particular actions in The
Nightwatch are merely external means to achieve the ultimate goal of the artist,
that is, the visualization of psychological attention, exactly as in his anatomy
picture. O n the other hand, the actions as a whole are meant to constitute an
animated shell for the group in the foreground depicted in reciprocal psychological

The Dutch Group Portrait

exchange. . . . For Rembrandt, physical movement serves primarily as a heightened


means of expressing the presence of attention connecting the souls. The effect of
the captain's words is depicted as a direct psychological impression only in the
lieutenant's facial expressions and head position, whereas the activity of the
militiamen is simply intended to manifest this effect extended to the periphery. Yet
in this way Rembrandt alienated the average level of artistic volition among his
countrymen to such an extent that they no longer wished to follow him. One has
to emphasize again and again: the gulf between Rembrandt and his countrymen
was caused by his adoption of the Latin elements of subordination and physical
activity as an expression of will, even though this served the purpose of a more
complete realization of truly Dutch artistic ends."
The Nightwatch undoubtedly achieved internal unity, and in a manner that
generally went beyond the wishes of his Dutch contemporaries. But what of the
external unity that was so indispensable for the Dutch group portrait, and especially
for Amsterdam, customarily and unambiguously expressed by figures within the
picture displaying their awareness of unseen beholders in the continuation of the
foreground? With the exception of Rembrandt, it was a fixed rule of the Amsterdam
group portrait in particular that the majority of the militiamen looked out toward
and thereby subordinated themselves to the beholder, although at least one figure
directly addressed and thus subordinated the beholder. . . . In The Nightwatch both
aspects are lacking. A few of the militiamen at the back have turned their gazes
toward the front, but one can hardly speak in any of these cases of the rapt
attention they manifested in the late de Keyser. The mass of militiamen functions
primarily as a whole, as demonstrated above. The captain and lieutenant alone
are to be considered personalities. The lieutenant turns fully toward the captain,
whereas the latter aims his gaze somewhat haughtily (and thus in a more Latin
than Dutch manner), if not directly at his officer, then at least in such a direction
that we can clearly discern his attention will not be distracted from the goal of his
spoken words by anything located outside the picture. All external connection
between the visible figures in the picture and the unseen beholder appears to be
severed. Such a connection is in fact present, but it is brought about by means that
had not been applied to this extent in earlier Dutch painting.
The secret of the irresistible effect this picture exercises upon the modern
beholder has always been explained primarily through the absorbing movement
of the figures and above all the two protagonists, who appear to step toward the
beholder. Yet it is not movement as such that one observes-the language of
outlines is far too energetically repressed for this purpose. Rather, the effect is
produced by the expression of the psychological impulse of the figures to change

11. The delight that Frans Hals depicted his militiamen expressing in their activities, which so greatly
charmed his Dutch compatriots for a time, was, of course, inaccessible to Rembrandt. He mastered and
cultivated only the feeling of compassion, and since there was no place for this in the troop getting
ready to march out in The hightwatch, their bodily actions had to appear as pure expressions of will.

OCTOBER

their position in open space in the next moment in relation to the beholder,
manifested in the treatment of colors. Modern subjectivism immediately recognized that a problem fundamentally related to its own had been convincingly
resolved here. The connection with the beholder in this picture is no longer
established through mere distant attention as before, but precisely through
attention individualized in a specific direction. The hand of the captain extended
straight out toward the beholder leaves no doubt that following his command, the
entire troop will converge upon the beholding subject in the next moment. . . .
Rembrandt was the first Northerner to dare to break through a thousand-year-old
constraint by tearing the movement away from the picture plane, or at least the
diagonal, and directing it straight out at the beholder. It is not the narrative of
movement as such that produces the subjectively absorbing effect upon the
beholder but the psychological impulse expressed in the conception, and specifically in the outstretched hand of the captain. Once again, it is not immediate
action, as in Rubens's paintings, but the psychological cause that the Dutchman
sought to represent.
This crucial stage of development requires us to pause for a moment in
order to clarify the relevant facts of the case. One must always proceed from the
assumption that the portrait figure turning directly toward the beholder served
exclusively as an emphatic demonstration of the Baroque dualism of object and
subject. Classical antiquity avoided this turn, for it recognized only objects. Modern
art can likewise dispense with it, but for the opposite reason. It recognizes only the
subject, since according to its view the so-called objects are entirely reduced to
perceptions of the subject. Baroque art had already emancipated this subject but
maintained the existence of an object alongside it to a more or less determined
extent. Insofar as it represented objects-i.e., figures, trees, buildings, and so
forth-this art also consistently made the beholder aware, by any means whatsoever,
that all these depicted things were there only for his sake. This was most especially
necessary with the portrait, since there is apparently nothing more objective for a
subject than an unfamiliar human self. We have thus seen a century of Dutch
group portraiture anxiously avoiding reciprocal (objective) exchange among the
individual portrait figures, connecting them instead with unseen persons outside
the picture (subjects).
In The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp Rembrandt immediately restricts the number
of figures in direct exchange with the subject to one and places all the rest in
reciprocal exchange with one another. The picture does not return to the objectivist conception of antiquity, however, but, to the contrary, moves closer to the
subjectivist conception of our modern period. Specifically, the exchange is limited
whenever possible to purely psychological communication. The anatomy picture
of 1632 will have nothing to say to those who would view it in the manner of an
antique mythological relief or a Christian cult image, since it represents neither a
simple narrative nor an elementary expression of feeling. In order to come to a
clear understanding of the picture's embodiment of attention through its soft

The Dutch Group Portrait

nuances of compassion, it is necessary for us to undertake a formal psychological


investigation of the facial expressions of the individual heads. This kind of
investigation, which is of course completed only unconsciously by the naive
beholder of the picture (as opposed to the art historian), demands such an
absorption of the beholding subject's consciousness in the internal psychological
connections of the scene that the latter seems to be transformed from an external,
objective event into an inner experience of the beholder.
This psychological manner of depiction is one of the techniques through
which modern art is able to subjectivize every figural narrative objectively represented in the picture. It would be very instructive to undertake an investigation
of those factors in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp that lag behind the requirements of modern subjectivism in this regard, for it would provide, among other
things, evidence of the ways in which Rembrandt was unable to go beyond the
remaining objectivism of his own period's Baroque sensibility. Although this
kind of excursus might seem tempting, we will certainly have to forgo it at this
juncture. In any case, it remains significant that in his group portrait of 1632
Rembrandt did not feel he could afford to restrict himself to this more intimate
means of subjectivizing, which had made it possible for him as a Dutchman to
employ subordination and internal unity in the first place, but he continued to
express an unambiguously direct exchange with the beholder as well, through at
least one single figure. . . . [In The Nightwatch] the master decided to realize internal unity on the basis of subordination in order to establish the most complete
possible external unity in space and time. The direct connection of a significant
member of the group with the beholder, which he had effected in The Anatomy
Lesson of Dr:Tulp, conflicted with the complete impression of internal unity. He
consequently abandoned this entirely, even in the group portrait, applying techniques he had long used in his nonportrait works to perform its function of effectively and unambiguously producing an external unity with the beholder. These
were, first, the representation of the motivation of the narrative (the command
to march) and, second, the direction of the whole toward the beholder through
external physical means (specifically through the captain's hand pointing
straight out). . . .
What is most remarkable about the composition of The Nightwatch. . . is that
despite the necessity of illuminating the heads demanded by the portrait, the
chiaroscuro connecting the figures makes them appear more inwardly and harmoniously integrated and immersed in the surrounding space than was the case in
his anatomy picture. The Nightwatch is still far from being a picture of the modern
type, in which the primary consideration is space, and the figures are distributed
arbitrarily in depth, to be brought together through the consciousness of the
beholding subject as a (purely subjective) unity. This would have been impossible,
since it would not have permitted Rembrandt or his contemporaries a truthful
pictorial effect in their sense (which still demanded a vestige of objectivism). Nor
will it escape any attentive beholder that the relations of the figures to one

Rembrandt. The Anatomy Lesson of


Dr. Deyman. 1656. (Below,Ji-aapent;
opposite, sketch.)

another and to the surrounding boundaries of space do not completely correspond


to the experience of our sense of sight. Yet in relation to everything that went
before it, the painting represented an enormous advance.
The bays of space to the right and left of the central group are all the more
convincing because they are not bordered by compact masses of figures but are
punctuated by countless protrusions (legs, butts of rifles, shafts). The master did
not, however, believe he could dispense with symmetry on the picture plane.
Symmetry is expressed through both line and color. The crowd of militiamen is
divided into a central row, with the crowns of the heads forming an almost
horizontal line and two wings rising moderately toward the sides. With regard to
the distribution of color, as in the linear composition, the dark captain is located
in a dominant position near the center. The light forms of the lieutenant and the
fairy-tale maiden in a sunbeam fall to his left and right, and a militiaman dressed
in dark red on either side. Most important, Rembrandt has established a horizontal
axis across the entire breadth of the picture, that is, within the animated layer of
figures along the pictorial plane, behind the foreground figures stepping out
toward the beholder. This axis originates at left with the militiaman sitting on the
ledge facing toward the center, continues with the maiden and the shooting
militiaman, and ends on the right in the group of two militiamen placed in reciprocal exchange, likewise facing toward the center, one of whom extends his right
arm along the horizontal to one quarter of the width of the picture. Behind the
figures that move to the right or left (on the picture plane), the movement out of

The Dutch Group Portrait

23

depth and toward the beholder is taken up once again. Although Rembrandt
heightens the spatial composition beyond all previous examples through frontal
movement, no one will overlook the fact that he divides the mass of figures into
three planes, one behind another. These planes were meant to balance out the
impression of space created by the frontal movement, as the symmetries of linear
elements and color were meant to do for the impression of depth created by the
bays of space between the figures.
Rembrandt did not paint any militia pieces after 1642. This circumstance
need not be attributed to the dissatisfaction of those who commissioned The
Nightwatch, since this genre was all but extinguished in Amsterdam after the
Westphalian peace treaty of 1648. He continued to produce group portraits,
however, and we possess one of these for each of the four decades of his activity as
an artist. The picture from the 1650s, The Anatomy Lesson o f D Deyman,
~
has come
down to us only in a small, mournful fragment now in the Rijksmuseum and in a
summary sketch in the Six collection. The damage, occasioned by a fire, is certainly
deplorable. Yet whether this loss is wholly irrecoverable from an art historical
standpoint is open to question. For the sketch and fragment are sufficient to
establish the conception and composition of the picture, at least in their essential
characteristics.
The subordination appears to have been absolute in both respects. The
professor stands at the center of the picture behind the corpse, whose skull he has
opened in order to exhibit its contents. The various levels of attention in the

OCTOBER

expressions of the audience cannot be discerned adequately on the basis of the


sketch. But the head of the assistant preserved in the fragment demonstrates that
he at least was represented as subordinated to the professor's lecture, and we can
presume the same for the other figures.12 The internal unity could have been
realized through every one of the figures, as in The Nightwatch, whereas the doctor
gesturing to the beholder as a representative of the external unity in the anatomy
picture of 1632 was abandoned. The deeper internal psychological means that
took his place can no longer be recognized sufficiently from the two documents
before us. One can say at most that according to the testimony of the fragment,
the assistant standing next to the cadaver has put aside the animated movement of
the central figures of 1632 and has taken on a more concentrated psychological
expression of attention. The outward means of establishing the external unity are
thereby all the more noticeable. The corpse lies stretched out toward the
beholder in horizontal foreshortening, and, as a result, the professor is also
turned en face out of the picture. The strict symmetry of the composition, which
will be discussed next, would be experienced by the Northerner as if arranged
with regard to the beholder. Lastly, the frame clarifies beyond any doubt the
intended subjective effect of the picture.13
The most striking peculiarity of the composition of the sketch is the
application of an extremely rigid symmetry, which immediately recalls the early
ecclesiastical ceremonial picture of the sacra conversazione. One must keep in mind
that the cursory pen sketch lacked the means to counter this symmetry's linear
effect on the plane with a completely coloristic effect in spatial depth; the fact
that the latter was present in the painting is sufficiently proven by the extant
fragment, despite its small size. Symmetry is familiar to us from antique and Italian
art and is generally recognized as the primary means of an objectivist composition. Its application is therefore surprising in the case of Rembrandt, who in his
youthful years diligently distributed figures in varying depths and sought to sever
the connection of objects on the picture plane, breaking them up into arbitrary
pieces through loose treatment and chiaroscuro. One feels compelled to clarify
why the greatest Dutch master adopted this means of expression from classicism
and objectivism in his later works. A more thorough examination will yield the
surprising conclusion that he was temporarily moved to adopt symmetry and a
linear composition on the picture plane precisely because of the contrary tendency of artistic volition, that is, the heightened subjectivism of the Dutch.

In the bottom left corner of the sketch one head admittedly appears to be turned out toward
12.
the beholder. Yet this motif may well have been intended in the same way as the analogous turn of the
head of the second surgeon from the left at the bottom in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. Although the
man in the sketch turns away from the speaker, he is completely absorbed in his connection to him,
attending to his words with such zeal that he does not even want to be distracted by his face.
13.
In his drawing The Preaching ofjohn the Baptist, presumably created at the same time, Rembrandt
apparently sought to frame his oil sketch of this subject painted twenty years earlier (now in Berlin) in
a similar fashion.

The Dutch Croup Portrait

The reason he welcomed this tendency with regard to the conception has
already been noted: the Northern beholder sensed when looking at the figures
that they did not present themselves in this way naturally (that is, due to their
objective being), but were thus arranged for the sake of the beholder. By contrast,
classical art had grouped things symmetrically because it considered symmetry an
essential, objective attribute of things, which came to appear darkened and confused only in the sense perceptions of the beholding human subject. The physical
expression that Rembrandt sought in symmetry was likewise t h e opposite
extreme of the one aspired to by classical art. Every correspondence of lines
operates on the picture plane, yet there are two kinds of plane: the haptic one
in which things seen from nearby stand beside one another in height and
breadth, and the optical one in which things seen from a distance offer themselves to the eye even though they are dispersed behind one another in different
spatial depths. Rembrandt was not concerned, as classical artists had been, with
the exclusion of space for the sake of the figures, but with an undifferentiated
connection of figures and space. As a consequence, everything depended from
the outset upon his ability to break the impression of the haptic plane, which he
accomplished in his youthful period to the point of exaggeration. Yet he, and
with him the whole of Dutch painting at this time, were gradually forced to
recognize that the attention of the beholder was still being pulled too one-sidedly
toward corporeal objects through the conspicuous placement of the figures at
different depths. A connection of objects on the plane was much more conducive
to the intended goal of an undifferentiated connection of figures and free space,
as long as the intervals between the figures appeared unambiguously as freely
circulating air and not as a level relief ground.
For these reasons Rembrandt came to adopt optical symmetry as a compositional formula toward the end of the 1640s. There will be occasion to return to
this f~indamentallyimportant point in the master's development in the following
discussion of the Staalmeesters [syndics of the cloth-makers' guild].
Rembrandt's fourth group portrait, painted in the last decade of his life, is a
regent piece. Here above all we are justified in questioning why the multifaceted
Rembrandt, who was otherwise so untiring in finding solutions to artistic problems
in every conceivable field of painting, waited so long before taking up this subject.
The popularity of the regent piece had grown steadily since his youth, and one
could expect an ample honorarium from the affluent gentlemen to be portrayed
in it. The only explanation for the master's neglect is that the subject itself did not
attract him. With tiring monotony there were always several gentlemen to be
depicted, the board of directors of some charitable institution, turning with
benevolent interest toward the unseen party located in the place of the beholder.
The reproduction of participatory attention or compassion was almost Rembrandt's
specialty, yet he declined to treat subjects that allowed for nothing other than the
representation of this kind of compassion.
I believe that here one again touches the deepest nerve of Rembrandt's

Rembrandt. The Staalmeesters. 1662.

artistic volition. Mere coordinated attention was not sufficient for the master; he
always sought the core of a dramatic conflict in his subjects, which allowed him,
among other things, to introduce subordination. He found this kind of conflict in
his anatomy picture-which in any case embodies the outwardly most provocative
subject for a lecture (on the basis of the cadaver alone, not found in de Keyser's
painting)-and in the militia piece as well, but not in the philanthropic
deliberations of regents. When he nevertheless decided to paint a regent piece, it
was not the directors of a charitable institution he immortalized but those of a
company run for profit.
The Staalmeesters in the Rijksmuseum was created in the years 1661 and 1662,
according to the signatures and dates on the picture. The painting depicts the
directors of the same worthy textile company that had provided the basis for the
earliest known Amsterdam regent piece in the days of Aert Pietersz, and had
thereby initiated the genre. These people were not required to dispense charity
altruistically but to protect the interests of the company that had been entrusted
to them as if their own. This old Germanic custom was naturally meant to be carried out with justice and equity in relation to the opposing party as well, which
provided the Dutch painter with an opportunity to give triumphant expression to
the native element within the conception: participatory attention.
Here we see five regents as half-figures sitting in a corner of the room
around a table, while a servant stands at the wall behind. The figure at the center
is the speaker, apparently the chairman, who subordinates the others. But his

The Dutch Croup Portrait

dominant position is not otherwise underscored by any of those external means


that immediately distinguished Dr. Tulp and Captain Banning Cocq as exceptional
persons. The chairman's subordinating effect resides exclusively in the verbal
communication of his psychological experiences, that is, through acoustic means
of expression and connection. He apparently refers to the contents (certain paragraphs) of a book lying on the table before him, and makes an accompanying
gesture with the thumb of his right hand, his remaining fingers resting calmly on
the book. The chairman does not aim his gaze directly at the beholder, who may
be presumed to be located straight ahead and somewhat below, judging from the
gazes of all the other figures and the low viewpoint, but looks in a direction more
to the left and higher. This makes clear that he speaks primarily to his colleagues,
even if his speech is directed simultaneously toward a party located in the place
of the beholder. T h e manner in which the speaker is shown demanding the
attention of the other committee members conveys unambiguously that their
attention is at least partly devoted to his words. The other members have directed
their gazes toward the beholder, that is, at a certain party (which due to the dispersed lines of sight cannot be thought of as restricted to a single person in this
case), and observe the latter with the utmost concentration, mixed with a slight
measure of self-awareness. This is by no means heightened to the point of pathos,
yet nevertheless makes the picture a truly "interesting" one. The servant before
the wall at the back, on the other hand, adopts the neutral role of pure attention.
We have here described with many words a state of affairs that becomes clear
to the beholder after brief observation. He or she is immediately able to recognize
a self-contained dramatic scene behind the juxtaposition of five o r six portrait
heads. . . . Thiophile Thori-Biirger was the first to sketch out this dramatic content. He correctly ascertained that one had to presume an unseen party in the
place of the beholder, with whom the Staalmeestus are negotiating. The chairman
has just put forward the position of the company, which presumably differs from
that of the opposing party, in such a masterful and impressive manner that the
moment they hear his convincing words, the other members triumphantly look
down upon their vanquished opponents. This explanation undoubtedly hits
upon the correct idea, except that, o u t of a need for drama, the Frenchman
T h o r i read into the scene an overly sharp dispute between the regents and the
presumed party. By contrast, the impartial beholder is certainly able to read from
the faces, together with the attention that constitutes the fundamental tone, the
feeling of a certain satisfaction and agreement, rather than spiteful retribution
and gloating.
In the Staalmeestus Rembrandt appears to have resolved the group portrait
problem of the Dutch in that all the figures in the picture are simultaneously
subordinated to a speaker in an internal unity and to the beholder in an external
unity. Yet this subordination is once again compensated for, in the Dutch manner,
in that the other members listen to the speaker but regain their independence in
relation to his dominating position by simultaneously turning to the opposing

OCTOBER

party. Conversely, they maintain their independence in relation to the beholder


(the party) through the counterpoint of self-awareness. This is not passive, as with
the figures of the Latinized Fleming Van Dyck o r the Roman Bernini, but is
instead related to a powerfully willful and active delight, as with those of the
half-Latinized Fleming Rubens and Frans Hals of Haarlem. The ideal of Dutch
group portraiture appears to be achieved in that those who carry the internal and
external unities in the picture are no longer separate but identical, establishing
the most complete individualization of external unity in space and time. . . .
Rembrandt attains complete temporal unity by having the speaker turn to the
other committee members rather than the beholder, so that it is immediately and
absolutely clear that the other members listen to the speaker and turn to the
opposing party at the same time.
This conception in Rembrandt's Staalmeesters, which to a certain extent
constitutes the end point of the national Dutch development, leaves no further
doubt as to why from the beginning the master adopted subordination and
internal unity as his artistic problem. These were meant to help him create oppositions in the conception and thereby to enrich the content of the whole. Insofar
as these oppositions were chosen in such a way that they mutually canceled each
other out, the ancillary means of Latin subordination and internal unity served
no other purpose in the end than that of all Dutch artistic volition: internal and
external coordination. This was admittedly achieved for the first time in the
Staalmeesters, at the end of Rembrandt's career. In the course of the long struggle
there were also several points at which it seemed that the Dutch postulate of
external unity with the beholding subject had become a matter of secondary
importance for the master. But this was in fact always his ultimate principle, and it
was solely for the sake of the most complete realization of external unity that he
began to seek out the internal unity of the ancients and the Latins. The concrete
proof is set before us in the Staalmeesters, where internal unity is fully achieved, yet
is displaced to a secondary, ancillary position. The internal unity serves here as the
presupposition upon which the external unity is constructed, the latter appearing
unambiguously to be the actual goal, and it is here that the enormous artistic
effect of the picture in its most essential aspect resides.
This complete fusion of internal and external unities whenever possible also
determines what is specifically compelling for the beholder in the picture of the
Staalmeesters. It consists in the heightening of the purely psychological element
beyond all previous examples through the doubling of attention, in that the
regents simultaneously note both the words of their chairman and the effect of
those words on the opposing party. Bodily actions are, however, admitted only to
the extent required for the clarity of the process and the indispensable degree of
individual variation. One sees one hand of each of the five regents, but only the
speaker moves his thumb and forefinger, whereas the visible hands of the others
are consumed in busy idleness. The figure that rises even has to hide his left hand
in an olive-colored glove sandwiched inside a book in order to make it as incon-

The Dutch Group Portrait

spicuous as possible. This restriction to attention mixed with a slight degree of


self-awareness on the one hand, and its heightening to the greatest possible extent
on the other, determines the enormous inner life of these unpretentious halffigure portraits. The longer and the more intimately one observes the heads, the
more exuberantly this inner life discloses itself. All direct address to (subordination of) the beholder, which was maintained in Rembrandt's anatomy picture in
the crowning figure of the doctor and even in The Nightwatch in the outstretched
left hand of the captain, has now been entirely abandoned, together with any
overt and intrusive effect upon the beholder.
Such stillness reigns in the picture that one imagines hearing the words fall
like individual drops of water. The longer one looks, the more the beholding
subject is compelled to partake in the inner tension vibrating among the souls of
the four remaining committee members. Their shared selfless attention, which is
as if a part of the all-embracing world-soul, is pierced by the slight supplement of
self-awareness in each head. Accordingly, every modern beholder will have to
choose for the most intimate observation that head which has the most to say to
him or her in terms of these nuances. Personally speaking, the second figure from
the left, who rises and bends over in order to see the opposing party better, held
me the longest in his spell. I even consider it likely that Rembrandt sought to
enhance the inner depth of precisely this head in a most extraordinary manner
because, due to his singular bodily movement, this figure is the most striking of all in
external terms.
As for the composition, the figures are so loosely connected with the space
that plays about them that it might seem at first sight as if we are confronted with
a completely modern, subjectivist spatial composition, a notion that is further
underscored by the surprisingly low (subjective) viewpoint in the conception.14
An attentive glance at the servant suffices to convince us, however, that the
relations of distance in spatial depth are still completely unclear from a modern
standpoint, that is, from the standpoint of subjec~iveexperience, so that even in
this painting from Rembrandt's last period the figures as a whole are not composed
from the viewpoint of one beholding subject.15 What is most unusual is that the
table is no longer used as a central space, as in all earlier depictions since Dirck
Barendsz and even in Rembrandt's own earlier period (his anatomy picture). . . .
The table in the Staalmeesters is inconspicuously placed at a diagonal and on top of
a platform (to be imagined) at such a height that the tabletop sinks down to the
back and can no longer be seen. By means of this arrangement, all five people

14.
The picture for this reason also requires the beholder to occupy a specific position, somewhat to
the left below. Two years ago it was conveniently hung in the Rijksmuseum so that one could most
advantageously view it from the bench at the window to the side.
15.
This is also evident in the fully illuminated head of the regent seated at the far left, underneath
the window, who would be much more immersed in shadows were the picture designed in a strictly
modem, subjectivist manner.

OCTOBER

now appear to be forced into approximately the same plane, even though two of
them sit on either of the narrow sides of the table.
The figures in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson ofD?: Tu@ form a wedge-shaped
cubic mass of space, which pushes itself forward on the diagonal and is held back
with difficulty by a steep pyramid on the picture plane. In The Nightzoatch the
figures begin once more to deploy themselves evenly along the picture plane, but
they project limbs of cubic spatial mass into the center and both corners. In the
Staalmeesters, the figures are now finally arranged again in what seem to be the most
primitive rows on the picture plane. The three regents at the center thereby come
together as a triangular composition, which, however, lacks the crowning head and
accordingly any overt emphasis on subordination. The two figures on the extremes
enclose this concentric movement of the central figures as calm vertical axes on
either side, betraying once more one of Rembrandt's principles, familiar from his
anatomy picture and The Nightwatch: to transform all external movement into
tranquil observation on the periphery. The servant standing silently on the vertical
serves the same function for the background. The composition of The Nightwatch is
likewise echoed in the Staalmeesters in that a middle plane, with its unilateral extension in breadth, appears to be set between two other layers of space, whose parts
modestly project from depth toward the beholder. All three layers of space in The
Nightwatch consist of figures, however, whereas here only the middle one is constituted in this way, with the front layer represented by the diagonal of the table, and
the one behind by the forward and backward projections of the paneled wall.
The acute emphasis on cubic space in the early pictures, which is now
abandoned for the sake of a planar appearance, plays exactly the same role in the
development of Rembrandt's composition as the internal unity plays in the
development of his conception: both were merely a means to an end. What
Rembrandt wanted in the composition can most easily be explained through the
individual figure. In fact, the composition of several figures essentially served the
same purpose as the composition of the parts of one figure.
There can be no grosser misunderstanding of Rembrandt's aims in composition than to impute to him the desire to reproduce things in the modern fashion
as momentary, subjective, optical impressions of color. One should never forget
that Rembrandt lived during the Baroque period and worked to help solve
common Baroque artistic problems, which were far from having as their aim the
realization of a consistent subjectivism, but attempted instead to overcome
objectivism through subjectivism. There was still an objective form present in
external things for Rembrandt. He wanted to divest this objective form of the
sharpness that provoked the sense of touch, but by no means to negate it as such.
For this was an unavoidable given for him, as for his entire era, and Southerners
and Northerners differ from one another on this score only in a quantitative
sense. Rembrandt certainly attempted to connect solid things with the air between
them as a unity, but he more or less considered the air itself as form that had
simply lost its hard tactile character. From the beginning, Rembrandt's artistic

The Dutch Group Portrait

aim therefore moved consistently toward the goal of providing an optical, soft "air
form," if one can call it that, for solid forms as well.
If o n e follows Rembrandt's portrait heads throughout the entire lengthy
period of his activity, o n e observes that the heads become increasingly soft,
loose, and spongy on the one hand while steadily gaining in relief on the other,
which seems paradoxical from a modern standpoint. The heads in his anatomy
picture are flat compared with those of The Nightwatch, and these are surpassed
in projection in turn by those of the Staalmeesters. This development is most
impressive in the self-portraits: we have difficulty recognizing the same master
who painted the relatively smooth and polychromatically monotone youthful
pictures in the bloated yet optically brilliant examples of the late years. Rembrandt
increasingly attempts to eliminate the impression of the tactile plane, which still
comes through in the early self-portraits, by emphasizing relief-that
is, the
quality of cubic space. What appears as an e n d in itself is, however, merely a
means to an end. For as soon as he attains the full rounding of form, he dispenses
with all further external means of realizing its cubic character and is instead
concerned with lending the figures the character of a n optical (not tactile)
plane, in which all things appear to be at a distance. In its fully and consistently
developed form this approach also lies at the basis of our modern subjectivist
view of art.
The development of a multifigural composition in Rembrandt's work provides
us with exactly the same image. In his anatomy picture the figures are pressed
together as a compact mass projecting on the diagonal, which is repeated in
countless compositions from the 1630s. In The Nightwatch he masters the manipulation of the projecting cubic limbs of the figural mass such that he can afford to
play with them, as it were. At the same time we are able to observe in this picture a
gradual transition to a calm planar composition, which finally becomes so predominant in the 1650s that it can n o longer be overlooked. Since the planar
composition with its connecting diagonal lines plays such a fundamental role in
the art of the Latins, it might seem that Rembrandt was influenced by this source.
This thought was so disquieting to Karl Neumann that he found himself compelled
to argue that Rembrandt did in fact adopt the Italian linear composition-not
because he valued it, but because he scorned it. Rembrandt would certainly be the
last to employ something he scorned, however, and Neumann's explanation cries
out for a correction, which moreover lies readily at hand. As previously stated, the
planar composition of the late Rembrandt is by no means simply the haptic, linear
composition of the Italians, which was meant to preserve the quality of tactile
connection among figures striving away from one another in space. Rather, it is an
optical, spatial composition, which was meant to lend the figures depicted as
moving in deep space the calm impression of the plane, of being beside o n e
another without depth, created by a distant view. The Staalmeesters is certainly
composed on one plane, but no one doubts for a moment that these regent figures
swim in free space. This is precisely an optical, subjective plane and no longer the

OCTOBER

haptic, objective one of the Italians, even though the two means of expression
coincide in part. .. .
All other peculiarities that distinguish the composition of the Staalmeesters
from earlier ones are dictated by exactly the same need to suppress that which
strikes the senses and has an isolating effect. The exaggerated chiaroscuro is
abandoned for this reason, and local colors regain their own autonomous value,
although without functioning in a polychromatic, isolating sense that would
disturb the mood connecting the figures and the air. A Persian rug was certainly
never again painted in such an absorbingly realistic fashion as this one. Its reddish
shimmer on the narrow side of the table shows the colored threads that become
visible to the beholder from the side and enable us to see into its deeper -parts,
with the better preserved and saturated color. By contrast, in the brownish tinge
on the long side the beholder is able to see only the faded ends of the knotted
threads, discolored to a dirty brown. Due to the low viewpoint, which makes the
table top invisible, the gaze is withdrawn from small objects such as writing
instruments and so forth, which are so prominent, for example, in Valckert's painting.
The dimensions of the section of the interior are also apportioned very tightly here,
especially when one recalls, by contrast, the vaulted space of Rembrandt's anatomy
picture extending into indistinct depth and the impenetrable depth of the arched
gate of The Nightwatch. All this clearly demonstrates that from the beginning the
single and immovable goal of Rembrandt's art of composition was not extended
spatial depth as such, as may often seem to be the case from his earlier pictures,
but rather its connection with the human figure and with self-contained form in
general in the most homogeneous possible manner.
If one wanted to formulate Rembrandt's artistic volition comprehensively,
it would have to be along the following lines: he sought to coordinate the depicted
figures both with one another (in psychological terms) and with free space (in
physical terms) by means of subordination. Yet he understood coordination
entirely in terms of a dramatic opposition, and this is primarily the basis for his
exceptional position in Dutch painting in general. No other artist among his
people could have undertaken to compete with him in this respect, and for this
reason no other artist has equaled him in the esteem of the moderns until now.
The French and the Germans both believed they had found the fulfillment of
their specific national artistic tendencies in this greatest Latinist among the Dutch
of the seventeenth century. . . .
For Rembrandt, the Latin heightening of subordination, along with the
introduction of a dramatic element in the conception, were means to the ultimate
Dutch end of the most complete psychological coordination of mutually independent figures (just as his brown painting was a means to the end of the most
complete physical coordination of figure and free space). Yet for the most part his
contemporaries in Amsterdam could not understand this. They saw only the
un-Dutch aspect on the surface. If a master were to be found who could satisfy the
demands of the period for a certain measure of internal unity, without taking the

The Dutch Group Portrait

subordination too far, he would be certain to outdo the most famous group portrait
painter in Holland since the anatomy picture of 1632. Bartholomeus van der Helst
was such a master, and the picture with which he made his debut was the militia
piece Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michaelsz Blauw of 1643,
now in the Rijksmuseum. The picture is a painted critique of The Nightwatch, and
its conception and composition apparently were primarily determined by his
conscious intention to produce such a critique.
Here Van der Helst aimed to show that one could base the entire representation on a momentary event and demonstratively place the captain in the most
distinguished position in the picture, without having to subordinate all the
remaining figures to this event or to the captain and thereby rob them of their
independent significance. He furthermore meant to demonstrate that one could
represent the militiamen in specific momentary activities, even precisely those
chosen by Rembrandt, without the individual actions appearing merely as fragments
due to the need for a lively effect of the whole.
The narrative, which as with the order given in The iliightzoatch is the basis for
the internal unity, is not a command, but a greeting, specifically between the second
and third officer, lieutenant and ensign. The lieutenant has come to the head of
one section of the company, which is returning from shooting practice at the left
and has just now arrived at the place of assembly, a brewery. Another section with
the ensign at its head is already awaiting the first one here and has shortened the
wait in the meantime by drinking. The moment chosen as the subject of the
painting is the encounter between these two officers, who are separated from
each other by a distance of only two to three steps, and the welcome is intended as
an expression of the psychological connection between the two sections as personified by the two officers in question. Scarcely one of the numerous remaining
soldiers concerns himself with this greeting, but all of them spontaneously join
with the mass to the left or right, or at least do not disturb the internal unity.
The captain stands close behind the lieutenant, exactly at the center of the
picture. He turns in a full frontal pose toward the beholder, whom he sizes up
from above, loudly proclaiming through his arrogant and pretentious pose that he
wants to be seen as the most important and foremost figure of all. On either side
of his bright costume are dark masses: the lieutenant dressed in black to the right
and a Moorish servant boy to the left, who carries his master's cloak behind. It is
difficult to dismiss from one's mind the suspicion that the bright color is placed
between the two dark ones here in analogy to the dark captain between the two
bright side parties in Rembrandt's Nightwatch. Yet the Moorish page serving as an
attendant to the captain may well be meant to point out that a servant is better
suited to this kind of subordinated function than the lieutenant employed for this
purpose by Rembrandt. In addition, the militiaman who fires his rifle behind the
captain has a direct precedent in The Nightwatch. There one has to piece together
the individual parts with difficulty, however, and one does not even find the most
important part: his face. By contrast, in Van der Helst's painting everything about

OCTOBER

this figure is clear, and his head is most diligently turned toward the beholder. As a
parallel and also as a correction for the fairy-tale maiden in The Nightwatch, a
young boy, whose droll figure will not pose riddles to anyone, is interpolated
between two adult militiamen at the left. On the other hand, the external unity is
once again realized through direct attention to the beholder, which is shared by at
least half of those portrayed. There is even some attempt to subordinate the
beholder actively in the old manner: through the pointing finger of a militiaman
dressed in black at the left, the emptied roemer [drinking glass] shown to us by the
militiaman sitting on the barrel to the right-the most captivating of all the
figures-and
the sword brandished in salute, o r to indicate a direction, by a
militiaman standing on the stairs.
The picture has undeniable merits, especially ones the patrons would have
been able to appreciate, such as the convincing portrait-like character of the
individual heads, which would have served Rembrandt merely as a necessary
foundation for his psychological experiments. Even many a modern beholder who
has sat for hours on end examining The Nightwatch may well consider it a kind of
reprieve to stand in front of the picture by Van der Helst and encounter figures
that d o not have to be excavated laboriously from the spatial darkness, whose
heads do not require study, as they tell everything in the first moment. Here we
find color that is not made blindingly bright or discolored to darkness and costumes
that are not put together for fantastic requirements but are meant to be seen in
themselves, since clothes make the man as well. Where would one find similarly
painted satin and such tassels and gold lace, ostrich feathers and top boots?
Everything is excellent individually, and the harmony of the impression of the
whole, the internal unity, is not disturbed in any way.
Yet certainly nothing more! The beholder is not in any way compelled to
experience the scene as a unity. A tendency toward the early Dutch vertical
predominates among the figures. Even when the heads do not look out at the
beholder they display little variation in the motifs of movement, and where a
stronger one is found it is apparently borrowed from elsewhere. This applies to
the militiaman on the right side who offers another figure a drink from his roemer
and to his partner who places his hand on his chest in protest, both derived from
a militia banquet by Frans Hals. The cheekily overdressed militiaman to their right
in the foreground was presumably inspired by the ensign of Hals's Amsterdam
Mageren Compagrzie. This also demonstrates the inevitable deficiency of every copy:
the internal weakening of the motif. The challenging expression of Hals's figure is
simultaneouslyjovia1 and full of humor, so that one clearly recognizes that the man
stands above what he parodies and is well aware that all is vanity. His descendent in
Van der Helst's painting appears by contrast to be gravely serious, so that in place
of a n absorbingly humorous quality he would be lent a n almost laughably
ostentatious one, were we not overwhelmingly appeased by the magnificent
painting of the portrait head, the costume, and all the chic accessories.
The composition likewise clearly betrays a competition with The Nightwatch. . . .

The Dutch Group Portrait

It was Rembrandt who first dared to break through the frontal facade with two
broad holes of space in the painting. Van der Helst now believed he should not
neglect this need for a greater indication of space, yet he also made an effort to
avoid the confusing and disturbing aspect of Rembrandt's bays of space. For this
purpose he opened up a normal rectangular space somewhat to the right between
the lieutenant and the ensign, through which one can see to the wall of the brewery. Here the eye also encounters two seated militiamen, with a poodle lying
between their legs, as a counterpart to the dog jumping between the legs of the
militiamen in The Nightzoatch. A window shutter opens above them, and a third figure leans forward from inside, greeting the arrivals with a full roemer. The eye is
thereby led back step-by-step into spatial depth, yet continually encounters
portrait figures, who appear in the picture for their own sake and through their
arrangement on the picture plane invite the beholder to linger in viewing them.
To the right, the militiamen are placed one above the other on the stairs, but they
stand calmly and do not press forward against the beholder as in The Nightroatch.
Lastly, the open sky above the militiamen on the left is filled with gunpowder
smoke a n d numerous upward pointed lances and exploding rifles, which
announce to the beholder that countless militiamen must be imagined crowded
behind the visible wall of figures. . . .
What Van der Helst wanted to express . . . can, in view of our observations, be
grasped more easily through a negative formula. He tried his best to avoid both
the dramatic element in the conception and the intimate connection of individual
figures with the surrounding space in the composition-that is, the two primary
goals of Rembrandt's artistic volition. . . . Insofar as Van der Helst rejected the
dramatic element, he denied himself the achievement of having helped the Dutch
artistic volition to its greatest expression. Yet precisely this restraint makes at least
his early portraits (up to the 1650s) seem so Dutch to us today, more so than those
of any other Amsterdam artist of this period. If Rembrandt is simply called a great
artist, Bartholomeus van der Helst cannot be denied the title of a great Dutch
artist.. . .
The Rembrandt problem is therefore nothing other than the artistic problem
of his people at a specific stage of development, which he still sought to resolve in
the most complete fashion during a period when his countrymen generally had
already gone beyond this. By the time Rembrandt finally found the most satisfying
and complete solution, his countrymen's understanding of the problem had been
extinguished. The recognition that was denied him at that time was first bestowed
upon him by art historical research and observation at the end of the nineteenth
century.