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Rembrandt's Jewish ties

Prints featured at Telfair Museums show at Jepson Center

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DUTCH ARTIST Rembrandt van Rijn was perhaps best known for his paintings. However, Rembrandt was also skilled at etchings and drew inspiration from the Old Testament for his subject matter.

The resulting exhibition, “Rembrandt and the Jewish Experience: The Berger Print Collection,” is up now through June 30 at the Jepson Center.

The exhibition is a traveling show on loan from the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, California.

Abraham Departing from the Family of Tobias. - COURTESY OF THE COLLECTION OF THE WESTMONT RIDLEY-TREE MUSEUM OF ART IN SANTA BARBARA, CA.
  • Courtesy of the Collection of the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Abraham Departing from the Family of Tobias.

Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to host this show here in Savannah.

“What I love about this show is that it examines an incredibly well-known artist, but a lesser known aspect of his work,” says McNeil. “It’s not just another greatest hits show. This is a very unique show. The theme of the exhibition is Rembrandt’s engagement with Judaism, whether through his depiction of the Old Testament or the portraits of his contemporaries in Amsterdam who were Jewish.”

As McNeil recounts, Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam at a time when Sephardic Jews were moving there en masse due to their expulsion from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Rembrandt was not Jewish himself, but he often conferred with Jewish theologians while creating his works based on religious imagery.

The tolerance of Amsterdam as a city encouraged the emigration of Jewish people, similar to another city we know.

Abraham's Sacrifice. - COURTESY OF THE COLLECTION OF THE WESTMONT RIDLEY-TREE MUSEUM OF ART IN SANTA BARBARA, CA.
  • Courtesy of the Collection of the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Abraham's Sacrifice.

“Here in Savannah, the Jewish community is so important to the fabric of Savannah,” explains McNeil. “It was just a couple of months after Oglethorpe and the first English settlers came when the first Jewish settlers came. And in 1733, that was just a few decades after Rembrandt had died. It’s not exactly during his lifetime, but the same forces in the world were moving those people towards Savannah as well as Rembrandt towards Amsterdam. That’s what I love about having the show here.”

Inside the exhibition, the walls are painted a cozy dark green to protect the works from cumulative light, which can be incredibly damaging to old paper works.

The pieces are also all very small, requiring close inspection.

“These works are all very small in size, as most master prints were,” explains McNeil. “This is because they were intended to be portable, hence the small size.”

In the show appears a self-portrait of Rembrandt, but McNeil shares that it was a bit of a stretch.

“He did it not to show what his face looked like, but to show his skills as a portrait artist,” she says. “In this case, he exaggerated his features—he gave himself a mole, gave himself attire which would have bene seen as very exotic at the time. He also made his figure very heavy and portly when in reality he was in his twenties in this. He made himself look like a wealthy, established merchant with the idea that wealthy, established merchants would look at this and say, ‘Wow, this guy can do great portraits—he can make me look this good!’”

During this time period, the link between art and commerce is very influential.

“The forces that were providing for this boom in artistic production during the Dutch golden age were really propelled by the incredible wealth that was flowing in,” says McNeil. “There was this whole merchant class that was able to have disposable income to spend on artwork to have in their homes, when a century or two earlier, it was just the aristocracy buying art for their houses. Now there was more of this growing middle merchant class to buy art. Rembrandt was making these things with an eye to selling them.”

Self Portrait with Lowered Saber. - COURTESY OF THE COLLECTION OF THE WESTMONT RIDLEY-TREE MUSEUM OF ART IN SANTA BARBARA, CA.
  • Courtesy of the Collection of the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Self Portrait with Lowered Saber.

Another interesting fact to note about that self-portrait lies in its name.

“This is a great example of the way Rembrandt would rework his plates,” explains McNeil. “The title of the piece is ‘Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Saber.’ There’s no saber here. The original was a larger plate, like a three-quarter. One thing he liked to do was rework his plates and then print them.”

While McNeil notes that she had to brush up on her familiarity with religious texts for this exhibition, Rembrandt was making references that most people would have understood well.

“He has this incredible variety of raw emotions on their faces that I think are still relatable today. That’s universal still, and that’s a way he was different from other artists in his depiction of religious subject matter,” says McNeil. “So many times, you can picture these overly stylized classical images that were referencing Bible scenes where the people were not individuals, they were just stand-ins for the story.”

One example of the powerful faces Rembrandt depicts is in “Abraham’s Sacrifice.” This Bible story is about Abraham being told to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

“As he was about to pull the knife to sacrifice him, the angel comes down to stop him, and this is the moment when the angel stops him,” says McNeil.

In the etching, Rembrandt depicts the moment of the angel stopping Abraham from killing Isaac.

“The divine intervention of the angel is reflected by this divine light coming down,” says McNeil. “Abraham’s eyes look darkened to the point where he’s blinded by his emotions. You see him kind of confused and this impending sorrow on his face, this kind of confusion, and you know that in a split second this realization will hit him and he won’t have to sacrifice his son. [Rembrandt] is capturing kind of the darkest moments here.”

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