Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2004
Catherine Scallen Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship Amsterdam University Press, 2004. 416 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth €53.40 (9053566252)

Catherine Scallen’s lively and informative book focuses primarily upon a curious episode in the history of art history: the sizeable and, in hindsight, largely unjustified expansion of the body of paintings ascribed to Rembrandt in the decades preceding World War I. Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship details the origins and evolution of that campaign, during which the number of pictures assigned to the master roughly doubled, while also investigating the social mechanisms that fostered such a dramatic reconsideration of Rembrandt’s artistic production. Scallen pins the development squarely upon the ambitions and working procedures of four highly influential, academically trained connoisseurs of painting: Wilhelm von Bode, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Abraham Bredius, and Wilhelm Valentiner. She rigorously examines the enterprises of those eminent founding fathers of her discipline, finding in them much to admire. Nevertheless, Scallen’s book will make uncomfortable reading for anyone intent upon regarding the origins of modern art history in a uniformly golden light.

Bode, Scallen’s chief protagonist, first made his reputation as a connoisseur of Rembrandt in the 1870s, styling himself as a disinterested scholar committed to attributing paintings exclusively upon rational, scientific bases. Eventually rising to the powerful position of director of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, he found like-minded protégés in the younger Hofstede de Groot, Bredius, and Valentiner. Scallen demonstrates that between about 1880 and 1910, these men together effectively monopolized the field of Rembrandt connoisseurship by insisting upon their superior knowledge and professional acumen, supporting each others’ opinions and stifling alternate views. The case of Max Lautner, to which Scallen devotes almost an entire chapter, is instructive in this regard. Lautner, an outsider to professional art history, published the radically revisionist Wer ist Rembrandt? Grundlagen zu einem Neubau des holländischen Kunstgeschichte (Breslau, 1891), a 450-page polemic that sought to diminish Rembrandt by attacking his moral fiber and reattributing some of the master’s renowned works to his one-time student Ferdinand Bol. The book initially stirred the interest of the informed public and the popular press. Bode’s protégés pounced, publishing mutually reinforcing reviews assailing Lautner’s competency and methodology until the volume disappeared from shelves and its author was forgotten. The bloc maintained its grip upon Rembrandt connoisseurship until the second decade of the twentieth century when, as Scallen shows, the principals began to squabble among themselves.

Clearly, Bode and company did contribute meaningfully to the professionalization and systematization of connoisseurship, one of Scallen’s main themes. The Berlin museum director prided himself on traveling extensively to see works of art, and he made rigorous, direct observation the cornerstone of his procedure. He also presented his findings in an organized, rational fashion, another novelty. As Scallen also convincingly demonstrates, however, Bode’s method of attributing pictures had little internal consistency. He did not hold all pictures to the same standards, applying more stringent criteria to those works that extrinsic factors inclined him to reject than those he wished to accept. He placed a great stock in his intuition, which he came to regard as a near-mystical power accruing from his deep experience and visual knowledge. In this respect, Bode differed radically from Giovanni Morelli, the Italian natural scientist turned art historian who preached and practiced a transparent, formulaic method of connoisseurship based in psychological and anatomical theory. As Scallen demonstrates, Bode pointedly rejected Morelli’s approach, claiming that it would likely lead to “the most dangerous dilettantism” (97). Many connoisseurs today hold a similar view. Nevertheless, the failure of those in power to apply a consistent method and to articulate clear standards of judgment provided fertile ground for the unjustified attributions and the excessive expansion of the Rembrandt corpus that occurred under Bode’s watch.

Excessive that expansion surely was. To be sure, Bode brought spectacular paintings by Rembrandt to Berlin, most notably the Portrait of the Mennonite Preacher Cornelis Claesz Anslo and His Wife and the splendid Preaching of Saint John the Baptist. He also, however, acquired pictures as Rembrandts that have since been dropped from the canon. About fifty percent of the paintings presented as authentic in Bode’s massive, eight-volume catalogue raisonné (Paris, 1897–1906), prepared with assistance from Hofstede de Groot, have been rejected by modern scholarship. The supplement to volume seven sports the worst record: of the fifty-six works published therein, only six pictures are widely accepted as Rembrandts today. Almost all of the rejected works were discoveries of the later part of the nineteenth century. Of course, it is unreasonable to expect any connoisseur to be correct all of the time, but these numbers bespeak a breakdown of the critical apparatus rather than random errors of judgment.

The vast expansion of the Rembrandt catalogue here at issue was not caused by methodological inconsistency alone. As Scallen shows, personal ambition mixed with civic and national pride, a combination of forces that might be termed the testosterone factor, played a contributing role. Bode wanted nothing more than to add paintings by Rembrandt to the Berlin collection, securing the standing of his museum, his city, his country, and himself in the process. Similar rewards stoked his desire to produce catalogues of Rembrandt’s paintings more thorough and comprehensive than those already in circulation. Success in both of these arenas demanded the discovery of ever more unrecognized works by the master. This requirement in turn increased the outward strain on the barriers separating Rembrandt from not-Rembrandt, and the corpus grew.

Rising pressures from the heated art market only exacerbated matters. Of course, the “Rembrandticization” of pictures by lesser lights served to benefit the owners of those works, who were, in many cases, influential dealers of old-master paintings. As Scallen makes clear, rather than dividing their scholarly pursuits from commercial concerns, Bode and company worked hand in glove with the interests of the salesmen. Bode’s corpus of Rembrandt paintings appeared through the agency of Charles Sedelmeyer, a dealer active in Paris who still or had once owned a good fraction of the questionable works discussed in the text. Hofstede de Groot teamed with François Kleinberger, another Parisian art trader, in issuing his own massive ten-volume descriptive catalogue of Dutch paintings (Esslingen, Stuttgart, and Paris, 1907–28). Bode and his colleagues claimed to find nothing ethically problematic or potentially corrupting in their relationships with dealers. On the contrary, those scholars regarded their friends in the showrooms as essential support staff, the Berlin museum director even referring to Sedelmeyer in one publication as his “courageous and disinterested coadjutor” (170). That the informed public accepted this state of affairs only demonstrates the enormous authority wielded by the Bode bloc during the height of the Rembrandt frenzy. Only one scholar of note spoke out against it, and if Scallen’s story has an ethical paladin it is he: Alfred von Wurzbach. In the second volume of his monumental Niederländisches Künstler-Lexicon (Vienna and Leipzig, 1906–11), Wurzbach lambasted the “ring” of Rembrandt experts for larding their catalogues with questionable paintings to please the commercial interests. He openly attributed dishonest motives to both Bode and Sedelmeyer, claiming that the two men had “corrupted” Rembrandt connoisseurship by conspiring to sell second-rate and forged works (216).

Although bound to be delighted by such spicy revelations, readers also may find themselves mildly irritated by a few aspects of Scallen’s chronicle. Her writing occasionally lacks polish, and the book moves slowly in the early chapters, which get bogged down in detailed analysis of minor texts. There are some confusing inconsistencies. For example, anonymous paintings related to Rembrandt are classified in the captions under no fewer than eleven different rubrics. The author ought to have imposed a more uniform system of designation, a feature especially important in a volume about the history of connoisseurship.

A more significant matter is that the book’s argument rests upon a fairly restricted vision of historical cause. In attributing a major historical development mainly to the conscious actions of a few powerful men, it may underplay the significance of larger forces as controlling factors. We find little in Scallen’s text about the impact of nationalism, class consciousness, racism, or any other mainstay of late-nineteenth century European thought, upon the synchronous endeavor to expand and redefine Rembrandt. The phenomenon of Julius Langbehn, that pernicious xenophobe whose wildly successful Rembrandt als Erzieher (Leipzig, 1890) claimed Rembrandt as an ideal German, is, symptomatically, consigned to a pair of footnotes. I, for one, would have welcomed a richer discussion of these and other matters of intellectual history that surround and inform the narrower phenomenon of connoisseurship at issue.

Still, Scallen’s book makes a solid contribution to the history of art history. It does an excellent job of detailing the complex social-historical picture encircling the mad expansion of the Rembrandt corpus and the activities of the principal actors associated with that peculiar development. For those studying or practicing the art of connoisseurship, and for those interested in the types of power relationships that guided, and may still guide, the discipline of art history, Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship ought to be required reading.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University