NEW YORK, 5 March 2006—In contemporary histories of art Rembrandt is often championed as
the greatest painter of the human soul. There are of course other
legitimate claimants to the crown around the globe, but for modern Western
culture, he carries away the prize. The lion’s share of Rembrandt’s
history paintings depicts biblical themes. Throughout his career, he
addressed these subjects not only with a masterful brush but also with a
thorough understanding of the texts and traditions
that informed them, as well as a profound and very
personal insight into the spiritual message of each subject. Rembrandt produced both
dramatic multi-figured biblical narratives and depictions of single biblical figures.
Especially in his later years, he depicted the great heroes and
protagonists of the Bible not as remote, idealized figures, but as vivid
individuals, singly recognizable as human beings, wrestling with their
spiritual decisions and faith. As no other painter he expressed human
spirituality both as a struggle with the frailty of belief and the promise
of Christian grace through his figures’ internal reverie, humility and
reverence. As a consequence, the master’s late works are generally
regarded as among the most soulful and brooding of all images in Western
The present work is one of a group of highly individualized single
figure, half-length "portraits" of religious figures that Rembrandt
executed late in his career at the end of the 1650s and in the early
1660s. The majority of the group depicts saints, apostles and evangelists,
however it also includes images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The present
work is one of the most distinctive and memorable of this group, which
includes such renowned paintings as Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait
as St. Paul in the Rijksmuseum, St. Matthew and the Angel in
the Louvre and St. Bartholomew in the Getty Museum. Beyond this
inner circle, which also counts among its number a few other closely
related paintings, the group expands to a larger stellar system of related
pictures that may have been initially conceived by Rembrandt himself or
painters in his studio, and which dilates in turn to a larger and
dissipating constellation of countless images of emotive saints by
followers and imitators. The challenge to modern connoisseurship has
naturally been to establish the boundaries of Rembrandt’s personal orbit.
The present work bears a convincing signature by Rembrandt and, like the
three paintings mentioned above and the Apostle Simon in the
Kunsthaus, Zurich, is dated 1661. It also displays all the characteristics
of Rembrandt’s late style—a tenebrous and glowing palette, dramatic
lighting, an emphatic design, and a painterly but highly descriptive
technique with both scumbled areas and evocative passages of impasto.
Details of the execution, such as the drawing and modeling of the
remarkable hands of the saint, with highlights applied over a darker
underpainting, also point to the master’s signature style. Most
characteristic of all, it also is a painting of transporting
In 1919 Frederik Schmidt-Degener was the first to
propose that the paintings in this group constituted a series by
Rembrandt. (1) W.R. Valentiner accepted and
developed this notion, initially proposing that they could have been
commissioned by a Catholic patron outside the Netherlands, later
hypothesizing that they were part of a series of apostles and evangelists
conceived as decorations for a "hidden" Mennonite Church.
(2) Otto Benesch subsequently accepted the concept
of a series and wrote evocatively about their spiritual message and
intent. (3) However not all observers have conceded
the notion of a series, even one initially conceived as part of a larger
project but never carried out or interrupted; Horst Gerson, for example,
disputed the idea. (4) Giltaij and Jansen also
found such a theory excessively hypothetical. (5)
A recent exhibition conceived by the present
author and organized by Arthur Wheelock, Jr. at the National Gallery and
the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, confirmed the difficulty of
assessing this group of pictures as a coherent body even when they were
gathered together, but revealed many similarities within the group, while
simultaneously exposing inconsistencies of style, format and
While the show’s
convocation did not solve the puzzle of whether the group could have been
the result of a single commission or originally conceived as a series, it
enabled viewers to study and compare the works in unprecedented proximity.
It also served to reaffirm the attribution of the present painting and to
underscore its importance as one of the last major paintings by Rembrandt
in private hands.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606 - Amsterdam
The Apostle James the Major
Oil on canvas, 92.1 x
74.9 cm, 36 1/4 x 29 1/2 inches
Signed and dated (at lower right):
Rembrandt f. 1661
Photo courtesy of Salander-O´Reilly Galleries
The painting depicts a pilgrim viewed in profile, half-length and
turned to the viewer’s right. He has dark brown matted hair parted in the
middle, a drawn and weathered face, thin projecting beard, and large hands
clasped in prayer. His long fingers are splayed, extended stiffly and
interlocked at the tips. Over a shirred white shirt he wears a heavy brown
cloak with short cape fastened at the right shoulder with a scallop. The
sleeves of his cloak are worn and there is a patch on his cape. His
coarsely stitched hat rests on the table, its broad brim upturned and
fastened by a second pilgrim’s shell. His wooden staff, burnished from
miles of use, rests against a stone wall beyond.
Among the first to publish the work, both Michel
and Von Bode regarded the subject as an anonymous pilgrim, but Hofstede de
Groot identified him as St. James, which has been accepted by virtually
all later authors.(7)
James the Major was a fisherman of Galilee, the brother of St. John the
Evangelist, and an Apostle. He was among the men closest to Christ and was
present with Sts. Peter and John at both the Transfiguration and the Agony
in the Garden. The historical James was tried in Jerusalem and executed in
44 AD by Herod Agrippa. His martyrdom is reported in the scriptures (Acts
12:2). But much of his persona is dependent not upon the Bible or history
but upon a series of legends dating from the Middle Ages that tell of his
mission to Spain and burial there.
His supposed tomb was discovered around the ninth century at
Compostela, which by the eleventh century had become a pilgrimage site
next in importance to only Jerusalem and Rome. From the thirteenth century
onwards, St. James was often depicted as a pilgrim with a staff and
wearing a cloak and broad-brimmed hat with the pilgrim’s attribute, the
scallop shell. Naturally a great favorite among Spanish painters, he
also was often depicted with a thin beard and dark brown hair parted in
the middle and falling to either side, in the manner of images of
While most of Rembrandt’s paintings of apostles and evangelists depict
the sitter frontally or in three quarter profile, the Apostle James
Major is exceptional in depicting the saint in strict profile. As
Blankert noted, Rembrandt rarely depicted figures in either portraits or
history paintings in profile view, and then sometimes only because it was
dictated by the terms of the commission, as for example in his
Portrait of Amalia van Solms of 1632, which had an existing pendant in profile of
her husband, Prince Frederik Hendrik, by Gerrit van Honthorst.
Most of Rembrandt’s profile images were executed during the
early 1630’s, among them, the Young Woman of 1632 in the
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, and Saskia of 1634-1635 in the
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel, however we also include the
Flora of c. 1654-1655 in The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, New York. (9)
In his early history paintings, such as Belshazzar’s Feast of c. 1634-1635, the use of
this device enabled him to call visual attention to the protagonist in the
action. (10) His early etchings also include head
studies (tronijen) in profile. (11)
But he only returned to the
practice of depicting historical figures in profile (and then not in a
strict cardinal view as in the Amalia van Solms and the Stockholm
portrait) twenty years later in his Man in Armor of
1655 in the Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. (12)
Profile views often figure among his twenty-one copies after Moghul
miniatures from the mid-1650s (13)
significantly for the present work, in several drawings from these years
of figures in prayer; see, for example, the Apostle Peter’s Prayer
before the Raising of Tabitha (Acts
There were important precedents for series of saints and
apostles, even including Christ and the Virgin Mary, with half-length
images by Peter Paul Rubens (Museo del Prado,Madrid) and bustlength
paintings by Anthony van Dyck. There are also precedents among print
series by Anton and Hieronymus Wierix, Johannes Sadeler I, and Hendrick
Goltzius. Even Rembrandt’s old colleague, Jan Lievens, had painted a
series of Apostles in Leiden in 1626-1627.
But the great Flemish painters Rubens and Van Dyck
always represented their saints as heroic idealized types proudly holding
their attributes, never humble individuals as Rembrandt conceived them.
For Benesch these were "poor, rugged men," "skeptics" who had been
converted by the "miraculous experience of their lives," rather than
figures whose "spiritual eminence is demonstrated by the superior beauty
and vigor of body." (15) Many observers in
discussing this group of pictures have related their models to Rembrandt’s
renowned sympathy for and even identification with the Jewish community in
Amsterdam. Noting that Filippo Baldinucci claimed in 1686 that Rembrandt
became a Mennonite at the end of his life, Wheelock also suggested that
such sympathies might in part explain Rembrandt’s interest in depicting
early Christian martyred saints in the 1660s. (16)
The profile view of the drawn and weary St. James in prayer has the effect
of recalling time-honored, iconic images of figures in attitudes of
devotion, not simply praying saints and other worshippers in altarpieces,
but also their donors; Benesch observed that St. James "reminds us . . .
of a donor in a Gothic panel painting." (17) The
pose surely contributes to Rembrandt’s success in capturing what Von Bode
praised as "the pilgrim’s personality, his ascetic features and the fervid
devotion that fascinated the master." (18)
The locus of that devotion is concentrated in the
Saint’s joined hands—those tented, fanned and bristling fingers that offer
the external embodiment of all the electrifying passion of his interior
devotion, fairly trembling with faith and fervor.
1. Frederik Schmidt-Degener,
"Rembrandt en Vondel," De Gids
, vol. 83 (1919), pp. 264-66.
2. Wilhelm R. Valentiner, "Die
Vier Evangelisten Rembrandts," Kunstchronik und Kunstmarkt
56 (1920–21), pp. 219–222; idem., "The Rembrandt Exhibitions
in Holland," Art Quarterly, vol. 19 (1956), p. 400.
3. Otto Benesch, "Worldly and
Religious Portraits in Rembrandt’s Late Art," The Art Quarterly
, vol. 19 (Winter 1956), pp. 335-355.
4. Abraham Bredius,
Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of His Paintings
by Horst Gerson (London, 1969), p. 613, no. 614.
5. Jeroen Giltaij and Guido
Jansen, exh. cat. Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Een
gloeiend palet: Schilderijen van Rembrandt en zijn school
, 1988, p. 82.
6. Washington, National Gallery
of Art, and Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Rembrandt’s Late
7. Émile Michel, Rembrandt:
Sa vie, son oeuvre, et son temps, (Paris, 1893), pp. 162–163; Wilhelm
von Bode, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, assisted by Cornelis
Hofstede de Groot, 8 vols., (Paris 1897–1906), vol. 6 (1901), p. 202, no.
485; Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of
the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century
, 8 vols.
(1897–1906), vol. 6 (1901), p. 202, no. 485.
8. Albert Blankert, in exh. cat.
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, and Canberra, National Gallery of
Australia, Rembrandt: A Genius and his Impact
, 1997, p. 158.
9. See respectively
Bredius/Gerson 1969, nos. 85, 101 and 114; and for the former two, Joshua
Bruyn et al, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings
, 4 vols., (The Hague, Boston and London,
1982 ff ) vol. 2, nos. A49 and A85.
Bredius/Gerson 1969, no. 497; Corpus, vol. 3, no. A110.
11. See for example,
Bald-Headed Man in Profile Right ("The Artist’s Father") Christopher
White and Karel G. Boon, Rembrandt’s Etchings: An Illustrated Critical
, 2 vols. (Amsterdam, London and New York,
1969), vol. 1, pp. 139–140; vol. 2, no.
B 292. See also nos. B229, B259 and B313.
Bredius/Gerson 1969, no. 480.
13. See Otto Benesch, The
Drawings of Rembrandt. A Critical and Chronological Catalogue
, 6 vols.
(London, 1973), vol. 5, pp. 320–323, nos. 1187 ff.
14. Benesch 1973, vol. 5, no. 949. A half-length image in three quarter
view of a Praying Apostle in the Cleveland Museum of Art
has sometimes been linked with Rembrandt’s group of apostles and evangelists
but its soft and tentative execution surely points
to the hand of a later follower or imitator.
Benesch 1956, p. 340.
in exh. cat.Washington and Los Angeles 2005, pp. 22–25.
Benesch 1956, p. 340.
Von Bode/Hofstede de Groot, vol. 6 (1901), p. 29.
19. Strips of canvas that extend
the painting at the left (2 in.) and slightly at the top (1/4 in.) are
later additions and have been framed
Peter C. Sutton
is Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich,