Rembrandt and slavery: did the great painter have links to this abhorrent trade? | Painting

T.The show’s title is simple and blatant: Slavery. This bold exhibition, which opens this spring in the mighty Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, documents the importance of this hideous trade for the rise and prosperity of the Netherlands by juxtaposing shackles and slave inventories with works of art. A metal ring has been in the Rijksmuseum since the 19th century. Formerly cataloged as a dog collar, it is now believed to have been used on a human. There are other similarly terrifying exhibits on this disturbing show – and at the center of them all hang two famous Rembrandt paintings.

Your reception is shocking. After all, there is no artist who shows more compassion and empathy than Rembrandt. However, this exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, which houses so many of his masterpieces, shows a side of the painter’s career that badly fits our view of him as an artist with a far-reaching vision of what it means to be human.

In 1634, when he was a 28-year-old art star commissioned by the herring barrel of the Amsterdam elite, Rembrandt van Rijn, the son of the Leiden miller with a penchant for the finer things in life, portrayed a young couple named Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. The works – each given a portrait – are usually viewed as yet another example of the genius of Rembrandt, that most all-seeing artist, whose insight elevates the portrait to an existential level.

Forget their pasty faces, Rembrandt seems to be saying – get yourself a load of bling

His pictures of married people are often informal moments of shared fun. But to portray this wealthy couple, he set them apart for separate full-length canvases that have a lot to do with the show-off portraits that Anthony van Dyck was doing in England. Both wear the somber black of a Protestant republic, but this moral allusion is undermined by embellishments that signify their rich wealth. Soolmans has glittering, crumpled silk stockings and enormous silver flounces on his shoes, while Coppit flaunts pearls on her neck and gold on her wrists. Forget their pasty faces, Rembrandt seems to be saying, get yourself a load of bling.

But there is a deeply disturbing side to this couple’s wealth – and Rembrandt may have wanted us to register that something was wrong. Soolmans was heir to one of Amsterdam’s largest sugar refineries, and sugar production at its place of origin depended on slaves. From the 15th century to the 19th century, Europe’s sweet tooth was fed by the captivity, transportation, and brutal exploitation of Africans on sugar plantations in America and the Caribbean. In the “golden age” of the Dutch Republic – when Amsterdam was the busiest company in the world and Dutch merchant ships crossed the world – the Netherlands sought Iberian dominance in both sugar and slavery.

The Rijksmuseum is full of Dutch artistic treasures from the 17th century. It is a bold move to draw attention to the connections between art, wealth and inhumanity during this time. But it’s time to “get clean”, Valika Smeulders, the director of the Museum of History, told me, in order to “connect the collection with this story”. In parallel to the exhibition, the Rijksmuseum has added labels to 80 objects in its collections that contain links to slavery. However, this goes far beyond cultural war clichés. In fact, Smeulders doesn’t see it that way at all. Far from denouncing the past, she argues, exposing this side of Dutch art can only make it richer.

It certainly offers a new perspective on Rembrandt. The museum’s revelations about its twin portraits of this trading couple from the 1630s are certainly disturbing. Her focus is on Coppit: To what extent was this young woman aware of the cruelty and misery that support the family business? “Did Oopjen know?” asks Smeulders. The Soolmans sugar factory was called ‘t Vagevuur, The Fires of Purgatory (a rival was called Hell). This was a funny hint of the heat of the refining process – but real hell was created overseas on the Dutch plantations in Brazil, where slaves not only grew cane sugar but also boiled cane sugar in huge vats while housed in misery and misery, more arbitrarily Subject to discipline.

Unwanted work … Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis plot. Photo: Artokoloro / Alamy

Coppit never saw a slave plantation, but her ties to slavery grew. After her husband died young, she became a co-owner of The Fires of Purgatory. As her second husband, she took a soldier Maerten Daey, a soldier who had not only spent time in the Dutch colonies but was also prosecuted for raping an African woman there. She gave birth to his child.

What if the greatest artist of the golden age portrayed these people whose fortunes depended on slavery? Portraiture was profitable and Rembrandt needed the money. In 1634, the year he painted this couple, he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, and they had rich tastes. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything that his clients included not only the filthy rich but also the morally tainted. A century later, when the dominance of the slave trade had passed to Britain, Thomas Gainsborough painted faces and bells and whistles, whether his subjects were musicians or slaveholders.

But that’s Rembrandt. A moral insight is ascribed to him that goes beyond the conventions of his time. He portrayed Jewish people with sensitivity in a time of anti-Semitism. In his imagination, he pushed boundaries and drew passionate copies of the Mughal miniatures that reached Amsterdam. Surely he didn’t just happily take the sugar money and give the couple what they wanted?

Small reference to the violence of slavery ... Govert Flinck's A Young Archer.Small reference to the violence of slavery … Govert Flinck’s A Young Archer. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Library / Alamy

That seems to be a simplistic reading. Rembrandt almost seems to have an inkling that much of the money the Dutch elite used to finance the spread of Dutch art in the 17th century was tainted, perhaps even that it came directly or indirectly from Atlantic slavery. Certainly the painter never got along with high society Amsterdam. Her portrait assignments did not satisfy him and she never pleased the results, which reflected his determination to look beyond appearances.

I last saw the portraits two years ago in the Rijksmuseum. I didn’t know anything about the couple other than it was clear that Rembrandt couldn’t find anything to love about them. He cares more about her buckles than her personality. In Rembrandt’s hands this becomes no flattery, no professional hacking – it becomes judgment. This couple had the chance to be watched by the artist with the most piercing eye in history and all they could muster was lace, silk, pearls and gold. Rembrandt shows us exactly what they are: rich non-entities using the veneer of wealth to hide their emptiness, or something much worse.

It was completely different later, in 1661, when he portrayed two African men. Until then, Rembrandt lived a much more marginal existence. He still painted portraits but rarely took commissions and instead created studies of suffering and experiences, including his own face. Van Uylenburgh was dead and lived with Hendrickje Stoffels. He went bankrupt and had to sell his beautiful house with its collections of costumes, armor and natural wonders. An inventory of his auctioned goods mentions a portrait of two African men, which some historians claim relates to Rembrandt, now housed in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. His raw style was typical of the last phase of his life.

Intimate ... Rembrandt's portrait of two African men.Warmth… Rembrandt’s later work, A Portrait of Two African Men. Photo: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

That same year, 1661, Rembrandt also worked on a rare public commission that could have made him the darling of the Dutch elite again. He was asked to paint a patriotic story for the Amsterdam City Hall. Instead of a hearty scene of triumph, he painted the Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, a desperate, Lear-like scene taken from an account of the Batavian revolt in Tacitus’ stories. The work showed rebels agreeing to a futile suicide pact in an eerily pale light and was hated for its gloomy view of Dutch history. It is not difficult to imagine that the same abused eyes that gazed so ruthlessly into the past were also directed towards the present and the most shameful secret of Rembrandt’s time: Europe’s exploitation of Africa.

There is a direct, surprising connection between the Claudius Civilis plot and Rembrandt’s decision to make a radical portrait of two Africans. He was given the job after the first person to ask City Hall, Govert Flinck, died. Flinck had been a pupil of Rembrandt, but after his master became strange and unpopular, he provided an acceptable version of the Rembrandt. Flinck’s A Young Archer in London’s Wallace Collection is a painting of an African who has a lot of Rembrandt-esque compassion, but is also imaginary and fanciful. It can’t even be a portrait. There is certainly little evidence of anything unpleasant, certainly not the violence of slavery.

Rembrandt’s portrait of two Africans in Dutch society is much less dreamy. The two men who posed for him were likely liberated, or liberated, part of a black community in baroque Amsterdam that historians are beginning to rediscover. In fact, this community was concentrated in the same neighborhood where many Jews lived and Rembrandt had his house. So they can be his neighbors. Either way, he portrays her intimately.

Unlike the sugar-rich couple he envisioned separately, these men are close together in an image of friendship and support. One puts his chin on the other’s arm. They seem to stay close together in a hostile world to human warmth. Rembrandt captures her fear and loneliness in a city that is no home. You seem sad – but you sense that it’s not just a sadness for yourself. You wear a historical costume, armor reminiscent of old empires, as if he were a fallen king. There is an overwhelming loss, like two men trying to find their place in a broken world.

Rembrandt never went to Brazil, to Elmina Castle in what is now Ghana, or to any of the other places of Dutch enslavement. But that did not prevent him from feeling the stain of slavery on Europe and its consequences. He could see it in these men’s eyes and capture it in this great work. It is a painting that shows his deep humanism, his alienation from the rulers of his society and his compassion for the misery of the earth. It would make a great companion to the portraits in the slavery exhibit.

• Slavery opens this spring at the Rijksmusem in Amsterdam.

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