Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
Rembrandt's popularity in France grew until it reached a cult-like level during the second half of the nineteenth century. His artistic persona was reinvented as French critics and artists realized they could use aspects of his life and art to promote their own goals. This concentrated interest in Rembrandt, particularly between the 1850s and the 1890s, was hardly disinterested. Rembrandt's name and the images he produced were empowered and endowed with meaning that encompassed anti-authoritarian conduct, personal and political liberalism, republicanism, originality, and innovative creative powers. This identity was forged not because of an impartial desire to laud an underrecognized Old Master artist, but because of self-legitimizing aims. French critics and artists made use of the identity they formulated for Rembrandt and held him up as an exemplar for the success and achievements one could obtain, both within and outside the boundaries of established institutions.
Rembrandt's artistic identity was framed in this way because it fulfilled the need French artists and critics had to identify with a successful model from the past. They felt a strong desire to create a kinship with Rembrandt as an Old Master artist, as is evident through the quantity of publications on Rembrandt's life and art, their correspondence, their collections of his work, their emulation of his technique through copying his imagery, and the numerous ways they invoked Rembrandt as an emblem for their own aspirations. They designated Rembrandt as the benchmark for evaluating their success. He was used to justify and promote new standards of beauty and the use of new subject matter, and to support the aspirations of original and interpretive printmakers. The position of authority given to Rembrandt by French artists and critics was appropriated to validate specific artistic achievements in their own time, most effectively to help consolidate a professional identity for French painter-printmakers.
A “Rembrandt” Play, 1898
Rembrandt arrived triumphant before the French masses at the Nouveau Théâtre in Paris from October 2nd to November 1st, 1898.529 Period costumes, romance, drinking, and death all dramatized the reenactment of the Old Master's life in the staging of Louis Dumur and Virgile Josz's script, first published in France in 1896.