Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
This book offers the first comprehensive study of Rembrandt in nineteenth- century France, the country and century that held an incomparable position historically as the nexus of European art education, art criticism and its related construction of the canon of Old Master artists, and was also the center of an increasingly powerful commercial art market. Rembrandt's life and art, particularly his paintings and prints, had mythic resonance among nineteenth-century French artists, writers, and collectors. Although the academic establishment favored Old Masters such as Raphael throughout the period, Rembrandt had particular appeal for artists seeking to explore new subject matter and techniques. This study analyzes the discourse concerning Rembrandt's Old Master status and its role in the newly shaped aims of French painter-printmakers: Why did French critics and artists assign Rembrandt such a prominent position as an ancestral figure whom contemporary artists should emulate?
An unprecedented number of publications concerning Rembrandt's life and art – at least 150 – circulated in France from the 1830s to the end of the 1890s, especially from the early 1850s onwards. The proliferation of scholarly and popular publications was paralleled by the increasing sales and value of Rembrandt's paintings and prints on the Parisian art market. During this period, Rembrandt was appropriated as a symbolic figure by critics and painter-printmakers and assigned a heroic, cult-like artistic and political status. French critics molded and reinvented earlier anecdotal biographies and used new material from Dutch archives to formulate an artistic persona for Rembrandt that had particular meaning within the context of nineteenthcentury French vanguard art and politics. I am indebted to Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz's important study Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist, A Historical Experiment, which examines the popularity, historically, of stereotyping episodes as “artistic anecdotes” and repeating them until they become used as original sources. Their arguments, specifically regarding society's urge to find some access to an individual who is regarded as exceptional or gifted and the tendency to elevate a creative individual to the status of a cultural hero, are exemplified in the treatment of Rembrandt discussed here.
The heightened level of interest in Rembrandt in France during the second half of the nineteenth century had unusually self-serving meaning as he became the favored model for non-conformist and antiestablishment aims.