Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 January 2021
AFTER EIGHTEEN MONTHS OF DETECTIVE work and pleading letters, one sunny spring day I walked past uniformed armed guards, through magnificent stone gates and into the Assemblée Nationale, a majestic building facing across the Seine River to Place de la Concorde. I would finally see here Pierre Nolasque Bergeret's Rembrandt in his Studio [FIG. 9], one of the surviving images of Rembrandt's life from the nineteenth century. Sequestered in a bureaucrat's office and enjoyed by only a small number of politicians and government employees, this precisely painted work is a feast for the eyes. Its warm colors evoke the atmosphere of a Dutch genre painting. The anecdotal qualities of the largescale domestic interior convincingly present to me, the willing viewer, a window into Rembrandt's life, his family, and his studio practice. I feel that I am watching him at work, witnessing a moment in his life. And this is precisely the response nineteenth-century artists hoped they would achieve with their images of the Old Master.
Scenes of Rembrandt's life produced in France during the second half of the nineteenth century had an integral role in the formation and dissemination of Rembrandt's artistic persona and they aggrandized the Dutch artist just as the publications of French critics had done. These images humanized Rembrandt's personality and the artists who created them used pictorial strategies to make their images appear to be authentic recreations of everyday events in Rembrandt's life. Their images made Rembrandt into a more accessible artist and included anecdotal elements that demonstrate the growing curiosity about his daily life. The works all advocated Rembrandt's status as an important Old Master artist but did not focus on the great moments of life that were stressed in the lives of many other Old Masters.
The representations of Rembrandt's life emphasized his successes with middle- and upper middle-class patrons, his love for his family, his affiliation with the poor, his periodically moody temperament, and his frugal tendencies. In a sense they made the Old Master artist into an average human being with both good and bad character traits. As a result, he was presented as a figure who was not intimidating; he became someone to whom artists could relate.