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October 4: Rembrandt and the Jews

October 4, 2014
opnamedatum:2006-01-24Holland’s best-known painter and printmaker, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, died at 63 on this date in 1669. Rembrandt lived near the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam for some twenty-six productive years, and of the 200 portraits of males that he painted, some 20 percent were of Jews (from a population that amounted to less than 1 percent of the Dutch). Affluent Jews in the city would have desired their portraits to be painted, observes Linda Steinberg, a curator at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco, but Jews did not paint portraits of one another (because of the commandment against idolatry) and were not permitted into Dutch guilds until the 18th century. Therefore, “if Jews wanted a professional portrait done, they commissioned gentiles.” Rembrandt was also “heavily influenced by the Bible,” says University of Pennsylvania art professor Larry Silver. “He was a very visual person, and insisted on authenticity in his work.” This led the artist to import camels for some of his paintings, and to use Jewish models for Biblical subjects. He was “definitely interested in building bridges between Christians and Jews,” Silver says. “But that may have been due his desire to hasten the arrival of the messiah.” “Jewish artists after the Emancipation considered Rembrandt and his ‘Jewish’ creations as proof of the fact that Jewish art was possible.” —Jewish Virtual Library