In early October 1995, Levi Miller posted this query on Mennolink,
the electronic mail list server for Mennonites and their friends:
"Did Anslo make it?" At his home in Scottsdale, Pennsylvania,
Levi was wondering whether any New Yorkers had seen the Rembrandt
/Not Rembrandt exhibit and whether they had noticed if the
show included the famous masterpiece depicting a Mennonite preacher
and wife. Then in keeping with Mennolink's conversational tone,
Levi ventured a few assertions about Rembrandt's theological
and personal ties to the Waterlander Mennonites in Amsterdam.
For more than a week, his posting evoked responses--often more
enthusiastic than informational--on topics ranging from perceptible
evidence of Anabaptist piety in Rembrandt's biblical scenes to
speculations about tenuous Mennonite connections shared by artistic
notables ranging from Brahms to Ohio organ manufacturers. After
all that conjecture, Levi was none the wiser; it seems that no
one had actually seen the New York exhibit. But the questions
he stirred--about Rembrandt, Mennonites, and why we love to speculate
about authenticity--seemed worth considering.
On October 10,1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted
Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt, a three-month exhibit exploring
the problems of connoisseurship, the art historian's work of
identifying the author of a painting. Questions concerning Rembrandt
attributions are legion. Only seven of his letters and almost
no records of his workshop survive. From early in his career,
he attracted many students and imitators, and sometimes it is
impossible to determine which paintings are copies and which
are collaborative efforts. Moreover, his style, materials, and
techniques varied throughout his lifetime, making it difficult
to identify signature traits. In 1906, experts ascribed 558 paintings
to Rembrandt, 606 in 1909, and 711 in 1921. Now there are believed
to be only about 300 genuine Rembrandts, and the exact number
may never be firm, despite official efforts of the Rembrandt
Research Project, lavishly financed by the Dutch government since
1969 to authenticate all Rembrandt attributions in the world.
Although the Project employs documentary evidence, state-of-the-art
technical analysis, and scholarly connoisseurship, these methods
are never entirely conclusive, as the current exhibit demonstrated.
While the Research Project has convinced the Metropolitan Museum
that 21 of its Rembrandts are not real, the Rembrandt/Not
Rembrandt show is seen by some as an attempt to demystify
the authority of the Dutch group. The exhibit exposes the inexact
nature of connoisseurship, revealing disagreements even among
the museum staff members who curated the show -- Hubert von Sonnenburg,
head of the Conservation Department, and Walter Liedtke, curator
of Dutch and Flemish paintings, Carolyn Logan and Nadine Orenstein
of the Department of Drawings and Prints, and Stephanie Dickey.
Another expression of the current emphasis on the epistemology,
the show invites viewers to examine, not just Rembrandt, but
the ways in which we know these pictures to be Rembrandts --
or not -- posing for inspection both the artworks and some of
the evidence that connoisseurship considers. Included are all
42 paintings in the museum's collection attributed to Rembrandt
-- 18 are still believed to be authentic -- as well as 30 drawings,
32 prints, and several paintings by artists influenced by Rembrandt.
Anslo did not make it into the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit.
That painting -- portraying the wealthy cloth merchant and preacher
Cornelis Claesz Anslo and his wife, Aeltje Schouten -- hangs
in Berlin. A few etchings and a drawing of Anslo are scattered
in collections in Europe and the United States. For Mennonites,
these works have been emblems of Rembrandt's ties to Dutch Anabaptism.
Prints made from the painting of Anslo and his wife began appearing
in North American homes and church vestibules in the 1950s, when
an association between the master and Mennonites was first popularly
Lacking real evidence, 20th-century scholars cannot claim that
Rembrandt (1606-1669) was ever a Mennonite, despite the often-quoted
passage from the Italian art critic Filippo Baldinucci, who wrote
concerning Rembrandt in 1686: "The artist professed in those
days the religion of the Menists, which, though false too, is
yet opposed to that of Calvin, inasmuch as they do not practice
the rite of baptism before the age of thirty. They do not elect
educated preachers, but employ for such posts men of humble condition
as long as they are esteemed by them honorable and just people,
and for the rest they live following their caprice."
Baldinucci's source of information was the Danish painter
Bernhard Keihl (1624-1687), who worked in Rembrandt's workshop
between 1642 and 1644.
This was a critical period in the great artist's career, following
the death of his wife, when he painted his masterpiece, The
Night Watch. It also coincides with his association with
Anslo (that portrait was commissioned in 1641) and other Mennonite
art students and patrons. From those years on, Rembrandt gradually
sank into financial ruin, while turning increasingly to biblical
subjects that would earn him little income. It is especially
in these later paintings that some have recognized a quality
suggestive of contact with Mennonite spirituality. However, it
is primarily through the preacher Anslo that Mennonites have
staked their association with Rembrandt.
In 1947 Ira D. Landis published an article in this Bulletin
about the Anslo portrait, suggesting that Rembrandt's parents
may have been Mennonites. In keeping with one traditional reading
of the painting, Landis elaborately narrates the scene between
a Mennonite widow seeking comfort from Anslo, her minister. His
article ends with an interesting note on the painting's provenance
as reported in Ueberland und Meer (Oct. 1894), a bound
magazine found by Harry F. Staffer of Farmersville, Pa., and
translated by Noah G. Good at Lancaster Mennonite School. According
to the magazine, the Anslo painting was purchased by the Prussian
government and exhibited for 90 years before it disappeared from
view. In 1815, it turned up in the British Gallery and hung there
until it was spirited off to Germany in the 1890's. Landis concludes
with a touching expression of concern about whether Anslo
would survive the destructions of the war, and notes that
at least one reproduction of the painting hangs at Bluffton College
In 1952, Cornelius Krahn reported in Mennonite Life
the findings of two art historians, Jakob Rosenberg and H.M.
Rothermund, working independently on Rembrandt's relations with
Waterlander Mennonites. Rothermund's article, "Rembrandt
and the Mennonites," in the same issue asserts that Rembrandt
may have had contact with Mennonites in his youth, and certainly
affiliated with them after 1641. Both scholars claim that contact
with Mennonites affected Rembrandt's religious paintings, and
that his later works express beliefs specifically associated
with them: humility, introspection, sobriety, and the treatment
of such Anabaptist ordinances as the Lord's Supper, adult baptism,
and foot washing. Krahn cautions his Mennonite readers to refrain
from drawing hasty conclusions, however, arguing instead for
an appreciation of the work.
In October 1956, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's
birth, Anslo and his Wife appeared on the cover of a special
edition of Mennonite Life, published at Bethel College.
The issue featured articles on Rembrandt by Irvin B. Horst, N.
van der Zijpp, and John F. Schmidt. Their titles "Rembrandt
Knew Mennonites," "Rembrandt van Rijn 1606-1956,"
and "Some Rembrandts in America" highlight the issue's
intent: to establish the connection between Rembrandt and the
Dutch Mennonites while educating American readers in an appreciation
of the great artist. "We will be well served by articles
on Rembrandt and Mennonites if they lead us on to the greater
subject of his art," writes Horst at the beginning of his
piece which traces Rembrandt's connections from boarding with
a Mennonite family early in his career (1631-1635) to later friendships
with Mennonite art students, poets, and patrons. Rembrandt may
have depicted as many as 13 Mennonite men and women throughout
his life, and Horst includes a catalog of suspected Mennonite
subjects, including the calligrapher and schoolteacher Liven
Willemsz van Coppenol, included in the current exhibit.
Thus questions about Rembrandt's formal religious affiliation
seem to have been settled by mid-century, yet study of Mennonite
influence in his work continues. In 1992 Austrian-born, Canadian
Mennonite art historian Isle Friesen published an updated summary
of Rembrandt's Mennonite ties, offering what she calls a "Mennonite
interpretation" of communion and community in his works
Simeon and the High Priest and Christ at Emmaus.
Her paper appears in a collection of scholarly essays published
by Rockway Mennonite Church in Ontario, devoted to the perennial
problem of Anabaptist artists and intellectuals: the relation
of individual to community. In From Martyr to Muppy, in
a chapter devoted to "The Mennonite Image in Literature,"
Piet Visser notes a connection between economic advancement among
Dutch Mennonites in the 17th century and their interest in the
visual arts and literature. Artistic activities were regarded
as worthy venues for the expression of faith and morality. Visser
offers a summary of significant Mennonite contributions to Dutch
The strict old Flemish poet, Karel van Mander, was also a
well-known painter in his day, managing an art school in Haarlem.
Rombout Uylenburgh, a Waterlander from Amsterdam who worked mostly
in Danzig was a brother of Hendrick Uylenburgh, a famous master
at a painters' school and art collector.Rembrandt was among his
apprentices and married his niece, Saskia, daughter of a Reformed
mayor of Leeuwarden in Friesland. Jan de Bakker and Govert Flink,
both talented Mennonites, were also trained in his school. The
Waterlander preacher of Leeuwarden, Lambert Jacobsz, was well
known as a painter and several other artists were engaged in
etching, engraving, and illustrating books (70).
The most important work on the master and Mennonites is now
being done by a non-Mennonite, Stephanie Dickey, who approaches
the question without any stake in claiming Rembrandt's connections.
In a recent telephone interview, she explained that her interest
in Mennonite imagery of the 17th century emerged from the study
of Rembrandt's portraiture and patronage. She sought to understand
how the portraits would have been viewed by the people for whom
they were made, and how objects in the etchings and paintings
conveyed information about their subjects. For instance, the
Anslo painting shows the man preaching near an open book. Would
Mennonites have seen something special in this painting? Yes,
Stephanie claimed in her paper, "She Who Has Ears to Hear:
Rembrandt's Portrait of the Ideal Mennonite Marriage,"
delivered at The Quiet in the Land? conference
at Millersville University in June 1995. Her interpretation of
the painting, etchings, and a poem by Vondel that accompanied
the image, suggest that Rembrandt understood and portrayed concepts
central to a theological debate that Anslo was engaged in at
the time. The painting expresses his beliefs about the "outer
world" (as represented by the biblical text and preaching)
and the spiritual "inner word" (as depicted by his
wife's inspired attention). Rembrandt's choice to include both
husband and wife in one portrait created a record of shared faith,
in keeping with Mennonite values.
Prior to assuming her teaching position at the Herron School
of Art in Indianapolis this fall, Prof. Dickey assisted in the
creation of the Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt exhibit at the
Metropolitan Museum. Although she had identified no Mennonite
portraits in the show, she believes that one of the drawings,
Beheading of the Prisoners, may depict a multiple execution
of 16th century Anabaptist martyrs in Amsterdam. Recently demoted
from a Rembrandt attribution to School of Rembrandt, the image
is related to a genuine Rembrandt drawing in the British Museum.
In the exhibit's catalog and a forthcoming article, she argues
that in the 1640's, Rembrandt's interest in such scenes may have
been fueled by his friendship with Anslo, who had close ties
with the editor of an Anabaptist martyrology that preceded Martyrs
Mirror. It may even be that the study anticipated a martyr
work planned for a Mennonite audience, although the etching Beheading
of John the Baptist is the only finished work related to
Did We Make it?
According to a New York Times report, there was
a point just after the turn of the century when "every painting
not nailed down was labeled a Rembrandt, apparently on the theory
that if several hundred Rembrandts were a good thing, a few hundred
more would be even better." Reading this, I couldn't help
but think of the irresistible urge to mark Rembrandt and his
subjects with the Mennonite label -- although an illegitimate
child in 1654 would have excluded him from even the liberal Waterlander
fellowship, as it tested his membership in the Dutch Reformed
church and resulted in the excommunication of his house-keeper-mistress,
Nevertheless, the impulse to identify Rembrandt with Mennonites
-- and for Mennonites to identify with him -- persists. It is
difficult to tell whether there is more to this urge than the
celebrity boasts that are typical of minority groups eager to
achieve worldly status. The fact is that Rembrandt did share
something meaningful with Anslo and the Waterlander fellowship.
According to Prof. Dickey, Mennonites of that time and place
were more open to visual artists than their Dutch Reformed Calvinist
contemporaries -- and there was no conflict for a Mennonite preacher
who was also a painter.
So perhaps the real question is not "Did Anslo make it?"
but "Did we make it?" Can American Mennonites, despite
traditional scruples about culture and the arts, claim some part
in the work of this great master? If only by remote association,
are we and Rembrandt somehow kin? Perhaps, but only if we recognize
in his work something that reaches the soul, forgetting for that
instant the sectarian habits of mind which -- like the habits
of connoisseurship -- seek to authenticate, sorting the Mennonite
--Poet Julia Kasdorf is assistant professor of writing
at Messiah College, Grantham, PA.
Bulletin, January, 1996