Like so many other aspects of his life and work, Rembrandt’s connection to the Jews has been sentimentalized, overestimated, misappropriated, criticized, dissected—and debunked. In recent years, the image of the artist as a philo-Semite who painted and socialized with his Jewish neighbors has become a topic of intense scholarly debate. Yet the notion that there’s something crypto-Jewish about Rembrandt continues to enthrall.
But maybe the Jews in Rembrandt’s art are hidden in plain sight, clearly visible in depictions of his favorite Jewish protagonist of all. That’s the thesis of “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” a provocative exhibit which debuted at the Louvre last year and will be opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art next week before traveling to Detroit in November. In the catalog, curator Lloyd DeWitt suggests that the model for a series of seven heads of Christ—studies DeWitt believes Rembrandt used for several major religious paintings—was a Jew. While DeWitt is not the first to identify a Jewish Jesus in Rembrandt’s work or in this particular series of paintings, the show is the first to unite all seven since 1656 and the most ambitious effort to view them in the larger context of the artist’s religious work. In addition to being the largest-ever gathering of paintings of Rembrandt’s Jesus, the show is also the largest gathering of Rembrandt’s Jews.
That is, if you agree with DeWitt’s thesis about the ethnicity of the figure in these studies, a theory for which he has no documentary proof. There is no known record of a Jewish man posing for such pictures. Not one of the studies is signed or dated, and only one has been authenticated. DeWitt, however, finds support for his premise from an intriguing source: a 1656 audit of Rembrandt’s house. In the list were three heads of Christ, possibly from the same series as the ones in the show. One of these heads was evidently described as “from life,” a phrase that has led scholars to infer Rembrandt worked with a live model. At that particular place and time in the artist’s career, DeWitt reasons, as his religious works became more spiritual, less spectacular, Rembrandt is likely to have searched out a sitter with same physiognomy as his savior—namely, a Jew—in his quest to make the most naturalistic, humble Jesus to date in the history of art.
Clarifying the Dutch master’s links to the Jews, or lack thereof, has become an obsession for scholars over the last decade. Books and exhibitions have parsed Rembrandt’s genealogy, his religiosity, his commissions, his motives for moving to a Jewish neighborhood, his Old Testament scenes, his New Testament scenes, and his relationship with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel—whose book Rembrandt might have illustrated, whose portrait he may or may not have painted, and who possibly helped with the Aramaic inscription in the artist’s famous Belshazzar’s Feast. Some of these efforts highlight Rembrandt’s special relationship with the Jews in newly tolerant, newly multicultural Amsterdam, a haven for refugees from the Inquisition and Eastern European pogroms alike. Others—most famously “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” a contrarian show at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum—contend that there’s no evidence of a special relationship whatsoever between Rembrandt and the Jews, and that the longtime image of the menschliche Old Master is just a romantic myth.
Today, most art historians do agree on some things: that Rembrandt was not a secret Jew, not especially philo-Semitic, and not particularly a mensch. Instead, we know, it was his reputation for having those qualities that led generations of curators to mislabel certain types of paintings (especially of soulful, bearded men) as his portraits of Jews (especially rabbis). By now, most of Rembrandt’s “Jewish” oeuvre has been de-Judaized. Even The Jewish Bride is no longer assumed to be Jewish, nor, necessarily, a bride. By current scholarly consensus, there is exactly one identifiable Jew in Rembrandt’s art, the Sephardic doctor Ephraim Bueno. Two other Rembrandt paintings, both young men in skullcaps, are also thought to be Jews: One hangs in the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth and the other in the Staatliche in Berlin.
The distinctive features of these men—broad face, heavy eyelids, round lips—support his case, DeWitt argues, because they resemble images of Jesus that Rembrandt began making in the late 1640s, among them the studies at the heart of this show. In the show’s catalog, various scholars note that these works came at a point in Rembrandt’s career when he was moving from the highly dramatic, divinely inspired images of Jesus that were the norm in Western painting to a more introspective figure that inspired meditation and reverence, a quality that characterized masterworks like The Hundred Guilder Print and The Supper at Emmaus. That Supper at Emmaus includes another direct allusion to Christ’s Jewish heritage, write art historians Larry Silver and Shelley Perlove in that catalog: The bread he breaks with the disciples is a braided challah.
Yet most of catalog’s contributors are more circumspect than DeWitt in asserting that that this serene, inward-looking Jesus is modeled on an actual Jew. Larry Silver, for one, believes the jury is still out on whether Rembrandt needed to have a Jewish model in front of him to make a Jewish-looking Jesus. “Rembrandt’s faces look so lifelike you’re immediately impelled to say, that’s a portrait,” he told me by phone. “If someone asked you to paint a picture of any fantasy figure, you could probably draw Snow White. You can have an image in your head without having an actual model.”
In any case, Rembrandt’s Jewish Jesus, if that’s who he was, was in a sense ahead of his time—the Semitic Jesus didn’t catch on right away, or much at all. Centuries later, however, he reappeared in the work of some of the first prominent Jewish artists to step onto the international stage, figures like Maurycy Gottlieb and Max Liebermann.
In the upcoming book Jewish Art: A Modern History, Silver and co-author Samantha Baskind chronicle how these artists, along with other Jews assimilating into the mainstream art world in the late 19th century, emulated the Rembrandt they perceived as a Jewish role model. Ephraim Moses Lilien drew from his Old Testament scenes; Hermann Struck painted heads of old Jews who resemble Rembrandt’s prophets; and the scruffy figures in the paintings of Jozef Israëls seem lifted, like Rembrandt’s, from the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.
These descendants of the “Jewish” Rembrandt hardly help us determine just what about him was crypto-Jewish, of course. But they do confirm that modern Jewish art is crypto-Rembrandt.