Professor of Baroque art discusses Rembrandt, gifting practices in 17th century Holland
Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013
Updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 09:12
Michael Zell, associate professor of Baroque and 18th century art at Boston University, gave a lecture last night in the Fine Arts House on the relationship between Rembrandt’s art work to the culture of gift giving in 17th century Holland.
Zell began his presentation, “Rembrandt’s Art as Gift,” with an explanation of the central place of gift giving in Dutch culture during Rembrandt’s life. He noted that, of the seven original letters written by Rembrandt that survive today, three of them mention gifting a piece of artwork.
According to Zell, giving art as a gift was not unusual among the other major artists active during Rembrandt’s life. Artist Peter Paul Rubens famously gave the English monarch Charles I a painting depicting an allegory of peace as to compliment the king for his negotiation of a peace treaty. Zell also emphasized that some 17th century artists refused payment for their works altogether.
“The Italian Guido Reni also adamantly refused to set prices for his works, insisting they were gifts, not mere commodities,” he said. “In the words of his 17th century biographer Carlo Malvasia, Reni detested ‘the mention of price in a profession in which, instead, it should be obligatory to negotiate on the basis of an honorarium or a gift.’”
Zell explained that Holland’s economy has often been characterized as, during this period, one of the first examples of a modern capitalism. Zell explained that this perception has often led historians to overlook the extremely widespread activity of gift exchange in Holland during the same period, as gift exchange has been viewed as a primitive, pre-capitalist form of economy. Zell argued that the supposedly primitive practice coexisted with the emergence of modern capitalism.
“Gift giving’s capacity to nurture social bonds became all the more important because it offered an alternative to the alienating conditions created by market exchange,” he said. “The strong association with gift giving with a culture of honor made it an asset in navigating commercial relationships.”
Zell next examined the impact of the culture of gift giving on Dutch 17th century art. He noted that the historical analysis of this era of Dutch art has been of a primarily economic nature, due to the prominence of early Dutch capitalism. Nevertheless, Zell explained that this Dutch art, especially the paintings of Rembrandt, also reveals much about the gift-giving activities of the artists themselves, who were often in opposition to the forces of the market.
Zell focused on Rembrandt’s famous print known as the “100 Guilder Print,” which illustrates a biblical image from the Gospel of Matthew. Zell said that this print was a gift from Rembrandt to his intimate friends, and that none of the print copies were sold during Rembrandt’s lifetime. Zell noted that, given its history, the print’s name, which derived from its supposedly high market value, was ironic and misleading.
“That original high market value of 100 guilders that gives it its title diverts attention away from an important part of it’s originally, apparently very different circumstances,” he said.
Zell further explained that Rembrandt made other prints similar to the “100 Guilder Print,” all for a small audience of friends in the Dutch art scene. These gift prints were of extremely high quality, executed on expensive Japanese paper or vellum. According to Zell, many of the prints were portraits of the people to whom they were given as gifts. With these intimate and exclusive gifts, Rembrandt was able to strengthen his personal relationships with the recipients.
“Works of private, exclusive address were likely presented as gifts, and Rembrandt designed them to heighten the impression of camaraderie,” Zell said. “Rembrandt, whose artwork serves as the admired object being exchanged, is also implied as a participant in this informal encounter.”
After his presentation, Zell welcomed questions and comments from the audience.