Exhibition Essay

SORDID AND SACRED:
THE BEGGARS IN REMBRANDT'S ETCHINGS

by Gary Schwartz
Editor: THE COMPLETE ETCHINGS OF REMBRANDT
Dover Publications, NY 1994

In the years when the young Rembrandt will have been taking his first excursions from his home town of Leiden to the court city of The Hague, three hours away, a gang of peddlers was disturbing the peace between the two cities. Jan Jansz van Leiden, a vagabond king who called himself Jan de Parijs - John of Paris - assembled a troupe of the unemployed with scary nicknames like John with the Long Hair and Susanne the Babylonian. Until they were captured, they pestered the neighborhood by breaking into farmhouses at mealtime and forcing the peasants to feed them and by dancing naked in public. When they were apprehended and tried in 1625, Jan Jansz was banished for 25 years, indication enough of how seriously his offenses were taken by the community. [1]

This is the kind of behavior that gives beggars a bad name, as if they needed help. Dutch society had a hard time dealing with "gypsies, lepers, beggars, vagabonds [and] landlopers," in the terms of a long-lived edict issued by Charles V in 1531, which placed these undesireables in the same category as "spies and thieves." Members of this underclass who were able to present themselves as innocent victims, representatives of the deserving poor, could expect sympathy and support for a period of time. However, as soon as they began to seem undeserving, or made the impression of malingering when they should be out looking for work, they would be turned out into the streets. "Studies of poor relief show highly-regulated urban communities, characterized by a concern with boundaries, social control and criteria for inclusion/exclusion. Any form of itinerancy tended to be treated as vagrancy, usually punished by expulsion, so that vagrants were actually produced by the system. [2] " Begging itself was often forbidden, placing beggars at the mercy of authorities who were sometimes "tolerant" and sometimes sticklers for law and order.

The image of the beggar in Netherlandish art was no better than in society as a whole. Hieronymus Bosch's beggars, copied and elaborated on throughout the sixteenth century, are often indistinguishable from his demons. Their stock in trade consists of repulsive wounds and pathetic ailments, which were sometimes feigned. "These social outsiders are defined as lazy rather than industrious, dirty rather than clean, and they are unproductive, parasitic and profligate in a society that esteems work, thrift and self-restraint. Small wonder that in representations by Bruegel and others, beggars are made to look as unattractive as possible. [3] " In Rembrandt's youth, this tradition was raised to new heights by Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662), who made a specialty of depicting beggars, peasants and cripples in desperate and often violent circumstances. Like the social class he took as his subject, the artistic genre practiced by van de Venne was considered the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of specialties in art. It corresponds to a kind of painting that Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D), in his writings on art, called rhyparography, the depiction of mean, unworthy or sordid subjects. [4]

It would not then have been out of line with the convictions of his society, with Netherlandish artistic tradition or classical art theory had Rembrandt depicted beggars as contemptible or loathsome creatures. Indeed, some of his work fits perfectly well into this picture. His etchings of street people relieving themselves in public can hardly be seen as other than as derogatory or mocking. The revealingly frontal view of the woman in a matched pair of etchings from 1631 was found so offensive by Hans Wolfgang Singer in 1906 that he refused to believe it could have been made by a master he loved and respected. While accepting Rembrandt's authorship of the Man pissing in his complete edition of Rembrandt's etchings, he wrote of the companion Woman pissing: "I recognize in this worthless sheet only an attempt by some talentless individual to outdo Rembrandt's etching B. 190 [of a man urinating] in a certain direction. Rembrandt indeed had a sense of humor, but nothing of the kind can be found in this print." [5]

The first homeless people in Rembrandt's oeuvre however could not be more different. They are none other than Mary, Jesus and Joseph, in The Flight into Egypt of 1627. The figure of the trudging Joseph in particular corresponds to a type that Rembrandt was to depict in many variations in the years to come. He is a bearded man, no longer young but not visibly impaired. He has a high, soft cap on his head and wears a nondescript, somewhat ragged cloak and pants. Around his waist is a sash from which a knife hangs. He has shoes on.

The entry of this figure into Rembrandt's work in the guise of St. Joseph answers one of the questions that is often asked of Rembrandt's beggars: are they despicable in the artist's eyes? Comparing the saintly Joseph with a beggar such as that etched by Rembrandt about 1630, we can only conclude that this is out of the question. An artist who looked down on a figure such as the Beggar leaning on a stick could not have depicted a holy saint in the same guise.

The depiction of Joseph as a landloper was not a one-time inspiration. The Flight into Egypt and The Rest on the Flight were etched by Rembrandt more frequently than any other narrative, recurring in the 1630s and 1650s eight times in a variety of modes. And in each decade there were etchings of beggars or vagrants that come close to Rembrandt's Josephs.

One etching by Rembrandt of a Biblical subject, the blind old Tobit, was not recognized as such by Adam Bartsch, the author of the standard catalogue of the master's etchings. Bartsch included it among the prints of beggars. This kind of crossover between street life and sacred history matches a pattern that we find elsewhere in Rembrandt's work, as when he paints images of Jesus in the guise of young Jewish men from his surroundings or when he incorporates entire populations of street people into a major composition such as the Hundred-guilder print.

A mixture of another kind brings the artist himself into his beggar imagery. The etching catalogued by Adam Bartsch in 1797 under number 174 was placed by him in the category "Gueux et mendians," two words for beggar. He called it "Beggar sitting on a mound," the title that it has kept since then, although early in the 20th century the close resemblance was noticed between the face of the beggar and that of Rembrandt in a self-portrait dated the same year, a plate known as Rembrandt bareheaded and open-mouthed, as if shouting: a bust (Bartsch 13).

When a year later Rembrandt painted Christ on the Cross he gave the dying Christ the same anguished features as in the two etchings. Just as the image of St. Joseph was therefore related to the figure of the beggar, so was Christ himself. If his beggars were examples of rhyparography, then, they were only one step removed from the opposite category - megalography, the painting of great things, of which the crucified Christ, in Rembrandt's age, was the greatest of all. The resemblance of Christ on the Cross to a sequence of the Passion of Christ that Rembrandt painted from 1633 on for Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, the closest thing in Holland to a head of state, leaves us in no doubt that Christ on the Cross as well was intended for his eyes.

This constellation of images and of markets - from the pennies paid for small etchings of beggars to the veritable fortunes Rembrandt earned for paintings for the stadholder - shows how essential Rembrandt's etchings of beggars were in his formative years as an artist. The way he imagined the beggar is inextricable from the way he imagined himself, the way he imagined Christ, the way he conceived of imagery itself.

From the very beginning of Rembrandt studies, in the catalogues of his etchings from the mid-18th century, it was realized that in his prints of beggars, Rembrandt owed a debt to the French artist Jacques Callot. In 1622, Callot brought out a series of 25 small prints under the title Les Gueux, The beggars. Rembrandt was not the only artist to be gripped by this publication, a breakthrough in the annals of rhyporography. Callot's beggars were not the abject creatures Rembrandt knew from Bruegel and Adriaen van de Venne. They stood on their own two feet - well, sometimes it was one foot, or a wooden leg or two - and were provided with attributes that gave them a certain seriousness if not dignity. This attitude toward the beggar informs Rembrandt's images as well, which he began making a few years later.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt never copied Callot literally. The examples illustrated here are the closest matches in the two sets of prints. The general compositions and details such as the shading of the stick in Bartsch 166 give one the impression that Rembrandt might have had Callot's prints in front of him, but this need not necessarily have been the case. Callot is certainly an inspiration to Rembrandt, but Rembrandt's beggars and the etchings as such have a different look than Callot's. Part of the difference lies in the technique used by the two artists. To put it simply, Callot's etchings aspire to the condition of engraving, Rembrandt's to that of drawing.

Callot's beggars helped to humanize the image of the beggar in Dutch art. Indeed, they helped Rembrandt attain his not altogether deserved reputation for kindliness. Mean and sordid though they may have been in life and in art theory, in Rembrandt's etchings beggars are bestowed with sanctity and individuality. It would be nice to think that his humane image of the poor and disabled has contributed at some time or other in the course of history to the kinder treatment of real beggars.

[1] A. Th. van Deursen, Het kopergeld van de Gouden Eeuw, vol. 1, Het dagelijks brood, Assen and Amsterdam (van Gorcum) 1978, p. 76.

[2] Tony Kelly, "Tricksters, vagrants and outsiders: economic delinquents in painting," a paper presented at the symposium Representation and regulation: 17th-century economics in the Dutch Republic, Amsterdam (University of Amsterdam) 12 November 2004. See HYPERLINK "http://www.codart.nl/exhibitions/details/820/" http://www.codart.nl/exhibitions/details/820/. See also the excellent chapters on poverty and relief in Thimo de Nijs and Eelco Beukers, eds., Geschiedenis van Holland, vol. 2: 1572 tot 1795, Hilversum (Verloren) 2002.

[3] Larry Silver, "Pieter Bruegel in the capital of capitalism," Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 47 (1996), Pieter Bruegel, pp. 125-79, p. 139, with reference to the research of Paul Vandenbroeck.

[4] Marc van Vaeck, "Adriaen van de Vennes bedelaarsvoorstellingen in grisaille," De zeventiende eeuw 17 (2001), pp. 164-73. Definition from Webster's Third.

[5] Hans Wolfgang Singer, Rembrandt: des Meisters Radierungen, Klassiker der Kunst, vol. 8, Stuttgart and Leipzig (Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt) 1906. This remark is to be found not in the book itself, but on a separate sheet that could be acquired by mailing in a form that could be detached from the book, between pages 270 and 271.