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By Peter C. Sutton

One of the highlights at TEFAF Maastricht 2006 (10 - 19 March) in the Netherlands will be a portrait of The Apostle James the Major by Rembrandt.  This portrait, which has not been on the market for 60 years, is one of the last major paintings by Rembrandt in private hands. It is being sold by Salander- O’Reilly Galleries, New York.

The painting has a provenance dating back to the 18th century and went to America through the great art dealer Joseph  Duveen . It has been seen recently in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Peter C. Sutton takes a closer look at this portrait .



NEW YORK, 5 March 2006—In contemporary histories of art Rembrandt is often championed as the greatest painter of the human soul. There are of course other legitimate claimants to the crown around the globe, but for modern Western culture, he carries away the prize. The lion’s share of Rembrandt’s history paintings depicts biblical themes. Throughout his career, he addressed these subjects not only with a masterful brush but also with a thorough understanding of the texts and traditions that informed them, as well as a profound and very personal insight into the spiritual message of each subject. Rembrandt produced both dramatic multi-figured biblical narratives and depictions of single biblical figures.

Especially in his later years, he depicted the great heroes and protagonists of the Bible not as remote, idealized figures, but as vivid individuals, singly recognizable as human beings, wrestling with their spiritual decisions and faith. As no other painter he expressed human spirituality both as a struggle with the frailty of belief and the promise of Christian grace through his figures’ internal reverie, humility and reverence. As a consequence, the master’s late works are generally regarded as among the most soulful and brooding of all images in Western art.

The present work is one of a group of highly individualized single figure, half-length "portraits" of religious figures that Rembrandt executed late in his career at the end of the 1650s and in the early 1660s. The majority of the group depicts saints, apostles and evangelists, however it also includes images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The present work is one of the most distinctive and memorable of this group, which includes such renowned paintings as Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait as St. Paul in the Rijksmuseum, St. Matthew and the Angel in the Louvre and St. Bartholomew in the Getty Museum. Beyond this inner circle, which also counts among its number a few other closely related paintings, the group expands to a larger stellar system of related pictures that may have been initially conceived by Rembrandt himself or painters in his studio, and which dilates in turn to a larger and dissipating constellation of countless images of emotive saints by followers and imitators. The challenge to modern connoisseurship has naturally been to establish the boundaries of Rembrandt’s personal orbit. The present work bears a convincing signature by Rembrandt and, like the three paintings mentioned above and the Apostle Simon in the Kunsthaus, Zurich, is dated 1661. It also displays all the characteristics of Rembrandt’s late style—a tenebrous and glowing palette, dramatic lighting, an emphatic design, and a painterly but highly descriptive technique with both scumbled areas and evocative passages of impasto. Details of the execution, such as the drawing and modeling of the remarkable hands of the saint, with highlights applied over a darker underpainting, also point to the master’s signature style. Most characteristic of all, it also is a painting of transporting spirituality.

In 1919 Frederik Schmidt-Degener was the first to propose that the paintings in this group constituted a series by Rembrandt. (1)  W.R. Valentiner accepted and developed this notion, initially proposing that they could have been commissioned by a Catholic patron outside the Netherlands, later hypothesizing that they were part of a series of apostles and evangelists conceived as decorations for a "hidden" Mennonite Church. (2)  Otto Benesch subsequently accepted the concept of a series and wrote evocatively about their spiritual message and intent. (3)  However not all observers have conceded the notion of a series, even one initially conceived as part of a larger project but never carried out or interrupted; Horst Gerson, for example, disputed the idea. (4)  Giltaij and Jansen also found such a theory excessively hypothetical. (5)

 A recent exhibition conceived by the present author and organized by Arthur Wheelock, Jr. at the National Gallery and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, confirmed the difficulty of assessing this group of pictures as a coherent body even when they were gathered together, but revealed many similarities within the group, while simultaneously exposing inconsistencies of style, format and execution.(6) While the show’s convocation did not solve the puzzle of whether the group could have been the result of a single commission or originally conceived as a series, it enabled viewers to study and compare the works in unprecedented proximity. It also served to reaffirm the attribution of the present painting and to underscore its importance as one of the last major paintings by Rembrandt in private hands.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606 - Amsterdam 1669):
The Apostle James the Major
Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 74.9 cm, 36 1/4 x 29 1/2 inches
Signed and dated (at lower right): Rembrandt f. 1661
Photo courtesy of Salander-O´Reilly Galleries New York 

The painting depicts a pilgrim viewed in profile, half-length and turned to the viewer’s right. He has dark brown matted hair parted in the middle, a drawn and weathered face, thin projecting beard, and large hands clasped in prayer. His long fingers are splayed, extended stiffly and interlocked at the tips. Over a shirred white shirt he wears a heavy brown cloak with short cape fastened at the right shoulder with a scallop. The sleeves of his cloak are worn and there is a patch on his cape. His coarsely stitched hat rests on the table, its broad brim upturned and fastened by a second pilgrim’s shell. His wooden staff, burnished from miles of use, rests against a stone wall beyond.

Among the first to publish the work, both Michel and Von Bode regarded the subject as an anonymous pilgrim, but Hofstede de Groot identified him as St. James, which has been accepted by virtually all later authors.(7)   St. James the Major was a fisherman of Galilee, the brother of St. John the Evangelist, and an Apostle. He was among the men closest to Christ and was present with Sts. Peter and John at both the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. The historical James was tried in Jerusalem and executed in 44 AD by Herod Agrippa. His martyrdom is reported in the scriptures (Acts 12:2). But much of his persona is dependent not upon the Bible or history but upon a series of legends dating from the Middle Ages that tell of his mission to Spain and burial there.

His supposed tomb was discovered around the ninth century at Compostela, which by the eleventh century had become a pilgrimage site next in importance to only Jerusalem and Rome. From the thirteenth century onwards, St. James was often depicted as a pilgrim with a staff and wearing a cloak and broad-brimmed hat with the pilgrim’s attribute, the scallop shell. Naturally a great favorite  among Spanish painters, he also was often depicted with a thin beard and dark brown hair parted in the middle and falling to either side, in the manner of images of Christ.

While most of Rembrandt’s paintings of apostles and evangelists depict the sitter frontally or in three quarter profile, the Apostle James Major is exceptional in depicting the saint in strict profile. As Blankert noted, Rembrandt rarely depicted figures in either portraits or history paintings in profile view, and then sometimes only because it was dictated by the terms of the commission, as for example in his Portrait of Amalia van Solms of 1632, which had an existing pendant in profile of her husband, Prince Frederik Hendrik, by Gerrit van Honthorst. (8)   Most of Rembrandt’s profile images were executed during the early 1630’s, among them, the Young Woman of 1632 in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, and Saskia of 1634-1635 in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel, however we also include the Flora of c. 1654-1655 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (9)

In his early history paintings, such as Belshazzar’s Feast of c. 1634-1635, the use of this device enabled him to call visual attention to the protagonist in the action. (10)  His early etchings also include head studies (tronijen) in profile. (11)   But he only returned to the practice of depicting historical figures in profile (and then not in a strict cardinal view as in the Amalia van Solms and the Stockholm portrait) twenty years later in his Man in Armor of 1655 in the Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. (12)  Profile views often figure among his twenty-one copies after Moghul miniatures from the mid-1650s (13) ; and, significantly for the present work, in several drawings from these years of figures in prayer; see, for example, the Apostle Peter’s Prayer before the Raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:40).(14)

There were important precedents for series of saints and  apostles, even including Christ and the Virgin Mary, with half-length images by Peter Paul Rubens (Museo del Prado,Madrid) and bustlength paintings by Anthony van Dyck. There are also precedents among print series by Anton and Hieronymus Wierix, Johannes Sadeler I, and Hendrick Goltzius. Even Rembrandt’s old colleague, Jan Lievens, had painted a series of Apostles in Leiden in 1626-1627.

But the great Flemish painters Rubens and Van Dyck always represented their saints as heroic idealized types proudly holding their attributes, never humble individuals as Rembrandt conceived them. For Benesch these were "poor, rugged men," "skeptics" who had been converted by the "miraculous experience of their lives," rather than figures whose "spiritual eminence is demonstrated by the superior beauty and vigor of body." (15)  Many observers in discussing this group of pictures have related their models to Rembrandt’s renowned sympathy for and even identification with the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Noting that Filippo Baldinucci claimed in 1686 that Rembrandt became a Mennonite at the end of his life, Wheelock also suggested that such sympathies might in part explain Rembrandt’s interest in depicting early Christian martyred saints in the 1660s. (16)  The profile view of the drawn and weary St. James in prayer has the effect of recalling time-honored, iconic images of figures in attitudes of devotion, not simply praying saints and other worshippers in altarpieces, but also their donors; Benesch observed that St. James "reminds us . . . of a donor in a Gothic panel painting." (17)  The pose surely contributes to Rembrandt’s success in capturing what Von Bode praised as "the pilgrim’s personality, his ascetic features and the fervid devotion that fascinated the master." (18)

The locus of that devotion is concentrated in the Saint’s joined hands—those tented, fanned and bristling fingers that offer the external embodiment of all the electrifying passion of his interior devotion, fairly trembling with faith and fervor. (19).


1. Frederik Schmidt-Degener, "Rembrandt en Vondel," De Gids , vol. 83 (1919), pp. 264-66.

2. Wilhelm R. Valentiner, "Die Vier Evangelisten Rembrandts," Kunstchronik und Kunstmarkt , vol. 56 (1920–21), pp. 219–222; idem., "The Rembrandt Exhibitions in Holland," Art Quarterly, vol. 19 (1956), p. 400.

3. Otto Benesch, "Worldly and Religious Portraits in Rembrandt’s Late Art," The Art Quarterly , vol. 19 (Winter 1956), pp. 335-355.

4. Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of His Paintings , revised by Horst Gerson (London, 1969), p. 613, no. 614.

5. Jeroen Giltaij and Guido Jansen, exh. cat. Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Een gloeiend palet: Schilderijen van Rembrandt en zijn school , 1988, p. 82.

6. Washington, National Gallery of Art, and Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits , 2005.

7. Émile Michel, Rembrandt: Sa vie, son oeuvre, et son temps, (Paris, 1893), pp. 162–163; Wilhelm von Bode, The Complete Work of Rembrandt, assisted by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, 8 vols., (Paris 1897–1906), vol. 6 (1901), p. 202, no. 485; Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century , 8 vols.
(1897–1906), vol. 6 (1901), p. 202, no. 485.

8. Albert Blankert, in exh. cat. Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, and Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Rembrandt: A Genius and his Impact , 1997, p. 158.

9. See respectively Bredius/Gerson 1969, nos. 85, 101 and 114; and for the former two, Joshua Bruyn et al, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings , 4 vols., (The Hague, Boston and London, 1982 ff ) vol. 2, nos. A49 and A85.

10. Bredius/Gerson 1969, no. 497; Corpus, vol. 3, no. A110.

11. See for example, Bald-Headed Man in Profile Right ("The Artist’s Father") Christopher White and Karel G. Boon, Rembrandt’s Etchings: An Illustrated Critical Catalogue , 2 vols. (Amsterdam, London and New York, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 139–140; vol. 2, no. B 292. See also nos. B229, B259 and B313.

12. Bredius/Gerson 1969, no. 480.

13. See Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt. A Critical and Chronological Catalogue , 6 vols. (London, 1973), vol. 5, pp. 320–323, nos. 1187 ff.

14. Benesch 1973, vol. 5, no. 949. A half-length image in three quarter view of a Praying Apostle in the Cleveland Museum of Art has sometimes been linked with Rembrandt’s group of apostles and evangelists but its soft and tentative execution surely points to the hand of a later follower or imitator.

15. Benesch 1956, p. 340.

16. Wheelock, in exh. cat.Washington and Los Angeles 2005, pp. 22–25.

17. Benesch 1956, p. 340.

18. Von Bode/Hofstede de Groot, vol. 6 (1901), p. 29.

19. Strips of canvas that extend the painting at the left (2 in.) and slightly at the top (1/4 in.) are later additions and have been framed out. 

 Peter C. Sutton is Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut .

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