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Rembrandt made a mess of his legal and financial life

‘Rembrandt was a stubborn, socially inept shopaholic.’ In his lifetime the Dutch master became embroiled in over 20 legal disputes. Emeritus Professor of Private Law Bob Wessels has written a book about Rembrandt’s legal and financial dealings.  

Bob Wessels’ interest in this aspect of Rembrandt’s life is easy to explain: he specialises in insolvency law. This covers not only bankruptcy but also the phase in which a person or legal entity can no longer pay the bills. And we know that miller’s son Rembrandt (Leiden, 1606 – Amsterdam, 1669) went bankrupt and fell from great wealth to a mediocre existence.

A photo of Bob Wessels standing in front of the statue of young Rembrandt by Stephan Balkenhol.
Bob Wessels with the statue of young Rembrandt by Stephan Balkenhol in the background. It is at Rembrandplaats on Weddesteeg, the street in Leiden where Rembrandt was born. The house where he was born was demolished in 1927. (© André van Haasteren)

What made you want to study this side of Rembrandt’s life?

‘In 1991 I gave lectures in New York and while there I visited the Frick collection, in the former home of the Frick family, which is now a museum. I saw a self-portrait by Rembrandt and heard shortly afterwards that he went bankrupt in 1656. From then on, the topic was on my mind, but then in a wider scope: a study of all the financial issues and legal conflicts in Rembrandt’s private and business life, within the context of the time. Since 2018 I’ve had time to explore the topic.’

Rembrandt was from Leiden and was even a student at Leiden University. Two matriculations have been found, one from 1620 and the other from 1622. Did you find anything else about these?

‘No, unfortunately not. I describe aspects such as Rembrandt’s family background. He wasn’t from a poor family. His grandmother in particular was enterprising and owned several windmills. But little else is known about the first decades of Rembrandt’s life than what we know from Onno Blom’s 2019 biography of the young Rembrandt.’

A photo of Rembrandt's matriculations at Leiden University from 1620.
Two matriculations by Rembrandt at Leiden University have been found: one from 1620 (see picture) and one from 1622.

One of the questions I haven’t been able to answer is whether Rembrandt actually attended lectures at the University, and if so, for how long. Did he come to the Academy Building, where I gave my valedictory lecture in 2014? He may also have enrolled for the benefits for students: no militia duty, which consisted of joining the civilian patrol of the city, exemption from tol – tax – on books and clothes, and partial exemption from tax on wine and beer. We don’t know. What we do know is that Rembrandt spent three years as an apprentice to the painter Jacob Isaac van Swanenburgh, and that Van Swanenburgh had a studio close to the current law school. Rembrandt was about 25 when he left Leiden to live and work in Amsterdam.’

A photo of an artist's studio in Rembrandt House Museum.
Rembrandt’s studio in the chic house on Jodenbreestraat where he went to live as a wealthy man – today’s Rembrandt House Museum. In his later years he ran up rent arrears there. (Photo: Rembrandt House)

You discovered that Rembrandt was involved in many conflicts and often fought them out legally

‘That’s right. Rembrandt was a master of not only art, but also conflicts. He was at loggerheads with different parties. With domestic and foreign clients about late delivery, for example, and the quality and price of his works. Rembrandt commanded high prices, believing his work to be worth that. The price was non-negotiable therefore, which must have caused some consternation in buyers and potential buyers. He fought with his neighbours about the renovation of his house with its studio and workshop on Breestraat in Amsterdam. That was a different building from his later, spacious home and studio, the present Rembrandt House Museum on Jodenbreestraat.

'He also had trouble with female domestic staff and money lenders because of the loans he took out in panic in 1653, and with other creditors. He didn’t pay the rent for an auction room, for instance, and ran up considerable rent arrears when he was older. After 1650 he was in less demand for well-paid commissions, but didn’t cut his coat according to his cloth. He proved to be a shopaholic, buying art and precious objects that he used as teaching material for his pupils or wanted to include in his paintings. He finally went bankrupt in 1656, which is to say he voluntarily surrendered his goods – cessio bonorum. My book gives a comprehensive overview of all Rembrandt’s legal conflicts.’

Rembrandt’s ‘The Parable of the Rich Fool’ from 1627.
Rembrandt’s ‘The Parable of the Rich Fool’ from 1627 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The standard interpretation of this money-obsessed man from a bible story is that it is useless to amass wealth since you can’t take it to your grave anyway.

But you didn’t just limit yourself to that...

‘No. I also describe the socioeconomic, cultural and historical context of the period covered in Amsterdam, the development of the Dutch Republic and the organisation of governance and justice in the city of Amsterdam. I also describe Rembrandt’s house and his work. And I collected financial and economic data on the art, artists and art market of the time. The book obviously also contains brief summaries of the laws and rules that were applicable then. Rembrandt and the legal context of his time have never been the subject of systematic legal historical research. That is unique, I think.’

The reason for your interest was Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656. Did you discover anything new about this?

‘The bankruptcy itself has been the main subject of study twice before. So I didn’t focus on that in particular: it was the reason for the book but not specifically the subject. My approach was to develop a legal-historical vision of the procedure of cessio bonorum: ‘the voluntary surrender of a debtor’s property to his creditors’, as well as of its legal-historical roots in Roman law, the position of the creditors and the available goods.’

One of Rembrandt's paintings of his son Titus, from circa 1657.
Rembrandt painted his son Titus several times. This portrait is from circa 1657 (Wallace Collection, London).

‘In those days laws were laid down for each city or state – for instance, Holland or Zeeland. For Rembrandt this meant the Amsterdam Civil Ordinance of 1643. This was enforced by the Chamber of Abandoned and Insolvent Estates, the ‘Desolate Estate Chamber’. I extensively researched the allegation that Rembrandt, before his cessio bonorum, quickly put his house on Breestraat in Amsterdam in the name of his son Titus, to the disadvantage of his creditors. My study shows that that is not true.

‘It doesn’t appear that Rembrandt was rid of his creditors after the cessio bonorum procedure and his move to a much smaller three-room house at 184 Rozengracht. His partner Hendrickje and son Titus therefore started a company that sold Rembrandt’s work. He received some kind of salary, on paper at least. It is unclear whether this construction worked in practice. Hendrickje and Titus died in 1663 and 1668 respectively. Although not much is known about the last years of Rembrandt’s life, his situation must have deteriorated.’

What was your impression of Rembrandt as a person?

‘We already knew Rembrandt to be a unique and headstrong artist. With more than 20 legal conflicts and disputes, in all areas of life and business, Rembrandt also led a turbulent legal and financial life. My research shows him to be a stubborn, self-assured, very headstrong but rather socially inept man.’

‘Rembrandt’s Money’ was presented on 15 November the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. Also read the blog Wessels wrote about it.

Bob Wessels, ‘Rembrandt’s Money. The legal and financial life of an artist-entrepreneur in 17th century Holland’. Deventer: Wolters Kluwer. ISBN 9789013164893

Photo: Wessels with his book on Witte Singel in Leiden in front of the bust of Rembrandt by Toon Dupuis from 1906. (© André van Haasteren)

Prof. Bob Wessels (1949) was a professor of international insolvency law at Leiden Law School from 2007 to his retirement in 2014. Before that he was a professor of private law at VU Amsterdam for 20 years. He was also a justice at the Court of Appeal in The Hague for almost 30 years and an international legal adviser and arbiter for over 40 years.

Text: Corine HendriksBanner photo: Self-Portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ca. 1665-1669, Kenwood House, London, The Iveagh Bequest. Photo: Rijksmuseum

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