“He did not know in the least how to keep his station…”

We keep our gaze focused on the great Dutch Master, Rembrandt van Rijn. Joachim van Sandrart, in his Teutsche-Academie Der Edlen Bau-Bild-und Mahlerey-Kunst, 1675) made the following harsh observation of Rembrandt:

“It is almost to be wondered at that the excellent Rembrandt van Ryn, springing as he did merely from the flat land and a miller, yet by nature was driven towards noble art…Although he was not a spendthrift, he did not know in the least how to keep his station, and always associated with the lower orders, whereby he also was hampered in his work.”

Rembrandt lost patrons as he began to move more and more into developing light to aid his chosen narrative. What Rembrandt gained in his new fascination with light was a more demonstrated brilliance of storytelling. The narrative in late Rembrandt paintings possess a narrative that radiates outward toward the viewer with a brilliance of light not typical of Rembrandt and, unfortunately for this artist, his new tool of light drove his patrons away leaving him destitute. Rembrandt exacerbated this predicament when he spent enormous time studying the faces of older Jewish men in the district close to his studio. Patrons, becoming more anti-Semetic, were uncomfortable in Rembrandt’s studio surrounded as they felt with portraits of Jewish men in various stages of development.

Rembrandts problems reached a crescendo when, in 1661, the artist received a commission to paint a large banquet scene for Amsterdam’s new City Hall. The light filled narrative that Rembrandt developed was the Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis. Rembrandt’s dream of pulling himself out of financial ruin ceased when this large painting was removed from its location in the New City Hall and returned to his studio with the command to “fix it”! Rembrandt refused to change his original vision and chose to cut it up into a smaller canvas for ease of sale to another patron. Today the Rembrandt painting, a sad remnant of its former glory, is installed in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

What are your thoughts of the demands of patrons that are placed upon artists to “fix their work” because it has somehow fallen into disfavor?

The Conspiracy of the Batavian Under Claudius Civilis, 1661-62)

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


19 thoughts on ““He did not know in the least how to keep his station…””

  1. As someone who has done freelance design before, I have always found it to be a struggle to balance my voice with the voice of the client (patron). In a strictly business-related sense (especially of that era and the context of who the patron is), it would behoove Rembrandt to swallow the tough pill and fix the painting rather than just cut it up. What good is one’s pride when it will lead to your ultimate demise and undoing? Each interaction is an invested movement towards lateral/vertical development in life. The workaround to having both opinions satisfied requires the gift of gab where he can ‘sell’ his ideas and convince his patrons of the work’s merit through their own eyes. Unfortunately, the freedom of an artist’s choices in creativity and ideas in regards to the demands of patrons, is highly contingent upon their level of garnered respect and power in that relationship. Communication skills are the most important aspects of this, both verbally and physically (body language, mirroring, etc.). To Rembrandt’s misfortune, he began falling out of patrons’ favor (thus losing respect), so those interactions were inherently uphill battles. There is a constant tug-of-war between the opinions of the artist and those of the patron, but if their paths become parallel, a lot can be accomplished (as seen with Raphael and both Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X). Sometimes, it is more important for an artist to find the right patrons than anything else, otherwise he/she will have a compromised/silenced/unheard voice in the end.

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  2. I feel like their has to be a defined line set before doing a commission for a patron. Every artist has their own “voice” or style, so I feel like it is unfair to ask an artist to change their style after they have already finished their piece. If the client knows they do not agree with that artists style, then they should either find another artist or explain exactly what they are looking for. If the people who hired Rembrandt had told him exactly what they were looking for, it would give him a choice. Rembrandt was very poor and he needed the job, so maybe if he was forced to produce an exact outline or an exact idea for the painting he would have been willing to change his style. Or he would have had the choice to say that it was not his style and he would not be known for producing a piece as they wanted versus what he wanted. If the patron were to demand something after the piece has been finished, I feel like that would be heartbreaking to the artist to change his vision and style after the fact. More communication needs to be established beforehand if the patron is not willing to except the style of the artist.

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  3. I imagine it must have been very troubling for an artist to be told that their art needs “fixing.” I understand how art is very personal and an extension of the artist in some ways, so being told that their art needed to be fixed must have been insulting. Its no wonder why he refused to oblige them. Rembrandt making this decision, considering his financial state, shows that he was clearly a dedicated artist who valued his own principles highly.

    That being said, I can understand where the patrons may have been coming from. Not all artwork is appropriate for all scenarios. They may have gently requested that Rembrandt make a few revisions, which in my opinion, is not unreasonable, especially if they are paying top dollar.

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  4. I believe that there is two ways of looking at situations when it comes to commissioned art. Either the commissioner understands the ideas of creativity and the freedom that comes along with it, or the artist conforms to their needs based off the facts that they are being paid for a service. In today’s time, I believe it depends on the scenario and the type of art being commissioned. For example, when asking an artist to create a landscape for you to hang in your dining room, the artist should only conform to the idea of a landscape and take it from there, creating whatever they please. If the customer is unhappy, I would not change it for them. Now, if the subject was a portrait and the consumer claimed it did not look like the person they asked it to be, I would be more willing to make changes especially if the subject was someone they knew better than I did.

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  5. To a fix an artists work to serve another person’s comfort or agenda, to me, takes away from what makes an artist be artistic. If freedom of expression is taken, then the art starts to become more of an image-break. A phony narrative, told by others and not by the hand of who created it.

    I’m not a large fan of these types of delegations. Sensitivities are to be listened to, but when they become intrusive to an entire concept, I do not see value in delegation. If it was in a black and white strict contrast of industry, there is fairness to that. But in an expressive form; lines are very blurred.

    I do however, respect someone paying for a commission and having requirements. If an artist chooses to accept, there is a part of them that signed up to be delegated to the commissioner. Catch 22 to me, if anything, I’d keep looking for good commissions that are considered good fits instead of settling.

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  6. I do not think it’s appropriate to tell an artist that their art work needs to be “fix”. I am an interior arch and design student who aspires to become an interior designer. I am afraid that someone will disapprove my work and tell me to redo it all over. So I have a sense of how Rembrandt felt when he was told to “fix” his painting. He must have been insulted by the City Hall. He had no choice but to size his painting into a smaller canvas for sale. Everyone has their own unique style of showing art and doing art.

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  7. For me personally, it would not make sense for someone to send back a piece to ask them to fix their work. If you ask me to give you a piece of art, I will give you what you asked for, if you return it demanding me to fix it that in its self is telling me you did not like it and you want it to be something different. Art means a lot to the artist, who pour out a lot of hard work and thought into each painting filling it with different meanings and making it unique and not like something you’ve seen before. If a painting falls into disfavor I still think its wrong to ask an artist to fix it, instead ask for a new piece of art that is more in the genre, but asking for an artist to fix a painting is wrong in my opinion.

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  8. I feel that the demands of patrons to have artists “fix their work” puts the artists in a very difficult position. The artist had a vision and the work is reflective of that vision, so I think it is quite insulting to the artist to ask him or her to change it just because the style is no longer in vogue. If you seek out a specific artist, as Rembrandt was sought out, you have to either trust in his vision or be explicit about your wants. Giving direction before or during the process is warranted because someone is paying for that service, but to do it after the piece is already done is unacceptable. I can only assume that these patrons’ primary concerns are for their reputations not for the art. I think it took remarkable courage on the part of Rembrandt to choose not to sacrifice his vision, even though it would cost him dearly.

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  9. I would be very offended if someone told me to fix my art. It’s one thing to critique, but to tell someone their art needs fixing is terrible. Every artist has their own style. There is no right or wrong way to creating a work of art. If you go to someone to commission a work of art, I assume you have seen their work and like their style. When commissioning someone (in my experience) I always let them know exactly what I want. I go to them because i like their style, and that is exactly what I got. Not every artist is going to create something the same way. If you are looking for something very specific then search for an artist that’s fits what you are looking for.

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  10. The demands of the patrons to have the artist to fix their work to me is very offensive and a slap in the face to the artist. I feel as if when you seek out art from a perspective artist you have seen their work and obviously enjoy the things that they create. You should always let the artist know what you want so that there are not any issues when the final work is complete. Art means a lot to artists and they pour everything they have into it because that is a profession that takes passion and lots of creativity so when you demand that they fix it’s like telling them you don’t care about anything they did before and simply want your item changed to what you want. If you don’t agree with everything an artist creates then maybe you shouldn’t seek out their work.

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  11. I feel that if someone demands an artist to “fix it”, the patron should go somewhere else. If I personally was an artist I would feel offended. If a patron had commissioned me for a painting I feel they should have known my style ahead of time, which I feel this was the case with Rembrandt. They just assumed that because Rembrandt needed money that he would paint to their liking. They were terribly wrong. I really enjoyed Rembrandt’s paintings because I feel like he painted what was real. The way he used lighting, he showed that everyone’s skin is not perfect. In the case of The Conspiracy of the Batavian Under Claudius Civilis, he also did just that. The patrons wanted a perfect painting of the conspiracy but Rembrandt added flaws to it that made it more life-like. If I was Rembrandt I wouldn’t have cut it up, I would have tried to sell it as a whole.

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  12. As one of an art major student, I feel strong pity how the artists are demanded for specific style of work. It’s just sad how people, especially elite patrons, believe artists are technicians, simply believing artists should be able to create an artwork in certain way like it has specific manual to it. I believe art is different from math in that its answer should never be defined. How can we define art? How can we say Rembrandt’s art was wrong? As stated in the text, Rembrandt’s art was “new fascination,” created with his new tool of light with his own visualization. Art is an act of creativity, but if people refuse and reject new styles and artist’s new creativity, I believe it’s rejecting art itself. Thus, I believe final art piece should never be fixed and believe revised is more appropriate term to be used only for the sake of adding more artist’s thought into the work.

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  13. Artwork does not need fixing, art is whatever you make it and if patrons don’t like or appreciate a piece, then that is their view. The way I see it, the definition of art is different to everyone. I think everything is art while some people think that only an elite artist of a high profile can produce a true masterpiece. It is all a matter of perspective, which is why I think it is unfair of a client or patron or society to try and tell an artist what to create. Of course there can be guidelines and specifications, nothing set in stone though, because that is the very job of the artist–to create. Unfortunately, this is not how things work in reality where we need to make money and do what the client specifies, executing it to their liking, not ours. It is a power struggle where the artist has the ability to make art but the client is the one with the money so the art that we want to be putting out gets reduced and changed until it doesn’t even feel like your own work anymore. I feel conflicted about the whole situation, but I do know that only the artist decides what needs to be fixed in their masterpiece.

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  14. While my immediate reaction upon reading this is to side with the artist because art is such a strong form of expression and to just have someone return something because they did not agree with it is a bit infuriating. However, taking a step back and remembering that this was a commissioned piece makes a difference, Rembrandt did not make this as a political piece in his own time that they just came across and decided to buy and because of that I can kind of see why they would not appreciate it.

    With that in mind I definitely think that when it comes to commissioned pieces, both parties have to be on the same page about what to expect and what they are looking to get out of the piece they are buying. If it was the case of them buying a remade piece then I would say they do not get that option. They take it as if, but with a commissioned piece they are paying for something specific and they should get what they paid for especially since the artist upon taking the assignment agreed to create what they wanted.

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  15. If I can be candid, I can’t say that I despise patrons that place demands upon artists, but there is a strong dislike for the simple fact that the art becomes no longer the artists but the patrons. Let me explain. Telling an artist what they must create in order to sell a painting simply is excellent from the perspective of a potential sale; however, it is also asking the artist to bend to the public’s will to make them happy. If every artist took the time to listen to all the changes that society wanted, there would be no art. The art created would not push boundaries, art would not make people cringe, cry, or laugh; there would be no art that tried new techniques, media, or even new concepts because everyone would have a say and artists would not be free to create and evolve. Rembrandt proved this point when he chose not to make any changes by cutting up his original painting to sell it to an alternative patron, still altering his original idea.

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  16. For me, if I were to make my living by painting and being supported by patrons, I would paint whatever they wanted because food and a roof are important! However, I would still paint what my heart desires and just keep them locked away from judgmental people. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you! Rembrandt should have waited until he was financially set, and had reached a certain height of fame and reputation before going against the grain. Then his views might have been more well received, and it wouldn’t have hurt his livelihood. I do appreciate how artists are known for being unapologetic in their beliefs, but sometimes it hurts them and they can’t recover.

    This is one of the reasons I don’t know if I would ever take commissioned art projects. I want to just paint what is in my heart and if people like it they can buy it. I am sensitive about what I put my time and energy into and if someone didn’t like it I would be hurt and who can guarantee that they would ever like it even if I tried to fix it?

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  17. As someone who wants to commission a work of art, wouldn’t you have trust in the artist you choose to create something unique? I think that commissions are a great way to support artists, but you can’t expect to pick and choose what you like and dislike about a painting. It is not meant to be perfect and exactly what you wanted, but it is meant to make you feel and examine yourself inwardly. I think that if you commission a work of art, you know what the artist likes to create and you enjoy those works. If they are in line with creating art that aligns with what they are known for, then you have no right to condemn it. I think that some people are too picky to commission a unique piece of art, and should purchase an item they like that has already been created.

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  18. People have this vision of perfection in their own eyes. If something is not up to social standards and upsets people there are going to be consequences. Michelangelo did this while stepping out of line painting the priest into the Last Judgement wall. Rembrandt was an exception, he painted what he saw and used his imagination without thinking of the repercussions of his actions. Some Artists love the feedback, good or bad. However others take it seriously and destroy their art or create a more dangerous piece of work in its place. Going against the normal had more serious consequences then it does today, this showed how passionate these artists were about their work.

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    1. I feel it is wrong for the artist to be told to fix something to satisfy someone else. As a an artist it is up to them to decide what to paint. An artist paints things based off their creativity and their minds, not some else’s. It’s not really their work if so.


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