On the 5 of October 1669, 350 years ago, a day after Rembrandt’s passing, notary Gerrit Steeman came round to take stock of his possessions. There were 22 paintings, “both finished and unfinished”, stored in the entrance hall in the small rental house on Rozengracht in Amsterdam where Rembrandt lived with Cornelia, his nearly 15-year-old daughter with Hendrickje. Rembrandt and Hendrickje, who had died in 1663, were not married and so Cornelia, as their illegitimate daughter, had no claim to any of Rembrandt’s belongings. There were more unfinished paintings, number not mentioned, in the parlour.
This time, unlike his bankruptcy inventory, Rembrandt wasn’t around to tell the notary what was what so we are kept guessing. Present that day, apart from Titus’ widow Magdalena van Loo (who would die not two weeks later, she was buried in Westerkerk on 21 October), was Christiaen Dusart, young Cornelia’s guardian. According to the notary: “The remaining property, including paintings, drawings, curios, antiques and other objects have been placed in three separate rooms, the door of which were locked by me, the notary, in addition, this door was sealed with my signet and the keys were taken into my custody.”
The reason was very likely that Magdalena, and Dusart on behalf of young Cornelia, were undecided whether to accept the inheritance. I don’t blame them. Knowing Rembrandt’s pattern of spending, there may have been more stuff encumbered with debt than there were assets. But that hesitation has deprived us from knowing what Rembrandt was working on when he died.
“Curios, antiques and other objects” – Rembrandt, in spite of his bankruptcy, had started collecting again. Although these objects were locked away and not itemised in the death inventory as they were in the bankruptcy inventory we nevertheless get a glimpse of what they comprised through Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen (1631-1690).
Van Brederode was a bit of a social upstart. The son of an Amsterdam whitesmith and shopkeeper, he became an amateur genealogist who strove his whole life to prove that he was descended from the aristocratic Van Brederode family – without much success. Nevertheless, as can be seen in the portrait Redolphus van Walsburgh painted of him, he appropriated the name and the Van Brederode coat of arms. His interest in heraldic paraphernalia took him to Rembrandt’s house. Pieter was especially interested in a helmet reputedly once worn by 13th century lord Gerard van Velsen.
In his notebook he jotted down what he saw in Rembrandt’s house under the heading “Antiquities and curios collected over a time by Rembrant van Rym 2 October 1669”. Interesting that he notes, beside the helmet and a few other objects, “four pieces of flayed arms and legs anatomized according to Vesalius”. Whether he spoke with Rembrandt and if so in what condition he found the painter (was he already ill?) he alas does not say.
We know, thanks to the invaluable Abraham Bredius who published it in 1909, that the painter Allaert van Everdingen and his son, the playwright Cornelis van Everdingen saw Rembrandt working on a painting representing “Simeon” in the months prior to his death. This has to be the sadly damaged and fragile painting now in Stockholm. There is no proof that I am aware of that this was “on his easel” when Rembrandt died, as some have published, but it must have been among the “works finished and unfinished” as noted by the notary.
Incredibly fragile today, it is one of Rembrandt’s most moving paintings on a theme he had so often depicted in his career: the story in the Gospel of Luke of devout Simeon who, as an old man, had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Saviour. Holding the new-born baby Jesus in his arms, sings his canticle “Nunc dimittis”. The passage in the Gospel of St. Luke reads as follows:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” – Luke 2:25.
Next to Simeon a woman can be seen. But there’s another twist: the painting was once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who is known to have “improved on” the Rembrandts paintings in his collection. Could the rather unconvincing figure to the right of Simeon be his? It wouldn’t surprise me.