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Playing it Cool: Rembrandt Goes Insolvent

Rembrandt ran into financial difficulties during his lifetime. On 14 June 1656, he applied to the Supreme Court for insolvency, in a request for cessio bonorum (that is, the forfeiture of all assets to creditors). According to Machiel Bosman, whose notorious book Rembrandt’s Plan was published in 2019, this application was the closing piece of a premeditated plan to preserve his monumental house – today the Rembrandt House museum in Amsterdam – for Hendrickje, the woman with whom he was living at the time, his son Titus, and his daughter Cornelia. Rembrandt had "assigned" the house weeks before the abovementioned application, for the benefit of his son Titus. Nevertheless, this house was sold during the proceeding of cessio bonorum and a large part of the proceeds ended up with Rembrandt’s powerful creditor Cornelis Witsen. Titus and another creditor litigated over the remainder for years. Rembrandt himself moved to a modest rented house where he continued his painting work in the employ of a company set up by Hendrickje and Titus.

No preconceived plan

This thesis by Bosman was recently criticised by Bob Wessels in his book Rembrandt’s Money. Wessels’ criticism resonates with recent research by Dave De ruysscher and Marco in ’t Veld, published in Oud Holland. They have combined a thorough analysis of the archive material on Rembrandt with their knowledge of Amsterdam law. Their conclusions are conforming with what is known about insolvents in the seventeenth century as well. Rembrandt was a clever entrepreneur with an eye for the legal fray. But he was no mastermind. His behaviour therefore resembles that of many debtors in trouble: trying to appease the creditors and, in extreme circumstances, throwing in the towel. A premeditated insolvency of the estate is highly improbable. The proposition finds no support in the sources and can therefore not be put forward as an explanation. It is much more likely that he used the surrender of the estate to settle his debts without too much damage to his reputation. This happened much more often in Amsterdam.

The grey zone

De ruysscher and In ’t Veld looked at how things stood legally with Rembrandt’s house. When Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, drew up her second will on 5 June 1642, two weeks before she died, it stipulated that her half of the matrimonial property was to pass to her son Titus, on condition that Rembrandt remained in full possession of and had the right to use the property until he remarried or died.

In the literature, it is sometimes claimed that Rembrandt became the full owner of the house and then tried to secure the house for his son Titus. In reality, Rembrandt was only half owner and had usufruct over the other half, which according to the will belonged to Titus.

In the years that followed, Rembrandt’s financial position deteriorated. It was in this context that, on 17 May 1656 – exactly four weeks before his request for relinquishment of the estate – Rembrandt “assigned” the house to his then 14-year-old son. Until recently, it was assumed this meant Rembrandt was trying to transfer his share of the house to Titus to safeguard it from creditors.

This is not correct, however. Such a transfer of ownership would have been reversed by the creditors after the surrender of the estate. Moreover, the assignment was not a transfer of ownership and could not have resulted in the discharge of the debt. Comparison with other archival material shows that it was rather a registered promise by Rembrandt that he would guarantee his debt to Titus with his share of the house. This was useful for Titus because the collateral now consisted of a larger proportion of real estate.

In this way, the researchers were able to clearly demonstrate that no conspiracy theory is required to explain Rembrandt’s insolvency. The premeditation theory does not explain how Rembrandt could have been so clever as to set up a legally complicated surviving relatives’ arrangement but, on the other hand, could not have foreseen that the plan would fall apart. And what happened after the surrender of the estate was entirely predictable. Rembrandt lost the guardianship of his son and thus control over his actions. A new guardian, Louis Crayers, claimed the house in settlement of Titus’s debt. And the house was part of Rembrandt's estate. As a result, the house was sold at public auction.

For an open-access version of the article by De ruysscher and in't Veld, see here.

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