How was Rembrandt involved in a company in the 17th century?

A post by guest blogger Professor Bob Wessels (University of Leiden) on Rembrandt’s Money. The legal and financial life of an artist-entrepreneur in 17th century Holland

One of the most appealing Dutch artists in the 17th century is Rembrandt (1606-1669). Many will have seen his paintings, prints and drawings with a wide range of styles and subjects, from the young inspired artist from Leiden (sketching ‘tronies’ in the 1620s) to his masterpieces, like The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaas Tulp (1632) and the Night Watch (1642) to the Syndics of the Drapers Guild (‘De Staalmeesters’) (1662) and The Jewish Bride (‘Het Joodse bruidje’) and selfportraits in the second half of the 1660s.

Rembrandt was not an easy man. Strikingly, he was engaged (in several legal capacities) in legal conflicts or battles of all kinds with opponents of several sorts: (foreign) patrons (delivery on time; quality of work; sharp business practices/fees), neighbours (regarding costs of reconstruction of the house/studio/workshop at the Breestraat in Amsterdam ), personnel (in his house), lenders (‘panic’ loans in 1653) and other creditors (e.g. related to not paying rent for an auction room and rent arrears for his last house where he lived in during the last ten years of his life at the Rozengracht in Amsterdam). In all, there is an abundance of legal and financial questions, and my recent book ‘Rembrandt’s Money. The legal and financial life of an artist-entrepreneur in 17th century Holland’ offers a comprehensive overview of all these aspects of the life and work of Rembrandt. These aspects concern his private life as well as his work as an artist, from a young master in Leiden in the mid-1620s, to a celebrated entrepreneur in the third and fourth decades of 17th century Amsterdam, culminating in financial distress (cessio bonorum; ‘cessie van goede’) in the latter part of his life.

Rather fascinating I found the fact that just after his cession bonorum, in 1660, with retroactive effect to 1658, Rembrandt’s life companion at that time, Hendrickje, and Titus (his son from his marriage with Saskia, who had died in 1642) established and commenced an art dealing business (a ‘compagnie’).

Just to recall, the idea of ​​legal personality, whereby there is a division between the founders’ assets (private assets) and those of the legal person (separated from private assets), first developed in the 19th century.

After sketching 17th century company law in Holland, an account is given of the provisions in the agreement itself to establish this company, also debating other literature that has addressed these issues. Formally a third party to the agreement, Rembrandt, was given a particular position in it. Certain provisions are highlighted in that context (the parties, the duration of the contract, the ‘capital’ contributions, its agreed retroactive effect). The central question of the rationale behind the agreement and the purpose of this art dealing business of Hendrickje and Titus is reviewed. Was the company established, because the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke did not allow former ‘bankrupt’ painters to sell their work in the city? Was the company – avant la lettre – a phoenix company, i.e. a company rising from the financial collapse of Rembrandt’s one-man business, set up to trade seamlessly with professional activities similar to those in his former business? Was it used as a shield against unsatisfied creditors after his cessio bonorum? In all fascinating questions, which certainly deserve further (comparative) research in the records.

The book also sheds light on the socio-economic, cultural and historical context of the period covered and the environments Rembrandt interacted with. The reader will reach a deeper understanding of the local and social Amsterdam history and a part of its local administration and legal system. The book will, I hope, appeal to legal and financial professionals with an interest in the 17th century, but also to anyone who wants to gain a deeper insight of the business side of Rembrandt’s profession.

Please feel free to support the Rembrandt House Museum and order the book (written in English, published by Wolters Kluwer) here. More about the author, Bob Wessels, with references to the creation of the story of this book, see here.

Bob Wessels
professor emeritus International Insolvency Law
University of Leiden

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