times the amount. Don Antonio Ruffo complained angrily in writing nine years later. that he would have had to pay to an Italian artist for a picture the size he had commissioned. He did not know that it was perhaps ten times the amount Rembrandt could then have demanded in Amsterdam. where he was past the peak of his fashionability and facing a financial catastrophe whose drastic consequences were to keep him impoverished for the rest of his life.
Amsterdam. with a population just about one-third that ofancient Athens in the age of Pericles. was the dominant commercial power on the European continent and the nerve center of a far-ﬂung overseas empire more extensive than anything dreamed of by the most ambitious (ireek merchant or militarist. other than Alexander.
('ontained in the vast network of Dutch trading posts and territorial possessions that extended east and west more than halfway around the globe was an immense stretch of fertile land on the eastern shores of the new world that reached from the ('hesapeake Bay in the south up to Newfoundland in the north. the w hole of this expanse christened the .\'ew Netherland and encompassing in its ranging borders those few precious acres on the west side of Fifth Avenue at Eighty-second Street on the island of Manhattan with which Aristotle was to become joined indissolubly.
For on this parcel. in time. would rise the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the (‘ity of New York. a building ofdeplorable look. in which the painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bus! ofllumer would come to rest after a journey ofthree hundred seven years. an odyssey much longer in time and miles than Homer‘s original and one richly provided with chapters of danger. adventure. mystery. and treasure. and with comical episodes of mistaken identity.
The details would be fascinating if we knew what they were. For something like sixty-five years the whereabouts of the painting are undocumented.
It vanished from Sicily when the Ruffo line ended. It reappeared in London in 1815 — as a portrait ofthe Dutch poet and historian Pieter ('orneliszoon Hooft - the possession of one Sir Abraham Hume of Ashridge Park in Berkhampstead. Ilertfordshire.
When the noted art dealer Joseph I)uveen bought the painting from the estate of the French art collector Rodolphe Kann in France in 1907 and sold it to Mrs. Arabella Iluntington. widow of the American railroad magnate (‘ollis P. Huntington. none ofthe people involved in these transactions knew it was Rembrandt‘s painting of Aristotle they were buying and selling. or that Rembrandt had done such a work.
In 1961. the cost of the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
54 The List 14 — 27 October 1988
was a record $2.3(X).()()().
For five hundred guilders in Amsterdam in 1653. a busy artisan or shopkeeper could support himself and his family rather well for a full year. A house in the city could be bought for that much.
For the widower Rembrandt van Rijn. who had bought his house for thirteen thousand guilders and who had lived very well in the ten or eleven years in which his reputation had dimmed and the income he had grown used to had lessened. five hundred guilders was not going to be enough.
After fourteen years. he still owed more than nine thousand guilders on his house. an obligation he was to have satisfied in six. The country was at war with England. her occasional Protestant ally in her long revolution against Spain. And this time it was already clear that the Dutch were not going to win. There was plague in the city. Financial discouragement was epidemic. The economy was poor. capital was growing scarce. and the owners of the debt were insisting they be paid.
Rembrandt‘s house was a luxurious urban mansion of the Dutch kind in a choice residential area on one of the broadest and most fashionable avenues in the east side ofthe city. the St. Anthoniesbreestraat. The word breesrraat. by which the excellent thoroughfare was known in its diminutive. translates literally into ‘broad street.‘
It was next to a corner site amid other dwellings of similar restrained elegance in which resided a number of the city‘s wealthiest burghers and officials. several ofwhom had been his first patrons and sponsors. When Rembrandt bought it. the initial expenses had been met with money from the dowry of his wife. Saskia. combined with his own considerable earnings in the years he was extolled in Amsterdam and his career as a painter was flourishing.
Between 1632 and 1633. it is reported. young Rembrandt executed fifty paintings in a deluge of commissions he received after
moving from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631. when he was twenty-five. Fifty in two years averages out to just about one painting every two weeks. lfthe figure is a lie. it is a very impressive lie. and there is no doubt that Rembrandt and Saskia. who was the orphaned daughter of a former burgomaster of I.eeuwarden in Friesland. and the cousin of his esteemed art dealer in Amsterdam. had considerable social legitimacy with the city‘s middle class. In Holland in the seventeenth century. the middle class was the upper class.
Now. Rembrandt had debts that he could not meet.
Rembrandt contemplated often as he worked on Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer that he was going to have to either sell the house or borrow frotn friends to finish paying for it. and he knew already that he was going to borrow.
As he added more and more black to Aristotle‘s robe and put still more mixtures ofblack into a background of innumerable dark shadings — he enjoyed watching the way his canvases drank up black — he contemplated also that after he had borrowed from friends to finish paying for the house. he would put the house in the name of his small son. 'I'itus. to protect it from seizure by these friends when he decided not to repay them.
He could not take more money from the legacy of'I‘itus. who was too young to know that his father had taken any money from him at all.
Rembrandt was forty-seven. and facing ruin.
Saskia had died eleven years earlier. ()f the four children born to Mr. and Mrs. Rembrandt van Rijn in the eight years of their marriage. Titus. the last of the four. was the only one to live longer than two months.
Aristotle contemplating Rembrandt contemplating Aristotle often imagined. when Rembrandt’s face fell into a moody look of downcast introspection. similar in feeling and somber hue to the one Rembrandt was painting on him. that Rembrandt contemplating
Aristotle contemplating the bust of
Homer might also be contemplating in lamentation his years with Saskia. The death of a happy marriage. Aristotle knew from experience. is no small thing. nor is the death of three children.
Rembrandt lived now with a woman named Hendrickje Stoffels. who had come into his house as a maidservant and soon would be carrying his child.
Aristotle could understand that tt)t).
In his will Aristotle. who had not neglected to be generous to the woman who was his mistress. had asked to be buried beside his wife.
Aristotle emancipated his slaves. His daughter. Pythias. and his sons. Nicanor and Nicomachus. had outlived him. A tear welled in his eye when he remembered with longing the satisfying family life he had once enjoyed. Rembrandt brushed it away.
The year after Rembrandt and Saskia married. each made a will appointing the other sole legatee.
In 1642. nine days before her death. Saskia made a new will naming Titus her heir. In effect she was disinheriting Rembrandt; but she designated him sole guardian and exempted him from accounting for his stewardship to the Chamber of Orphans.
A smarter woman would have known by then that Rembrandt could not manage money. He had a passion for status and for buying paintings. drawings. sculptures. and exotic garments and other curiosities of all description. and the artist was a familiar sight stalking avidly the auction rooms and galleries of the city.
When Saskia was alive. both she and Rembrandt had been dubbed extravagant by a near relation of hers with a residual interest in her inheritance. and they had sued for libel and lost.
A mercantile society. suggested Plato. was inclined to be quarrelsome and litigious. and this was especially true of the mercantile society ofwhich Rembrandt was a member.
Under the common law of Holland. halfofeverything in a marriage belonged separately to both partners. In leaving her share to Titus. for whose upbringing Rembrandt was responsible. Saskia left him halfthe total; when Rembrandt‘s halfwas gone. everything spent for either came from the share left the child.
Of the twenty thousand guilders estimated retroactively to have been the value of the inheritance ofTitus. he was able. as a young adult. to recapture less than seven.
When Titus obtained that money. he committed it with endearing filial devotion to the support of himself and his father. until he married at twenty-seven. less than one year before his death.
There is reason to suspect that Rembrandt. in debt. sold paintings abroad secretly to evade paying his