Rembrandt’s Empty Bookshelf

We remember the Dutch Golden Age for its paintings – which may be why so few realise that it was Europe’s publishing powerhouse. 

Man Reading, attributed to Rembrandt, c.1648.When, in 1656, Rembrandt was forced to declare bankruptcy, a full inventory of his remaining possessions was made. Among the paintings, furniture and household goods at the house on the Breestraat were just 22 books. By this time Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists of the age, had fallen a long way. An earlier sale had cleared out most of his art collection; what remained was the sad residue of a rampageous and self-indulgent celebrity lifestyle. The fact that Rembrandt possessed so few books, in Amsterdam of all places, was a fitting mark of his near destitution. The Dutch Republic was a land teeming with books. Its publishers produced some of the most fabulous books of the age. Its citizens raead and owned more books than anywhere else in Europe.

In the 17th century the Dutch published more books per capita than any other nation and invented some of the most advanced techniques of the era for selling and marketing print. Books and reading were integral to the way Dutch society functioned – and how its people thought of themselves. So it is all the more surprising that books have been written out of the narrative of the Dutch Golden Age. Dazzled by the great Dutch painters, we seem to have overlooked the quiet revolution going on in the bourgeois home: the way in which books were moulding and reshaping Dutch society. It is said that Dutch homes found space for three million pictures on their walls. Maybe, but in this period they produced many more books, perhaps as many as 300 million, and sold at least four million at auction.

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