The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild by Rembrandt
Interpretation of The Staalmeesters, Dutch Baroque Group Portrait Painting

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The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild (The Staalmeesters) by Rembrandt
Detail from The Syndics
of the Clothmakers Guild
(The Staalmeesters)
Man on far left not shown.
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild (1662)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Dutch Realism
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
Dutch Realist portraitists
like Rembrandt, see
our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
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Interpretation of The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild

One of Rembrandt's greatest portrait paintings of his final decade, The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (The Staalmeesters) is also one of the largest and most interesting of Baroque portraits of the period. It is a group portrait of the officials of the Clothmakers Guild - more precisely, they were controllers of cloth-samples - staal simply means 'sample'. They were appointed by the Mayor of Amsterdam to regulate the quality of cloth sold in the city, and held their meetings, in private, in a building known as the Staalhof (Hall of the Drapers Guild) in the Staalstraat, where the painting was displayed after completion. In 1771 it was acquired by the City of Amsterdam and in 1808 it was transferred to the Rijksmuseum. A masterpiece of Dutch Baroque art, it was commissioned and painted after Rembrandt's bankruptcy: an indication of the high regard in which he was held by the authorities. Indeed, he was also working on another prestigious commission for the Town Hall, namely The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-2, National Museum, Stockholm).



The Composition

The Staalmeesters shows the five-man Board of the Clothmakers Guild, all of whose names are known from contemporary documents, together with their servant, who is shown without a hat. The book in front of the chairman is probably the account book in which the names of the drapers whose samples had been approved, together with the date and the fees they paid, were recorded. A traditional view of the painting is that the men are seated on a raised platform before the members of the Drapers' Guild, to whom they are reporting the results of the year's trade. In line with this interpretation, the Syndic seated third from left makes a gesture with his right hand - something like, "You see?" - after presenting a particular set of facts. Other critics cite the behaviour of the figure second from left (the Mennonite cloth merchant Volckert Jansz), whom, they say, is getting up to answer a question from the audience.

NOTE: For an individual portrait, see: Portrait of Jan Six (1654).

Other art experts disagree. (See for instance, H. van de Waal in Steps Towards Rembrandt, 1974.) They believe that the raised position of the five Staalmeesters is simply a compositional device used by Rembrandt for pictorial effect, and that the painting depicts a regular private meeting of the Board of the Clothmakers Guild.

According to this view, the main determinant of the composition is the pictorial requirements of the work of art. Certainly Rembrandt appears to have considered the relationship of the figures to each other with great care. Three drawings survive for the three figures at the left, showing that he tried out different positions for them, while X-rays of the picture reveal that the man rising to his feet second from left was originally located on the extreme left, and the servant was also moved several times. The low view point was probably chosen not to indicate that the table is raised on a dais or platform but to correspond to the destined position of the picture above a chimey piece. The private setting of the meeting is also confirmed by the striking, if not immediately obvious, fact that the table is placed with it's short side to the front, not extended across the width of the composition as it appears to be at first sight.

However, if there was no imaginary audience implied by this picture, there was nevertheless a real one; the observer. At least 4 of the 6 figures are fully intent on the observer and he or she is both the pyschological and visual focus of the composition. The participants are as strongly concentrated on something outside the picture as those in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague) are on something within it.


What makes this painting such a masterpiece is the way Rembrandt has arranged his sitters and the attention he gives them. To begin with, each of the five Staalmeesters is given an individual position and personality within the composition. Indeed, there seems to be an amazing cross-section of human characteristics on display - including irony, good nature, bluff straight-forwardness, shrewd scepticism, and dull tenacity - and equal importance is given to each of the subjects.

At the same time, however, Rembrandt unites all five in a strong sense of togetherness, using compositional devices. For example, he employs three horizontal lines to unify the group. The first runs along the edge of the table and the arm of the chair on the left; the second is expressed by the hats and heads of the five subjects; the topmost horizontal line follows the wall wainscoting.


The opulent red table rug spreads its warmth throughout the painting. Golden browns appear in the background, in the wooden panels of the wall, and this warmth is highlighted by the strong whites and blacks of the men's dress. The light enters the painting from the left, allowing Rembrandt to enhance the solidity of his figures through his customary virtuoso use of chiaroscuro.

Note: compare the warm palette of The Syndics with the even brighter scarlet and gold colour scheme of two other late works, namely - The Jewish Bride (c.1665) and Return of the Prodigal Son (1666-69) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Togetherness and Rectitude

Amazingly, out of an ordinary committee meeting of five Protestant business men, Rembrandt has created a universal symbol for prudence and rectitude. Their various temperaments are focused on the single purpose of looking after the interests of an important trade, in effect a public service. It is their sense of togetherness, of mutual understanding, that is the emotional heart of the The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild. Some two years later, in Haarlem, the aged 82-year old Frans Hals (1582-1666) was to express a similar feeling in the Female Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. But he was no longer capable, indeed had never been capable, of embodying such a vision with the craftsmanship of a Rembrandt.

For more about the group portraits painted by Rembrandt, please see 17th century Dutch painting (1600-80).

Rembrandt van Rijn

One of the best portrait artists in the history of art - and arguably among the best artists of all time - Rembrandt was also noted for his etching, his Biblical scenes and his self-portraits.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) Metropolitan Museum, NY

Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) Louvre Museum, Paris

The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666) The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

• For more about 17th-century group portraiture in The Netherlands, see our main index: Homepage.

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