The word syndic is a name applied to an officer of a corporation, and this is its meaning in the title of the picture, The Syndics of the Cloth Guild. In Holland, as in England and France and elsewhere in Europe, guilds were associations of tradesmen or artisans united for purposes of mutual help and for the interests of their respective industries. In some points they were the forerunners of modern trades unions, except that the members were proprietary merchants and master craftsmen instead of employees, and their purpose was the advancement of commercial interests in municipal affairs, instead of the protection of labor against capital. There were guilds of mercers, wine merchants, goldsmiths, painters and many others.

Now the wool industry was one of the most important in Holland, hence the Guild of Drapers or Cloth Workers was a dignified association in several cities. There was one in Leyden, where Rembrandt was born, and another in Amsterdam, where he passed the most of his life. Amsterdam was at that time the foremost commercial city of Europe. Its guilds had fine halls, ornamented with works of art painted by the best contemporary artists. It was for this purpose that Rembrandt received from the Amsterdam Cloth Guild the commission to paint a portrait group of their five officers, and he accordingly delivered to them in 1661 the great picture of which we have this little reproduction to examine.

Just as in the picture of the Civic Guard he had given life to the portraits, by showing the members in some action appropriate to their military character, so here he represents the officers of the guild in surroundings suggestive of their duties. They are gathered about a table covered with a rich scarlet cloth, on which rests the great ledger of the corporation. They are engaged in balancing their accounts and preparing a report for the year, and a servant awaits their order in the rear of the apartment. Their task seems a pleasant one, for whatever difficulties have arisen during their administration, it is evident that the outcome is successful. They take a quiet satisfaction in the year's record.

It is as if in the midst of their consultations, as they turn the leaves of the ledger, we suddenly open the door into the room. They are surprised but not disturbed by the intrusion, and look genially towards the newcomers. The younger man at the end welcomes us with a smile. Next to him is one who has been leaning over the book. He raises his head and meets our eyes frankly and cordially. His companion continues his discourse, gesturing with the right hand. The older men at one side give more attention to the arrival. One seated in the armchair smiles good naturedly; the other, rising and leaning on the table, peers forward with a look of keen inquiry.

Ryks Museum, Amsterdam

As we examine the faces one by one, we could almost write a character study of each man, so wonderfully does the portrait reveal the inner life—the placid amiability of one, the quiet humor of another, the keen, incisive insight of a third. That they are all men of sound judgment we may well believe, and they are plainly men to be trusted. The motto of the guild is a key to their character: "Conform to your vows in all matters clearly within their jurisdiction; live honestly; be not influenced in your judgments by favor, hatred, or personal interest." These principles are at the foundation of the commercial prosperity for which Holland is noted.

The picture may be taken to illustrate a page in American history. It was the Dutch, as we all remember, who founded the State of New York, and the fifty years of their occupation (1614-1664) fell within the lifetime of Rembrandt. The fifteen thousand settlers, who came during this time from Holland to America, brought with them the manners and customs of their home country. The citizens of New Amsterdam were the counterparts of their contemporaries in the old Amsterdam. We may see, then, in this picture of the Cloth Merchants of Amsterdam just such men as were to be seen among our own colonists. In the broad-brimmed hat and the wide white collar we find the same peculiarities of dress, and in their honest faces we read the same national traits. It was to men like these that we owe a debt of gratitude for some of the best elements in our national life. In the words of a historian,[11] "The republican Dutchmen gave New York its tolerant and cosmopolitan character, insured its commercial supremacy, introduced the common schools, founded the oldest day school and the first Protestant church in the United States, and were pioneers in most of the ideas and institutions we boast of as distinctly American."

[11] W. E. Griffis, in Brave Little Holland, pp. 212-213.

If you fancy that it was quite accidental that the six figures of this picture are so well arranged, and wonder why the art of Rembrandt should be so praised here, you may try an experiment with your camera upon a group of six figures. In posing six persons in any order which is not stiff, and getting them all to look with one accord and quite naturally towards a single point, you will understand some of the many difficulties which Rembrandt overcame so simply.