Rembrandt: The Late Works, 15 October – 18 January, Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery
(The Rijksmuseum, 12 February –17 May 2015)
Rembrandt’s late phase from 1650 until his death in 1669, explored in this major exhibition, saw him produce works full of drama and emotion, which point to a heightened spirituality. Inspired by artists such as Titian and Raphael, his line drawing is remarkable and the use of light and colour stunning. In his application of paint, he dared to go further than any other artist had done, employing exploratory techniques to portray all aspects of the world about him. Betty Wiesman, the curator, notes that ‘even three and a half centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to astonish and amaze. His technical inventions, and his profound insight into human emotions, are as fresh and relevant today as they were in the seventeenth century.’ Astonishingly, as he grew older and despite (or perhaps motivated by) great personal tragedy and financial bankruptcy, his sense of artistic purpose was renewed. The early deaths of his wife and three of their children, combined with acrimonious legal proceedings with a former lover, and the loss of both his common-law wife and his only remaining son made his final years, in which he lived in relative poverty in the Jewish quarter of the city, very difficult. Nevertheless, far from diminishing as he aged, Rembrandt’s creativity gathered new energy.
Rembrandt pursued a radical style during this period. His printing methods, painting techniques and progressive interpretations of traditional subjects have inspired generations of artists, who have seen him as the greatest master of the Dutch Golden Age. While his development of the use of light at times seems to pre-empt Turner, infusing his work with great spiritual energy and depth, the application of layers of encrusted paint prefigures the Impressionists. Many drawings record the ordinary people, places and things he would have seen every day in Amsterdam. He drew executed prisoners, the most famous being an eighteen-year-old Danish girl who murdered her landlady during a fight over the rent. Rembrandt recorded her execution in three moving drawings, two of which are in the exhibition, including Elsje Christiaens hanging on the Gibbet. A very modern-looking drawing is A Young Woman Sleeping (Hendrickje Stoffels?), a delicate and intimate study that conveys great warmth with a few simple lines and shading. It is a probable depiction of his common-law wife, drawn about 1654 with brush and brown wash on paper, and could easily be mistaken for the work of one of the Impressionists.
Rembrandt also experimented consistently with different materials and methods in his prints. He transformed traditional printmaking techniques and used a variety of oriental papers. More than any other artist before him, Rembrandt relied on drypoint, a technique that involves scratching directly into the copper plate with a delicate needle, creating metal scrapings around the lines. When printed, these scrapings produced a velvety effect known as burr. Drypoint lines wear down quickly, which required Rembrandt to rework and repair plates several times during the process of printing. His powerfully moving biblical prints, such as Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo) were constantly revised.
Portrait of a couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride is justly one of his most famous works. The paint is thickly encrusted giving depth to parts of the costume while in other areas only a thin veil of paint is applied. It is a composition depicting the love and devotion that the couple had for one another. At the same time, its theological resonance clearly underpins the power of the image. Isaac is the progenitor of the Jewish nation and the antecedent of the Messiah. Rebecca, in touching her stomach looks outward thoughtfully in the knowledge that her offspring will herald the line of David and the birth of Christ. Isaac looks simultaneously both towards and yet beyond her as though to stress that both are contemplating this profound destiny. In 1885 Vincent Van Gogh was so moved by this painting that he declared in a letter to his brother, ‘What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting,’ before going on to say that he would give up ten years of his life to sit in front of the painting for a fortnight with only a crust of bread to eat.
There are many other highlights in the exhibition. Recent conservation reveals the emotional intensity of another masterpiece, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, an incredible portrayal of old age illumined in light. The patriarch Jacob’s hand is tenderly supported by Joseph, his son, as it is raised in blessing. Joseph seems resigned to the fact that it is his younger son, Ephraim, bathed in reflected light, who is the beneficiary, rather than the elder child. His only equestrian composition,Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, follows the European style at the sitter’s request, to commemorate the visit of the Consort of William of Orange, later Queen Mary II of England, to Amsterdam. Rihel was a wealthy businessman from Strasbourg who had formed part of the guard of honour for the occasion. The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as The Syndics, gives full vent to his talent for combining light and shadow, texture and colour to give impact to a static subject. Syndics monitored the quality of dyed woollen cloth, an important part of Amsterdam’s economy. The figures are slightly larger than life and viewed from a low vantage point. The woollen table covering is vivid red, the texture given prominence by Rembrandt’s techniques of dabbing, scraping with a knife, and layering paint on the surface.
A scene from Tacitus’s History of Rome is depicted in the extraordinarily luminousThe Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, on loan from Sweden. It originally formed the central part of what was once the largest canvas ever seen, a monumental painting measuring approximately 5.5 meters squared. It was removed from the Town Hall in Amsterdam and returned to Rembrandt. The reason is not known. Perhaps he had returned to the Catholic faith or maybe the cause was his perceived immorality, though this was some years before the commission. It is known that alterations were requested so we can assume that the style was almost certainly too innovative. The Batavians were a small Germanic tribe that lived in the area of the Netherlands during the first century AD and rose up against Roman rule. They were considered the ancestors of the Dutch. The revolt was also seen as a parallel to the then contemporary conflict with Spain. Rembrandt painted the tribe swearing a pre-battle oath, an event said to have taken place in the middle of the night. A single lamp eerily illuminates the scene from below, hidden behind the figures in the foreground.
His fascination with light is emphasized by his frequent use of chiaroscuro, which leads to expansive dark areas in his work.
Experimentation with light and darkness is particularly redolent in his religious images. Light frequently intensifies an underlying Catholic symbolism in etchings and paintings of religious subjects. Rembrandt’s religious beliefs remain a point of conjecture. Amsterdam at the time was reasonably tolerant and, although Catholicism was officially banned from 1580, an underground Catholic Church flourished. His mother was Catholic but his father was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Saskia, his wife, meanwhile, was a Mennonite. Some of the subject matter in his etchings and religious paintings draws on Catholic theology and saints. Most interestingly, he paints his son Titus in a Franciscan friar’s habit. The Franciscans were known to have two ‘hidden’ churches located near to the house rented by the artist in later life. This leads one to wonder whether he could have returned to the faith of his mother.
The painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son focuses on the reconciling act of the merciful father tenderly embracing his kneeling, penitent son, whose face cannot be seen. There has been speculation that Rembrandt himself was the model for the prodigal. Rembrandt’s strong sense of spirituality is also present in his portraits. He achieves a sense of movement and liveliness in these, which appears to encapsulate the ‘soul’ of his sitter. The late self-portraits attest to Rembrandt’s ability to portray old age sympathetically with deep emotional insight, as can also be seen in the portraits of wealthy middle-class matriarchs such as Marguerite de Geer. Self Portrait at the Age of 63 was one of three painted in the final year of his life. X-radiographs revealed that Rembrandt made changes directly onto the canvas as he worked. His cap was originally a traditional large white painter’s cap, and his clasped hands were originally open and held a paintbrush, depicting an artist at work.