Simon Tait

The Essential Wit of Master Rembrandt


Young Rembrandt, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Ashmolean Museum, 27 February – 7 June 2020

Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, Nicolaes Maes, National Gallery, 22 February – 31 May 2020

The similarities between the life paths of the 17th century Dutch painters Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) are intriguing. Both grew up in small town Holland, both were apprenticed to local painters at an early age, both moved to Amsterdam to work with a master, both returned to their home towns to perfect their own style, both ended their lives in Amsterdam to which each had returned as their careers began to burgeon.

In contrast, one died wealthy while the other lies in an unmarked pauper’s grave. And there are other marked divergences, outlined by two exhibitions; one at the National Gallery and the other at Oxford’s Ashmolean.

Rembrandt’s small town was Leiden where his miller father was also a property owner who, with the desire for his third son to be the family scholar, sent Rembrandt to Latin school and the great local university. But in his teens he got the painting bug, and split his studies with sessions at a local artist’s studio.

At 17, he left his books and Leiden for the Amsterdam studio of Pieter Lastman, who had travelled extensively in Italy and been considerably influenced by Caravaggio. Lastman had learned from the Italians the emotional power of chiaroscuro, the value of mystery, coupled with painstaking attention to detail.

Rembrandt arrived, three or four years older than most starting pupils, a promising but unskilled journeyman painter, unable to handle oils properly, his colours wrong, his perspective awry, his lighting eerie, his likenesses more caricatures than portraits. Six months later something had happened: Rembrandt left Amsterdam an accomplished history painter, back to Leiden where he set up a studio, probably with his schoolboy friend Jan Lievens, also a former Lastman pupil. Their painting developed in the Italianate style they’d learned in tandem; many mistook one’s work for the other’s, they still do.

The Spectacles Seller of 1624, the earliest Rembrandt in the Ashmolean exhibition made in the same year he left for Amsterdam, is a frustrated chrysalis of a painting. The mature talent of its creator fighting and failing to emerge. Three years later all that uncertainty and doubt had gone, he had found the magic chiaroscuro for the haunting and assured Flight into Egypt, and by 1630 he had mastered the ability to paint the heart-stopping Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.

‘The Spectacles Seller’ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1624-25. © Museum De Lakenhal

In 1629 the studio had a visitor; the Prince of Orange’s representative Constantijn Huygens who looked over his shoulder as Rembrandt worked on Pieces of Silver – about Judas’s repentance – and was captivated.

At 22, Rembrandt’s career was assured, but two years later the partnership with Lievens was over. Lievens headed off to London and the court of Charles II while Rembrandt was back in Amsterdam, where the market was. 

Maes’s master, of course, was Rembrandt. He was born in 1634, when Rembrandt was already famous and established in Amsterdam, and it was to his studio in around 1647 that the barely teenaged Maes went. He stayed for five years, and if there is an emphasis in the National’s exhibition it is on the influence that the master had on the pupil, an influence that then disappears.

Sadly, we don’t see any of Maes’s early work in Amsterdam, which probably wouldn’t do justice to the Master of the Golden Age, but there is work from the end of his time in Amsterdam which is very much in the style of his teacher. Young Woman at a Cradle of 1653-55 is based on Rembrandt’s Holy Family of 1645, and Girl At A Window of 1653-55 is barely a rethinking of one of Rembrandt’s favourite subjects, as in the original Girl At A Window of 1645, now in Dulwich Picture Gallery, and Kitchen Maid of 1651in Sweden’s National Museum. 

Girl at a Window by Nicolaes Maes, 1653-55 © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Christ Blessing the Children of 1652-3 not only shows the Rembrandt touch but was actually thought to be a Rembrandt when the National Gallery acquired it in 1866. The exhibition has preparatory drawings showing how Maes thought his piece through, discarding preliminary composition ideas, making the finished painting perhaps the best here. Although it’s a biblical history painting much in the Rembrandt idiom, he invests the faces with character and expression – the small girl having the holy hand placed on her head while she looks anxiously round for her mum, oblivious to the sanctity of the moment – which almost make it a genre painting.

Moving on from history painting, Maes went to genre, and in fact it is what he is now best known for: domestic genre paintings that have special reference to interior architecture. The exhibition is particularly keen to explore his fascination with eavesdropping, showcasing several renderings of pretty servant wenches pausing on complicated stair structures to overhear whatever is going on beyond or below. But six years after he had left Rembrandt and was back home in Dordrecht, Maes gave up on his now unfashionable genre pictures and turned almost exclusively to the more lucrative portraiture. He painted more than 900 portraits and died a rich man.

The Listening Housewife (The Eavesdropper) by Nicolaes Maes, 1655 ©Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

One of the most surprising things about Young Rembrandt is that it hasn’t been done before. It has been ten years in the mind of its co-curator, the former Ashmolean director and Dutch painting authority Christopher Brown who has partnered with his friend Christiaan Vogelaar, curator of old masters at the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, and the Ashmolean’s own Northern European art expert An Van Camp to create this exhibition first seen in Leiden last year.

Young Rembrandt seems to take its cue from a small oil painting on copper, Rembrandt Laughing, painted in 1628 and showing a 22-year-old Rembrandt experimenting with expression on his own face. It had been on a private collector’s wall since the 1950s when it appeared just down the road from the Ashmolean in a Cirencester auction in 2007 valued at £1,000 to £1,500 as being ‘in the style of Rembrandt’. Much to the auctioneer’s combined delight and embarrassment it sold for £2.2m and now belongs to the Getty Museum – he said he’d had his suspicions, but after consultation with the repository of Rembrandt scholarship, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, who said it was not by the master himself, he decided on caution.

Rembrandt Laughing; Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669); Netherlands; about 1628; Oil on copper; 22.2 × 17.1 cm (8 3/4 × 6 3/4 in.); 2013.60

Aside from the almost Faustian change in the ability of the painter during his late teens and early twenties, Young Rembrandt shows the industriousness with which he set about engineering his maturity. The scholarship appears to show, for the first time, that Rembrandt spent longer at the university than had been thought, possibly two years, so that his classical education was quite profound giving him an unusual knowledge of classical narratives popular in 17th century Europe. The key to his early success was the sale of engravings, a skill that he taught himself, and here we see him doing it, making terrible mistakes and correcting them. We see his industrious drawing – the Ashmolean has one of the finest collections of Renaissance drawings – that he used to work out angles, gaze, light and shade, composition, expression, and one of the most moving is a simple dashed off sketch of his own father, asleep in his chair.

So these early years are the golden age for both Maes and Rembrandt. For Rembrandt they were years of development and manifest accomplishment before tragedy and tribulation brought his domestic life and income low. For Maes, there is an exquisiteness and precision about his work at the end of his time with Rembrandt which he never quite seems to recapture despite his market success. His style changes, the darker tones lighten, the portraits brighter and their poses clichéed.

What is missing from later Maes is key to adult Rembrandt: wit.

Words by Simon Tait

                                 Simon Tait is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. He is a former commissioning editor of the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, arts correspondent of The Times and has contributed features to most national newspapers. He is co-editor of the online Arts Industry magazine and is the author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton among other book. He was President of the Critics’ Circle 2013-15.

Both The Ashmolean Museum and The National Gallery are currently closed due to precautionary measures against the coronavirus. If you would like to receive more information on the exhibitions you can visit the Ashmolean Museum website here and the National Gallery website here

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