Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery
Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph. But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers. Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive. Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons. Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.
Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best. He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing. But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was. The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life. On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history. Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body? Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt. He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.
So far so normal: seventeenth century Dutch painters often painted themselves with their brushes, palette and maulstick. But there is not much that is mainstream about Rembrandt, and by the later years of his life, his works and those of his Flemish colleagues had moved apart. It was Rembrandt who was the unfashionable one, however, and during the 1650s and 60s, commissions from Amsterdam’s elite were rare. In 1662 the artist completed a large scene for Amsterdam’s Town Hall, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis. This was an important commission, but Rembrandt had not been the city’s first choice and it was only after the original artist, Rembrandt’s pupil Govert Flinck, died unexpectedly, that Rembrandt got the job. But Rembrandt’s interpretation of the subject was not, perhaps, what his patrons were expecting. The angry one-eyed Claudius Civilis and his motley crew of supporters have gathered by candlelight to plot their attack on the invading Romans, an episode which the Dutch saw as symbolising their own triumphant revolt against the Spaniards in the previous century. In his painting, Rembrandt has gone to town, ramping up the drama of the scene with extreme characterisation and melodramatic lighting, while piling on the paint to create broad, rough areas of colour. Although there is no record as to why just weeks after its installation, the massive canvas was hoisted down from the Town Hall ceiling, it seems likely that this radical piece appeared out of place alongside the neater, more sombre works produced by Rembrandt’s contemporaries.
The Conspiracy canvas was originally over five and a half metres wide. When it was returned to him, Rembrandt cut down the picture – presumably to squeeze it into his average sized house – but at two metres by three metres, it is not small. Despite its size, there is an intimacy to the scene: Rembrandt has chosen the moment at which the conspirators clink their swords in allegiance, no one speaks and we as viewer, creep up in front of the central table, unobserved at this pivotal moment. When Rembrandt produced a group portrait for Amsterdam’s Clothmaker’s Guild in 1662, The Syndics, he employed a similar tactic, again using a table as the axis for the scene. This time, however, the governors and their servant have spotted us. Each figure glances up from their discussion to see who this interloper is; a second or two later, and the men will look down at their sample book again. By making the figures look at the viewer, Rembrandt has engaged us with the scene and enlivened the picture, which is now a long way from the statically posed group portraits being churned out by his contemporaries.
By experimenting with the iconography of his paintings, Rembrandt was able to switch up the emotive volume of his pictures and involve his spectators in the most intimate of scenes. When in Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (1654), Bathsheba is presented with her terrible dilemma – should she betray her husband or obey her king – Rembrandt transports the scene to her boudoir. In this private setting, there is no need to include the distracting presence of the king; instead the artist paints Bathsheba just after she has read the king’s letter, when the magnitude of her predicament dawns on her. The crumpled letter is the epicentre of the painting, but it is the look of resigned sadness on Bathsheba’s face which becomes the focus for the viewer, who has somehow found himself witness to this terrible moment.
Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is not wearing much, and was painted at a time when the artist had developed a renewed interest in the female nude. The majority of his artistic exploration was carried out through his own drawings and drypoint etchings, but he would, occasionally, supervise life classes for his pupils. According to his student, Samuel van Hoosgstraten, Rembrandt’s approach to these lessons departed from the classical norm, where the emphasis was on proportion, anatomical correctness and the use of perspective. Instead, when assisting his pupils, his greatest concern was the nude’s expression. Rembrandt was willing to pick and choose from classical principles of art: the perspective of the protruding table in The Syndics is a long way from vanishing at one-point, but Rembrandt was not immune to the achievements of the Italian Masters before him. He may never have travelled to Italy, but Rembrandt knew the works of artists such as Raphael, Leonardo and Titian, and had owned several of their pieces himself. Bathsheba’s pose alongside the old women drying her feet was probably derived from a classical relief, the radical foreshortening of the body in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman (1636) is reminiscent of fifteenth and sixteenth century depictions of the dead Christ, and his squarely posed Juno (1662) is suspiciously similar to Titian’s La Schiavona (1510-12).
Rembrandt’s idiosyncrasies spilt into all areas of his work. His mature drawing style, with its brevity of line and broken contours, sits uneasily within any art historical framework. A glance at his famous brush and wash work, A Young Woman Sleeping (1654), and it could be a piece of sixteenth century Chinese ink art or a twentieth century sketch. It is the model’s hair that gives the game away and grounds her in seventeenth century Flanders. But although we revel in Rembrandt’s shorthand style today, in the century after he died, his deliberate rejection of the continuous line, upset dealers and collectors, who would “complete” the open contours of the artist’s pen-and-ink creations.
Rembrandt was a prolific sketcher and by the last few years of his life settled on the reed pen as his preferred tool, which he sometimes combined with brush and wash to soften the effect. He used the reed pen to draw the unsettling image of Elsje Christaens hanging on the Gibbet; but it was not for mawkish reasons that Rembrandt felt compelled to sketch the execution of this 18-year-old girl convicted of murdering her landlady. The image is too sensitively rendered for that, and it is more likely that Rembrandt felt unable to bypass the opportunity to record the human form displayed in such extreme circumstances.
While many Flemish painters of the 1650s and 60s were producing smooth, highly finished works, Rembrandt had moved away from the more polished style he had favoured during the 1630s. It was during this later period that the artist began using a palette knife to apply thick layers of paint to his pictures: the gentleman’s sleeve in The Jewish Bride (1665), or The Apostle Simon’s face, are built up in textured impasto. But in the same pictures, Rembrandt includes passages with hardly any paint at all: Rebecca’s earrings in The Jewish Bride consist of a wisp of colour dabbed on to the canvas. Rembrandt’s ability to fluctuate between styles and techniques, not just from picture to picture, but within a picture, leaves him difficult to categorise. And if some of his later portrait commissions demonstrate his rougher, looser style, the Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet (1657) harks back to the artist’s earlier detailed work. Perhaps with Mvr Hooghsaet he had met his match, and it was the formidable looking woman, rather than the artist, who dictated how the portrait should be painted.
Rembrandt: The Late Works is a collaboration between the National Gallery and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which is part of the reason so many key works from Rembrandt’s last two decades are included. But it is an exhibition which includes paintings, prints and drawings from across the world, and in pulling together the pieces for a show of this size – there are 91 works of art on display – the galleries have staged something of a coup. As the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, points out, museums are reluctant to part company with their Rembrandts. The artist is enduringly popular and his later work is, some say, his best, with Rembrandt – The Finest Years as an early working title for the exhibition. Descriptive art historical babble, however, can take you only so far. And, at risk of making myself sound useless, whether or not you know a thing about him before you go, Rembrandt will take you over once you are there.