An exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works featuring this painting, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has just opened at the National Gallery. I hope to see it in November and, while I would not go as far as Vincent van Gogh who, in 1885, remarked that he ‘should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting in front of this picture for ten days with only a dry crust of bread’, I am certainly looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with great anticipation.
In the meantime, I have been transported by one of the best art documentaries I have seen on television in a long time: Simon Schama on Rembrandt Masterpieces of the Late Years, shown on BBC2 on Saturday (and available on iPlayer for three weeks). The author of Rembrandt’s Eyes was an obvious guide for a tour of the great master’s late paintings, and his survey was both informed and impassioned, culminating in a bravura assessment of ‘The Jewish Bride’ that just took my breath away.
Schama cut to the chase with a brief outline of how, in 17th century Amsterdam – ‘ the richest city in perhaps the richest country in the world’ – Rembrandt, at the peak of an immensely successful career and internationally famous, fell deep into bankruptcy and critical rejection, poverty, bereavement and loneliness. But Rembrandt faced all of these challenges with a ferocious creativity, producing works that speak to us directly with a powerful sense of humanity.
Rembrandt had been extravagant, made bad investments, and could not keep up the mortgage on his substantial studio and town house and went bankrupt. In his last fifteen years he suffered the loss of his wife and three of their children while commissions and patronage dried up as fashions changed, and the slick finishes of the new French style were preferred to Rembrandt’s expressive use of paint. He died in 1669, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665 (detail)
In his final years, Rembrandt was driven by the ‘rage of age’, argued Schama; these were years in which he produced works that changed ‘what painting could be, what art is’. Beginning with the 1665 Self Portrait with Two Circles in Kenwood House, Schama examined a small number of the late works to reveal how Rembrandt was’unsparing with the truth’ in these paintings, delineating ‘every fold and wrinkle, bag, sag and pouch’ and painting ‘a symphony of defiance’.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665 (details)
Schama’s interpretation of the 1665 Self-Portrait with Two Circles was that it shows ‘a truly great artist under attack’, a refutation of critics who rejected his expressive painting style and put about the idea that Rembrandt couldn’t draw. ‘You think I can’t draw?’ is what the painting asserts, argued Schama – the two perfect circles being Rembrandt’s reference to the Italian painter Giotto, who Vasari tells us, was summoned by the Pope to make a painting in his presence. ‘What he did, was the most impossible thing – he drew a perfect circle’, said Schama – and that is what Rembrandt does here, too. While the circles demonstrate exactness in drawing, the rest of painting is ‘an explosion of painterly freedom’, a work that exudes the ‘confidence of a marriage between head and heart’. ‘Look at the hand!’ exclaimed Schama: it is just a whirl of motion. People said it was unfinished, but, Schama argued, this was Rembrandt stating in his most expressive terms that it’s the hand of the painter which decides what’s finished and what is not.
Rembrandt, ‘Three Trees’, etching, 1643
To underline the point that Rembrandt was a master of drawing, Schama looked closely at ‘Three Trees’, an etching made in 1643. Three trees dominate the design, buffeted by gusts of wind on a hill overlooking a plain illuminated by a burst of sunlight as clouds and a squall of rain move rapidly across the landscape. But look closely and you appreciate the skill that Rembrandt displays in this small work.
Rembrandt, ‘Three Trees’, details
On close inspection, the view is filled with intricate detail. On the left, a standing fisherman watches the end of his line, while his wife waits with a lunch basket. Above them, cows, horses and people are scattered in the sunlit fields, beyond which the skies above the distant city of Amsterdam darken in the squall of rain. A wagon on the brow of the hill approaches what Schama picked out as the most endearing detail – the artist himself, seated in the grass, sketching the view that is out of our sight.
Schama encountered the ‘Three Trees’ etching whilst making a tour of the house in Amsterdam on which Rembrandt couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments. It’s now the Rembrandt House Museum and for Schama being in the house was clearly an emotional experience. He found the morning light in Rembrandt’s studio ‘just unbelievably moving’ and looking at the pots of paints left behind by the artist he recalled his own attempts to recreate 17th-century pigments while writing Rembrandt’s Eyes – so that I would be able to write what they smelt like’.
Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653
Another painting examined closely by Schama was Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer – the kind of picture that I might only have glanced at, before moving on. But Schama drew from the work another statement being made by Rembrandt to the world – and, as he explained, it’s all to do with the chain worn by Aristotle that draws the viewer into the picture. The chain represented what was called in the 17th century ‘a golden chain of being’, and contemporary viewers would have been alerted to the connection between the three men whose portraits figure in the composition.
Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653 (details)
Dangling from the chain is a medallion representing the head of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor when he was a child, and had prepared a new translation of Homer’s Iliad to teach him the arts of war. Schama suggested that both Homer and Aristotle represented to Rembrandt ‘the complicated relationship between being acknowledged and being rejected’ – Aristotle having been forced to flee Athens at the end of his life to escape prosecution under charges of impiety. At the heart of the painting is the chain which shows Aristotle to have been honoured by a great patron. But, as Schama put it, Rembrandt remained ‘massively chain-less for his entire life’. At the same time there is an ambivalence in Rembrandt’s symbolism: a chain will give you honour, but of course, ‘a chain also binds you, like a prisoner, to the whims of your patron’.
Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild, 1662
In 1662, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a group portrait of the staalmeesters or quality-control officials,of the Drapers’ Guild. These were men, appointed annually by the burgomasters, to ensure that the blue and black cloth made in the city was well enough made and dyed to pass its certification. Traditionally, they had their portrait painted at the end of their term and hung in the Staalhof, the building where they conducted their inspections three times each week. Schama drew our attention to the innovative way the picture has been framed to avoid a monotonous composition in which a row of men are positioned behind a table along a rectilinear axis. Here Rembrandt has turned the table at an angle ninety degrees to the picture plane, so that the corner of the table appears to jut out of the picture towards the viewer.
Rembrandt, The Sampling Officials of the Drapers’ Guild, 1662 (detail)
Moreover, there is the direction of the syndics’ gaze. They are all looking at something – someone – positioned just where we, the viewer, stand as we study the picture. That someone, asserted Schama, is Rembrandt himself, who has just entered the room. How do we know that? Schama told us of the recent discovery of preparatory drawings for the composition made by Rembrandt on account book paper – the same paper as in the open ledger which the syndics have been studying.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Suicide of Lucretia, 1538
Schama was at his most compelling when he moved on to discuss the two paintings made by Rembrandt of the rape of Lucretia. Raped by the king’s son, she can’t live with the shame and commits suicide. In legend, her rape and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. The rape had been a traditional subject for painters, offering an opportunity to depict a female nude in paintings whose full-on nudity repeated the violation while pretending to be horrified by it. The subject was, therefore, an opportunity both for moralising and eroticised titillation.
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664
Rembrandt first painted the subject in 1664, before returning to it two years later. There had never before been paintings of Lucretia like these: almost proto-feminist portrayals of a fully clothed, suicidal Lucretia that expose the hypocrisy of his times, and of those who enjoyed the more traditional, eroticised portrayals of the scene.
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1664 (details)
For Schama, Rembrandt’s 1664 Lucretius ‘drenched in pathos and a sense of impending horror’, a painting that draws attention to Lucretius’s clothing as a layer of protection, an armour – but an armour that has been pierced. Rembrandt has emphasised the line between Lucretia dressed in the mantle of honour and the vulnerable nakedness of her flesh with brushwork that has built the paint until it is ‘as solid and impenetrable as the heroine’s virtue’. Schama drew attention to the way in which the paint is especially heavily worked and layered in the lower part of the painting where Lucretia’s skirt is (vainly) girdled by a belt that encircles her body just below the waist – the site of her violation.
All this heavy layering of the paint on her garments is calculated to emphasise the delicate exposure of skin at her throat and between her breasts. Schama focussed our attention on the pinked-up eyes (unusual at the time) which reveal that she has been crying, and spoke of ‘the weight, the torrent, of emotion’ present here. ‘We don’t just look at this painting – we’ve heard her speak through a choke of sobs, demanding that the crime be avenged by replacing the corrupt kingdom of Rome with a republic of liberty’, said Schama.
Rembrandt’s genius is revealed in the way he has executed this moment of drama, taking us from the crust of dark green paint at the locus of her violation to the single pearl drop at her throat – the sign of virtue, of honour, of purity. While the knife hovers, about to plunge.
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666
Two years later Rembrandt returned to the scene, but minutes later. In the 1666 painting, Lucretia has thrust the knife into her heart and is slowly dying. The achievement of this painting is that Rembrandt succeeds in communicating the depth and violence inflicted by both wounds – the rape, and the suicide dagger.
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666 (detail)
‘There had never been a Lucretia like this’, Schama wrote in Rembrandt’s Eyes: she is dying, the life draining from a face shiny and pale with death. Unlike other Lucretias, she is not naked – yet appears utterly naked, the V-shaped opening in her gown a gash that draws our gaze towards the terrible, spreading, soaking, sticky bloodstain that extends from her heart down towards her thighs. In the TV documentary, Schama expressed it in similar words to those he used in Rembrandt’s Eyes:
Rembrandt has even made the folds of Lucretia’s shift hang forward on either side of the wound, while between them, in a saturated depression, as if rehearsing the site of her rape, the blood-soaked fabric clings wetly to her white skin.
These paintings still speak to us powerfully in a time when, opening a newspaper at random on any day of the week, we continue to see evidence of cruelty and violence against women.
Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662
If everything up to this point in Schama’s film had spoken of an art historian steeped in knowledge and passionate about his subject being allowed an uninterrupted time to communicate his ideas without having to patronise his audience with special effects or superficialities, the final five minutes was a true show-stopper. Here, Schama stood before The Jewish Bride, painted around 1662, and undoubtedly the centrepiece of the National Gallery show. This is the painting of which Van Gogh wrote that he would give ten years of his life if he could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for 10 days before it.
It is, said Schama, a painting that attacks us viscerally; one that is about the physical embodiment of love, and what it means to be touched.
Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662 (detail)
At the heart of the painting is a play of hands – a hand on heart, which is also the breast, a hand touching that hand, a hand round the shoulder. It is both intimate and absolutely explicit about the nature of love – and must have been shocking to viewers at the time it was painted (especially in Jewish communities, then much exercised by the purity of morals). This is Schama discussing the point in Rembrandt’s Eyes:
Nothing remotely like it exists, not merely in Dutch art but in the entire Western tradition to that point, save in low-life scenes of grabbing lust. But there is not a trace of coarseness about the touch of this hand; rather it is an act of purely instinctive tenderness. Its pressure is light; selfless, not cupping, stroking or fondling the breast as if busily seeking hardening excitement, but the palm raised slightly, only the length and ends of the fingers laid flat across the gentle swelling; a solemn and reverent pleasure. … The male hand is welcomed by the woman’s response with her own, a displaced consummation.
With the camera hovering close to the painting’s surface, Schama showed us the passages of detail on the clothes where, in his vivid turn of phrase, the paint is ‘absolutely trowelled on, an immense, coagulated, clotted crust of paint’.
Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1662 (detail)
Schama concluded by observing that The Jewish Bride was probably painted two years after his wife, Hendrickje, had died. It’s not a memory of Hendrickje, and we must ‘never be sentimental about Rembrandt (he would not have liked that), Schama insisted. ‘But’, he continued:
Is it not possible that if you want to retain the memory of what connects being physically touched with emotionally touched you do it with massive, massive substance? Underneath the mantling of all this paint is incredible tenderness. Rembrandt is aware of mortality, of the perishability of life. All great painting is about attempting to stop time, to make memory physical. This is the painting of love.