On 5 October 1669 the sheriff’s men are called to Rembrandt’s house on the Rozengracht in Amsterdam, fetched there by his 14-year old daughter Cornelia, his only surviving child and sole offspring of his relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels whose death six years earlier had left him distraught. Rembrandt lies dead, and there is a lot of sorting out to be done. The great painter’s final years have been marked by many misfortunes – the death of loved ones, and bankruptcy only avoided in 1656 by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. He has debts outstanding, there will be multiple calls upon whatever estate remains from both family and creditors, and there is his burial to be paid for. So an inventory must be made of the contents of the house.
Scattered through the rooms of the house were thirteen paintings, judged at the time to be unfinished. One of them was ‘Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple’, now judged to be Rembrandt’s last painting. Fittingly, this is the final painting in the National Gallery’s unmissable exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works, which I went to see last week.
Rembrandt, Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple, c 1669
Though Rembrandt had long since ceased being an active member of his church, he was, like all of his contemporaries, drenched in the stories told by the apostles, including that told by Luke of Simeon, a man who hung around the Temple who had been visited by the Holy Spirit (as happened fairly frequently in those times) and told that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah. When the infant Jesus was brought by his parents to the Temple, Simeon took him in his arms and said, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace’. Rembrandt’s painting of the scene gains additional resonance from being his last – and from the fact that he has portrayed Simeon, eyes closed as if he is blind, while the three figures, seen against a background that is, in Simon Schama’s words, ‘a shadowy void’, are illuminated by an ‘unearthly brilliance’.
That unearthly brilliance is also the first thing that strikes the visitor when entering the exhibition. I was impressed by the staging of the exhibits: the rooms are dim, with the works hung against a background of deep, velvety darkness, each one illuminated in a pool of light. So entering the first room, entitled ‘Self-scrutiny’, is to be confronted with the heart-stopping sight of five late self-portraits, in each one of which Rembrandt’s face glows in the gloom, his eyes seeming to follow you as you move around the room.
Blockbuster exhibitions like this are a ruck, but it was still worthwhile. As Louisa Buck remarked in her Telegraph review, Rembrandt: The Late Works brings together:
A once-in-a-lifetime gathering of landmark works and rare loans which strikingly confirm that the man who is now the epitome of old masterly respectability was in fact at his most daringly experimental during the last decade and a half of his life – from the early 1650s up to his death in 1669 aged 63. It also reveals that many of the qualities that we now take for granted as quintessentially and brilliantly Rembrandt-esque were not only utterly perplexing to his contemporaries but also came to fruition at a time when his career was on the skids.
I’ve already discussed some of these paintings in my post about Simon Schama’s brilliant TV documentary. What follows therefore focusses on other works which caught my attention. Another curatorial decision made by the National Gallery in presenting the exhibits has been to eliminate explanatory panels and labels. Instead, visitors are given an excellent booklet containing information on each and every work, as well as a timeline and glossary of terms. I’ve drawn upon it for this personal aide-mémoire of a wonderful exhibition.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659
Rembrandt, Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul (detail), 1661
Rembrandt, Self Portrait (detail), 1669 (National Gallery, London)
Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1669 (Maurithaus, The Hague)
As your eyes adjust to the semi-darkness in the first room, the first sight is that of Rembrandt’s self-portrait of 1659. It’s a work of astonishing humanity, the artist’s illuminated against the varying shades of brown from which most of the rest of the painting is composed. The brushstrokes are expressive, creamy swirls of paint on his brow lending him a quizzical expression, while thick strokes emphasise the heavy eyelids and thinner strokes suggest the slack flesh of his jowls. The eyes are alert, but there is sadness there, too.
Rembrandt made around 80 self-portraits – painted, etched or drawn – which make up an extraordinary record of an artist’s unflinching observation of his own features. The self-portraits Rembrandt produced in his later years – subdued, thoughtful, and often achingly honest – seem to probe beyond external appearances.
Two years after the 1659 self-portrait, Rembrandt painted himself as the Apostle Paul (top of this post), the only time he assumed the role of a biblical figure. Simon Schama writes in Rembrandt’s Eyes:
Was there ever so unlikely, and yet so obvious a Paul as this? Not the long-bearded pillar of self-righteousness whom Rembrandt had painted forty years before … laying down the law, pointing to the irrefutable doctrine. Instead the quizzical, confessional Paul … shoulders shrugged, brow crumpled, hapless yet not without hope; the author both of his blind folly and of his visionary wisdom; a vessel of sin and a receptacle of salvation; not a Paul of forbidding remoteness but a Paul of consoling humanity; a Paul for everyday sinners.
Then, before leaving the room, we encounter two self-portraits painted in 1669, when he was 63. In the National Gallery portrait he appears frail, an old man. ‘This is the truth’, remarks Schama, ‘and Rembrandt’s face is lit only by the illumination of his unsparing frankness’. The Mauritshuis painting is probably Rembrandt’s final self-portrait. Still keenly observant, he records his slack, puffy face with clinical detachment. Flesh sags beneath his chin, while a thick swipe of paint emphasises the pouch under his right eye. It is, states Schama, ‘a ruthlessly detailed map of times’s attrition’. Yet, by adding that fancy beret, there is still something of a swagger to the man.
Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, 1661
Much of Rembrandt’s art was concerned with the manipulation of light and shadow for dramatic or symbolic effect. Like Caravaggio, he was interested in strong lighting contrasts which he achieved by orchestrating his colours to unify and enhance areas of light and dark, often using surface texture to add glittering highlights.
The centrepiece of this room, alongside several examples of Rembrandt’s etchings, is enormous oil painting, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis. In 1661 Rembrandt was among several artists commissioned to produce decorations illustrating the revolt of the Batavians (a tribe inhabiting the area of the Netherlands in Roman times), seen as a parallel to the revolt that had freed the Dutch from Spanish oppression in the 16th century. Rembrandt depicts the one-eyed Batavian leader, Claudius Civilis, with his followers, swearing an oath to resist the Romans. A single lamp lights the scene, turning the tabletop into a river of gold and eerily illuminating the conspirators with reflected light.
Though the canvas was installed in the Town Hall, it was rejected soon after and cut down, probably by Rembrandt himself. His drawing alongside shows that the painting was originally even larger, with the figures situated in a cavernous space.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait with Two Circles, c 1665
Rembrandt’s inventive, even unorthodox, technique is, states the guide, one of the most distinctive aspects of his late work. He layered colours and varied the application of his paint, from thin washes to a dense impasto. Sometimes he used a palette knife to apply the paint, or scored marks in the surface with the end of his brush (I was to see a lot more of that sort of thing – on a grand scale – the next day at the Anself Kiefer retrospective at the RA). Though this section is mainly devoted to revealing the extent of Rembrandt’s experimentation as a printmaker, it was dominated, for me, by two oil paintings that had been discussed in Simon Schama’s documentary – the Kenwood Self-Portrait with Two Circles, and Lucretia, painted in 1666. The former is, states the guide, one of Rembrandt’s most magnificent self-portraits. It appears unfinished, perhaps deliberately so, to draw attention to the artist’s virtuosity. In particular, the right hand is barely developed, while the left, holding the palette and brushes, is suggested with a mere flurry.
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666
The Lucretia is displayed here as another example of Rembrandt’s unorthodox technique. He was, suggests the National Gallery guide, probably the first artist to manipulate paint on the canvas with a palette knife. He used the tool in the lower part of Lucretia’s shift, her white sleeves, and the sleeve covering her lowered right arm. He layered colours and glazes on top of the textured surface. (For further discussion of these two paintings see my post on Simon Schama’s documentary.)
The next section illustrates how Rembrandt drew inspiration from the work of earlier artists, reworking motifs from a diverse range of sources, including antique statues and Italian, German and Netherlandish art of the previous two centuries. Rembrandt probably owned many of these works. He spent extravagant amounts of money on collecting art and curiosities, an indulgence that led him to virtual bankruptcy.
Rembrandt, The Goldsmith, 1655
From this room I’ve selected a tiny etching (the reproduction above is probably larger than the original) of a goldsmith at work. Modelled on a similar composition by the 16th century Flemish artist, Dirck Vellert, it is now owned by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The sculptor tenderly caresses his latest creation, a statuette of a woman with two children, symbolizing Charity.
Observation of everyday life
Rembrandt, Farmhouse on a River, 1652
This section is devoted to drawings which reveal Rembrandt’s continuing fascination with the everyday and life’s peculiarities – its randomness, defects and anomalies. The most striking examples of this were two small sketches made on the spot as Rembrandt observed the public hanging of Elsje Christiaens in 1664, executed for murdering her landlady. He records her body suspended from the gibbet with the murder weapon – an axe – beside her.
Then there are quick, impressionistic sketches made whilst out walking in the countryside. Farmhouse on a River is a pen drawing in brown ink on brown paper. With a few quick strokes, Rembrandt has captured the impression of a modest farmhouse on the bend of a river – a record of days when he would roam the Dutch countryside sketching such scenes.
This section demonstrates how Rembrandt continued in his final years to test the limits of what was thought acceptable or appropriate in art. In portraits, however, he had to employ subtle tactics. Commissioned portraits required a delicate balance between the client’s expectations and the artist’s vision. In his later works especially, Rembrandt seems to embrace the challenge of reinvigorating the conventions of portraiture, and this section offers several examples.
Rembrandt, The Syndics,1662
Here is the group portrait of the sampling officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild – known as ‘The Syndics’. In this masterly group portrait (also discussed in Simon Schama’s documentary), Rembrandt shook up a traditionally staid format, whilst respecting the dignity of the officials, animating the shallow space by varying the heights and angles of the syndics heads, and turning 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. Accompanying drawings show how Rembrandt experimented with different positions and poses.
Rembrandt, Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (detail), c 1661
Rembrandt’s portrait of the Syndics was evidence that, although his style was considered somewhat unfashionable by the 1660s, his skill still appealed to the moneyed grandees of Amsterdam. And there were none grander or richer than the Trips, ironmasters of Dordrecht who had built a global trading empire that stretched from Russia to West Africa, from Sweden to Brazil. The Trips shipped grain from the Baltic, slaves from Guinea – and guns, lots of them. Wherever there was a war, the Trips supplied the armaments. In 1660 the Trips began construction of a massive private house in the city and commissioned several painters, including Rembrandt, to make portraits for the interior.
Rembrandt’s portraits of old Jacob Trip (who died in 1661) and his widow Margaretha are, writes Schama, ‘old-fashioned in conception but uncompromisingly modern in execution’. Both are presented as severe, stony-faced individuals – patriarch and matriarch – though the portrait of Jacob is painted more loosely. Margaretha‘s frontal pose is unusual in female portraiture and serves to emphasise her iron will.
Rembrandt, Portrait of the Dortrecht Merchant Jacob Trip, c 1661
Rembrandt, Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, 1657
Although married, Catrina Hooghsaet lived apart from her husband with a parrot for company (just discernible in the darkness to her right). She belonged to the Mennonite religious sect which forbade extravagant and colourful dress: her crisp white collar and intricate lace cap were, however, permissible displays of wealth. I was struck by Rembrandt’s detailing of her right hand and the handkerchief it holds, and by his observation of the way in which the decorative gold hairpins that hold her cap in place form impressions in her cheek.
We know from having watched Simon Schama’s documentary that Rembrandt painted many of his most emotionally powerful works in the final years of his career. In this part of the exhibition we get to see intimate studies of human character, of friends and family, and of the nude. These images are not solely about external appearance, but about expressing the innermost thoughts and emotions of the individuals portrayed.
Rembrandt, The Artist’s Son, Titus, 1656
Rembrandt, Titus at His Desk, 1655
Here, for example, are two portraits of Rembrandt’s teenage son Titus – one, a small etching of the boy with downcast eyes and a pensive expression; the other an intimate oil painting of Titus at his desk, daydreaming as he was writing or drawing. Titus died in 1668, a year before Rembrandt himself.
Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1655
And here is his beautiful painting of his lover Hendrickje Stoffels, lifting the hem of her shift as she wades into a shallow pool. She might be portrayed as an historical figure – possibly Susanna from the Old Testament, who was spied upon by lecherous elders. But, whereas the convention in such paintings at the time would have been to emphasise the woman’s nakedness and have her staring back at the viewer as if she were his possession, as Schama observes, Rembrandt paints Hendrickje not looking at him:
He admires her evidently not as a possession but for her self-possession, and he catches her, sidelong as it were, in an act of self-absorption.
Schama notes, too, how the style of the painting rejects the emerging fashion of the time for ‘a clear line, a bright light, and a smooth finish’. The paint is thickly applied in smears and dabs, lines are suggestive and broken, the light flickering. He asks us to look closely at the way in which Hendrickje’s left hand is painted – a mere suggestion.
Rembrandt, An Old Woman Reading, 1655
Here is an old woman, engrossed in reading a book, which seems to project from the canvas. Shrouded beneath a dark hood, the woman’s face is illuminated by light reflected from the open pages. ‘By drawing the viewer so close to his subject’, comments the guide, ‘Rembrandt invites intimate access to the woman’s innermost thoughts’.
Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c 1665
And here is the painting that made the last five minutes of Simon Schama’s TV documentary so profoundly moving – The Jewish Bride. 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 ten days in front of 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. Being able to see it in the flesh meant being able to see the rich detailing on the man’s sleeve, and the almost three-dimensional representation of the woman’s rings, bangles and necklace. Heart-stopping.
In his exhibition review for the Financial Times, Simon Schama wrote:
Rembrandt has matched an almost sculptural handling of paint to the theme of loving touch: physical and emotional. The picture embodies all at the same time: tenderness and desire; wistfulness and content; nature and nurture. It is above all else a play of hands; not just the hands of the couple, but the hand of the painter trowelling on layer after layer of textured complexity, especially in passages of the man’s sleeve and robe which are in themselves an almost abstract weave of pigment.
The curators note that throughout his career Rembrandt had portrayed contemplative, often elderly, people – scholars, philosophers, prophets and apostles. In his later years, Rembrandt wrestled with how best to represent a figure immersed in thought or religious contemplation. By presenting his solitary thinkers in spare, tightly cropped compositions, he directed the viewer’s attention to seeking evidence of meditative thought in the face of the one portrayed.
Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1657
Rembrandt, The Apostle Bartholomew, 1661
Two portraits in this section impressed me with their powerful humanistic quality. Both are described as depicting the apostle Bartholomew, though they are clearly based on studies of a living person painted from life. In the earlier portrait, Bartholomew is represented as a vigorous man, leaning forward as if listening intently. Four years later Rembrandt presents a radically different image of the apostle – now facing the viewer directly, an older man, his face thickly painted with dabs and strokes. In both portraits the apostle holds a knife, the instrument of his martyrdom by flaying.
This section explores how Rembrandt refreshed traditional narrative themes by enriching the story of a key protagonist by considering their fate, their affliction, or their spiritual or emotional conflict. In his
late works Rembrandt made contemplation and introspection his dominant themes. Rather than describing a narrative with numerous characters, broad gestures and a led setting, he often concentrated the psychological power of a story into a single person. It’s here that we encounter the second Lucretia.
It is one of his most moving compositions, representing Lucretia’s inner conflict. She is wracked with inner anguish, and stands with her arms outstretched just before plunging the dagger into her breast. In his earlier Lucretia painting, Rembrandt had depicted her immediately after suicidal act. Here she is still visibly torn between an innate desire to live and the unbearable shame of her rape.
Reconciliation: Rembrandt finds inner peace
In this final section the curators have grouped paintings which represent Rembrandt’s effort to ‘capture the emotional core of literary, mythological or biblical subjects’. In the latter part of his career, he tended to focus on moments of contentment and peace of mind that often followed the more usually depicted moment of intense passion of an iconic event.
Rembrandt, Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656
Two paintings here provided examples of this approach. One being Simeon with the Infant Christ which I discussed at the outset of this post. The other was Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph – representing yet another biblical story that was very familiar to Rembrandt and his contemporaries, but unknown to me. The national Gallery guide explains:
When the Old Testament patriarch Jacob became ill, Joseph brought his sons to receive a blessing from their grandfather. Jacob blessed the younger son, Ephraim, with his right hand, a gesture usually reserved for the elder son. Most depictions of this popular subject show an angered Joseph attempting – often vehemently – to correct his father’s gesture. In Rembrandt’s profoundly moving interpretation, however, Joseph understands and accepts his father’s choice, tenderly supporting his hand as he lays it on Ephraim’s head.
This was a profoundly moving exhibition, exquisitely presented, and hugely informative. Louisa Buck summed it up nicely in her Telegraph piece:
From the 1650s Rembrandt’s vivid rendition of emotion, his dramatic use of light and shade, and his evermore bold and loose brushwork were increasingly out of kilter with the smooth surfaces, conventional compositions and idealized images that were all the artistic rage in 17th century Europe. From being the toast of the contemporary scene, Rembrandt found himself increasingly passed over as many of his former pupils and workshop members won prestigious commissions and rose to riches and success.
Upon his death by unknown causes on October 4 1669, a year after his beloved son Titus, Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn was buried in an anonymous rented grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk. It would not be until the mid-19th century, when the Dutch were taking a new pride in their national identity, that he would be seized upon and his reputation spruced up to become Holland’s cultural mascot and everyone’s favourite art historical genius.
- Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late masterpieces
- Rembrandt: The Late Works review – dark, impassioned, magnificently defiant (Guardian)
- Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery, review: ‘You must see this show’ (Telegraph)
- Simon Schama on Rembrandt’s late works (FT)
- Melvyn Bragg on his love of Rembrandt: Royal Academy blog post