(National Gallery, London, until 18 January 2015)
The National Gallery is currently playing host to another winter blockbuster. Rembrandt might not be quite as unbearably crowded as the Leonardo show was a couple of years back, but I’ve heard that queues are still snaking around the building before opening time. A few days ago I was lucky enough to see the exhibition at a relatively quiet time and it made for a gripping and illuminating experience. There’s a lot to see, which isn’t always a good thing when you have to elbow your way past other visitors, but it’s worth a visit for the sheer quality of the exhibits. The highlights for most people will be the paintings, which are deservedly celebrated, but for me the greatest legacy of the exhibition will be a better appreciation of Rembrandt’s achievements, daring and creativity as a printmaker.
Covering the period from roughly 1650 until Rembrandt’s death in 1669, the exhibition looks at his remarkable technical and artistic innovation in these years. Like many artists, he became more ambitious as he got older and, although it’s hardly original to compare his late work to Titian’s, we see a similarly vigorous style of painting in the later phases of both artists’ lives. In both cases they made increasing use of the physical properties of paint – applying it in thick strokes of impasto which gave texture to their work – and they also turned to darker tones set off with dramatic lighting effects. Sometimes this is explained as the psychological result of the artist’s awareness of age and mortality, but I see it more as the natural consequence of an artist’s maturity, at a stage where he is knowledgeable and confident enough to be that little bit more daring.
Mind you, those who seek a psychological explanation for Rembrandt’s darker, grittier late works have plenty to draw on. His wife Saskia had died in 1642, while in 1649 his mistress Geertje Dircks sued him for breach of promise, for failing to marry her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his spendthrift youth was catching up with him and in 1656 he declared himself bankrupt: in the following two years his house, his furniture and his lovingly-formed art collection was auctioned off to pay his debts. At least there was still some love in his life – his beloved son Titus and his new mistress Hendrickje Stoffels – but even darker times were on the horizon. Amsterdam in the 1660s was ravaged by outbreaks of plague: Hendrickje died in 1663, while Titus followed in the autumn of 1668. Rembrandt outlived him by just over a year.
It’s dangerous to read too much into an artist’s paintings, of course, but it’s tempting to draw parallels between Rembrandt’s own precarious existence and his immense sympathy for human nature. The show opens with a room of self portraits – three paintings and one tiny etching – showing the artist ruthlessly probing his most frequent subject: himself. It’s interesting to come to these immediately after looking at Rembrandt’s Self portrait at the age of 34 (from 1640) which is in the National Gallery’s own collection: that glossy, prosperous, self-contained gentleman has quite disappeared in these later pictures. The two which struck me most were the Self portrait of 1659 from Washington and the NG’s Self portrait at the age of 63 from ten years later. The latter is a sensitive, elegiac portrait in which the frail old man seems on the verge of dissolving into the darkness around him: the paint is applied with tremulous touches and the eyes look as if they’ve seen all the sorrows of the world.
The former shows a more robust man (Rembrandt was 53), wearing a fur thrown over his shoulder as he might have done in one of his more youthful, optimistic self-portraits; but here the greatest thing is the expression on the face. Rembrandt looks startled, as if transfixed by a sudden searchlight; more than that, he looks guilty, as if we’ve caught him playing at dressing up, like the smart young artist he used to be. His expression is hangdog with a touch of defiance. Remarkably it’s a picture that should look dignified, but it’s undermined by the artist’s lack of confidence in the persona he presents. And yet, if the persona is unconvincing, the technique is stupendous. The face is painted with strong swirls of pinks and greys and slashes of white, with ochre touches to suggest the last threads of red in his hair and beard, and to give a slightly sallow hint to the skin. The bags beneath the eyes sag with impasto and the hollows of the cheeks are softened with fleshy jowls; the forehead is all lines and ridges: the landscape of a hard life.
Rembrandt’s an extremely economical artist: he only adds what has to be there, but he makes it count. In the past I’ve encountered this most frequently in his drawings, where a few brisk lines conjure up the pose of a standing figure or the expression on a face. However, the same principle appears in his late paintings. Standing a few feet away from a picture painted in the 1650s or 1660s, such as the Juno or the Washington Lucretia, the technique can look sloppy. Rembrandt doesn’t finish things off neatly: there are dry streaks of oil paint across the canvas; blotches of white or gold to suggest highlights, and swirls of thick impasto. But then step back (if you have space) to seven or eight feet away. Those broad, rough strokes suddenly coalesce into something astonishing. The picture glows with translucent shades of ochre, rust, crimson and gold, and although the rich fabrics of the costumes aren’t depicted literally, you understand exactly what they must have looked like.
The exhibition covers the whole range of Rembrandt’s activity, showing his big commissioned pieces as well as his more intimate portraits. One of the most impressive things in terms of size is The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis from Stockholm, a massive canvas which was painted for the Town Hall in Amsterdam in 1661. It should have been one of Rembrandt’s greatest triumphs: a prestigious public commission which was meant to bring him a much-needed sum of 1,200 guilders. But something went wrong. The painting was delivered and hung in 1662; but within a matter of months it had been replaced by a picture of the same subject by another artist. Why? Did the city fathers dislike it? Was Rembrandt asking for too much money (he was in debt again)? It’s a strangely amorphous and unresolved picture for so prominent a place: haunting and odd, with the hidden candles on the table giving an unearthly glow to the faces, and unflattering, stock peasant types playing the roles of the noble leader and his generals. If it was an experiment, it went too far. Rembrandt never received his 1,200 guilders and instead, to pay his creditors, had to sell off Saskia’s grave. The painting itself, a great monumental thing, rarely leaves Stockholm and it’s quite a coup for the NG to have secured it for the exhibition.
It’s funny that Rembrandt never quite seems to have clicked with big flashy commissions. There’s always some bit of it that feels hurried. Take his Portrait of Frederik Rihel on horseback, for example (1663; NG), almost three metres tall. The face is well-painted – a smug businessman made good, showing off his horsemanship – and the silver braid on the sleeve is one of the most exquisitely-rendered pieces of fabric in the show. But the horse is incredibly weak. One must give Rembrandt the benefit of the doubt and presume that he did, at some point, study a horse in preparation for the picture; but it’s clear that he didn’t enjoy painting it. Compare that portrait with Rembrandt’s Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, wife of Jacob Trip, from around 1661 (also NG). This is a moving, humbling picture of dignified age. Her black fur-trimmed gown melts into the background: the portrait is dominated by her fabulous wheel-ruff with its translucent pleats and by the breathtaking painting of flesh. Again Rembrandt uses dabs of greys and pinks to suggest the soft wrinkles of Margaretha’s face and the thin papery skin on the backs of her hands, which moulds itself to the bones of her hands and shows the blue veins beneath. I must have seen this portrait before, a hundred times, but this time I was rooted in front of it, in awe.
And then there were the prints. Rembrandt has always been celebrated as one of the greatest etchers who has ever lived, but this exhibition shows you why he deserves that accolade. There are several cases where a print is shown in different states and impressions, which enable you to understand more about how and, crucially, why Rembrandt was so obsessive about his printmaking. The same state, printed on different coloured papers, could alter the emotional charge by changing the tone of the print: the underlying paper colour could add warmth or coolness to a scene. The expensive support of vellum could transform an etching into a luxury object, but also alter the way that the ink behaved when it was printed. And perhaps the most striking thing in Rembrandt’s printmaking is the ambitious changes he made between states. With other printmakers, changes between states are subtle – a hand changes position, or a pot or a tree is added. Rembrandt goes further.
I was struck by The Three Crosses, which was shown in the first, third and fourth states: the first, printed on vellum (British Museum), has a velvety softness as the lines of ink blur slightly on the smooth surface. The third state was refreshed with hatching and is shown here printed on crisp, bright paper. That support, showing through the ink, gives the scene lightness and clarity: Christ’s figure seems almost spotlit on the cross. And then the fourth state changes the whole mood: the scene is reworked into a breathtakingly dramatic tableau where the sides of the composition are plunged into blackness. Darkness threatens to swamp everything, relieved only by thin bright strokes of divine illumination from above, lancing down into the crowd.
A similarly striking compositional development can be seen in the three exhibited states (first, sixth, eighth) of Christ presented to the people: the first state shows a crowd clustered noisily in front of Pilate’s palace, cluttering up the yard in front of the dais where Christ is shown bound. By the sixth state, these people have been removed and the clear bulk of the dais draws the eye more effectively to Christ; but by the eighth state Rembrandt had changed his mind again. Perhaps feeling the dais was too blank, he added two cellar openings and, between them, a strange bearded figure which reminded me of a pagan river god. It’s fascinating to follow the progression: to see Rembrandt’s restless, questing mind in action.
There is so much more I could rhapsodise about, because I love Rembrandt – and I haven’t even mentioned the adorable Portrait of Titus – but I have to stop somewhere. So I’m going to close with the piece I would most like to take home with me. Rembrandt’s picture from Glasgow of A Man in Armour, sometimes called Alexander, is a tour-de-force of light and texture. Again the strokes are broad and loose, blocking in areas of highlight or shadow, but from a distance they once again come together in an almost alchemical fusion. This is some of the best armour painting I’ve seen: not because it’s a faithful and accurate rendition, but because it gives you all you need to imagine the armour for yourself: the hard sweep of the breastplate; the differing textures of cloth, steel and leather; and the way that a fire, somewhere else in the studio, creates a sheen of flame on the curve of the helmet. There are unexpected details which you notice as you study it for longer: a curling strand of hair straying from under the helmet, painted like a filament of gold; or the foppish pearl teardrop hanging from the warrior’s ear.
It’s a stunning picture and, like so many of Rembrandt’s works, it’s the devil’s own job to find a decent reproduction of it on the internet. Every photo I’ve found looks brown and dusty: a dried crisp of an autumn leaf compared to the vivid fire and shine of the original. If nothing else, this is a reason to go to the show and savour it in reality.
It’s a big show and it isn’t easy to take everything in on a first visit, especially if you have to wrestle your way through the crowds, but it is certainly worth a visit. The catalogue eschews entries on specific exhibits, which is a growing trend (to my personal regret), but it contains some good essays and it’s complemented by the free booklet you can pick up on your way into the show. The exhibition is on at the National Gallery until 18 January and then moves to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from February until May, so hopefully some of my European friends might get the chance to see this too.