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Man in the mirror: Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery

In later life the painter turned away from the light and towards himself.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Rembrandt (1656). Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany


Rembrandt: the Late Works
National Gallery, London WC2

Rembrandt’s reputation as the ur-painter of the human condition and “one of the great prophets of civilisation”, as Kenneth Clark put it, is so unassailable that it is hard to believe that it wasn’t always so. In his paintings, and especially his self-portraits, one can read both universal human experience and his personal tragedy, or so the story goes. In the lines of that doughy face, with its bulbous nose and small eyes, lies the evidence of bankruptcy and the deaths of his wife and three of their children. Rembrandt is art’s Everyman, buffeted and bowed by a malign fate.

Rembrandt, however, worked at a time when art, in its grandest incarnations, was undergoing a moment of change that bordered on crisis. The High Renaissance – Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo et al – had given way to mannerism (art about art, is how the 17th-century theorist Giovanni Pietro Bellori defined it) on the one hand and naturalism, the slavish attention to nature (as it was pejoratively seen), on the other. To his contemporary critics, and there were many, Rembrandt (1606-69) fell uncomfortably between the two. As a naturalist he was clearly au fait with, say, classical nudes but treated them unconventionally, indeed unartistically: he eschewed nobility and although he could draw superbly he did not define his compositions and figures with line or a graceful palette. Yet he was too gifted to be classified as a mere recorder of appearances. One of his earliest biographers, Filippo Baldinucci, was so infuriated by this conundrum that he was reduced to ascribing Rembrandt’s “bad art” to the natural product of the painter’s ugly body.

To such critics, Rembrandt’s faults were nowhere more obvious than in his late works, in which he slipped ever further from showing humanity in anything approaching an ideal state, but rather one of melancholy bordering on full-blown sadness. His biscuity paint and subdued colours were equally to be deplored. It is this period, 1652 to his death, that is the subject of the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

The show contains roughly 90 works – paintings, drawings and etchings – and is organised thematically rather than chronologically. There are sections devoted to self-scrutiny, light, experimental technique, emulation, everyday life, artistic convention, intimacy, contemplation, inner conflict, and reconciliation. The aim of these divisions is to demonstrate Rembrandt’s continuing creativity and innovation, and to distance his art from the nebulous phraseology that has attached to him: “humanity”, “moving” and “profound”. The show is meant to illustrate why, in fact, his 17th-century critics were wrong.

The third state of The Three Crosses (1653). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

What it also proves is that his late pictures (though some really are the products of a middle-aged man) did not break with his earlier art but developed it through small shifts and subtleties. Some of the most telling of these were in his prints: The Three Crosses, for instance, which depicts Christ and the two thieves crucified, surrounded by a crowd of soldiers and onlookers. Examples of three of the plate’s five states are on show and in them he treats the light that illuminates the dying figures almost as an unruly interloper disturbing the velvety black that enfolds the scene. As he worked on the copper plate in drypoint (scratching rather than etching with acid) he added and removed figures until all but Christ are on the verge of being swallowed by darkness. It is as if, between each state, he is turning out another light on the composition.

This flight from light is apparent in the paintings, too. Juno (1662-65) takes form only through her flesh tones and the scattered highlights on her crown, pearls and ermine. Her body is seemingly composed of the same stuff as the brown-black background. Here, the queen of the gods is simply a divine version of a burgher’s wife such as Margaretha de Geer (1661) or, indeed, of Rembrandt himself. All the faces in the exhibition, regardless of subject, have brown eyes and an expression of resigned equanimity.

Detail from Self-portrait at the Age of 63 (1669). National Gallery, London

In this respect, most of his figure paintings are also tronies – the Dutch term for pictures that represent a character, type or historical personage. Their coherence is such that despite the differences between the sitters it is hard not to see them as a group self-portrait, as though Rembrandt had spent so long looking at himself in a mirror that it was always himself he saw – as an apostle, the dying Jacob, or as a well-heeled member of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild.

It is hard not to see him, too, in the most affecting paintings in the exhibition: The Jewish Bride (circa 1665) and Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656). The first is a picture of tender marital felicity, the second of family harmony. Rembrandt’s experiences of both were fleeting. That’s the thing about him, and where perhaps Baldinucci had a point: it is impossible to start thinking about the paintings without ending up thinking about the man. 

Runs until 18 January 2015

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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SRSLY #136: The Shape of Water / Cunk on Britain / Please Like Me

The pop culture podcast with Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

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