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Rehanging Rembrandt

350 years after his death, how can we see art's great humanist afresh?

In 2016 a new Rembrandt was revealed. It was a half-length portrait that shows an unnamed 30-something man against a plain, buff background. He wears a black hat and white ruff and stares out of the canvas with those characteristic frank and interrogative eyes. It seemed a typical early-period Rembrandt, a product of the stage of his career when he worked in detail before his brushwork broadened into something much more expressive.

This portrait of a burgher looked typical because that is exactly what it was. It was not, in fact, a painting at all but an extremely sophisticated digital print, the result of an 18-month collaboration between advertisers, data scientists, engineers and art historians from the likes of Microsoft, the Delft University of Technology, the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague and the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

The idea started as an advertising wheeze by the J Walter Thompson agency for the ING bank. When analysis of Rembrandt’s portraits revealed that his most frequent subject was a 30-something man in a black hat, etc, that was what the team set out to re-create.

Engineers scanned 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings with high-resolution 3D cameras and, using a facial recognition algorithm that detects more than 60 separate points in a painting, compiled a database of both typical features and the distance between them on the subject’s face. The depth of his paint layers and brushstrokes were also calculated and the data – some 168,263 elements – was collated. The portrait that emerged was a 3D printing consisting of 148 million pixels. A real Rembrandt in every particular – except that it wasn’t by him and showed a person who never existed.

The picture is a creation based on the physical evidence of his portraits; tangible things that can be measured: composition, geometry, materials. What it does not contain are the intangibles, such as the projection of the artist’s self that, since portraiture is always an interaction between painter and sitter, is a necessary part of every portrait.

Nevertheless, the project suggests that there is such a thing as a generic Rembrandt, that once you extract some of the obvious masterworks such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes TulpThe Jewish BrideThe Blinding of Samson or the Kenwood House self-portrait, what is left can sometimes seem a brown hinterland of pictures that form a sort of Rembrandt porridge (his palette consisted of just 12 basic pigments, mostly earth tones).


A new, digital “Rembrandt” portrait created in 2016

This perception was inherently acknowledged by the Rembrandt Research Project, which was started in 1968 with the aim of producing a definitive catalogue of the painter’s works. By the time it was wound up in 2011 it had produced a six-volume corpus of his paintings that lopped hundreds of works from his official oeuvre – studio and student pictures, copies and pastiches, and any number of dark portraits that “looked a bit Rembrandt-y”.

What was left after this vigorous pruning was a nonetheless daunting body of work: some 400 paintings, 800 etchings and 1,200 drawings. This volume and the variety within it – portraits, biblical scenes, landscapes, genre works, seascapes, mythologies – is perhaps the least distinctive element of his brilliance. The point of Rembrandt, as any book about him will tell you, is that he was the ultimate painter of the human condition.

His portraits, runs the old saw, may show individual players in the Dutch Golden Age but they also show Everyman. They present glimpses of the soul in which our hopes, fears, curiosities and loves can be read. The vanity and foibles of his sitters are ours too and the painter doesn’t judge, just observes with sympathy since he himself had experienced both the best and worst of what life could offer. These commonplaces may be well-worn but that doesn’t make them any less true. The difficulty is in seeing Rembrandt afresh.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death and Holland is unsurprisingly going all out in its celebrations. “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age” is the umbrella title for exhibitions in nine cities around the country, the most important being in Amsterdam, the Hague, Delft, Leiden and Leeuwarden. They offer the perfect opportunity to check whether all those sonorous platitudes are merited.

Part of Rembrandt’s reputation as art’s great humanist lies in his own affecting personal history. His pictures, the reasoning goes, could only have been painted by someone who had experienced life from every angle. Part, too, lies in historical circumstances: his birth, in Leiden in 1606, coincided with the beginnings of both Dutch ascendancy and the baroque. Michelangelo had been dead for only 42 years, Caravaggio still had four years to live, Velázquez was seven, Rubens was 29, and Vermeer wouldn’t be born for another 26 years. Rembrandt rapidly became the leading portraitist of the Dutch Republic as it in turn became the wealthiest country in Europe. So he was the perfect painter for the perfect place at the perfect time.

Rembrandt’s own career followed a vertiginous boom-and-bust trajectory that mirrored Dutch tulip-mania, that extraordinary contemporary convergence of capitalism, speculation, cupidity and horticulture. He was born into a degree of comfort as the son of a successful miller and trained as a painter first in Leiden and then in Amsterdam, before returning to his home town to start an independent career. Rather than travelling to Italy to enhance his knowledge of art he decided he could learn all he needed from works brought back to his native country, and from Italianate painters such as Pieter Lastman and the Utrecht Caravaggisti – followers of Caravaggio who had returned to Holland with his dramatic style in their baggage.

Around 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam where he fell in love with Saskia van Uylenburgh, a mayor’s daughter from Friesland and the cousin of his art-dealer landlord. The couple married in 1634 and moved into a house in the up-and-coming Jewish quarter: the mortgage was to prove a major factor in his subsequent financial difficulties. Saskia bore him four children, the first three of whom died quickly, leaving only a son, Titus. Saskia herself died in 1642, aged 29, shortly after his birth. Her death affected Rembrandt deeply and he virtually gave up oil painting for several years. When he did return to it his tone had darkened.

Saskia may have been the love of his life and his favourite model but he later found some sort of consolation with two other women: fleetingly with Titus’s nurse Geertje Dircx (who took him to court for breaking a promise to marry her and who he in turn had committed for pawning jewellery that had once belonged to Saskia), and more contentedly with his young maid Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he had a daughter, Cornelia. Her birth led the Reformed Church to issue Hendrickje a summons claiming “that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter”. He was not a member of the congregation and so was not indicted.


Through the keyhole: The French Bed, an etching of 1646, shows Rembrandt’s interest in erotica

Through all this, and despite a high income, he continued to live beyond his means. His worsening financial situation became perilous and he was forced to sign over his house to Titus, move out and, to avoid bankruptcy, sell his collection of paintings (he co-owned a Rubens), prints (he had complete editions of the graphic work of Dürer and Lucas van Leyden and engravings after Raphael and Titian), antiquities and curiosities (natural history and ethnographic specimens, a lion’s skin, Japanese armour, Venetian glass, medals and coins). Because the painters’ guild banned insolvent artists from practising, in order to be allowed to continue to work, Hendrickje and Titus formed a private company and hired Rembrandt as their sole employee.

In the event, both died before him – Hendrickje in 1663 and Titus in 1668. He himself survived his son by just a year and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. It may be simply understandable projection but something of this ultimately tragic biography can be read in many of his paintings, and in his self-portraits in particular – of which he made 45, more than any pre-20th-century artist.

It is all too easy to read the later of them as images of a man reflecting on and marked by his unhappy fate. A more pragmatic reason might be that he needed to look unnaturally hard and long at a human face in order fully to understand the way a physiognomy registers and transmits emotions, as well as practise the niceties of tonality, brushwork and light and shade. And no one’s face was as available for  uncomfortable scrutiny as his own. In some ways they are less self-portraits than what the Dutch call tronies: expressive depictions of a head as a type or character.

In 1681, a mere 12 years after the painter’s death, the poet Andries Pels slightingly called Rembrandt “the first heretic in painting”. The traits Pels meant as an insult – Rembrandt’s disdain for beauty, grace, idealisation, classical form and harmonious lighting – are exactly what have appealed to viewers down the ages. He was the sort of artist who would try everything once; he could etch both an annunciation and a woman pissing, show Christ preaching while a bored child draws in the sand, depict a tree minutely observed from nature but harbouring a couple canoodling, and paint some of Amsterdam’s burghers posing in their finery while drawing others – or perhaps himself – sweatily screwing among tangled bedsheets.

The starting point for his career was The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. Painted in 1632 when Rembrandt was 26, it is a group portrait showing the surgeon standing over the corpse of an executed criminal (we know his name, Aris Kindt, convicted and hanged for armed robbery) and explaining the musculature of an arm to a cluster of seven fellow medics. Each of their expressions is different – curiosity, impassivity, nervous wonder – and the painter’s brilliance is to combine them and the figures in a harmonious ensemble that turns a formal commission (the sitters paid to have their individual portraits included) into something entirely natural. The viewer has effectively opened the door to the operating theatre and walked into this entirely convincing mise en scène before the men of science have had a chance to straighten their backs and dignify themselves for outside eyes.

This seizing of the key moment of a story is something he went on to demonstrate again and again. Indeed he would use versions of those Amsterdam sawbones and his fellow citizens in the religious, historical and mythological paintings he started to produce. The king and startled dinner guests in Belshazzar’s Feast, 1635, in the National Gallery, aghast as the divine hand starts to write on the wall, are neighbours from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, while the body of the naked and unapologetically fleshy Danaë waiting for Zeus to impregnate her in the disguise of a shower of gold, in his huge painting of 1636, is Saskia’s – although he later changed her face to that of Geertje Dircx.

In his paintings he made no distinction between the earthly and the spiritual: whatever part the characters play – gods, apostles, bystanders – they are ordinary people first and often foremost. So it is Dutch men and women who lower the crucified Christ from the cross and surround the dying Virgin’s bed, and a bawling Dutch baby who is carried away in the talons of Zeus transformed into an eagle.

There is something of this role-play in the most celebrated of all his paintings, The Night Watch of 1642. It shows a militia group preparing to go on patrol and the near life-size figures, some 34 of them (two further figures were lost when the painting was cut down in 1715 to fit between the columns of the room to which it was being moved), have a Dad’s Army whiff of self-importance about them. The militiamen load their arquebuses and shoulder their pikes as if to face down a terrifying enemy rather than to collar a few drunks in the streets of the world’s most prosperous city.

Rembrandt raised the emotional tone of the work, however, by his dramatic lighting, which flickers and surges cinematically; by using a dark ground to give depth and by adding clay and sand to his paint to give texture; and by the sense of movement that turns this disparate group and their Captain Mainwaring commander, Frans Banninck Cocq, into an organic whole. Essentially Rembrandt made warriors out of a Rotary Club meeting. But he needed the painting too: his largest picture, he was at work on it when Saskia died and it kept him going in the aftermath.


Self-portrait with Circles (1665)

The painting was the centrepiece of the Rijksmuseum when it moved into its current building in the late 19th century, although it has not received the kindest of treatment over the years. As well as being trimmed, it was attacked with knives in both 1911 and 1975, while in 1990 it was sprayed with acid by another attacker. This summer it will undergo a lengthy restoration (it has been restored 25 times already during its long life) in full view of the public, without leaving the gallery where it always hangs.

The Rijksmuseum is currently staging the largest of the anniversary celebrations: its entire holdings of his work – 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 prints – are up on its walls in a show entitled “All the Rembrandts”. Although he has long been acknowledged, alongside Goya, as art’s greatest printmaker, this huge gathering of his etchings is nevertheless revelatory. There could be no such exhibition of his paintings that brings together every aspect of his work in the way his prints do.

He produced etchings throughout his career and saw them as independent works of art. They combine, with extraordinary dexterity, the expressive line of drawing and the tonality of painting. His hatchings, reworkings and numerous bitings (where the etched copper plate is immersed in acid) give his prints an unrivalled depth and sophistication. His technique proved ideal for depicting rain falling from scudding clouds, or the heavenly light that illuminates Christ in The Three Crosses gradually being switched off as he darkened the scene from print to print. He would use dry point (scratching directly into the plate so that the burin throws up an edge that prints with a soft line) to give numinousness to religious scenes and create a whole world full of emotional heft despite being no bigger than a few inches square. One sign of how highly his mastery was prized was the fact that his etching of Christ Healing the Sick from 1647-49 became known as “the Hundred Guilder Print”.

Shortly after Saskia died, the grieving artist began to take regular walks out into the countryside around Amsterdam, and something of his soulful wandering can be sensed in the 46 landscape prints he produced, as if to capture the depth of his mood. At other times he etched the beggars he saw on the city streets, or naked women – both real (a model warming herself by a stove) and imagined (a sleeping Antiope, the focus of Jupiter’s salivating attention).

Once the anniversary celebrations are over, many of these prints – the highest-quality versions the Rijksmuseum owns – will be put back into storage for ten years to preserve them. So it is worth remembering the sheer effort that went into every image: the hours spent with the etching needle in hand (there is a self-portrait print in which he shows himself, hat on head, sitting by a window for the best light, etching plate resting on a small cushion), the trial prints, burnishings, reworkings and touchings up as he created these miniature worlds. It is almost miraculous that the wonder and mystery survived the sheer labour intensiveness of it all. It was necessary effort, however: in a rare comment on his profession, Rembrandt once said that a work of art is finished only when the master has realised his intentions.

That, late in life and beset with money problems, he carried on working in the broad-brush style he had developed – paint applied thickly and with vigour, spread with palette knife, brush handle or fingers (“like muck” dripping down the canvas, as one critic dismissed it) – rather than the more enamelled and detailed manner his patrons still wanted is evidence that he had an intention for his art, even if he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. Perhaps it was simply to paint in a way that interested him. Perhaps it was to find a physical expression of an emotional state.

One contemporary wrote that, with his talent, Rembrandt should have become a prince. He was, however, never good at cultivating influence and despite the fact that his admirers numbered the Medici and Charles I, he preferred, even as poverty bit, the company of his students and fellow artists and a workaholic lifestyle sustained by bread, cheese and herring. He was Everyman to the very end. 

“All the Rembrandts” runs at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 10 June

Michael Prodger is associate 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 appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special