Art review: Rembrandt - The Late Works

REJECTING classical idealism and wrestling with the concept of the self, Rembrandt was more modern than you might think

Drawings confirm Rembrandts dedication to an art of observation. Picture: Contributed
Drawings confirm Rembrandts dedication to an art of observation. Picture: Contributed

National Gallery, London

Star rating: * * * * *

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When after 80 years of intermittent and often savage conflict the Dutch finally won independence from Spain in 1648 – no Referendum for them – they celebrated by building a magnificent new Town Hall in Amsterdam. Rembrandt was among those commissioned to decorate it. His picture, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, was a scene described by Tacitus as the Batavians, the proto-Dutch, swore an oath to expel the Romans from their land. It was a neat historical parallel to the Dutch rebellion against Spain, Roman in both language and church, for freedom of religion was a key issue in the long war. Rembrandt’s picture was originally 18 feet high, but for some reason it was returned to him and he cut it down. Still immensely impressive, it is one of many stars in the dazzling exhibition in London of Rembrandt’s late work.

Tacitus tells how the Batavian conspirators met at night for a banquet and in Rembrandt’s picture they are gathered round a table. Surrounded by darkness, a pool of light encloses them in the drama of their conspiracy as they swear their oath. Strong shadows exaggerate their features and underline their distinctness as individuals. Rembrandt has imagined their leader as a warrior wearing an enormous crown and with only one eye. Painted full-face, the empty eye-socket is plainly visible. To confront us with such a ‘defect’ in an individual, such an unsightly departure from the norm, was a crime against classical decorum, but that was the point. Rembrandt purposefully set his face against the conformity of classical idealism. We are all individuals, he says. What makes us different from each other is what matters and in this he is very modern. Indeed this show demonstrates how topical he is still.

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One room has nine portraits in it. One of them is the mighty group portrait of some of the city’s leading businessmen, The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, also known as The Syndics. There are six figures in it, so a total of 15 people confront you. The shock of their presence is palpable, not because of any illusion, nor because they are in any way grotesque or exaggerated, but simply because they are so tangible and so individual.

The Syndics dominate. Five men in black hats are at a table. Four are looking out as though you have interrupted them. Indeed one rises as if to address you. The fifth looks at his neighbour ignoring the interruption. The sixth behind is in attendance. Such is the power of their presence, you might have arrived for a very intimidating interview. Jacob Trip was another powerful figure in Amsterdam society, but he was around 85 when Rembrandt painted his portrait hanging nearby. He died the year he was painted and is perhaps already a little withdrawn. His wife Margherita survived him for 11 years, however, and she, instead of looking deferentially at her husband, as was the convention, fixes us with a steely gaze. Her face framed by a formidable white ruff, she grips her chair with a bony hand (x-rays reveal that to get it right Rembrandt tried several variations of this detail) as no doubt she gripped the family’s affairs. What gives her portrait such force, however, and what also conveys her husband’s frailty is Rembrandt’s extraordinary command of paint, his ability, not to describe in any literal sense the transparency of Jacob Trip’s aged skin, for instance, but to find an equivalent that somehow summarises its material presence and so that of the people he portrays. The paint is a metaphor that stands imaginatively for what is there, not a catalogue of its details, but it is also very physical. It makes you aware of what is portrayed as matter and substance far beyond a mere painted surface.

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Drawings shown alongside the paintings confirm Rembrandt’s dedication to an art of observation. Most shocking is Elsje Christiaens a drawing of a poor Danish girl executed for killing her landlady. Her body was displayed on a gibbet. Rembrandt travelled to draw it and does so with a cool matter-of-factness. The feet of a dissected corpse blackened by decomposition confronting you at the centre of the surviving fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman are even more shocking. But this power to shock is only a function of Rembrandt’s penetrating and all encompassing vision. It is the same power that allows him to go from the outer to the inner, from the face to the mind beneath. Two pictures here, the Jewish Bride and Bathsheba, are supreme examples of this. The former, also identified as Isaac and Rebecca, is at first sight a dramatically physical picture. The paint describing the couple’s clothes is laid on thickly with a palette knife, but within this tactile framework, the tenderness of the couple’s embrace, gestures and expressions, transcend its physicality like love itself. In Bathsheba, she sits naked. A servant bathes her feet and holds in her hand a letter sent to her by David, her king, about his physical desire. The inner conflict it provokes is written on her face.

The Christian dispensation proposes the opposition of body and soul, their enmity even as the body drags the spirit down. Rembrandt will have none of that. Throughout this wonderful show we see outer life and inner life as indivisible. It is there in his portrait of his son Titus Reading Aloud, in several paintings of Apostles, in Glasgow’s Man in a Golden Helmet and in the Duke of Buccleuch’s Old Woman Reading. It is there too in many of the etchings which weave a parallel show through the paintings, but are a little overshadowed by them although on their own scale they can be every bit as grand.

It is above all in the self-portraits, however, that Rembrandt confronts the conundrum of how the spiritually aware self is a function of the physical body. An imposing group of them greets you in the first room. In one from Washington he looks perplexed, but almost indignant at his own perplexity. In the National Gallery’s own picture, his perplexity is touched with sadness, perhaps awareness of his age, for it was painted the year he died, at just 63. In the great Kenwood self-portrait, however, he is grandly self-possessed, confident his achievement would endure. But in the Hague self-portrait, the last that he painted, paint is applied so roughly that it is as though he is about to dissolve back into the shadow from which he has just emerged. The “too, too solid flesh” is indeed melting as Hamlet wished it would.

Rembrandt was ten when Shakespeare died and, unless perhaps with Titian, the playwright is the only figure with whom he could be compared, especially if you consider the narrative drama of the etchings which sadly there is not space to discuss here. To bring it all back home, however, there is also a link with David Hume. Both men contemplated profoundly the conundrum of self and both challenged, too, the Christian metaphysics of body and soul. Nor is it so remote. Scotland and Holland were closely linked and around 1650 the merchant John Clerk listed a Rembrandt portrait among sundry items he had bought in Holland. And when Allan Ramsay painted his friend Hume, he also paid tribute in the picture to Rembrandt. Perhaps he saw the connection.

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Still, such domestic considerations apart there are pictures in this show that would be worth the journey to London on their own. Gathered with others of the same stature, they make a once in a lifetime experience. Worth the trip if you had to walk. And while you are there, visit the Tate to see Turner’s late work as well. Another old man, perhaps, but another example, too, of an artist’s vision growing more profound and more independent with advancing years.

Until 18 January