Art review: Rembrandt - Britain’s Discovery of the Master, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

A Woman Bathing in a Stream, c. 1635
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, c. 1635
Share this article
Have your say

Rembrandt’s Mill was once called “the greatest painting in the world”. Correspondingly there was public consternation at its export to America in 1911. It is now in the National Gallery in Washington. You can however now see it in Edinburgh where it is one of the stars of Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master. It is a wonderful painting. Turner said that Rembrandt had “thrown (over it) that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning dawn and dewy light.” Beneath dark clouds of night, the mill’s sails catch the first pink light of dawn. A fisherman is out already and a woman is washing clothes. An old lady leads a child, perhaps to school. It is easy to see the picture as emblematic of the Netherlands looking forward to an end to the long war with Spain and to the peace finally established with the Treaty of Munster in 1648, the year the picture was finished. There are other stunning pictures in this show, too, however. The National Gallery’s own lovely A Woman in Bed, for instance, is partnered by the enchanting painting from Dulwich of a girl at a window. In similar mode are An Old Woman Reading and the touching picture of Rembrandt’s son, Titus, at his desk, nominally doing his homework, but plainly dreaming of other things. The big, dramatic painting of Belshazzar’s Feast is a reminder that Rembrandt wasn’t always quiet and pensive, although another star of the show, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, shows him at his quietest and most magical. Camped by a fire, the Holy Family make a little cocoon of light and warmth in the darkness. The firelight is reflected in a river in the foreground, but being Rembrandt the warmth and light are somehow human, not just a skilful study in painted illumination.

Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh *****

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647 PIC: from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647 PIC: from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland

Some of Rembrandt’s finest etchings are here too. Prints like his Three Crosses are among the very greatest etchings ever made. With its unique fusion of reverence and melancholy, the personal and the universal, it is among the most moving renderings of its subject. Notably too it is great Protestant religious art, a point that was not lost on David Wilkie who determined to follow Rembrandt’s example and, as a Protestant, to redeem the iconoclasts’ wreckage of our artistic heritage.

There are wonderful drawings, especially a group of small landscapes, unmatched in their economy. These also include four English scenes. Though most likely done from somebody else’s sketches, there was once a rumour that Rembrandt did visit England. It probably began, however, with the existence of a pair of grand portraits of an English couple from Norwich, the Reverend Johannes Elison and his wife Maria Bockenolle. Their son, who no doubt commissioned the pictures, was a successful merchant in Amsterdam.

This exhibiiton is not simply a Rembrandt blockbuster however. As its subtitle indicates, as well as bringing together marvellous paintings, drawings and etchings, it tells the fascinating story of our long relationship with Rembrandt as collectors, as artists and indeed as general art lovers.

In Scotland too this relationship began when Rembrandt was still young. Sir Robert Kerr, Earl of Lothian, was a great collector and sometime before 1636 he gave to the King, himself an even greater collector, three works by Rembrandt that he had acquired in Holland in 1629 or ’30. One of them, a self-portrait of the artist as a self-confident young man in hat and fur cape and with a small moustache is in the show. Shortly after this contact with the artist, John Clerk of Penicuik became the Earl’s dealer (or that is what you would call him now) and there was at least one Rembrandt in Clerk’s own collection. There is a superb head of an old man here with white hair and bushy beard which was once in the Clerk collection and is now in America. Although we don’t know when it actually entered the collection, it certainly belonged to the Clerks before 1740. It is tantalising to think that it could have been bought by John Clerk from the artist himself when figuratively at least the paint was still wet.

Belshazzar's Feast, c.1635 PIC: From the collection of the National Gallery, London

Belshazzar's Feast, c.1635 PIC: From the collection of the National Gallery, London

In the 18th century there followed what was recognised at the time as a ‘craze’ for Rembrandt with copies, forgeries and much else, some skilful, some amusing and all well illustrated here, for instance, by examples of how Rembrandt’s famous Hundred Guilder Print was traduced by William Baillie when he acquired the plate. Hogarth lampooned this craze in a lavatorial print of Paul before Felix. If that was his public attitude, privately however Hogarth could learn from the master. Joshua Reynolds was the same. Publicly he talked Rembrandt down, but he copied him in his own work and even owned several Rembrandts including Glasgow’s great painting of the Man with the Golden Helmet.

Reynolds and other 18th century admirers of the master are well represented. One notable omission though is Allan Ramsay. His portrait of Jean Jacques Rousseau should perhaps be here. It is not only a visual tribute to Rembrandt. There was also much more to the connection. When Ramsay painted it, Rousseau was writing his autobiographical Confessions. This was to date the closest thing in literature to Rembrandt’s self-portraits. With this picture and its partner, Ramsay’s equally Rembrandtesque portrait of David Hume, the Scots painter offered a profound commentary on the conundrum of self: how, if we seek to contemplate it, it is at once and inextricably both subject and object, a problem analysed with such eloquent penetration by his friend Hume and before him only by Rembrandt.

Raeburn’s beautiful homage to the master called Portrait of a Jew is here however. So too is another tribute, Wilkie’s portrait of his niece Sophia, brightly lit against shadow. Wilkie’s atmospheric drawing of the finding of the Scottish regalia also reflects the inspiration of Rembrandt’s Entombment. Indeed as I noted above, Wilkie also had a focused ambition to follow in Rembrandt’s footsteps as a painter of religious subjects. It is shame that his Cotter’s Saturday Night (a picture of bible reading) is not here. It would have shown how, almost uniquely, Wilkie could find that stillness, reverence and awe in ordinary human life that is so much part of Rembrandt’s greatness. Wilkie’s friend Andrew Geddes was also an admirer of the master and was one of the first to revive etching as Rembrandt had practised it.

One of the most interesting later sections of the exhibition presents the work of the artists of the revival of etching and drypoint who a little later in the century followed Geddes’s initiative. Whistler, Seymour Hayden and others and a little later artists like DY Cameron, James McBey and William Strang went on to re-establish Rembrandt’s print medium as a major art form. If these artists were worthy followers of Rembrandt, a room devoted to more recent examples of his inspiration is less rewarding. Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream, his touching picture of his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, paddling in her shift, looks sadly forlorn among modern variations on the composition by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. These and other tributes suggest Rembrandt was beyond them and they knew it. Indeed Kossoff’s painting suggests his despair at how far out of reach Rembrandt now was, not just because of his own lack of skill, but because our image of humanity is now so fractured and uncertain. Nonetheless, there is a certain hubris in the attempt. In contrast, Eduardo Paolozzi’s student efforts to copy Rembrandt heads in pen have a touching humility about them. The best tributes here are a bust of Einstein by Epstein who thought his sitter looked like Rembrandt and a superbly austere print by Ken Currie after Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. Altogether though this show is rich, not only in the quality of the art on display, but equally in the diverse and fascinating stories that it tells.

Until 14 October