Visual Art Review:
Rembrandt The Late Works (The National Gallery, London)
Rembrandt: The Late Works, Jonathan Bikker et al (Yale University Press)
Rembrandt’s Universe, Gary Schwartz (Thames & Hudson)
Rembrandt is one of those names, like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, that have ascended to a higher almost ethereal sphere and the person behind the name can only be lauded and lavished with imprecise praise. Shrink-wrapped and simplified for posterity, they are Famous and Exemplary and we are not invited to look too closely at their situations and achievements. Everyone knows Martin Luther King had a dream and that he was a good guy but that’s about it. And we know Rembrandt was a really great painter but not so sure what his greatness consisted in. The exhibition at London’s National Gallery (until 18 January), and two books on the artist, go some way towards taking the man off his pedestal and helping us see what is astonishing about his work.
Good painters are uncanny at playing with the movement of light and colours and Rembrandt is no exception in this regard but not all good painters can depict facial expressions with honesty, compassion and sublime skill. Rembrandt is the unrivalled master when it comes to faces. His abiding concern with capturing moods and emotional states as registered by posture and parts of the body, especially faces and hands, helps explain why he painted his own body some eighty times. Vanity, as you see when stepping into the first room of the National Gallery’s stunning exhibition, doesn’t come into it. The room has four self-portraits in oil and one etching, completed between 1659 and 1669, and they will bowl you over.
A day later I found myself in snooty Knightsbridge and a street mostly dedicated to high-end hairdressers and beauty parlours, one of which offered a ‘bespoke permanent make up service’. Rembrandt is the natural antidote to any such endeavour. He paints himself as he is: limp skin, slack jowls, wiry grey hair, drooping eyelids and a W.C. Fields-like nose. The self-portraits were painted during the years in which his common-law wife, Hendrickje, and his son Titus died, a period of grief compounded by his finances nose-diving into bankruptcy. When he died himself, aged 63, he was buried in an anonymous rented grave.