New exhibition: ‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ at the National Gallery London, 15 October 2014 – 18 January 2015

I’m a huge fan of Rembrandt and can’t wait to see the show entitled Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery. I think his late, dark, moving self-portraits – executed in thick impasto paint that seems to reflect an awareness of the aging of his own face – are probably the greatest portraits ever. In his innovative last years Rembrandt had lost his common-law-wife and all but one of his children, been made bankrupt and been embroiled in legal disputes. But, at the height of his powers and more original than ever his work of those latter ears was the greatest he ever produced. As the National Gallery puts it ‘The Late Works’ examines the themes that preoccupied Rembrandt as he grew older: self-scrutiny, experimentation, light, observation of everyday life and even other artists’ works; as well as expressions of intimacy, contemplation, conflict and reconciliation.’

Rembrandt self portrait

To my mind no painter has equalled Rembrandt’s technical skill and virtuosity by the time he had reached his final decades. I don’t mean in his ability to paint ‘illusionistically’ – plenty of painters could do that – but his total command and complete confidence in oil paint to depict anything he wanted, with such rough, sketchy strokes that up close they disintegrate – it’s only when you step back that his wide range of types of marks (he was the first to apply paint directly with a palette knife; used previously only to mix paint) combine to form the atmospheric image so brilliantly. The late paintings are so ‘rough’, so loose and free with areas of thick impasto that they are as formally innovative as an Impressionist painting. Sadly for Rembrandt by the last part of his life his style had become old-fashioned, and a smoother style exhibited by painters like Van Dyck was in vogue. Rembrandt struggled more and more for commissions and suffered the indiginity of losing jobs to his own pupils.

The painting below was completed in 1669, the year of his death. The show also contains a number of portraits of more elderly patrons or friends, such as the Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip whose paper-thin wizened skin is painted so skillfully but in such a dignified manner. Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait With Two Circles from 1665–69 is there too, his monumental, defiant and rather enigmatic statement of his own skill. Now regarded as almost a modernist for his astonishingly daring loose style, in his own lifetime by his latter years Rembrandt’s rough style was out of fashion as tastes had changed towards a smoother style of paint handling. It’s this defiance I think – not conceitedness or arrogance – that you see in the Self Portrait With Two Circles in which Rembrandt stands in front of two perfectly drawn freehand circles. There’s been much speculation over the meaning of these circles, but I think it most likely relates to the famous story of the early Italian master Giotto who was apparently summoned by the pope to demonstrate his artistic ability, and answered the challenge by drawing a perfect circle in a single motion.

It had been a hard life for Rembrandt – he’d lived beyond his means and had been made bankrupt in his mid-forties, losing his collection of paintings, drawings, and antiquities – which had often been used as props in his religious paintings. He’d been widowed, and later shamed by the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia by his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels who had been excommunicated from church for “practising whoredom with the painter Rembrandt”. By his final years Hendrickje too had died, followed by Rembrandt’s son Titus just a year before Rembrandt’s own death. He was buried in an unmarked grave. It’s hard not to read this rather sad history into his moving and brilliant final self portraits.

Rembrandt self portrait

This is a show mounted jointly by the National Gallery and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which holds a large collection of Rembrandt’s works. The paintings are drawn from both museums and from collections all over the world – the show includes his great later religious works as well as the wonderful self portraits, though I imagine it’s probably worth the price of a ticket for these alone. The exhibition includes these very well-known paintings : A Woman bathing in a Stream, The Jewish Bride, The Suicide of Lucretia and The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (also known as The Syndics) and The Anatomy Lesson. Vincent Van Gogh said of ‘The Jewish Bride’: “Would you believe it – and I honestly mean what I say – I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.”

‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ is curated by Betsy Wieseman, who says this:

“Even three-and-a-half centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to astonish and amaze. His technical inventions, and his profound insight into human emotions, are as fresh and relevant today as they were in the 17th century.”

The exhibition is divided into Rembrandt’s prints, drawings and paintings thematically. I love Rembrandt’s drawings as much as his paintings, and discover new wonderful sketches by him all the time – this lively drawing of a child throwing a tantrum – is my latest favourite.

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