sat 20/07/2024

Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery

Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery

In his last decade, the Dutch artist suffered hardship, but painted some of his most enduring masterpieces

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman, 1656© Amsterdam Museum

All human life, as they say, is here: we witness displays of warmth and tenderness in virtuous matrimony; reflection and contemplation in quiet solitude. We respond to the soft seductions of the flesh in its yielding ripeness, and we feel the pathos of the withering of the flesh in age; there’s even the mocking of the aged flesh still lusting for the piece of the old action. There’s civic pride and intellectual curiosity.

And then there’s simply being; being in a fully conscious, thinking and feeling sense – don’t we get exactly that when we stand before a Rembrandt self-portrait? Here is a life quietly pulsing with intelligence and self-knowledge. But there’s also the blood and the ghastly grisliness of lives prematurely snuffed out, confronting us with our own mortality. It’s all here.

But while there is drama, there is an absence of spectacle. Rembrandt doesn’t do spectacle. It is not the Dutch, Protestant way, and it’s not Rembrandt’s way. Rembrandt’s way is to express the concentrated intensity of human experience, while addressing its quotidian nature. The one doesn’t cancel out the other, but the ordinary is heightened and made somehow mysterious – as all great art is somehow mysterious. We see a young woman, identified as 18-year-old Elsje Christiaens, hanged from a gibbet. An axe dangles from the gibbet by her head – it looks small and unthreatening here – so that those gathered for her public execution may grasp the nature and method of her crime. She used it to murder her landlady.

Rembrandt sketched the young woman from life, as it were, and here she appears in two small, broadly sketched but finely shaded ink drawings, one frontal, the other in three-quarter profile (pictured below). Her head rests on one awkwardly raised and twisted arm. The noose we do not see, for her head is pushing down into her body – she’s bunched up. But her face appears in perfect repose.

Rembrandt, Elsje Christiaens hanging on the Gibbet; The Metropolitan Museum of ArtAs if in even deeper slumber we find another who, no doubt, had also been sentenced to the gallows – this time on an anatomy table, his brains exposed and with the parted flesh of his skull – such an excess of flesh – framing his features like lustrous hair. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman (main picture), painted eight years before Elsje Christiaens, in 1656, is Rembrandt’s second celebrated anatomy painting, the first being The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp in 1632, the painting with which Rembrandt made his name, making him, at the age of 26, the most famous and sought after painter in Amsterdam – although that good fortune wasn’t to last. This second painting is merely the surviving fragment of a fire in 1723, and the canvas was subsequently recut, though a sketch does survive outlining the original composition – the cadaver still at its centre, surrounded by men of the surgeons’ guild and gentleman lookers-on.

The dead man’s body has been dramatically foreshortened, and the perhaps somewhat shocking allusion to Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ would not have been lost on the many who first saw it. Does this suggestive reference lend the dead man dignity and touch us with the added weight of pathos? The dignity is all too evident in the dead man’s humanity, held up like a mirror to our own; we look straight into his face, after all. The painting makes for a very visceral kind of memento mori, that genre of painting that Dutch artists of the 17th century seemed particularly to specialise in and excel at. But instead of a grinning skull we merely get the cap of a skull, held by the surgeon’s assistant like a kidney tray, or perhaps a kind of votive offering.

Separated by 24 years, the differences in technique between Rembrandt’s two surgeons’ guild paintings is evident in the looser, broader handling of paint in the later work. This is an exhibition that looks at Rembrandt’s late period – a period covering, generously, some 15 years of the artist’s life up to his death, aged 63, in 1669, so only the compelling later anatomy painting is on display, along with 40 works on canvas, 20 drawings and 30 prints, including a tiny, delicate and exquisite self-portrait that opens this show.

Here, in this spare and beautifully designed exhibition – look, no wall texts (it's all printed in a pamphlet) – we find an artist tirelessly experimenting, in both painting and printing techniques. He was the first artist to use a palette knife to work paint onto canvas instead of just mixing colours with it. With this he built up thick, oily swathes and peaks of paint, to give an almost sculptural texture to detailed surfaces, such as the fleshy contours of a face, while leaving other areas of the canvas barely touched beyond the underpaint and a few quick delineating strokes – hands were often a case in point.

The difficulties of Rembrandt’s later years have been well documented: the bankruptcy, from which he would never recover; the falling out of artistic favour; the death of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, initially employed as his infant son’s nursemaid and carer (his wife Saskia had died in 1642, and some 20 years later he even sold her grave to try to pay off his creditors); and, in the most devastating blow of all, the death of his only son Titus, two years before his own.

Rembrandt, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, about 1661; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung MünchenAnd yet these years saw the completion of some of Rembrandt’s most powerful works: those intense late self-portraits, five of which begin the exhibition; Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, c.1654, oozing with subtle eroticism; the heart-rendingly tender Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, c.1665, better known as The Jewish Bride, of which Van Gogh, somewhat melodramatically, was to say, “I would gladly give up 10 years of my life to sit in front of the painting for a fortnight, with only a dry crust of bread to eat”; and the monumental history painting The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, c.1661 (pictured above), which depicts the one-eyed and rather monstrous-looking Batavian leader exhorting his warriors to swear an oath against the Romans.

This last work was commissioned for Amsterdam’s new town hall but was ultimately rejected, then later cropped, probably by Rembrandt himself, though it is still a very big painting. Suffused with fiery reds and molten oranges, its feverish, almost radioactive tones are reminicent of one of Degas’ own late paintings. It is a very strange and rather unsettling masterpiece. Far too rough and wild, one imagines, for those good burghers of Amsterdam.

Fisun Guner on Twitter

The ordinary is heightened and made somehow mysterious – as all great art is somehow mysterious

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