10 November, 2014Issue 26.3The ArtsVisual Arts

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His Itchy Intelligence

Fergus McGhee

Self-Portrait at the Age of 63
Rembrandt: The Late Works
National Gallery, London
15 October 2014 – 18 January 2015


Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669

Silent, and somehow rather chilly, is the darkness out of whose ghostly void looms a rubious potato nose. It is a blotchy, pockmarked, winter-bitten face, beautiful in its dilapidation. Then we see the hands, which are massive, and follow the steep incline of fur up towards a pair of startling, illusionless eyes—eyes that seem not merely to look at us, but to see right through us. At closer range, this daunting froideur collapses into tenderness as we register the slightly tensed brow, the pinked eyeball, the lips poised between pity and pain. No-one painted the ambivalence of emotion like Rembrandt.

Or do we only fancy we have access to these paintings? With our historical spectacles on, oughtn’t they to appear as strange, as remote and irrecoverable as the man who made them? Are observations of the kind I have just made, then, merely the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain? It is a measure of Rembrandt’s magnitude as an artist that one struggles to reconcile the aesthetic and emotional immediacy of a painting like the Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (one of three painted in 1669, his final year) with any sense of historical perspective. In an exhibition rammed with such treasures, the products of Rembrandt’s radically innovative later years, resistance is futile.

Why did Rembrandt paint himself so often? The prosaic answer (fetch your spectacles) is that they were produced for a ready market of collectors who wanted a piece of the old master in an instantly recognisable style. Yet this fails to explain why these works are among the most thoughtful and creative of his entire career. One of the triumphs of this exhibition is that it demonstrates not only Rembrandt’s profound sympathy, but also his itchy intelligence.

One gets a sense of this intelligence from that intimidating mien, of course, but where it really makes itself felt is in the technical daring and complexity of the paintings themselves. Layer upon layer of paint, jabs and strokes made rapidly wet-in-wet, assume an almost sculptural quality in the highlighted passages of the face in the 1669 portrait. Against these delicate coagulations Rembrandt leaves areas of the grey-brown background exposed to create the illusion of craggy, saggy skin. On the tip of the nose tiny scratches inflect the picture with light and tactility.

Self-Portrait with Two Circles

Self-Portrait with Two Circles, c. 1667

Even more extraordinary is the slightly earlier Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1667), whose bold, spontaneous brushwork at once prompts and silences the question of whether it is really finished. The astonishing freedom and expressiveness of Rembrandt’s brush in these later works has often been compared to Titian’s loose late manner. Rembrandt undoubtedly learned a lot from the great Venetian, but whereas a Titian will resolve into realism at the appropriate distance, there is no evading Rembrandt’s licks and flicks. That’s the point. Even so, a picture like this is much more than the sum of its parts—the delightful sprezzatura with which it has been dashed off, the easy inevitability of a formidable technique, seems to suggest that Rembrandt had grasped an intense image whole in his mind. We will never know. What is certain is that this disdain for finish (the initial black outline of the cap, after all, is still very much visible) turned off not a few potential patrons.

Too much, perhaps, is made of Rembrandt’s troubles late in his career. Sensibly, the catalogue essays eschew dubious biographical readings of the works, as well as pretty generalizations about “late style” (something which blighted the Gallery’s recent Veronese show). But the facts are worth knowing if only because they foreground Rembrandt’s radicalism. Two important things happened in 1642: Rembrandt’s wife Saskia died, and he completed the painting now known as The Night Watch. According to Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten, this spectacular solution to the rather uninviting question of the group portrait upset the conventional expectations of some of his sitters. Was this the moment, then, when things started to sour for Rembrandt? Certainly his portrait commissions subsided, and such were his financial difficulties that he was declared bankrupt in 1656. This particular narrative continues with his being overlooked for the lucrative set of public commissions to decorate the new Town Hall in 1661; it was only the death of his more highly favoured pupil, Govert Flinck, which prompted the burgomasters to involve him at all, and even then his monumental Conspiracy of the Batavians, composed for the purpose, was ultimately rejected. The deaths of his lover Hendrickje in 1662, and of his son Titus in 1668 (both tenderly immortalized in several works on display in the exhibition) complete the tragedy. The sneers that echo through the following decades (“his colours run down the picture like dung” scoffs Gerard de Lairesse) corroborate the myth of neglected genius.

Naturally it’s not so simple. Throughout the 1650s the self-portraits continued to sell, while the etchings—on which Rembrandt’s international reputation rested—fetched impressive prices at auction all over Europe. And the exhibition’s walls are strewn with portraits (as well as larger commissions like The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman and The Syndics) that testify there was still an appetite for Rembrandt’s work. Cosimo de Medici even paid a visit to “Rembrandt, pittore famoso“, in 1667. The master’s financial catastrophes were due less to public neglect than to his own profligacy (his deranged purchase of a vast house in 1639 and his ruinously expensive collection of objets d’art) and the economic depression caused by the Anglo-Dutch war. As for the scoffing sophisticates, they repeatedly turned their ire on Rembrandt precisely because he had been the pre-eminent figure in Dutch painting. In the last years of his life, then, Rembrandt’s reputation had by no means entirely slipped, but it was slipping. While Rembrandt’s own pupils Flinck and Bol ran after Rubens in responding to the fashion for courtly classicism and enamel-like smoothness, Rembrandt became more and more himself. That was his offence.

The Conspiracy of the Batavians

The Conspiracy of the Batavians, 1662

In such a climate, the Conspiracy’s frosty reception should perhaps not surprise us. In any case it should not detain us, because what matters most about this painting is not to be found in any archive, but in the picture itself. The scene is a feast at the dead of night; a rugged band of brothers are united in the moment by their commitment to a revolutionary cause, and to their Hannibalesque warrior-chief. Baroque art theory was full of ideas about how to direct the spectator’s eye; the sting is that what Rembrandt guides us towards is an almighty absence of an eye, exactly the sort of disfigurement convention demanded be decorously hidden from view. Far from covering it up, Rembrandt drenches the scar in golden light, while the tabletop is electric with a radiance that fires ten fervent—and equally rustic—faces. Rembrandt matches his style to the sense: an almost recklessly thick impasto glitters unpredictably as light bounces off the canvas. This is a history painting, the kind of painting that stood at the summit of the hierarchy of genres (Rembrandt, unlike his Dutch contemporaries, had mastered them all), but this history is raw and raucous, not neat and tidy. Rembrandt knows his Tacitus, and therefore he knows the conspirators were not preening muscle Marys but “the boldest of the common people”. Like that otherwise rather different artist, George Eliot, he shows us that human feeling “does not wait for beauty—it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.”

Lucretia

Lucretia, 1666

Is it a coincidence that the other most affecting pictures in this exhibition (the later of the two Lucretias, and the picture known as The Jewish Bride) are also those which push hardest at the boundaries of technique? Rembrandt’s dazzling use of the palette knife to texturize the sleeve of Isaac’s golden cape in The Jewish Bride—one of the most mesmerizing passages in Western painting—was completely unprecedented. X-rays of the Lucretia reveal layer upon layer of pigment lovingly laid on with such a tool, loading her vulnerable, violated body with an all but unbearable weight. Quite apart from their heart-stopping pathos, these pictures are essays in the possibilities of paint. It hardly comes as a surprise that Rembrandt insisted on grinding his pigments himself: his interest in the stuff was clearly nothing short of obsessive.

Rembrandt was arguably even more innovative when it came to etching. He transformed the art of drypoint (where the design is scratched directly into copperplate), exploiting its potentially dramatic tonal effects as never before and experimenting with various exotic papers to achieve the desired level of fuzz. Three of the eleven “states” of Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds are on show side-by-side, evidence not only of the extraordinary painterly freedom with which they were executed, but also of the fine calibration and re-calibration of light and dark Rembrandt pursued with each new “state”. Even among the etchings, however, it’s the portraits that steal the show. In their subtle representation of interiority, they are as fascinating to behold as many of the full-scale oils.

Titus at a Desk

Titus at a Desk, 1655

A whole room of the exhibition is dedicated to “Contemplation”, portraits of figures rapt in thought, often tightly cropped so as to emphasise the expressiveness of their faces. No picture can sound the depths of human consciousness, but a Rembrandt does more than most. A portrait by Rubens or van Dyck says you are what people think you are—a playboy prince, a pious pope—or at least what you’d like them to think you are. A Rembrandt from this period seems to say something more profound: you are what you remember. At the very least, the psychological intensity of these images can’t be dismissed as a trick of time; hadn’t Descartes, sitting only round the corner in Amsterdam, subjected the emotions to scorching scrutiny in his own late work, Les Passions de l’√Çme? In this exhibition Rembrandt reveals himself to be every inch his match: a passionate intellect, searching, sifting, never at rest—a mind in motion, as much as a brush.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is Managing Editor at the Oxonian Review.