Rembrandt: The Late Works, London

The old master's bold experimentation in his later years comes across in this spectacular exhibition.

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Nicholas Marlowe
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His hand rests affectionately on her bosom; she acknowledges his gesture with a gentle caress. Although it’s called “The Jewish Bride,” we don’t know whether the painting depicts a contemporary couple or a historic union, perhaps Isaac and Rebecca. No matter. Whoever they are, the loving regard of the newlyweds as they decorously embrace has been perfectly captured.

Close up, the paint surface shimmers. You see that the pigment has been applied liberally with a palette knife, then in places worked with the fingers and the wrong end of a brush. When people visited his studio, Rembrandt would discourage them from standing too near his pictures, joking: “the smell of the paint will bother you!” But of course that wasn’t the real reason. When you stand at a distance, the image magically coalesces. It’s more like alchemy than art.

“Rembrandt: The Late Works” at London’s National Gallery isn’t a huge exhibition — just 30 paintings, 20 drawings and 40 prints — but there are some truly spectacular loans. The “once-in-a-lifetime show” tag is beginning to sound trite. But the presence of masterpieces like the Rijksmuseum’s “Jewish Bride” underlines the National Gallery’s continuing clout.

Rembrandt’s personal life in the twenty years leading up to his death in 1669 was a mess: break-ups, bereavement, bankruptcy. Perhaps wisely, this exhibition doesn’t dwell on these woes. In any case, he seems to have been adept at separating his work from domestic concerns. For him it was business as usual.

There were setbacks. From Stockholm there’s a large history picture, “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis,” commissioned for the Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace) in 1661. A lesser artist would have masked the fact that the prototype Dutch rebel had only one eye: Rembrandt made it the focus of the entire composition, as the Batavian leader presides Cyclops-like over the dramatic sword-oath ceremony. The Amsterdam burghers were not impressed. Within weeks of being installed, the canvas was back in the artist’s studio. Rembrandt himself cut it down for a quick sale.

He continued to make his searingly honest self-portraits, of which there are a half-dozen in the show. There had been few commissioned portraits in the 1640s, but there’s a roomful here, the most arresting of which is a dynamic group, “The Syndics” (1662). Others work less well. Nobody could claim that the life-sized equestrian portrait of Frederik Rihel, for example, the most baroque and bombastic work in the show, is a success.

Otherwise, mythological and religious subjects predominate. Here, as ever, Rembrandt wears his heart on his sleeve, and sentimentality can occasionally tip over into mawkishness, as in “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph,” or “Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple.” How much more subtle are the psychological undercurrents in the Louvre’s “Bathsheba with King David’s Letter,” the Biblical heroine’s thoughtful expression betraying a wealth of conflicting emotions as she quietly ruminates on her fate.

Biblical themes also figure largely in Rembrandt’s graphic work. The organizers of the exhibition have mixed his prints and drawings with his paintings, none too successfully, in my opinion. But Rembrandt’s undimmed energy is apparent here, too. Take, for example, “The Three Crosses” (1653), one of the highlights of his graphic oeuvre: each of the three different states of the plate is a unique revision, worked on painstakingly with the etching needle, of his original creative vision.

Bold experimentation in technique is the hallmark of maturity in great artists, if the cycle of “late work” shows in London this year — first Matisse, then Turner, finally Rembrandt — is anything to go by. So too, it seems, is a determination to leave one’s mark on posterity, throwing off the shackles of taste and convention in a final, turbo-charged bid for the summit. As Edward Said wrote, the artist “grasps the difficulty of what cannot be grasped and then goes forth to try anyway”. As if Rembrandt had anything left to prove.

Reckoned by the dozen or so undisputed masterpieces in this show, he was still the outstanding creative genius of the Dutch “Golden Age.” Alongside him, Hals, Ruisdael, even Vermeer, look like mere genre specialists. Rembrandt alone was driving all the horses at once.

When Van Gogh saw “The Jewish Bride” in 1885 he was entranced, and declared that he would gladly give up ten years of his life to be able to sit in front of it for a fortnight with only a crust of dry bread to eat. Knowing Van Gogh, he meant exactly what he said.

Nicholas Marlowe

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