Rembrandt – The Late Works
Until 18 January 2015
The last big show of Rembrandt’s work in London was Drawings by Rembrandt and his Circle at the British Museum in 1992, and what a stunner that was. This one, comprising 90-odd drawings, prints and paintings from collections all over the world, is, if not a ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ of visual delights, certainly a banquet.
Of the twenty-seven oil paintings owned by the National Gallery, five are on show, including Self Portrait at the Age of 63, his penultimate, executed in 1669, the year of his death. His final one is on loan from the Mauritshuis in the Hague, and depicts himself with an unwavering eye as an old man with sagging flesh, but with colossal emotional baggage. ‘Late works’ are all the rage this year, it seems, with Matisse Cut-outs at Tate Modern being their best-attended show ever, and Late Turner packing them in at Tate Britain. Rembrandt’s Late Works eclipses both in terms of scale and sheer genius.
Without doubt, Rembrandt van Rijn created the most remarkable and unrivalled series of self-portraits ever achieved in history. Of the five stunning oil selfies on display, by far the most insightful is the one entitled Self Portrait with Two Circles, which has been quietly hanging in Kenwood House in Hampstead since the 1880s. At first he appears confrontational and even defiant, with one hand on his hip while the other holds his palette and brushes. But, if one gazes into his dark eyes, there is a sadness bordering on melancholy and a sort of resignation, a reflection of all the personal tragedies he has suffered: the death of his first wife Saskia, along with three of their children; the death of his last surviving son Titus; his young mistress and housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, had died from the plague five years earlier; and his decline into insolvency.
One can chart the man’s emotional temperature by the manner in which he portrayed himself. In Self Portrait at the Age of 34, owned by the National Gallery and painted in 1640, but too young to appear in The Late Works, he appears with a proud and self-assured pose. Twenty years later, and after all the fame, despite the circumstances that befell the poor man, his view of himself was never self-pitying, but he certainly appears more vulnerable as the years roll by. His Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661, shows him with an almost quizzical expression of acceptance of his lot, painted with light and a looseness of brushstroke that is sublime.
Not only was Rembrandt a truly great painter, he was a master engraver and etcher, and regarded by many as one who has never been surpassed, even by the precocious Whistler, with whom he is often compared. His etching, drypoint and engraving are breathtaking in their detail and use of chiaroscuro, and there are a number of biblical works on display, particularly those that portray the life of Christ in four episodes, that use light and shadow in an innovative way.
His etching and drypoint of Jupiter and Antiope is a nod to Annibale Carracci’s erotic etching of the same subject from the Fitzwilliam Museum, but Rembrandt’s use of the shadow of the lecherous god over the sleeping nude figure is a sinister portent of her impending fate.
Caravaggio, who died four years before Rembrandt was even born in 1606, had already set a remarkably high standard for the use of light and shadow, but the Dutchman took onboard those techniques and experimented with some of his own, including the overlaying of colours and the application of paint, from thin washes to a thick impasto, applied with a palette knife.
There is more. Not only was he a master of oil painting and printing, he was also a tremendous draftsman, and some of his deceptively simple studies and drawings of people, animals and landscapes are pure genius.
His Recumbent Lion and Nude Woman resting on a Cushion are both mini-masterclasses in sketching with pen and brush. One of his least successful paintings is the life-size equestrian Portrait of Frederick Ribel on Horseback, the only one he ever attempted, and the composition has an awkward, almost clumsy, feel, with the rider appearing too large for the horse. However, out of all the gems on display, to have one that doesn’t quite deliver, is hardly a complaint. This is definitely a ‘must-see’ once-in-a lifetime exhibition, so start queuing now.