The Original Soul Man

17th October 2014

Rembrandt, greatest master of the Dutch Golden Age, is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Gallery, focusing on the artistic fecundity of his later years. Jack Watkins is suitably awed…

In 1885 Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his younger brother Theo, recounting how he had spent several days visiting Amsterdam Museum, utterly entranced by the paintings. Van Gogh’s writing can sometimes absorb you almost as much as his canvases, and on this occasion he made an interesting comparison between two of his favourite Dutch Masters: Frans Hals – whose most famous piece is The Laughing Cavalier – and Rembrandt. Hals, he maintained, ‘always remained on earth’, whereas Rembrandt was ‘a magician’. He was, Van Gogh continued, ‘so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.’

Taking that latter sentence at face value with regard to this new show at the National Gallery, it’s tempting to take what he says literally, and contribute a very short review indeed. ‘Just go and see it, and let genius speak for itself.’ Seriously, though, the very name Rembrandt now seems synonymous with the word art, and the chance to walk among a collection of his works must be counted a rare privilege. This exhibition comprises around forty paintings, twenty drawings and thirty prints, ‘all undisputedly by the master himself’, which is an important qualification, since disputes still rage about the authenticity of much that has been attributed to him.

However, the angle here has been to concentrate on the artist’s later years, when a series of setbacks had rather overtaken him, following on from the early death of his wife. Then, as his popularity declined, the fortune he had inherited from her drained away, and he was forced to sell his house and his personal art collection. Even if the commissions were no longer coming in thick and fast, though, it’s the belief of the curators here that Rembrandt found a new burst of creative energy as he aged. The soulful honesty of these works are what have come to define our impression of the master portrayer of human emotion and compassion.

And – wouldn’t you know it – the exhibition also includes the two works that Van Gogh was specifically raving about in his letter to Theo back in 1885. While he described The Syndics as ‘the most beautiful Rembrandt’, he considered The Jewish Bride more intimate and sympathetic, even if ‘not ranked so high by the critics’. This latter work he believed showed Rembrandt’s almost supernatural creativity, and he said he would happily sacrifice ten years of his life to be able to sit in front of the painting for a fortnight with just a dry crust of bread to eat.

Airily glancing at a clip of The Syndics on the web, or even seeing it as an illustration in a book, you might brush it off as another one of those paintings – a conventional group portrait of a line of big-hatted Dutch officials dressed in black. It’s only when standing before the actual work that you really appreciate the way Rembrandt has orchestrated a terrific sense of motion within the scene, the faces animated and humorous, one figure rising from his chair to get a better look, angled heads and faces breaking up the monotony of the ensemble. We, the viewers, seem to be providing as much amusement to these members of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild as they do for us. It’s quite an experience.

You can see what Van Gogh meant, though. The Syndics is a showstopper of a painting, but The Jewish Bride is a minor key piece. It is about tenderness and intimacy, two lovers depicted in embrace, the expression on the bride’s face very well done. In fact, you could argue that, through his painting of facial expressions, no-one has ever come closer than Rembrandt to depicting the human soul, and I think this is what Van Gogh was getting at. He was the original soul man. Having experienced a run of exhibitions of great artists which, for all the skill on display, did not engage the emotions on a personal level, it is marvellous to have this one, which acts as a restorative on the power of art.

The trio of tightly cropped self-portraits in oil in the first room catch you in a way you might not expect, and grouping them thus ensures they have more psychological impact than another, more famous but somehow less effective, self-portrait, in which the artist is shown holding a palette, in the second room. In the first portrait, painted in 1659 when he was fifty-three, Rembrandt seems to be critically regarding himself in the way you might examine yourself in the mirror, with a certain dismay at the total evaporation of youth, the accumulation of the life’s batterings all too apparent in the worry lines, muscular sag and pallor.

Two years on, the ageing process is more apparent still, but by 1669, aged 63, dismay has been replaced by acceptance, dignity and understanding.

This quality of understanding, of compassion and looking beneath the surface of things, seems to be a recurrent characteristic in Rembrandt faces. It means that, while he never hides the frailty apparent in the hands and greying complexions, his portraits of old people speak of steel and resilience, as well as demonstrating a spiritual dimension, often absent from the works of lesser portraitists.

Rembrandt refused to conform to the conventional notions of the time which held that only beauty and perfection were worthy of an artist’s attention. And his brushwork technique appears shockingly modern, loose and rough, with a portrait of The Apostle Bartholomew, painted in 1661, and one of an Elderly Man, painted in 1667, being two excellent examples. Sometimes the style is almost impressionistic. In Jacob Trip, the hand of the old merchant is almost indecipherable among the folds of his costume.

Yet one of the strangest pieces in the show is not a portrait painting at all. The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis is as eerie a painting as you’ll see, rendered so by the light coming from a concealed lamp which sends a glow across the table of conspirators, yet leaves their eyes like black voids. Most haunting of all among these grotesques is the massive figure of their one-eyed leader, Claudius Civilis. The only one among the group to stare out at us beyond the canvas, he cuts a terrifyingly savage figure, a barbaric bearded warlord with a sword and an absurd crown.

Light is also used to strikingly dramatic effect in Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, showing how brilliantly Rembrandt pursued techniques so famously pioneered by Caravaggio. This work is in the final room, which deals with Rembrandt’s ability to capture ‘contentment and peace of mind’. The centrepiece here is Jacob blessing the Sons of Joseph and once again its key is tenderness of expression, and compassion and understanding, as the weary old man lies on his deathbed surrounded by his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. It’s yet another emotional hit in an exhibition which scores several of them.

It’s also, mercifully, a show which is not too long. A failing of too many art exhibitions these days is to pile it on thick to the point of physical exhaustion in the gallery goer, when less, to borrow the old acting cliché, is often more. For Rembrandt, though, there could scarcely be too many encores. He exerts the same magnetic pull today as he did when he so entranced Van Gogh all those years ago.

‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’ continues until 18 January 2015.

See www.nationalgallery.org.uk for more information.

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