Rembrandt: the late works

National Gallery, London, until 18th January 2015


This is the kind of exhibition to set one salivating. Rembrandt is a great story-teller and a penetrating observer of human nature – yet he carries his greatness with grace, kindness and, increasingly, humility. From the big set-pieces to the self-portraits to the tiny drypoints, his works are inventive, intriguing and moving. Your main difficulties with this exhibition are finding enough time to do the works justice – there are only seven rooms, but every work is a gem; and finding enough space to look at them among the crowds.

The second half of Rembrandt’s career was dominated by tragedy, beginning in 1642 when he suffered the double blow of the death of his wife, Saskia, and the critical disaster of the huge group portrait that came to be known as The Night Watch. Public taste turned away from him, and although he kept a stream of clients, his extravagant lifestyle led him deeper into debt and, ultimately, bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, the terms of Saskia’s will effectively prevented him from remarrying (he would have lost access to her fortune), and whilst he got away with living unmarried with Hendrickje Stoffels for a while, when she became pregnant both of them were publicly upbraided by the church. Rembrandt, either by choice or by financial necessity, ended up living in very reduced circumstances among the common people.

But far from bowing to commercial pressure, Rembrandt’s later work became increasingly experimental. This exhibition highlights the rough, bravura style of many late works in which thick slabs of paint are laid on unblended, and some areas left quite undefined. Thickly encrusted paint, broken brushstrokes and the advice to ‘Stand back and see how the colours blend at a distance’ were not invented by the Impressionists – indeed they date even further back to late Titian in the sixteenth century.

There is an entertaining range of theories about why Rembrandt adopted and developed this style. Economy of effort may have symbolised his masterly skill: ‘See how little effort I need to create my effect – sometimes I just scratch into the paint with the wrong end of my brush.’ It may have been a form of aristocratic hauteur: ‘The painting is finished when I say it is finished.’ Or it may be a feature of getting older: in maturity you draw on different resources to reach understanding.

One of the enduring features of Rembrandt’s work is humility. He seems to have been profoundly seized by the grace of God – as in his self-identification with the Apostle Paul in the first room. And there is, throughout his painting, an emphasis on the unheroic. His self-portraits almost always cast his eyes in shadow, as if he lacks spiritual insight (he is more generous to other sitters). A man in armour sports a magnificent helmet, but is clearly troubled by inner weaknesses. Bathsheba and the two versions of Lucretia are deeply moving studies of powerless, abused women.

Lack of heroism was probably part of his undoing in The conspiracy of the Batavians, a work commissioned for Amsterdam’s Town Hall to celebrate Dutch independence at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. It is very roughly painted; there is very little of beauty anywhere in the painting; and the one-eyed man does indeed look to be king among a crowd of ugly and foolish individuals. It is not surprising to learn that, scarcely two years after it was installed, it was replaced with a different artist’s work. No official explanation was given, but one wonders if Rembrandt’s undermining of hubris was too uncomfortable for the proudly independent Dutch.

Just as captivating as his paintings are his prints. Both his technical ability and his insights into the stories are delightful. The descent from the cross is beautifully told, and I loved the detail of the little child playing innocently in the dirt in Christ preaching. Rembrandt also used various ‘states’ of the same plate to vary his insights. In The three crosses an intriguing new figure in a strange hat appears in the centre of the final impression. Ecce Homo starts with the crowds surging around the centre, but ends with them pushed back to reveal ominous caverns, which double as the prison cells and the descent into hell.

Exhibitions these days seem to have become monstrously expensive, but this one is definitely worth the price of the ticket.

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, December 2014]

© 2015