Jonathan Bikker and Gregor J.M. Weber, Marjorie E. Wieseman and Erik Hinterding, with contributions by Marijn Schapelhouman and Anna Krekeler. Editorial Consultant Christopher White, Rembrandt: The Late Works. Cat. exh. National Gallery, London, October 15, 2014 – January 18, 2015; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, February 12 – May 17, 2015. London: National Gallery Company / Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Distributed by Yale University Press, 2015 304 pp, 409 color, 5 b&w illus. ISBN 978-1-85709-557-9.
David de Witt, Leonore van Sloten, and Jaap van der Veen. Rembrandt’s Late Pupils: Studying Under a Genius. Cat. exh. Museum Het Rembrandthuis Amsterdam, February 12 – May 17, 2015. Amsterdam: Museum het Rembrandthuis / Houten: Terra Publishers, 2015. 128 pp, 127 color illus. ISBN 978-90-8989-647-6.
If Rembrandt had died in his twenties, like Masaccio or Egon Schiele, he might well have been forgotten. The stridently colored paintings and blotchy prints of his youth are intriguing for the traces they bear of incubating genius (as Constantijn Huygens famously recognized), but to modern eyes, his late works, with their glowing, tactile surfaces and monumental, meditative figures, are considered the pinnacle of his achievement. Thus, it is surprising that while several shows have examined Rembrandt’s juvenilia (and another is in the works), the recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam could be billed as the first to survey the master’s mature work. (Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits, held in 2005 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was more closely focused.)
For both London and Amsterdam, this was a blockbuster show. At the Rijksmuseum (where Rembrandt’s earthy paintings showed to better advantage than in the subterranean rooms of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing), it drew such record attendance that the museum’s director, Wim Pijbes, was taken to task in the NRC Handelsblad for not exercising better crowd control. Yet, around 4:30 in the afternoon, once the bus tours and selfie-snappers had departed, it was just possible to have the kind of quiet, sustained encounter with these works that their intricately wrought surfaces demand. For this viewer, the experience affirmed both the resolute integrity of Rembrandt’s artistic vision, pursued despite shifting tastes and personal tragedies, and the artist’s profound commitment to his craft. While these are not new ideas, the chance to engage with this body of work in aggregate put a material stamp on perceptions that might have been dismissed as merely intuitive.
The rich collections of the two museums were supported by contributions from around the globe. Impressive portraits made plain that even as prevailing fashion veered away, there were buyers who recognized what Rembrandt could do for them. The massive, recently conserved Portrait of Frederik Rihel on Horseback (ca. 1663, London) dominated a room in which Portrait of a Blond Man (1667) from Sydney kept company with the charming Lady with a Lap Dog (ca. 1662-5) from Toronto. Among private loans, it was a rare treat to see the luminous figure study, Old Woman Reading (1655), lent by the Duke of Buccleuch, and the Six Collection lent (to Amsterdam only) both the incomparable Portrait of Jan Six (1654) and the album amicorum in which Rembrandt flattered his patron with classical allusions to Minerva and Homer. In this context, the curiously precise Portrait of Catharina Hoogsaet (Penrhyn Castle) seemed to demand more than the usual theory that Rembrandt reverted to an earlier style to satisfy his patron. (I, for one, wonder whether only the parrot and the signature date to 1657).
The power of Rembrandt’s late work contradicts conventional expectations encoded in the concept of altersstil, whereby old artists are thought to lose their will to innovate along with their physical dexterity. Although this concept inspired a fascinating symposium at the Rijksmuseum in April, Jonathan Bikker and Gregor Weber suggest in the exhibition catalogue that its application to Rembrandt’s “late” work is misguided (16). They identify 1651 as the year when Rembrandt’s paintings begin to demonstrate the concentration, tactility, and pathos associated with his final phase. And in 1651, Rembrandt was only forty-five years old. Arguably, then, the iconographic and technical developments of the 1650s and 1660s are the work of a mature artist, confidently at the height of his powers, and Rembrandt’s stylistic trajectory proceeds from “stubborn independence” (32) rather than geriatric decline. Only in the very last works, such as Simeon in the Temple (ca. 1669, Stockholm) does his vision seem to blur. The 1650s also mark the culminating phase of Rembrandt’s career as a printmaker, an achievement given substantial attention by way of several illuminating sequences of distinctively inked impressions from the same plate.
Like many recent catalogues, Rembrandt: The Late Works relegates the accounting of objects exhibited to a checklist while presenting a series of essays on relevant themes. Technical analysis is surprisingly scant, but another publication is planned based on the symposium Rembrandt Now: Technical Practice, Conservation and Research, held in London November 13-14, 2014. The Late Work catalogue opens with two essays on Rembrandt’s life and career co-authored by Bikker and Weber. Subsequent chapters include Marjorie Wieseman’s essays on self-portraiture and artistic convention, Bikker on emulation, and Weber on observation of everyday life, and there are discussions of Rembrandt’s “experimental technique” in painting (Bikker and Anna Krekeler), prints (Erik Hinterding), and drawing (Marijn Schapelhouman). Then follows a series of conceptual topics that evokes the romantic quest to probe Rembrandt’s inner motivations, moving from “Light” to “Intimacy,” “Contemplation,” “Inner Conflict,” and finally “Reconciliation.” Despite occasional lapses into sentimentality, all of these essays give evidence that their authors have looked closely at the works they discuss, producing many fresh insights.
For those familiar with the past several decades of Rembrandt scholarship, the novelty of this project can be explained as a byproduct of a larger trend: as the Rembrandt Research Project made its slow chronological progress through Rembrandt’s career, exhibitions evolved from its discoveries. Only recently have the final two volumes of the Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (2011, 2014) addressed some of the late work (much raw data remains unpublished). Significantly, the RRP takes a back seat in the London/Amsterdam exhibition. All the catalogue authors are staff members of the host museums, and the technical findings presented are largely their own. Yet, another aspect of the methodology developed by the RRPs former leader, Ernst van de Wetering, can be felt throughout the catalogue. While engaging only sporadically with the secondary literature, the authors build their arguments on deep readings of early sources such as Karel van Mander, Roger de Piles, Arnold Houbraken, and especially Samuel van Hoogstraten, whose treatise of 1678 often reflects his experiences in Rembrandt’s studio.
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors also provide essential reference points in the catalogue of the concurrent exhibition at the Rembrandthuis, Rembrandt’s Late Pupils: Studying under a Genius. As Jaap van der Veen points out (17), Houbraken, whose gossipy anecdotes can be unreliable, was relatively close to the source as a pupil of Hoogstraten and should be taken seriously here. Significantly, both Van Mander and Hoogstraten cautioned young artists not to attempt the “rough” manner of painting too soon, raising a conundrum that remains unresolved: if mature style is necessarily the product of age and experience, how can young beginners possibly hope to grasp it? This problem might help explain why the number of Rembrandt’s pupils declined after 1650 (and why most arrived after cutting their teeth elsewhere), but documentary evidence for this period is scarce. The Rembrandthuis catalogue’s short, well-illustrated essays, again entirely by museum staff, offer a solid, up-to-date account of the little we know, with attention to figures such as Abraham van Dijck and Jacobus Leveck who once were mere footnotes in the Rembrandt story. David de Witt argues convincingly that Hoogstraten must have encouraged colleagues in Dordrecht to hone their skills with Rembrandt (this despite Hoogstraten’s admission that the master’s criticism sometimes reduced him to tears). Leonore van Slooten’s essay highlights Hoogstraten’s advocacy of concepts such as ordonnantie (composition) and houding (spatial relations) as evidence of Rembrandt’s teaching method; the master’s kennelijkheid (associated by de Witt with painterliness, 101) lived on in Aert de Gelder. While this show was a modest counterpart to the blockbuster nearby, it signaled an important aspect of the future of Rembrandt studies. To know the master better, we need a better understanding of those who strove to emulate him.