Crazy for Rembrandt, Then and Now

Detail of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1629-1631, by Rembrandt van Rijn. (Courtesy Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)
His works of genius have long inspired collectors, art lovers, fellow painters, and greedy fraudsters.

A reader asked why I’ve written so much about photography in the last few weeks. My stories focused on college art museums, which often mount photography exhibitions. Students demand them. They like the palpable connections between photographs, even old ones, and the world they inhabit today. Initially drawn to its seeming ease — everyone has taken a photograph — they learn to love the medium’s trickiness, its deceit. Photography tends to stick with everyday life, not inscrutable or heavy history or religious subjects often found in painting. For classes, it can cover a myriad of subjects, anywhere and everything. These are the basic reasons it appeals to teachers and students. Okay, enough on photography. This week, it’s Rembrandt.

I’m in Edinburgh, mostly to see the fantastic, memorable Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master, at the Royal Scottish Academy. It’s the kind of show I greatly enjoy. It’s a small retrospective, with loans covering his big themes and balanced among paintings, prints, and drawings. Rembrandt was a master in all three. It’s also focused. It considers Rembrandt through British eyes, its collectors, artists, and tastemakers. Many objects haven’t been seen in a public setting for years. The scholarship is wonderful. And it’s only in Edinburgh.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is so famous and so ubiquitous, the show argues, that he’s a global brand, but in Britain, the enthusiasm isn’t new. It started in 1633, when a self-portrait from 1629 came into Charles I’s collection; it was the artist’s first picture to leave Holland. Charles owned thousands of objects and got it as a present, unaware of how portentous a gift it was. Rembrandt’s only English subjects, the minister Johannes Elison and his wife, lived in Norwich but were really Dutch nationals, painted by the artist in Holland in 1634 during a visit with their rich son. The grand full-length portraits returned to Norwich with them and stayed with the family as it became thoroughly English, until 1860, when they changed hands and began their journey to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

By the 1720s, the taste for Rembrandt was a craze, like a British tulip bubble. The show examines the insane market for Rembrandt’s etchings, which lasted more than a hundred years, until scholars established some clear guardrails for what prints were real, what was good, and which were near-smudges made posthumously from his worn plates. Some are so fake that they’re funny, like the ones printed in Christmas colors as suggested gifts. It’s serious connoisseurship, but the talented curators convey the story not as rarefied art history but as a tale — of naïveté, greed, and fraud — at which anyone could marvel.

Left: An Old Woman Reading, 1655. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), oil on canvas. Right: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1629-1631. Rembrandt van Rijn(1606-69), oil on panel. (Buccleuch Collection; Courtesy Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)

There are a few ways to enjoy the show. My approach as I first walked through it was simply to look. Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading (possibly his mother), his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Titus at His Desk, showing his young son, are all from about 1655. Call it genius or mystery or intense sensitivity, but a more refined concentration of something great and superhuman is hard to conceive. I’m a formalist, so I look at how shapes are made through paint. Rembrandt’s finish is rough, and his figures are made from blocks of mixed color paint. I can see why Henry Fuseli called him “a gigantic and barbarous genius.” Looking at these pictures, I couldn’t care less about how they traversed the marketplace. The three are extraordinarily present as people. They’re built, too, like structures. They’re also penetrating minds at work. They’re of this world but in some other world at the same time.

Rembrandt paintings followed the money. From the 1850s through the 1930s, when supply started to dry up, many of the best that had come to Britain left. This part of the show is a tutorial on how the waning fortunes of Britain’s aristocrats met the ambitions of America’s robber barons. The Havemeyers, Fricks, and Wideners of the world opened their wallets, but so did German industrialists and even the Dutch government, which wanted Rembrandts repatriated. It’s a good story about not only the appetites of the rich but also the cunning of their dealers and the verbal acrobatics of those who tried to keep as many as possible in British hands.

Left: A Man in Armour (‘Achilles’), 1655. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), oil on canvas. Right: Reverend Johannes Elison, 1634. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), oil on canvas. (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council, Glasgow; Buccleuch Collection)

The most fascinating relationship of living and dead masters is between Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and Rembrandt. Many artists were influenced by Rembrandt, Turner and the other Romantic-era landscapists among them, but Rembrandt figured in Reynolds’s education, his painting, his teaching, and his considerable collecting. Reynolds lusted after Rembrandt’s sense of adventure. Both painted pictures that, at the same time, were portraits, religious pictures, character types, and edgy experiments in abstract painting. Man in a Red Cap, owned by Reynolds, is an example. Reynolds loved the ambiguity of the subject — possibly a scholar, possibly an apostle — as well as the dragging, aggressive, vertical passages of paint. When he wrote about another of his late Rembrandts, Man in Armour, Reynolds said it was less a picture of a soldier and more a picture of light, a “narrow conception of nature” but one distilled to its most nuanced essence. He owned Rembrandt drawings and prints but rarely borrowed a pose or even a body part. Rather, he absorbed Rembrandt’s sense of the perfect touch for a unique moment.

It’s bizarre, but Reynolds repainted some of his Rembrandts. I think he did this partly in the spirit of communion but mostly as an autopsy. No great artist thinks anything is finally finished, much less eternal. An artist lives and works with a repertoire of mundane, frankly manipulated materials. Reynolds’s reverence for Rembrandt might have been nearly religious, but not too near to bar forensics.

The show ends by examining how modern artists respond to Rembrandt. Wisely, this gallery is separated from the rest of the show by a hallway. Since so much of the show concerns other artists, from Reynolds and Hogarth to the English Romantics to Whistler and the Etching Revival, I suppose this section had to happen. The catalogue treats it intellectually, which is more satisfying. All the art and the visual noise isn’t in your face. For most, Rembrandt is too complex, and too familiar, to emulate. In the 20th century, his work was seen as often on cigar boxes as on museum walls. No cutting-edge artist seemed to warm to things like The Night Watch, illustrated all over the world but never leaving Amsterdam, or Rembrandt’s religious pictures. They were showy and belonged in the museum zoo. Rather, Rembrandt is the great artist of aging and death, so the self-portraits resonate with artists the most.

It’s a great show, matched by another, at Holyrood Palace, of the queen’s collection of work by Canaletto. The royal Canaletto collection is the world’s greatest and is itself a brilliant story of how art moves. George III was a great hunter-gatherer of art. Probably his single biggest catch was the dealer Joseph Smith’s entire collection, assembled in the 1740s and ’50s in Venice. The king bought it in 1762, and the best of this group is on view now. I saw the show last year in London but saw it again, an appetizer for my trip to Venice tomorrow to write about Tintoretto for National Review and to interview the new director of the Accademia on the Venice museum scene.


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