The Free-Thinking, Soul-Nourishing Rembrandt

The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, (‘The Syndics’), 1662, by Rembrandt van Rijn. (Rijksmuseum/On loan from the City of Amsterdam)
He embraced individuality at a time when the very concept was new.

Last week, I wrote about the Berthe Morisot retrospective in Dallas. It’s a very good show presenting the work of a fine artist. Its sound scholarly and aesthetic points were nearly smothered by incessant assertions that Morisot, after all “a woman impressionist,” was thwarted and minimized during her lifetime and in the many years since, by misogynist critics, scholars, and the marketplace.

Neither is true. Morisot’s work was in all but one of the impressionist rebel salons. She was favorably reviewed and got some digs. Her subject matter is limited, though, and that has affected her critical reception. She painted women and babies mostly, but that was her choice. She wasn’t locked in a harem. She could have painted any subject she wanted, possibly with the exception of a brothel.

When I was a student, Morisot got as much attention in impressionist scholarship and classes as, say, Sisley, the purest of impressionists. Boudin, Caillebotte, and Bazille were in the big impressionist shows in the 1870s, Bazille after his early death, but each of these great painters figures far less in the established storyline of avant-garde art than Morisot or Mary Cassatt. Was Morisot unfairly advantaged because she was rich, or because she was married to Manet’s brother? Who knows, and who cares. It’s always best to let the work do most of the talking. Why make her gender so big a part of her story?

Having taken a dose of castor oil that’s identity politics today, I was happy to see a show of the work of he who cleanses all palettes: Rembrandt. All the Rembrandts is the new show at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam commemorating the 350th anniversary of his death in 1669. Here, Amsterdam’s national museum displays all its work by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669): 300 prints, drawings, and paintings. And the message we get is as bracing, and disarming, a blast of air as any social-justice warrior could get. Rembrandt was unique.

By this I mean everyone is unique, but that very conception in Rembrandt’s time was new and undeveloped. Rembrandt embraced individuality at a point when concepts such as autonomy, agency, idiosyncrasy, and personal thought, possessed by all of humankind, were either newly recognized or revitalized by opportunity and an egalitarian spirit. Amsterdam in his day was basically a new city with a new economy, a high-spirited, inventive, and entrepreneurial economy we call capitalist. The social order was bourgeois, with more people than ever able to crawl from squalor and make their own fortunes.

The show begins with a selection of about 20 of Rembrandt’s small, etched self-portraits from the late 1620s to around 1630. As far as we know, an artist’s study of himself of this depth and complexity was unprecedented. Rembrandt was a pronounced narcissist, to be sure. He adored himself. He was also his own model, and a cost-free one. These are tiny, three inches square, but here he is, with a baby face, wild curls, and a nose that looks like a tulip bulb. They’re like photo-booth snapshots: minimalist busts, no backgrounds, and informal. He’s wearing work clothes. He scowls. He pouts. He laughs. He’s open-mouthed. He’s wide-eyed.

In the magical 1628 painted self-portrait, a heavy shadow covers his eyes and forehead. We see enough of the rest of his face, and that mop of red hair — we know it’s Rembrandt. In Rembrandt’s time, that shadow signaled that the subject was melancholic. Melancholy was not just being down-in-the-dumps. It was a condition that affected the immensely creative and intelligent with, as a leading French doctor of the day wrote, “a kindle of divine ravishment, commonly called Enthusiasma.” Rembrandt was a fanatically fast and focused artist. What he offered to his patrons was not surface sparkle or the hallmarks of status but a peak into minds, showing a complex and unique machine of thought that each individual possessed.

Left: Self-portrait, c. 1628. Rembrandt van Rijn. (Rijksmuseum/Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt, the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum and the ministerie van CRM)

Right: Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661. Rembrandt van Rijn (Rijksmuseum/De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland)

Last year, I wrote about a Rembrandt show in Edinburgh focusing on how British artists and collectors saw Rembrandt. I called it a selective retrospective, covering his career with great and small things, filtered by English taste. This is a retrospective, too, but with another twist. The Rijksmuseum had only two paintings by Rembrandt until a craze for his work started to empty the Netherlands of its Rembrandts in the 1880s. Rembrandt was, in the 1630s and early 1640s, the hippest artist in Amsterdam, then on the bleeding edge of modern cities. By the 1650s, he was yesterday’s man, painting in a dark, moody style when rich people wanted dash and sparkle.

Of the 22 paintings in All the Rembrandts, most came to the museum after 1960. It’s an offbeat selection, but what a selection. The newest additions arrived in 2015. They’re the two spectacular full-length portraits of Marten Soolmans and his wife, Oopjen, from 1634. They’re his only full-length double portraits. These grand wedding portraits depicted a young, ostentatious, rich couple in a format reserved in the past for aristocrats, though these two came from new money. They wore all the best and newest fashion accessories, down to the giant rosettes on Marten’s high-heeled shoes. These two were the Jared and Ivanka of their time, before the White House gig. Amsterdam in the 1630s was our Manhattan, big, new, bustling, bursting, proud, and rich. By the mid 1630s, Rembrandt was part of this new monied class. Though described by many of his biographers as “a miller’s son,” Rembrandt’s parents were well-off. He married a woman from a prosperous family and was himself a yuppie, though an intense and hard-working one. The Jewish Bride, one of his last paintings, is there, as is the 1628 Self-Portrait and, a gripping contrast, the 1661 Self-Portrait, showing Rembrandt as an old man.

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (‘The ‘Night Watch’), 1642, by Rembrandt van Rijn. (Rijksmuseum/On loan from the City of Amsterdam)

Of course, The Night Watch is there. Done in 1642, it’s the group portrait of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and 17 other civic guardsmen of the local Amsterdam version of our National Guard. It was Amsterdam’s largest painting, commissioned for the civic guard’s banquet hall. It’s worth a trip to Amsterdam on its own. First, it broke the convention of group portraiture as a boring line of heads, poses stiff, figures looking like stuffed antelopes. Second, while Rembrandt was already Amsterdam’s best-known artist, this picture cemented his fame in the 19th century, by which time it was one of the world’s best-known paintings.

Rembrandt conceived the scene not as static but as dynamic, or, better put, ignited. He set them in motion, a scramble of gestures, glances, sashes swinging and muskets glinting. Light and shadow appear in irregular, unexpected spots. Guns are cocked and dogs bark. It’s part play-acting and part opera. Costumes and armor span a century of style. Young men, young women, old people, children, and assorted animals create not a melee but a call to action. Rembrandt turns these weekend warriors into heroes. They’re volunteers, almost all were local burghers, and Amsterdam hadn’t been attacked in anyone’s lifetime. He made the mundane majestic.

For me, the glory of the show isn’t in the paintings. Mostly, it’s a print show. The paintings are part of the story, but they’re additive and not overwhelming, and they certainly don’t control the storyline. The Night Watch is in a separate part of the museum. The Rijksmuseum always had a superb collection of Rembrandt etchings, and to me he’s as much a revered, transformative printmaker as a painter. In his case, the two media are complementary.

Prints are personal. They’re small things meant to be held and scrutinized. It’s an egalitarian medium. A print is a mechanical reproduction and can be distributed. It promotes direct storytelling since it’s black and white and linear, though these properties invite endless and rich manipulations. Etching is the freest of media. The artist is sketching a design with a needle onto a waxed piece of copper. A confident, nimble artist can make a statement that looks fresh and spontaneous.

There are lots of prints in the show, which means close looking is essential. I’m drawn to the simple heads of bearded old men, some turbaned and some with heavy cloaks. These are the most minimalist things, but with a few lines Rembrandt presents figures of majesty and gravity, sculptural forms, and faces with the look of experience. In Rembrandt’s lifetime, though, his bigger religious narrative prints were highly prized as portable devotional pieces. Christ Preaching from 1648 became known as The Hundred Guilder Print because it was pricey, but it covers the entire 19th chapter of the Book of Matthew. It’s an altarpiece you can hold in your hands.

Here, Jesus, the “Light of the World,” stands as both a beacon and a hub for a disparate crowd. Rembrandt assembled and organized multiple figures to conflate separate stories and lessons into one image. Christ instructs the Apostle Peter to “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come to me,” tells a crowd “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven,” and advises a prosperous-looking young man to “go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor” if he really wants to achieve perfection. Rich, poor, the sick, and disputing Pharisees ebb and flow in pools of dark and light to create a small but authoritative universe.

When he was making prints, Rembrandt was like a novelist, always thinking about what stories would sell. In prints, where he made a lot of money, he wasn’t working on a commission for a portrait or an altarpiece where he knew what the buyers wanted beforehand. He had to intuit the marketplace for ideas. Many of his religious prints, such as King David Praying, from 1652, simply put people in a pious frame of mind. It’s a sumptuous, elegant image. Since David had so much for which to seek God’s forgiveness, it’s infinitely suggestive.

Left: Self-portrait with Tousled Hair, c. 1628 – c.1629. Rembrandt van Rijnb. (Rijksmuseum/De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland)

Right: Self-portrait with the forearm leaning on a stone threshold, 1639. Rembrandt van Rijn. (Rijksmuseum)

Rembrandt’s personal life was like a soap opera, with multiple women, sudden deaths, endless money problems, and bad decision making on his part owing to pride, hubris, and fits of pique. He did no self-portraits in the 1640s, presenting himself at his most dapper Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill in 1639 but in 1648, after a long lapse, as a flattened-out, tired middle-aged man in Self-Portrait Etching at a Window. His woes in the interim were considerable. All of this is less visible in the show than in the unusually good biographical catalogue. It’s paperback, printed on paper I’d call economical rather than cheap, written in a direct, conversational style, and filled with good material. It’s nicely but not lavishly illustrated. It’s one curator’s point of view, but it’s a lifetime’s worth of experience looking at these objects, so it’s opinionated and certainly not ponderous.

The Syndics from 1662 distills Rembrandt’s portrait style and his age. It’s direct and observational. These men, the sampling committee upholding the quality of draper’s guild goods, are on a mission. They’re the quality-control guys. They’re standard keepers and have to look intimidating. They are always on the move, don’t waste time, and we might be interrupting them. It’s a snapshot of a moment in a city that never sleeps. Rembrandt captures the moment, with its nuances and textures. He’s not about to miss a beat, either.

It’s a great show. Rembrandt is an artist for any age where individuals are allowed freedom to think and act. The Van Gogh Museum, next store to the Rijkmuseum, offers a show on David Hockney’s recent landscapes. Rembrandt offers us meat and potatoes; Hockney, cotton candy, all very pretty, airy, and leaving the soul unnourished.


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