PRINT January 2005



Rembrandt has been exhibited on many occasions and under many rubrics in recent years. But “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” an international loan exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, will be unique.

The focus is on only seventeen paintings. They are all approximately life-size portrayals of individuals (mostly men, and including a 1661 self-portrait of the artist posing as Saint Paul), depicted at half or three-quarter length, obscurely dressed, face and prominent hands illuminated, often with an attribute. Singular images such as these constitute the core production of Rembrandt’s later years. As early as 1670 an unsympathetic commentator had remarked of paintings like the 1653 Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (similar, though not in the exhibition) that high art did not lie in “draped half-lengths with only the tip of the nose illuminated, the rest being left so dark that one cannot identify the source of light.” But that is what Rembrandt limited himself to in old age: Isolated individuals before him in the studio replace the interacting figures of his earlier paintings.

Old age, but perhaps also his particular circumstances, made a difference. The paintings in the exhibition date from the late 1650s, with a number dated 1661. Having auctioned his possessions in 1657 and 1658, Rembrandt moved to a modest dwelling and became, at least for legal purposes, the employee of his family’s “firm.” Were they painted for the firm to sell? Did other artists lend a hand?

Though documentary evidence is lacking, some European scholars have proposed—the first, in 1919—that Rembrandt had painted a series of Evangelists and Apostles at this time. (Interest in this hypothesis peaked with the Rijksmuseum’s substantial Rembrandt show in 1956, which included a number of these paintings.) The choice of works in the current exhibition is based on this unproven hypothesis. Now, as when it was first proposed, this possibility is fueled by an interest in the nature of Rembrandt’s faith. But what is a “religious portrait”? His studio practice blurs the difference between the depiction of models paid to perform religious/historical/ mythical personages and portraits of paying clients. The aura of Rembrandt’s figures does not depend on a theme. Further, his working of the pigment shows the inner life to be necessarily material, earthbound.

This is very likely the first time ever that so many Rembrandt paintings of this type will be seen alone together.

Svetlana Alpers

“Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits” will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Jan. 30–May 1; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, June 7–Aug. 28.