PRINT February 2015


Rembrandt at the National Gallery in London

Rembrandt, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654, oil on oak board, 24 3/8 × 18 1/2". © The National Gallery, London.

“REMBRANDT: THE LATE WORKS” offered a splendid chance to consider the possibilities of painting. With the exception of some early works, Rembrandt’s painting seems to me to be remarkably all of a piece. Did he have a late style as Titian and Picasso are said to have had? Despite its subtitle, this exhibition in fact included works from the last third of Rembrandt’s life (the 1650s to 1669). “The Mature Works” might have been the truer subtitle. He did not swerve from his course despite the fact that he suffered bankruptcy (1656), rejection by the town hall (1662), and death (his common-law wife, Hendrickje Stoffels, in 1663, his son Titus in 1668).

Descending the stairs to the basement of the National Gallery in London, one entered small, dark rooms. Not a bad approximation (surely unintended) of interiors in Holland in the seventeenth century. Aside from forays out to draw landscapes, an executed woman, and the old town hall, Rembrandt was a studio artist. The hang in London had that effect. Unfortunately, the spotlights on the paintings were harsh and unvarying.

The walls confronted one with paintings of life-size human presences. The clothes of Dutch sitters for commissioned portraits were predominantly black. Compare with them the dazzling color and sculpted brushwork of the so-called Jewish Bride, ca. 1665, thought to represent Isaac and Rebecca. Dutch people at the time liked to pose as historical figures. Rembrandt made this pair resemble such people being portrayed. But there is every reason to think these were hired models posing in his studio. Their memorable gesture of love—his huge hand on her breast, her huge hand over his—was not observed but rather created by Rembrandt. What we see is complicated by acknowledging the conditions of its making. One of the greatest of his self-portraits on view, on loan from nearby Kenwood House, is usually noted for mysterious circles on the wall. But that painting, from ca. 1665–69, also impresses for its concern with the hand. Here, the tools of Rembrandt’s craft—palette, brushes, and maulstick—take the place of the artist’s hand.

The organizers missed opportunities offered by the great loans they obtained. Why not hang the National Gallery’s small A Woman Bathing in a Stream next to the large Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, newly cleaned and sent over from the Louvre in Paris? Both were painted in 1654 and both are versions (whether painted from life or not) of Hendrickje. The first is not seen by a voyeur, as suggested in the catalogue text, but self-seen: A woman depicted lifting her mantle resolutely looks down at the reflection of her body (genitals included) in the water she stands in. As an eighteenth-century description put it, “A Woman going into the Water holding her Coats pretty high and laughing at what she sees reflected.” Meanwhile, Bathsheba, the letter from David in her hand, is pondering his advances. In each, Hendrickje is imagined by Rembrandt as posing for him and turning away. She is resisting him, one might say.

And why not hang the picture of the sampling officials of the Amsterdam drapers’ guild, known as The Syndics, 1662, in the same room as The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis, ca. 1661? Both were painted on the same unique (rough weave) canvas, and they were in Rembrandt’s studio at the same moment (1662). Both feature men at a table. Cut down after its rejection from the town hall, the Civilis is a close match to The Syndics in size. They are a historical meditation in paint, Rembrandt’s view of his nation before and after: Civilis as the rebellious Batavian past (AD 69) and the syndics as the orderly, controlled present. Moving back and forth between the rooms in London, I was struck by the outrageously colorful glove cuff of the syndic at the right (along with the glorious rug on the table), which carries a bit of the brushwork and color of the past into the somber present.

And why not pose the question of attribution? The extraordinary Lucretia was in from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, as was the lesser (in my view, and that of others, non-Rembrandt) Lucretia from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (from 1666 and 1664, respectively). It seemed bizarre to situate them rooms apart. Why not hang them together and let visitors act as connoisseurs?

There was also a curious result of the decision to expand the exhibition to include relevant etchings and drawings in the rooms with the paintings: Serious looking was hard to do. One discovered how difficult it is for the eyes to move back and forth from one scale and medium to another. It is amazing that Rembrandt did just that, working at and in them all, day after day.

The organizers got marvelous loans, brought the pictures in, and then seem to have given up in the face of the evident humanity of Rembrandt. The works were presented in rooms labeled with titles such as “Intimacy,” “Contemplation,” “Inner Conflict,” “Reconciliation.” Where does that get us as far as painting itself is concerned?

“Rembrandt: The Late Works” was organized by Betsy Wieseman at the National Gallery, London, and Gregor J. M. Weber and Jonathan Bikker at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, where the exhibition is on view Feb. 12–May 17.

Svetlana Alpers is an art historian based in New York and Paris.