LONDON — Rembrandt: the Late Works is that truly rare event: a study focusing on an artist whose quality of output is so universally lauded that it is fully supported by staggering loans never previously shown in this combination or indeed in the same country; “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sweden, has never appeared in the UK. Apart from the unabashed gushing by critics over the undeniably compelling emotional and technical power of the paintings, their collective presence alone makes it a once in a lifetime opportunity for curators to flex their skills and do justice to an oeuvre that is satisfyingly rounded and of exceptional depth.
It is a common targeting of Rembrandt’s personal misfortunes in later life as the source of the works’ gravitas that tends to color most surveys, and indeed the National Gallery uses it to frame the first room, subtitled “Rembrandt Considers His Own Ageing Features.” It is so easy to pinpoint the sorrowful gaze of the famous self-portraits as symptomatic of internal turmoil and self-pity, yet by placing three such self-portraits together for a high-impact opening — hitting an emotional wallop — it becomes clear that here is an artist far too sophisticated for such a conclusion. Present with the “Self-Portrait” loaned from the Andrew W Mellon Collection, Washington (1659), is “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul” of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1661), and the “Self-Portrait” at the age of 63 from Kenwood House, London (1669). Consider the seemingly infinite depth of one portrait, then treble it, and consider then the pleasure that arises from comparison; the innumerable layers, strokes, and sophistication of color in each actually highlight a technical range within which these pieces sit, speaking of a superfluous capability. Combine this with the sitter role-playing parts: Kenwood House’s piece posits the painter against two circles, evoking the fabled skill of the model artist being able to sketch perfect circles freehand. The Rijksmuseum piece shows him role-playing, adopting a different yet still mysterious character gazing at us cryptically. Seeing all three in this way proves that far from baring his soul in a tragic, public self-flagellation, openly mourning lost family and fortune, they are in fact the embodiment of the artist confident in his supreme and still-expanding abilities, and it is we who are utterly taken in by the emotional gravitas these techniques conjure. Thus Rembrandt “Considers His Own Ageing Features,” but does it so that his own features act as a vessel through which to explore many more intellectual factors.
Indeed, though unfashionable as a commercial painter and declared bankrupt in 1656, the compulsion to continue pushing his own painterly abilities through self-portraits demonstrates a natural gift at the height of its power. Room three is devoted to the various influences of other major artists as absorbed and interpreted by Rembrandt; we know from his inventory of the vast quantities of prints, drawings, and curiosities held as teaching aids and visual stimuli. The superiority of Rembrandt amongst Dutch painters often has led to his consideration in isolated terms: it is refreshing then to identify influences as diverse as painted miniatures of the Mughal era (c. 1628–58), sixteenth century Venetian types and Titian, and earlier works of Raphael, leading to an impression of an artist well rooted and inspired constructively by the artistic traditions leading up to his era.
Indeed, it is a testament to the consistency and depth of quality of his work that, despite arranging the pieces into themed rooms such as “Emulation” (i.e. that referred to in above paragraph), “Observation of Everyday Life,” and “Intimacy,” you could in actuality place any piece in any of these rooms and it would still have huge relevance. A brilliant example is the case of the controversial “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” (c. 1661–2), an enormous lone painting amongst many etchings and drawings. Uncompromising in its brutal depiction of grotesque physiognomies, so that it was removed shortly after its installation in Amsterdam Town Hall in 1662, we are invited to look at it here in the context of light and shade. Where etchings display extremes of light and black, here the painting exists within a limited spectrum of earth brown tones; the comparison highlights brilliantly the range of depth and mood achieved within such a limited tonal scope.
The show is pure pleasure from start to finish, with emotional resonance that will stay with you, enhanced by varied and insightful arrangements allowing stimulating comparison and study. With such hyperbolic works there are a few over-excited statements from the National Gallery, such as suggesting Rembrandt was the first to mix paint on the canvas using a palette knife — a worryingly unproven assertion. Given such superb loans, this is an intense and revealing display, and absolutely once in a lifetime.
Rembrandt: the Late Works continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) until January 18.