Rembrandt got old and poor and sad but he never got timid, as the 70 or so paintings on the walls of Late Rembrandt demonstrate (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, through May 17). While his early works were often small — such as Boston’s “Artist in his Studio” (1629) — only a few of these late paintings contain a figure that’s anything under life size. His brushwork also went big. Even early on, Rembrandt was interested in the potential of paint, applying it in juicy brushstrokes and scratching into it when wet with the butt end of his brush (see the floorboards in the “Artist in his Studio”). However, in the late works, those from about 1650 to his death in 1669, the paint becomes as much a protagonist as the figures he constructs with it.
The exhibition begins with a series of late self-portraits, a somber how-do-you-do in the foyer of the show. These establish what Rembrandt’s numerical age might not (he was 63 when he died): that he was playing an endgame. All half-lengths, the self-portraits depict the body in a three-quarters view, the head turned to the picture plane. In each, his face is wrinkled and pouchy, and in the 1659 self-portrait now in Washington, D.C., he seems to have taken great care to use all the crusty bits of paint on his palette to render the weathered and spotty texture of his skin in strokes of jaundice yellow and rosacea pink.
Rembrandt had reason to feel the weight of mortality and loss. He had once dominated the Amsterdam art world. His portraits were in demand by the city’s elite, he made a love match with his dealer’s higher-born niece, Saskia, and he could afford to buy a large new house in a nice part of town. By 1656, all that was over. Saskia had died after a series of difficult pregnancies; he’d had a disastrous love affair with the woman he’d hired to take care of his surviving child; and unwise spending, much of it on art and things like exotic shells, led to bankruptcy. He lived in reduced circumstances with his second love, Hendrickje, and his son Titus, but he survived them both, Hendrickje by six years, Titus by one.
Ironically, his mid-career portrait work — and a coterie of successful former students from that period — helped set the tone for what the Dutch art world now treasured: smooth surfaces and graceful poses. Indifferent to this, Rembrandt set off to the edge of the known universe. Against backgrounds rendered indeterminate by blotchy strokes in neutral dark colors, he models figures in thick impasto, often haloed by black outlines – the not-so-hidden remains of his process of blocking out the composition.
Except when he is painting his own face or that of a wizened saint, he spares the flesh of his figures and reserves the thickest paint for the textiles. An early example is the 1654 “Portrait of Jan Six,” where he paints a railroad-track row of closures on the man’s cloak with single confident strokes of yellow over the still-wet red pigment, creating a blur that suggests gold braid. More than a visual trick, the facture shapes our experience of the paintings, in this case, a portrait of one of Rembrandt’s most important patrons. The strokes simultaneously compliment the viewer for decoding the marks, the painter for making them, and the subject for owning the cloak and setting it into scintillating motion (and having the wisdom to hire the painter to show it thus).
This earlier experiment develops into a synergy among the visual qualities of cloth, the Protean effects of paint, and its metaphorical potential. In “Rebecca and Isaac” (ca. 1665–69, also known as “The Jewish Bride”), a couple stands together, facing the viewer. The man reaches across his body to place his hand on his wife’s bosom. Rembrandt shingles the sleeve covering Isaac’s extended arm with squares of paint from a palette knife, the texture of the paint cresting on the peaks of the cloth and dissipating in the crevices. The sleeve seems inflated and rippling, as if to register the thrill of the contact with his beloved. Under Isaac’s hand and her own, hovering around her lower belly, Rebecca’s red dress responds, turgid with brocaded brushstrokes.
The exhibition is organized thematically, under broad categories such as “meditation” and “intimacy,” which at least do not interrupt the flow of looking and at best allow for interesting juxtapositions. “Bathsheba at Her Bath” (1654) for instance, is tussling with her conscience as she holds David’s love letter in her hand, near a fellow Old Testament figure, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” (ca. 1659). In both, the action looks as if it is caught in amber — Bathsheba trapped in her thoughts and her rich boudoir; Jacob lodged in the angel’s embrace as if it were a winged bed.
Interspersed among the paintings are prints and drawings. In the drawings, Rembrandt mostly uses a reed pen, which induces a stiff, coarse line that he often overlays with an exceptionally dry-looking wash and white body color. These sheets, at times uncomfortably overworked (e.g., “The Three Syndics,” 1655), correlate to the dense facture of the paintings but have a harsh simplicity that feels like unfleshed bones. By contrast is a brush and ink drawing, “Young Woman Sleeping” (ca. 1654). Here the line is just as simple, but he allows the softness of the brush to evoke the roundness of the woman’s dormant crouch. The marks are dashed-off and abstracted, but they all make sense because of the representational force of the woman’s head: little pools of ink shadow the eyes and nose of the foreshortened face, but the greatest power is in the areas left white, like the forehead, its roundness miraculously suggested, or the narrow part in the center of her hair.
The prints all date from before 1660, when Rembrandt was obliged to sell his printing press. Numerous states of the prints and even different impressions of the same state hang together, showing how Rembrandt transformed the plates between printings and manipulated individual impressions through variations in inking and paper. Mostly the trajectory is into greater and greater pictorial darkness. “The Three Crosses” (1655) makes this journey. In its later states, Rembrandt uses drypoint to create forceful, blocky contours while superimposed skeins of parallel and intersecting lines darken the scene nearly into oblivion.
Rembrandt’s reputation and his sales suffered in his late years, but neither disappeared altogether. He had pupils and supporters, some of them important. Nonetheless, his ambition exceeded his market. The copiousness of these works — of pigment, lines, states, and impressions — is reminiscent of his spendthrift purchases, signaling an unwillingness to succumb to reasonable limits. Yet in the artworks, he remains in control, balancing the tension between the illusionistic image and the meaningless matter and mere marks of paint or ink. . Rather than dissolve into formlessness, these late works provide reassurance in Rembrandt’s power to overcome chaos with the force and knowledge of a lifetime in art.
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