October 24, 2014

"Rembrandt: The Late Works" @ The National Gallery

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) is undoubtedly the most famous painter and print maker of the Dutch Golden Age with works such as "The Night Watch", 1642, attaining a cult status almost on a par with Leonardo's "Mona Lisa".  His early years were filled with success both personally and professionally, but by the 1650's his life was in a downward spiral.  His beloved wife Saskia had died, his popularity as a portrait painter had waned and his finances were in a mess but through these trials he continued to produce what some consider to be his greatest artistic achievements.

A landmark exhibition dedicated to these later works has just opened at The National Gallery in London and I had the good fortune to be able to go on the first day.  Needless to say there was quite a crowd, but it was worth every minute in the queue to see these amazing paintings close up.

With important loans from Amsterdam and around the world, The National Gallery has assembled 40 paintings, 30 drawings and 20 prints all of sublime quality and all indisputably by the master himself.  These pieces, both individually and presented as a group, clearly demonstrate Rembrandt's unique ability to express human emotions in a revolutionary way.  His use of light, his command of painting and print making techniques and his special perception of traditional subjects came together in his mature work in a very special way.

Take, for example, his self portraits.  Rembrandt produced around eighty self portraits during the course of his career, but the later examples of both the oils and the etchings portray a much more introspective and honest view of himself.  Though physically frailer, Rembrandt depicted himself as spiritually stronger, even assuming the role of the Apostle Paul in one example.

 "Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul", 1661

Or his masterful "The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild" aka "The Syndics" painted circa 1662 (see below).  This large scale group portrait shows a group of six guild officials having a meeting.  All are clearly upper class and all are dressed in approximately the same attire giving the viewer the idea of uniformity.  But there are subtle differences in each man's attitude and position that suggest there might be more to the story than one initially thinks.  All of this is expressed with the most beautiful manipulation of light and paint application that gently draws us into the chamber with the characters involved.

Perhaps the best example of Rembrandt's finesse as an artist and as an observer of people is in the 1665 work "Isaac and Rebecca" aka "The Jewish Bride" (see below).  This tender portrait of the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca is a perfect example of Rembrandt's exquisite use of light, his painterly proficiency and his insight into human character.  Here, the husband gently and protectively puts his hand on his wife while she caresses his fingers with her own.  In these small gestures Rembrandt clearly expresses the couples affection for and devotion to each other.

It's been a fun few days in London and now it's time to take the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris where more amusing adventures await.  A très bientôt!

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