Relishing Rembrandt’s Blockbuster London Show

A brilliant show of the 17th-century Dutch painter’s later works has opened at London’s National Gallery. The beautiful pictures may partially dispel what an awful man Rembrandt seemed to be.

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I’ve always been fairly sure I wouldn’t have much liked Rembrandt van Rijn. Greedy, lascivious and a proper love rat with a nasty cruel streak, the 17th century Dutch painter comes across in accounts as a thoroughly unpleasant sort: when a discarded mistress sued him for what she considered a breach of marriage contract, he had her committed to a hideous house of correction, and then tried to have her sent back again when the poor woman finally got out.

But as London’s National Gallery opens its new exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works, it becomes almost impossible to reconcile this monster with the master of such delicately expressive, psychologically acute, intensely humane paintings as these.

There has never been a show like this before, and if you are in London before it closes on January 18 next year, try to see it. The first in-depth exploration of the painter’s late period, this is the first time that these works have been seen together, and it is almost certainly the last, if the quality of the loans is anything to go by.

As well as paintings from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Louvre, Paris and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota, to name a few, just ten days before the opening of the show the National secured from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Sweden the vast history painting The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c 1661—2). This is Sweden’s most prominent Rembrandt, which comes to the UK for the first time (it is not well travelled, having only visited the Rijksmuseum before).

This show is a blockbuster, make no mistake. You know it from the instant you step into the first room, housing four spectacular self-portraits. Dark, lit only by the soft spotlights that illuminate the canvases, it’s as if you’ve walked into a Dutch painting. This room, in which Rembrandts stare unblinkingly out at the spectator—painted between the ages of 53 and 63 (the final year of his life)—boldly proclaim the painter’s unwavering belief in portraying nature in all her pocked, wrinkled, hoary, fragile, unadulterated glory.

In Self Portrait at the age of 63, his skin is tired. It sags and crumples. His hair, which just ten years before had curled softly with hints of copper, is now a wiry gray mass; his nose, were it possible, seems even more bulbous. For him, it was the artist’s duty not to flatter, but to paint the truth. And it was probably at least partly this that precipitated his downfall. The life of the man celebrated by this exhibition was, at this point, a total mess.

At the beginning of the 1640s, Rembrandt was in a position of extreme wealth and success: Holland’s most sought-after painter, now that Rubens was finally dead, he was husband to a lovely young wife, master of a hugely successful and lucrative studio, and owner (though in debt to do it) of a grand house, filled with a stupendous collection of beautiful Old Masters and objets d’art.

However, by the mid-1650s Rembrandt was in all kinds of trouble. His debts had been called in, he was bankrupt, his wife Saskia had succumbed to tuberculosis, his sinful living arrangements had scandalised Amsterdam and isolated his family: he had by now had a child by his loyal young housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, who was publicly chastised by the church for “committing the acts of a whore” as a result.

Rembrandt’s prized collection had been sold off and his work, uncompromisingly experimental as it was, was no longer to the taste of many of his clients. Looking at it now, you can only lament what idiots they must have been.

The show is arranged by themes, but this mostly serves as a useful grouping exercise. Every room has its own breath-catching masterpieces. The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (The Syndics) from 1662 draws you in and holds you with its atmosphere of a moment captured, as if you’ve just walked in on these amiable burghers mid-meeting.

Another self-portrait, with Two Circles (1665-9) is a magnificent example of Rembrandt’s ingenuity. Unlike the clean-edged work of his peers, the white linen cap, so clear from a distance, proves on closer inspection to be formed from just a few thick sweeps of paint—a hint at developments in painting that would not truly emerge for a further 200 years, with late Turner, and the Impressionists.

But it is the emotional acuity that shines through all these works that makes your heart sing. Jacob blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656) is such a tender depiction of age and frailty, the hesitant reach of the elderly man for the young child will be recognizable to anyone who has ever known a grandparent. Lucretia (1666), her knife in her hand and blood beginning to stain her shift, rings on a bell to call her family, to alert them to what she has done—she has stabbed herself following her rape by the Roman king Tarquin, rather than live with the shame. Her pallid young face, brow sweating with fear and pain, yet resolute and stiff with sorrow, makes you want to cry.

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On a similar theme, Bathsheba With King David’s Letter from 1654 shows the warrior’s wife (modeled by Hendrickje, who was evidently pretty breathtaking herself), with whom David became enamored after spotting her bathing. She sits naked, her maid washing her feet, her eyes distant, absorbing the terrible implications of the king’s summons in her hand. She is trapped: either she disobeys her king, or betrays her husband. It is no kind of choice.

An Old Woman reading, captured at close range in 1655, her face illuminated by the reflected light from the page, appears completely lost in her book (almost certainly a bible, but from the look on her face it could be the new Dan Brown). She really is reading, her mind is visibly elsewhere.

Rembrandt’s technical brilliance is unsurpassed, and impossible to ignore. But it is the psychological truth of his work, the empathy, the humanity of it, that leaves you wondering whether all that experience, the haughty highs and the terrible lows might have indeed taught him a thing or two about humanity and humility. Perhaps I might have liked him after all.

Rembrandt: The Late Works will screen in theaters worldwide in 45 countries from February 17 in high definition. Details here.