Rembrandt’s unflinching portraits

The National Gallery presents a superb range of Rembrandt’s work for the exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18 Jan 2015) which focuses on the artist’s last two decades. They include loans such as the enormous canvas, The Conspiracy of the Batavians (1661) from Sweden, measuring two by three meters and conceived as an even larger piece for the Amsterdam Town Hall. It was then almost immediately rejected as too shocking for the good city fathers. The painting depicts the legend from which the Dutch trace their history, but the artist gives it life as a one-eyed Barbarian king demanding allegiance from those around him. Intended to hang high up in the great hall, Rembrandt experiments with light as this moment pierces through an ancient darkness.

Rembrandt installation shot 3

Other significant loans include the Louvre’s Bathsheba, her face reflecting a million emotions as she reads David’s proposal, the Rijksmuseum’s The Jewish Bride with its tender sensuality between the couple, The Syndics which gives such vitality to what could otherwise have been a stilted group portrait and a host of lesser known portraits.

Rembrandt installation shot 6

I have to admit that my first thought on walking around was simply, there are too many grey-haired old faces here. Sacrilege, I know, but there is a very ‘old’ feel to this show. True, it is dispelled as you look longer and deeper, but it doesn’t have that immediate wow factor that some shows do.

One of my favourite paintings is the Rembrandt self-portrait that hangs in Kenwood, his painter’s cap and palette smudged to allow you to focus on those haunting eyes. In the first room here, another five self-portraits greet you, and the last one, at only 63, is such a frail and broken man he could be 93. It is an unflinching look at ageing, both in the mirror of his own face and those of his other elderly sitters, and not always a pleasant one. The ruddy cheeks of an elderly man suggest a drinker; each member of the powerful Syndicate becomes an individual that engages with the viewer very directly as they pause mid-sentence to catch our gaze, while the apostle Bartholomew ponders his own fate in two portraits as he fondles the knife that will bring about his end.

Rembrandt - the late self-portrait from Kenwood

The etchings and drawings have an immediacy that is perhaps easier to connect with, whether the fluid lines of a sleeping woman or the lively faces from a row of portraits. The artist experimented with effects in his etchings, and a variety of these are shown here. The images that will remain with one are those lively, questioning faces of the Syndics, the lyricism of the bridal couple and Bathsheba’s anguished beauty, but those that will haunt one are ageing, red-rimmed watery eyes, sunken cheeks and blotchy faces. Rembrandt may have lost his physical strength, but there was rigorous honesty in his brush.

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One thought on “Rembrandt’s unflinching portraits

  1. Pingback: Visiting Rembrandt at home | London Letter

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