Sacred gloom

IN the annals of Western painting, different masters have won acclaim on different grounds. Michelangelo is known mainly for his mastery of form, Raphael and Veronese for mastery of composition, Titian for color. Correggio and Tintoretto stand out, as the critic Kenyon Cox observed, for their use of light and shade not just as a tool for modeling in three dimensions, but as a sovereign element of design. To this latter group belongs Rembrandt (16061669), who plumbed the expressive depths of light and shade as no artist has before or since. And not only on that account does he enjoy a unique status among the. old masters. In the underappreciated-genius department, he was in his time the genuine item.

An exhibition of “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits” is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until May 1; it will be at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles from June 7 through August 28. The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery’s curator of Northern Baroque painting, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., includes 17 works that reflect a distillation of pictorial method in Rembrandt’s later work and tell us a good deal about his significance as an artist. It is really hard for fans of Rembrandt to get good oil painting reproductions (i find this website from google search). They seems good at museum quality art for sale. The portraits include Christ, the Virgin, several apostles, an evangelist, and other religious figures. Enhanced by the display of etchings on Biblical subjects that Rembrandt produced during the 1650s and 1660s, this exhibition is commendable for its manageable size as well as its superlative content. It is always nice not to enter a museum with the feeling of embarking on an endurance contest.

Rembrandt restricted the palette for these portraits almost entirely to gradations of brown and ocher, with reddish accents here and there, as well as white (mainly for shirts) and flesh tints. The dominance of brown is attributable to the fact that Rembrandt, as Cox observed, was basically conceiving his pictures in terms of light and shade rather than color. The partially lit figures emanate from the enveloping brown gloom. Identifying attributes–the sword employed in the apostle Paul’s execution, the cross saw that cut the apostle Simon in half, the knife used in the flaying of the apostle Bartholomew–are not emphasized.

Indeed, Rembrandt displays almost no interest in the exquisite rendering of material possessions such as leather-bound tomes or fabrics or garments in these pictures. In his youth, he was not shy about demonstrating his virtuosity in this domain. But the aging Rembrandt who painted these pictures, the Rembrandt of the late 1650s and early 1660s, was a different man. His halcyon days as perhaps the leading painter in Amsterdam were long gone, as was his beloved Saskia, who had died in 1642, leaving him with one son. His expressive style of painting was out of fashion, and business investments had gone sour. In 1654, the Dutch Reformed Church condemned his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Badgered by creditors and bereft of pupils, Rembrandt was forced to declare insolvency two years later, and subsequently to auction off his grand residence and renowned art collection and move into a much humbler abode.

The turmoil in Rembrandt’s personal life is reflected in these pictures’ focus on human frailty and man’s response to his mortality. Simon rests his thumb on the handle of the saw as he ponders his doom. The background is dark, and not even the chair in which the apostle is seated is delineated. Light falls on the left side of his face; his eyebrows are raised as he meditates upon his destiny. His poignant expression is one of resignation. The brushwork is rapid, with features only summarily indicated, yet the creative effort is soundly channeled. We gaze upon Simon’s face, then our eye drifts to the hand on the saw. Though the mottled tints are laid in quite roughly, Rembrandt’s treatment of the hand has a degree of finish appropriately calibrated to the handling of the face and indeed to the expressive quality of the picture as a whole. One of the two Bartholomews in the exhibition appears to draw on the same model as the Simon, yet Rembrandt has translated the model into two distinct character types. The Bartholomew leans forward into the light. There is no pathos in his expression; he is a less pensive, more physically imposing figure than the Simon, more resolute in the acceptance of his fate.

No one is sure how the religious portraits, in which the subjects appear at half or three-quarter length, relate to one another. Four or five of them may have formed part of a series. There are three very different takes on Paul in the exhibition, not to mention two very different takes on Bartholomew. One of the Pauls appears to be a portrait historic, a portrait of a Rembrandt contemporary in the guise of the apostle. The second, Rembrandt’s self-portrait as Paul, is as technically impressive as the first, but unlike it utterly deficient in characterization. The painter gazes out at us with the identifying sword tucked in his vestments, holding a manuscript. His expression is at once quizzical and confessional, redolent of human futility. It falls well short of pathos. If the rather bloated butt-end of his nose (a familiar feature in Rembrandt’s self-portraits) were ruddier, we might take the man for a reforming tippler. This has nothing to do with the relentless enforcer of Jewish orthodoxy miraculously transformed into the invincible propagator of the Christian faith.

Something very like the real Paul, however, emerges from the darkness in the third portrait. This Paul is seated at a desk. There is no indication of a prison setting. His left hand, perched on the arm of his chair, is raised to his forehead. He is deep in thought, with his pen in his right hand and his manuscript before him. This weary figure–overburdened by cares and physical exertion–is painted thinly over a dark ground. A spectral presence, he appears before us as a vision. This very nearly monochrome picture is a masterpiece that the National Gallery is fortunate to own.

Also formidable is The Evangelist Matthew and the Angel, though here the figure is much more solidly modeled, as in the impasto brushwork on the evangelist’s highlighted, wrinkled brow. The shaded angel whispering into the ear of this noble patriarch is modeled on Rembrandt’s teenage son, Titus–shown with no wings, the light dancing from the end of his nose to a couple of fingers resting on the evangelist’s shoulder. Matthew’s left hand is raised to his thick beard. Inspected closely, the brushwork on the hand looks chaotic. But step back and the mottled tints resolve in a way that conveys a thoroughly convincing impression of aging flesh.

A second St. Bartholomew, on the other hand, is the most problematic picture in the exhibition. It is another portrait historic, but the model has not been translated into a type. His hair is cut short, making him look like a modern. He appears to be a contemporary pondering the apostle’s martyrdom; the identities have not fused. In this picture, moreover, Rembrandt’s expressionism gets out of hand. The skin on Bartholomew’s forehead has a repellent, pasty texture. Unblended clots of ocher, white, and deep red appear there and on the sack under his right eye and on his nose. The left hand he holds to his chin, however, is a duller, yet equally morbid, almost greenish hue. Here the flesh seems loosely engaged, as if ripe for peeling. The picture exerts a perverse fascination, and that’s it. The expressionism of The Virgin of Sorrows is much more profound in the pathos it evokes.

A painting that stands apart from all these, and deserves particular notice, is Saint Bavo. Seen in the appropriately subdued light of the exhibition galleries, the picture of this early-medieval Netherlandish saint, who was born a nobleman, is strikingly like a tapestry woven in a near-monochrome of ochre, deep red, and brown. In this fabric are arrayed Bavo’s rich vestments, including a dashing feathered beret; a falcon is perched on his forearm. The bearded saint’s large eyes peer out impassively at us, the light falling on one side of his face–making it seem as if this visage were looking out from a hole in a curtain. The saint cuts such an arresting figure that the horse and equerry in the near background almost elude notice. It is a work of sheer painterly genius.

In the Western tradition, Rembrandt stands at the opposite pole from the idealized, rhetorical, even exhortatory art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation exemplified by Rubens. Rubens was the Apollonian painter par excellence, the unsurpassed decorator, preoccupied with the surface appearance of things. He painted “the glory that shall be revealed in us.” Rembrandt was his Dionysian counterpart, the psychological realist, the tragic visionary. There is not a hint of glory or triumph even in his beautiful Resurrected Christ, with its soft contours and supple torso, the latter only partially hidden by a white cloak. No, this Christ is, as the hymn says, “all compassion.” Here, as with several other pictures in this extraordinary exhibition, we come face to face with this titan’s supreme Dionysian achievement: painting as revelation.

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