Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibition: Rembrandt's Late Works at the National Gallery

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibition: Rembrandt's Late Works at the National Gallery

Article excerpt

At the opening of Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery (until 18 January), I met a painter friend of mine in the final room. This was, he said, one of the most magnificent exhibitions he had seen in his entire life, which -- considering he is perhaps 70 and a frequent visitor of galleries -- was praise indeed (and entirely deserved).

Mischievously, I mentioned that he had also been highly enthusiastic about Veronese at the National Gallery a few months ago. 'Ah, but there is a huge difference between Veronese and Rembrandt,' he vehemently responded. 'When you look at a Madonna by Veronese, you see a glamorous model wearing expensive clothes, with Rembrandt's "Bathsheba" [pointing at the picture in front of us] you can read her thoughts.'

He got it in one. Rembrandt is the supreme painter of the inner life. He brings you close to the people in his pictures. That is one of the lessons the exhibition aims to teach. It and the accompanying book -- more a collection of essays than a catalogue -- contain sections such as 'Intimacy', 'Inner Conflict' and 'Contemplation'. The fundamental premise is that in about 1650-52, Rembrandt (1606-69) changed course, becoming a more idiosyncratic and deeply original artist than he had been before. 'Late Rembrandt' therefore begins in what we would now think of as his early middle age when the artist was around 45.

To make their point, the curators have assembled, if not quite all the greatest of Rembrandt's later works, a sensationally large number of them (one or two more will be added when the exhibition moves to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, next year). Room after room contains a stunning assortment of paintings, drawings and prints, harmonising wonderfully with each other.

Picking highlights is hard. The series of self-portraits right at the start is a show-stopper, so too is the room of portraits halfway around, and the extraordinary conjunction right at the end of 'Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph' (1656), a meditation on youth, age and family love, with 'Bathsheba with King David's Letter' (1654).

The latter is as convincing an evocation of human flesh and skin as anything by Titian, with the difference that it seems like the real body of an individual woman, sitting with a slight and touching awkwardness. But that's only part of what the picture does. She is gazing into space, anxious, perhaps fearful: not just a nude, but a person. The picture is not merely sensuous but also poignant and dramatic. My friend was right: you see what she is thinking.

As you walk through the exhibition you follow Rembrandt's thoughts, too. Nowhere is that clearer than in the sequences of prints in different 'states' that hang side by side. This sounds a little arcane, but is actually gripping. Effectively, Rembrandt invented a new method of print-making.

By using drypoint -- that is, pulling his needle through a copper plate so as to churn up a burr of metal on either side of the line -- he was able to create luxuriously deep and velvety blacks. The disadvantage was that this burr quickly wore away so he could only make a limited number of impressions. Rembrandt's reaction was to use this as an opportunity to re-cut, and radically rethink, the entire work, so 'The Three Crosses' (1653) is not a single image but a sequence of works -- variations on a theme -- culminating in a scene of apocalyptic darkness. …

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