by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Rembrandt's Turbulent Final Years

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 4 December 2014
Trustees of the British Museum
'Young Woman Sleeping,' from about 1654.



Rembrandt's last years were the most difficult of his life. He was effectively declared bankrupt in 1656; a picture commissioned for Amsterdam's new Town Hall, the largest he ever painted, was installed and then replaced in 1662; his lover, Hendrickye Stoffels, died in 1663, and his son Titus, at the age of 27, in 1668. At one point he was so hard up that he had to raid his daughter Cornelia's money box.

Yet these years were the most experimental and exuberantly creative of his career — to the point that many of his contemporaries and biographers came to believe that during this period he went slightly mad.

That nothing could be further from the truth is magnificently demonstrated by 'Rembrandt: The Late Works,' the first exhibition to examine in depth his body of work from the 1650's and 1660's. Organized by Betsy Wieseman, curator of Dutch paintings at the National Gallery, where the show runs until Jan. 18, this probably unrepeatable gathering of works from numerous institutions travels to the Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam (Feb. 12 through May 17).

No artist before Rembrandt had ever done so many self-portraits, some 80 in all, constituting about a 10th of his output. The show opens with an enthralling array of the late ones, which not only reflect various moods but also turn an unflinching eye on the ravages time had by then wrought on his visage. They include what is generally believed to be the last he painted, in 1669, the year of his death, from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Intimate and revealing though these studies now seem to us, they were clearly intended for sale along with his other works — and, in fact, no self-portraits are listed among the pictures from his studio that he was forced to auction in the year of his bankruptcy.

In his biography of the artist published in 1718, Arnold Houbraken noted that 'Rembrandt did not want to conform to anyone else's rules.' Commenting on the unorthodox technique of his late pictures, Houbraken observed that when viewed up close, the paint appeared to have been smeared on with a bricklayer's trowel. Indeed, Rembrandt was the first artist to use a palette knife as a tool to apply paint directly to canvas.

A classic example of this characteristic thick impasto can be found in the second room of the exhibition in 'The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis,' the picture commissioned for Amsterdam's new Town Hall. This brilliantly luminous demonstration of the artist's later paint-heavy, broad-brush technique depicted the leaders of the Batavians, an ancient Germanic tribe, meeting at night to begin their revolt against the Roman invaders — a historic incident seen as symbolic of the Dutch revolt against their Spanish oppressors in the 16th century.

Some of the original commissions for the Town Hall had gone to Rembrandt's former students, and their master was subsequently called upon only because one of them died. But Rembrandt was clearly not prepared to deliver the more conventional, polished technique that his students had successfully adopted. This was a likely reason that the painting was soon replaced with another and was later cut down to a smaller size, but still remained unsold during the artist's lifetime.

No less a revolution took place in the artist's etching technique during this time. As Erik Hinterding writes in the show's catalog: 'The way in which Rembrandt deployed drypoint to achieve tonal, almost painterly effects was utterly novel.' This is vividly illustrated in two sequences of prints in various 'states': 'The Three Crosses' of 1653 and 'Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo)' of 1655.

Using the drypoint technique, which involves cutting directly into the copper etching plate, the artist was able to produce amazing new results, but the problem remained that only 50 to 75 prints could be made before the plate was worn away. Rembrandt responded by recutting the plates between print runs — the first artist to exploit the sale of works in various 'states' and to print them on different types of paper, including cartridge paper, expensive papers imported from Japan and even parchment.

Rembrandt seems to have used drawing and watercolor primarily as practical planning tools for his own purposes, but during his later period he made some that now stand as fine works of art in themselves. Fourteen of these graphic works punctuate the exhibition. Among them are some tranquil rustic scenes, a recumbent lion, and sketches of an executed woman murderer hanging from a gallows. There is also one piece that is a complete departure: 'Young Woman Sleeping,' — a stunning pen, brush and ink masterpiece (almost certainly of his mistress, Stoffels) from the British Museum, reminiscent of the work of the greatest Japanese masters.

The artist's eccentricities and irregular, unwed lifestyle may have put him beyond the pale of Amsterdam's stuffier and more conservative circles and excluded him from consideration for public commissions and from recording the images of some of the great and the good. But some connoisseurs were undeterred either by his social unorthodoxy or by the radical changes his style was undergoing. He did a substantial number of portraits during his last years and used all his techniques, both established and experimental, to capture the essence of his sitters, as the superlative lineup in the third, fourth and fifth rooms of the show confirm.

These portraits give the lie to the accusation of his biographers that Rembrandt ended up associating mainly with the lower classes. The subjects include men and women of substance, and the eminently respectable 'Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as The Syndics,' a potentially rather static group portrait to which the artist managed to lend remarkable dynamism and vivacity. At the same time, his raffish, unbuttoned 'Portrait of an Elderly Man' not only pushes the virtuoso brushwork of his later period to the limits but is also one of the most movingly humane studies of old age, and of a life lived to the full, ever painted.

Rembrandt's religious affiliation remains unknown, but his engagement with biblical themes was lifelong and his last years gave rise to some of his most thoughtful and unusual interpretations of them. The last two rooms of the show display a wide range: from the Old Testament-inspired 'Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as 'The Jewish Bride'' and 'Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph,' to studies of the apostles Bartholomew and Simon. Also here is 'Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple,' left unfinished in his studio on Rembrandt's death.

It was a biblical theme, too, that stimulated perhaps his finest nude: 'Bathsheba with King David's Letter,' on loan from the Louvre. An X-ray has revealed that his original intention was to show her with her head raised and a shocked expression. But he opted for a far more subtle study of her impossible plight, caught between loyalty to her husband and to her king. By depicting her in all her bodily glory, but with a profoundly sorrowful expression, he transforms her into an unforgettable image of the delights, the curse and the transience of beauty.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024