= The Crawford Arts Review: December 2014

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ends Sunday 18 January. Part III - Towards a new interpretation of Rembrandt's 'The Jewish Bride'

Let me first disclaim. The painting Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, dating from about 1665, was given the title 'The Jewish Bride' in the early 19th century. Scholars contest this title and I venture to agree.

I am a journalist, not an art historian. I write about art because I love art. I have an eye. It is even a rather primitive eye, though schooled. I simply go up to a work like this great painting and react to what I observe.

'The Jewish Bride' is a most famous double portrait 
 it's in London until 18 January when it returns to its home in the Rijksmuseum. In it, the man stands to the woman's right. His raised right arm reaches across his own and her body and his right hand, fingers straight, gently touches her fully clothed breast. As you will see from the image shown below, his left hand rests lightly, seemingly reassuringly, upon her shoulder.

Both subjects are dressed to the nines. This is the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age. Amsterdam and its port was a centre of world trade; Dutch ships brought back goods the whole world wanted and they made massive profits for Amsterdam's merchants. Everyone involved could afford rich clothes, big houses, and commission great works of art.

In this portrait, the way Rembrandt has positioned his two figures gives us a close-up view of the man's sleeve. It is sumptuous, richly embellished with gold, an example of the finest craftwork. All done with paint, the oily paste of pigment (see Parts I and II below).

In 1854, when Adriaan van der Hoop bequeathed this painting along with the rest of his collection to the City of Amsterdam, people came from far and wide to marvel over how Rembrandt orchestrated that golden blaze of light on that sleeve. We are still going up to the painting and doing exactly the same all these centuries later.

Art historians in their scholarship, not to mention visitors with their own specialisms in the arts and sciences, have wondered not only about the sleeve but about the identity of these two figures. Over the centuries, many theories have arisen. There are two main ones:

1.  As mentioned above, the painting may commemorate the bestowing of a necklace by her father (supposedly pictured) upon the eponymous Jewish Bride before her marriage. She's laden with jewellery: I personally don't see the significance of one more necklace – but perhaps I'm missing something here. The father, his hair the same youthful colour as the woman's, doesn't seem to be of a father's age either. Nor is he bestowing anything other than a hand on her chest. The 'Jewish Bride' title was first used at the beginning of the 19th century by an Amsterdam collector – and it stuck. Perhaps it's time to scrape off the label and rewrite it.

2.  This is a painting on a religious theme, the tender love between a man and a woman as depicted in the Old Testament. Historians, having linked this painting with an earlier drawing Rembrandt made of the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca, the consensus is that this is indeed they. The fact that they are both exotically dressed ties in with the fashion of so doing for such biblical figures.

While I admit to it being perhaps a brash piece of theorizing on my part, using not much more than the evidence of my own eyes, I would like to posit a new hypothesis. Rembrandt may well have borrowed the story of Isaac and Rebecca to exemplify all that is goodly in marriage but his true subjects I believe lived nearer to home. When Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam from Leiden in 1631 he lodged and worked in the house and studio of a celebrated art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh. There he met Uylenburgh's young relative, later to become Rembrandt's wife, Saskia.

By the time he and Saskia met and married in 1634, Rembrandt had become a citizen of Amsterdam, a member of the Guild of Painters, and was on his way to becoming one of his country's most highly paid artists. He was 28, Saskia 22. The numerous drawings he made of her suggest the two were very happy. Having a famous, astute, and well-connected art dealer for a father-in-law actually suggests a marriage made in heaven. The world was theirs.

But the next few years were filled with tragedy. One after another, three of the Van Rijn's children died in early infancy. It was not until 1641 that their son Titus was born and lived to adulthood. According to many authorities, Rembrandt worked on the Isaac and Rebecca painting between 1665 and 1669. By that time he had no beautiful marriage. Saskia had sickened and died months after giving birth to Titus. She was only 30, Rembrandt 36.

Could not Rembrandt in this painting be recalling an earlier time when he and Saskia were young and anticipating the birth of children to bless the marriage? Why else, studio requirements aside, did they move to that big new house on Breestraat?

Yes, the painting is of an intimate scene, as is widely acknowledged. Yes, the subjects' gestures tell us much: the trust they share for one thing. There is something though about the chaste nature of the figures that, to me, suggests something more formal is being enacted. The man is wearing a hat. Look at his hand – his gesture is no “grope”. 

What this painting says to me is that Saskia has announced to her husband that she may be pregnant and a doctor has been summoned. He could be there either at the behest of Rembrandt himself, of Saskia's father, or her uncle, her nearest relative in Amsterdam.  What the gold sleeve might be telling us is that this is the 'best’, the ‘most expensive’ doctor in town. Look at the man's gaze – it's faultlessly averted downwards, intent on reading the information from his hand. It is a doctor’s gaze. And what we are being shown is palpation, examination by touch. Look at the shy way her left hand hovers over his – as if confirming that she has given him permission to touch her breast. Look at the way her other hand hovers protectively over her belly. 

The man in the picture – whether father, husband or physician – with the gentlest of touches is ascertaining whether the woman's breast density has increased; whether the nipple is firm – both signs of early pregnancy. The expression on their faces, while tender and infinitely respectful, contains an element of anxiety: dare the protagonists hope for this blessing? Even more poignantly, if this is not a depiction of Saskia's first pregnancy, might this pregnancy succeed after the devastating outcomes of the previous ones?

Executing this double portrait at the age of 59 or so, could Rembrandt help but recall his own promise of happiness so soon to be dashed away? It seems entirely understandable to me that he would seek to disguise this most private of griefs and that he should do so using the deftest allegory, the so-called historicized portrait. Indeed, using a depiction of Isaac and Rebecca, gives a wholly appropriate spiritual quality to this earthly misfortune.

The portrait bears the hallmark of the things I've mentioned above because it records human emotions in the most authentic way – straight from the heart. The subjects' expressions seem to me, by some painterly magic, to finely represent their emotional polarity: hardly daring to hope but at the same time exulting that the Van Rijns might have a child, that this marriage might be blessed and bear fruit.

Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca,
known as The Jewish Bride
, about 1665
Oil on canvas, 121.5 × 166.5 cm
Signed and dated lower right: Rembrandt f. 16..
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from the
City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

Endnote: I am unfamiliar with Jewish marriage tradition. If bride and groom are forbidden to engage in marital relations before being wed, this would add a further layer of meaning; indeed, if they have not, and the lady is pregnant, it will be by another. Let me add a further historical layer: if the Amsterdam collector discussed earlier was being particularly circumspect in his naming of the work, it may indeed be the case that a further necklace would be bestowed as a reward for the girl agreeing to undergo a pregnancy test. And there I will leave it. Over to you, the reader; indeed, over to my estimable Dutch colleagues, who have lived with this painting for longer than I have. If you have any comments I'd love to hear them.

The painting is on show in Room 5 of the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing until Sunday 18 January as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, ticketed.

© Sally Crawford 05 January 2015. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Rembrandt, Part II, Some Masterworks

Rembrandt was a celebrity in his own 17th-century lifetime, one of the highest paid painters of his day. Before the invention of photography, all famous people as well as members of your family if the budget stretched that far had their portraits painted. There was no other way of visually recording an event or what a person looked like. The number of portraits Rembrandt painted attests to the number of people who wanted to have his pictures on their walls and in addition have a ready reference to his distinctive style. One can imagine the 17th-century dinner guest exclaiming: "unless I'm very much mistaken, that's a work by Mijnheer Van Rijn on your wall". And the host would blush and look modest. It's a tradition that carries on today. No prime minister or president leaves office without having a portrait painted to be hung up with their predecessors. The same applies to unique groupings whether school, college, family occasion, or committee although the visual record here is more likely to be photographic.

Some Rembrandt Masterworks at the Sainsbury Wing

Room 2  The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, about 19612

Rembrandt was commissioned to produce a work to decorate Amsterdam's New Town Hall in the Dam. His subject was this 1st century AD revolt against Roman rule, recorded by Tacitus (see picture credits below). It is a story intimately interwoven with Dutch nationhood. The Batavi, a Germanic tribe, settled the delta land of the lower Rhine an area that centres on the city of Nijmegen. Rembrandt must have intended the painting to speak to his 17th-century compatriots of the heroism shown by this small band of men against the might of Rome. Nevertheless, the painting, although installed, was removed soon afterwards and returned to the artist. You can read about it here. Cuts were made in the original canvas to preserve the group around the table, and the picture was then reframed. The painting as it exists today nevertheless measures 196 cm × 309 cm (77 in × 122 in). And the painting is certainly more appreciated now it takes pride of place in Room 2. Thus, due to this exceptional loan from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, London has been able to show the Dutch a work by their most famous painter, that speaks anew to them of their illustrious and determined origins.

Note how Rembrandt has lit his scene of Civilis exorting the others to action. The light seems to come from within the room – as if we are actually viewing that candlelit scene some 2000 years ago.

Room 2  Self Portrait with two Circles, about 16659

This is a virtuoso work among virtuoso works. The reaction of Rembrandt's contemporaries must have been something like "but he makes it all look so easy!" He models the face in his usual painstaking manner and then swiftly, insouciantly almost, sketches in the white cap on the head and the hands holding those oily pastes of pigment and that bunch of brushes I referred to earlier in Part I. This is a portrait completed in the last 5 years of his life, his wife Saskia dead, his common law wife Hendrickje dead, and his debts still mounting in spite of the liquidation of his assets/business and the loss of his house. 

Look at the bravado. The painting is the work of a genius. Look, he is saying, I can even draw a perfect circle, not once, but twice. Nobody might be buying my paintings at the moment (they were of course accepting them as security against his loans), but maybe they will in the end. The painting is loaned by the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House. 

Room 4  The Sampling Officials of the  Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as 'The Syndics', 1662

This is another large commissioned work, this time for the Amsterdam merchants charged with overseeing the quality of woven and dyed cloth. How dignified they are, how soberly suited, how uniformly focused on the work in hand. The artist could have shown these worthy Syndics as a conventional grouping of high-powered suits round a table. Thankfully he didn't. He infuses the group with the kind of dynamism that lets the viewer imagine them not only as performing their duties but doing so with humour and good fellowship.

Room 4  Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip, about 1661

This is a painting from the National Gallery's own collection of Rembrandt's work. Margaretha de Geer is elderly, frail, and yet, in her quiet way, radiant. How artists of this period and earlier vied with one another to paint the perfect stiff lace ruff and wrist cuffs. Those are surely one of the most potent symbols of signification for a high born person who didn't have to do the washing up, milk the cow or fetch the coal. The painting takes the breath away.


Room 5  Titus at his Desk, 1665

This is Rembrandt's son, Titus van Rijn. Look at the boy's face. He's 14. He's daydreaming. Orphaned just after his birth by the death of his mother, look at the tenderness with which his father captures this moment. Titus grew to adulthood, married and fathered a daughter. He did not live to see her birth, dying 7 months later and predeceasing his father by a year. Accustomed to using his own image for portraiture, Rembrandt also employed his son and members of his household. This practice meant he was always daring in his compositions, always charting new territory. Here Rembrandt has jammed the front of the desk right up against the picture plane. The pencase and inkwell that hang over the back of the desk are almost tangible  objects you can almost go up to and touch.

Note: I have not written of the drawings and etchings. These are interspersed throughout the exhibition, providing, brilliantly, a contemplative space between the paintings.

Rembrandt: The Late Works, Sainsbury Wing Exhibition, until Sunday 18 January
Daily                                          10am–6pm
Fridays                                      10am–9pm
Sundays (new late opening)   10am–9pm
The National Art Pass

The Conspiracy of the Batavians under
Claudius Civilis, about 1661–2
Oil on canvas, 196 × 309 cm
Donated 1798 to The Royal Academy of
Fine Arts, Sweden, by Mrs Anna Johanna Peill,
born Grill, widow of Mr Henrik Wilhelm Peill,
in memory of her late husband

Self Portrait with Two Circles,
about 1665–9
Oil on canvas, 116.3 × 97.2 cm
English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest
(Kenwood, London)

The Sampling Officials of the
Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild,
known as ‘The Syndics’, 1662
Oil on canvas, 191.5 × 279 cm
Signed and dated, lower centre,
on the table carpet: Rembrandt f. 1662
Signed and dated (perhaps by a later hand),
upper right, on the wall: Rembrandt f. 1661
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from
the City of Amsterdam

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer,
Wife of Jacob Trip, about 1661
Oil on canvas, 130.5 × 97.5 cm
The National Gallery, London

Titus at his Desk, 1655
Oil on canvas, 77 × 63 cm
Signed and dated lower left:
Rembrandt f. 1655.
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen,
Rotterdam (St. 2)

The above captions taken from supplement
with provenance,
selected literature
and bibliography
Marjorie E. Wieseman, Jonathan Bikker,
Erik Hinterding and Marijn Schapelhouman
With Albert Godycki and Lelia Packer

Part III, a new narrative interpretation of that somewhat curious painting 'The Jewish Bride' and what it might mean

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Rembrandt: The Late Works, Part I, What to Expect from Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, at the Sainsbury Wing (Level -2) National Gallery is a collaboration between the National Gallery, London and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, of his late and many would say his greatest works.

The work of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn needs no introduction, having been interpreted, under-, over- and reinterpreted throughout the three-and-a-half centuries since his death. 

Ignore all of this if you can. Just go round and see the marvellous things the man does with an oily paste of pigment and a bunch of brushes.

My art masters always spoke in wonderment of Rembrandt's portraits and self-portraits and of the way in which, with his largely subdued palette of medieval greys and browns, he coaxed 3-dimensional form out of a flat canvas. How his subjects would be brought to life by that single, and oh so finely judged, whitish brush mark on the nose
so that they seem to come out of their canvases towards us.
Detail from Rembrandt, 'Self Portrait
at the Age of 63' 1669 showing his head
Courtesy National Gallery, London
As for his sublime control of light and shade, read what Betsy Wieseman, curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings and of this exhibition, has to say:

[Rembrandt] developed a new way of describing faces with patterns of light and shadow, rather than simply lighting one side and shading the other. Shadows around the eyes of his portraits, making it hard to read a precise expression give his canvases the extraordinary impression of the living, thinking mind behind the face.
My first visit earlier this week lasted no more than 5 minutes. It was not so much the time it was going to take to see the paintings in those politely crowded (but since care was taken not overcrowded) rooms as the sheer impact of seeing so many Rembrandts seeing all these friends, old and new in the same space.

During that 5 minutes what struck me most was the fact that Rembrandt's portraits
superbly lit in a subterranean space that has been intelligently divided into a themed suite of 'rooms', seemed, in their glorious living aspect, as alive or somehow even more alive, than the winter-dressed people who had come to see them.

Rembrandt, in his use of light and shade, black and white, in paintings, drawings and etchings, discovered HiDef before the term was invented.

Later in the day I was more prepared. May I suggest you mug up on this artist before your visit. Here's a taster from the excellently produced and free short guide:
1606: [. . .] born in Leiden on 15 July, the ninth child of the miller Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn and his wife, Neeltgen [Cornelia] Willemsdr van Zuytbrouck.
Go to the gallery's explanatory pages. Plan the time of your visit. Just before the gallery closes is often a good time (last entries are at 5 pm and by 5.15 the crowd starts to thin). Since the exhibition *ends* on Sunday 18 January, the days before and after the holiday closures (2426 December and 1 January) may also  be good times. 

Read what has already appeared in the press. I recommend Laura Cumming for the paintings and Simon Schama for the timeline (the comments on this article are also worth a look). Closing one of his resounding paragraphs, Schama urges his reader to "get a new pair of eyes, courtesy of the master".

As well as the Rijksmuseum, which only last year was able again to hang these marvellous works on the newly renovated walls, other Dutch museums have contributed works: the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The wider world, both private and institutional, have contributed their own treasures. We have loans from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (a long and arduous journey for a painting that's 350 years old), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden, the Louvre, and so on and on. The online supplement to the exhibition, which gives each painting's loan details and provenance, runs to 35 pages.

Sainsbury Wing Exhibition
Daily                                       10am–6pm
Fridays                                   10am–9pm
Sundays (new late opening)  10am–9pm
The National Art Pass

Part II, Some Masterworks: 

Self-Portrait with two Circles, about 16659
The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, about 16612
The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as 'The Syndics', 1662
Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip, about 1661
Titus at his Desk, 1655

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Pipilotti Rist at Hauser & Wirth, Savile Row

Elen Salina called it a 'personal dreamland'. It is. Not so much art as some sort of multi-disco wallpaper. In your face, bright, disinhibiting and run at near disco speed. 

Pipilotti Rist's new audio video 'Worry Will Vanish' runs in a darkened room (the North Gallery), heavily curtained off, carpeted and with small duvets scattered over the floor. One is required to be shoeless. Is one, one wonders, being invited to participate, at least in one's imagination, sensually, with a partner of choice and should one have brought him or her?

Pipilotti Rist 'Worry Will Vanish Horizon' (video still), 2014,
audio video installation. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth
and Luhring Augustine, New York
A billion images flash by and, for me, that's a little too rich, too layered and, on a Saturday morning, a little too much. 

But if you do feel like being immersed in the artist's dreamland you will find that the images are corporeal. Close-ups of plant leaves and stems mixed in with endoscopic scans of the human gut. Here and there a disembodied female figure floats by, long hair streaming, legs closed, arms by the sides, still as some newly unwrapped Barbie.

The camera lingers on a reclining male thigh, the light picking out the blond vellus hairs. But in a flash it's gone. The same thing happens with a short passage of birdsong. There is soundtrack - and actually, the music (by Anders Guggisberg) is perfectly acceptable: I might though have preferred stillness here.

Judging by some of the reactions to Ms Rist's parallel exhibition in Hauser & Wirth's Somerset art space where Rist spent a year-long artist residency, I think London may have drawn slightly the short straw here.

The Arnolfini Gallery tweeted a still from the Somerset show as their Curator's Choice, a shot of tender male fingers, skin lit almost to translucency by sunlight, caressing a newly opened leaf of what appears to be a nettle busy with photosynthesising. The male, perhaps musing on the population of Cabbage Whites about to raid his crops, is no doubt thinking some manly thought such as 'better nettles than my cabbages'. It's a beautiful video still from Pipilotti Rist's 'Mercy Garden', on show in the Hauser & Wirth Somerset Galleries. It looks well worth making the journey down to Somerset for.

As for London, uptight as Londoners are from time to time, all the artist may be saying is 'hey, chill out, you Londoners'.

Hauser & Wirth                                                                    

23 Saville Row                                                                     
London W1                                                                           
until Saturday 10 January  

(not seen)
Hauser & Wirth Somerset
Durslade Farm
Dropping Lane, Bruton

Somerset BA10 0NL