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

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