= The Crawford Arts Review: Understanding Rembrandt 350 years after his death

Monday, 18 February 2019

Understanding Rembrandt 350 years after his death

As fellow art journos take the Eurostar to Amsterdam to stare, no doubt in wonder, at All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum, I feel the pang of not being there, my press pass as yet unused. All the Rembrandts runs until 10 June.

In the meantime, knowing these paintings, if not the drawings and prints, since student days, I have been reading some of the reviews published since the opening. There is, for instance, a particularly jolly and perceptive piece on "The Night Watch" (and incidentally on the Dutch for whom it was painted), by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian.

And there's the question "might Rembrandt have been a narcissist" posited by one distinguished critic.  

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait in a cap,
with eyes wide open, 1630

"Who, me?" (Wie, ik?), I can almost hear him respond

Rembrandt created over 80 self-portraits if you count in the drawings and prints. He had a declared purpose. They were studies for many of his later portrait paintings – of individuals, couples and groups. Many of the self-portraits are hardly flattering. The fact is that it's extremely difficult to draw or paint someone with mouth agape, eyes widened or hair standing on end. 
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait
in a black cap, 1637
In all of the self-portraits you'll see Rembrandt's masterly grasp of how to handle chiaroscuro, light and shade. Here's a second self-portrait, this time from the Wallace Collection here in London. It is "Self-portrait in a black cap" dating from 1637. The artist here accomplishes that most difficult of tasks – the foreshortening of the head as it tilts back. Only someone with the most superb skills of draughtmanship can do this convincingly. And, of course, as a subtext, in presenting himself in these various poses and guises, the artist is saying: look what I can do with paint.

Then there are comments that the self-portraits may have more than a passing relationship to today's selfies. Well, more a relationship to the brilliance of Dutch marketing skills in bringing the 17th century bang up to date. Amsterdam is also paying its respects to the brilliant Emilie Gordenker, joint director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, who organized an exhibition of Dutch Self-Portraits in 2015/16 which she called Selfies of the Golden Age.

A final thought here. It might be fun as well as instructive to match the poses of some of these self-portraits to the finished portraits in Rembrandt's other works. 

There are further Rembrandt exhibitions throughout the fair cities of the Netherlands: Rembrandt's family and social network in the house he bought in Amsterdam (now the Rembrandt House Museum), in Leeuwarden where his wife Saskia was born, and in Leiden, his own birthplace, until the end of the year (see link for further details).

Eurostar Direct

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