The living art of Rembrandt13 min read

“All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of man. The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never quenched it.”

John I. v. 4-5 (New English Bible).

However dark the mind of man, however black the pages of history, there have always been a few who have caught gleams of the light that is the life of men and who have tried to express it whether they are recognized or not. Some who have known it fully have radiated the light through their lives, while the work of artists who have felt it catches fire, as it were, and glows.

Rembrandt rides above the tides of fashion for his art reflects that unquenchable life that is the light of every man who does not live by bread alone. This life was born out of struggle, pain, hardship, loneliness and love—exuberant love—love of human beings, of the human body, of the aged. It grew through a penetrative sympathy with nature and matured through an intuitive comprehension of the Biblical scenes and conceptions together with a capacity to convey in masterly paintwork the profundity of his soul.

In 1642 Rembrandt painted the giant portrait group called The Nightwatch which now hangs in its sombre splendour in the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam. It is one of the world’s most famous ‘failures.’ All the members of this group of the Amsterdam Civic Guard had paid the same amount towards this commission, but only two of them, the Captain and the Lieutenant who could be seen full length in the light, in the foreground, were satisfied. The rest of the group, who were in the dark in the background, were displeased. The painting did not please the public either. It was not in the tradition of an accepted portrait group and it was considered too theatrical with its emphasis on the action rather than on the features of those who had commissioned the work.

In the Dresden Gallery there hangs another painting of Samson putting riddles to the Philistines and it has been said that Rembrandt’s whole activity was in fact a riddle to the Philistines of this time. He was an isolated phenomenon in the contemporary Dutch art, for the Baroque streak in his make-up was very strong. The vitality and intensity, the flowing movement in the great Italian tradition was anathema to the sober, clear-headed, low-church Dutch. The Church frowned not merely on the flamboyant but on all representations of the divine, while the costume of the period was austere.

How could Rembrandt express the richness of his nature when there was no accepted channel for it ? Could it not be that it first flowered forth in the finery, the oriental turbans, velvet cloaks and feather plumes, the sumptuous fabrics, gleaming armour, helmets and sparkling jewellery with which he took such delight in dressing up his tramps and beggars, his relatives, his wife Saskia and himself? This love of finery has been thought by many to be a form of ostentation, but if there were vitality in his nature, vulgarity, surely, there was not. Could it not be for one who was to search out the soul of what he saw that he was first fascinated by the richness of its vestments ? Does not nature clothe herself luxuriously in green and red and gold before unveiling herself to reveal the stark, bare beauty of her underlying form? Did not Rembrandt paint his wife, upper class and prosperous as she was, as Flora, an enchanting goddess of the spring, wearing a cap of flowers, holding an engarlanded staff and walking through a luscious leafy landscape ? And do we not appreciate her unclothed as Danae even more ?

The double portrait painted in 1635, a year after their marriage contrasts the refined Saskia seated sedately on his lap with her grinning, coarser featured, cavalier-clad artist husband. The tall glass raised as if to say “This is it,” the game gracing the carpet-covered table indicates the sensuality to which Rembrandt must have relished giving way. Later, however, in the Lit Francis, Vertumnus deluding Pomona and pictures which represented the body in ugly actuality, he seems to be exorcising his passion in the way that Picasso has admitted to exorcising his fears in his great Guernica painting. The struggle for the light shining in the darkness was the struggle between the man of passion and the man of love who knew he could not find, save in the peace of his own soul, what it was he really longed for. We can follow the same intense struggle, a life-time battle as it was, in the work of that other titan of the Baroque world, Michelangelo, and contemplate its resolution in the serenity of surrender in his last great work The Rondanini Pieta.

Both before and after his marriage Rembrandt was quite well off. As an artist he naturally reacted to the mean and calculating business men who surrounded him by being both generous and extravagant. When attending art sales he would bid so high at the outset that no further bidder would come forward and he did this, according to one of his pupils, to exalt the honour of his art. In his house apart from his bizarre collection of fantastic costumes, Rembrandt had a fine and representative collection of sculpture, painting and engravings. At this time he was well- known, he was commissioned and took on many pupils. The handsome heads portrayed in the famous Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp led to many commissions for fashionable portraits but Rembrandt always felt, understandably, more at ease among professional classes. Among his sitters were members of many different religions and it is clear that while unorthodox himself Rembrandt was a deeply religious man. If anything his attitude was close to a sect known as the Mennonites whose preference for ‘the poor in spirit’ to ‘the worldly wise’ might well have been his motto.

One of Rembrandt’s best known early paintings was that of his mother totally absorbed in her reading of the Bible. In a later painting of Timothy and his Grandmother, the boy praying and the old lady reflecting, the closed book on her lap, we can feel how Rembrandt must himself have listened, loved and learned from what he had heard his mother read to him. The deep impression made upon him by the Bible stories is clear from the compulsion he seems to have had to paint specific scenes as they are associated with events and crises in his own life. As Professor Muther has pointed out, in 1635 when Saskia is to become a mother, we have the joyful Annunciation to the Shepherd; when his first child dies, the painting of Abraham offering Isaac is begun. Four children die but during the time Saskia is again pregnant Rembrandt paints The Meeting of Mary with Elizabeth and The Sacrifice of Manaoh in which Manaoh and his wife kneel thankfully before the sacrificial fire while the angel who has announced the birth of Samson rises in the air.

After the ‘failure’ of the great Nightwatch Saskia died and a time of trouble was at hand. Rembrandt’s art became unpopular, the fashion of the time being for affected, slick and polished work. His passion for collecting engravings, particularly of Lucas van Leyden aided and abetted his insolvency which took place in 1656 when his five-storied house and its wonderful collection were sold. Yet, unquenchable, he drew two bailiffs who came to collect his things. In an allegory etched this year, the statue of a man has crashed to the ground and a phoenix rises from the ashes, hovering in triumph over the empty pedestal, while angels with trumpets announce the miracle of resurrection to the astonished people. At this time Rembrandt painted, over and over again, The Holy Family, Mother and Child, as well as The Death of Mary.

Now, together with his son Titus and his one-time housekeeper who was now his mistress, Rembrandt kept an art shop and sold engravings to help to make ends meet. The quiet, warm, thoughtful humanity that flows from the features of Henrikje Stoffels shows how much she must have contributed to the artist at this time. A new phase of aesthetic insight and an altogether freer handling of paint can be observed from this time forward as Rembrandt, no longer under obligation to a patron, feels free to express his deepest urges. Up to the death of Saskia, the landscape of Holland had meant little to him. It was the glittering Orient and tropical splendour that provided the background for his subjects. Now it was as if he needed nature and her vast moods to help him express the increasing power of his being. Storm— his first landscape—was half legendary with its great black clouds, dramatic light on the city walls, its jagged cliffs and trembling trees. Later, calmer, he could wander, solitary and absorbed, to explore the ‘poetry of the plain,’ the details of which he has recorded with great love in his sketchbooks. Rushes in flowing movement, old mills in quiet shade, bridges and canals with their reflections, silhouettes of trees, haystacks and fallen huts, the simple near-at-hand was all he needed to indicate by only a few brush strokes the faraway.

In the etching of Dr. Faustus who turns to the window struck by the mystic vision which has been unveiled for him by a semiinvisible hand, we get a clue that Rembrandt’s real vision was only clothed in the form of physical light. Thus the Scholar studying in the Stockholm National Museum and the small intense painting of The Philosopher in the National Gallery indicate more than they seem to portray, they indicate the light of the spirit flooding the seeking mind. Scene after scene from the New Testament were used to express the increasing sense of this inner light: The Good Samaritan and Jesus appearing to the disciples at Emmaus and calling Lazarus from the grave.

A painting on the Sermon on the Mount shows a crowd too busy with its own affairs to listen to the One who could cover them with bliss, while in the foreground, representing the mind of the masses, is a dog. In contrast to the idealized and palatial splendour of the Italian conception of the court of God and the freely exposed ecstasies of the Spanish school, Rembrandt would paint an ordinary family with such tenderness that it became transformed into holiness through the sheer alchemy of love. The early harsh light of the Samson pictures where he threw down the gauntlet to the philistines and the glittering dance of light during his short but happy married life gives way to a softer, gentler light, indicating the mysterious tempering of his natural exuberance through suffering and an intenser penetration into the life of things. “The light shines on in the dark . . .”

From the outset of his career Rembrandt was attracted to the art and technique of etching, beginning to portray with his needle the tramps and hunchbacks and the drunkards that were wandering over Europe—relics of the war. He continued to practise this branch of art until he became its acknowledged greatest master. His early etchings of himself show him making all sorts of faces at the world as if he did not understand himself, the world or his relationship with it. His self-investigating analysis led on to the great series of Self-Portraits which Sir Kenneth Clark has called the greatest autobiography ever presented to posterity. Quizzical (what am I ?), stern, laughing and finally utterly self-accepting, this face represents in its range and grandeur the face of universal man:

“How well,” Clark says, “we know that face—far better than we know our own or the faces of our friends.” He noticed that the Self-Portrait of 1650 indicates a change. “The jolly toper,” he says, “has gone for ever and so has the grinning rebel. He no longer needs to make faces; time and the spectacle of human life have made one for him.”

All the great observers of human character have known that to understand mankind one must first come to understand oneself in all its human weakness and all its divine strength. The artist cannot falsify, it is no surface charm he seeks but authenticity. No one could have sat so long and so patiently as Rembrandt must have sat to his own self, submitting to the deepest scrutiny that he might record for us a great soul gazing into eternity from out of a pouchy, plebian face. Layer upon layer of paint was put on with every device known in painting and there can never have been portraits in which what was seen with the eye, known as character and felt as soul have been so marvellously merged and so magnificently represented.

In the portraits of the aged, Rembrandt’s veneration for his sitters is communicated to all who contemplate them as also is his yearning for the secret of repose. Tancred Borenius has said that it is no exaggeration to say that for many people the contemplation of Rembrandt characters and conceptions has become a kind of religion, although as pure paintings they stand as masterpieces of truly artistic form. In his painting of the Angel dictating to the aged Matthew, it is as if Rembrandt knows that “except the Lord build the home they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh in vain.” In the picture of Jacob wrestling with the angel (“I will not let thee go unless thou bless me”) it is as if he knows that the angel is waiting poised to embrace the one who struggles with the darkness for the sake of light. And indeed it is with this picture that Rembrandt’s last great period of creative activity begins. It is the work of resignation of one who has learned that ‘All is vanity,’ manifested by the brown woollen cloak in which he paints himself and other models. The deeply felt, austere Capuchin Friar belongs to this period and one of his last etchings is dedicated to St Francis—II poverello.

The Return of the Prodigal Son painted in Rembrandt’s last year defies all the rules of academic composition with its great monolithic figures and its abyss of darkness between the aged father clasping the shoulders of his kneeling son and the witnessing figure standing by. Here all the old Baroque exuberance has subsided into the calm of compassion given and received. It is as if the tall, lit figure by them has witnessed the son “getting and spending and laying waste his powers,” and now returning home to be redeemed through love and longing. It is the glory of great art that it is not only a source of nourishment and courage to those who see it, but a spur to the contem- plator to seek the source of the light that shines through the darkness, as, for instance, it is indicated in the Fourth Gospel: “He was in the world but the world though it owed its being to him did not recognize him, he entered his own realm and his own would not receive him. But to all who did receive him, to those who have yielded him their allegiance he gave the right to become children of God. not born of any human stock or by the fleshly desire of a human father, but the offspring of God Himself