Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Late Rembrandt at the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum

In the spring I spent a few days in Amsterdam and happily went along to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. This was my first visit to the museum in many years. Although it had been closed for a few years for renovation, a part of its collection had still been available to the public at Schipol International Airport. This was an excellent example of Dutch innovative thinking - what other international airport offered for contemplation the works of masters like Vermeer and Hals to passengers in transit?

I was impressed by the renovation, especially the new entrance hall, which reminded me of a scaled down version of the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and even the British Museum in London.  But the main point of my visit was the exhibition "Late Rembrandt", which had already been shown in London's National Gallery in 2014-1015. Now, however, the artist's late works were all coming home. to the city in which he had lived and worked.

The Jewish Bride
Surprisingly, this was the first exhibition ever dedicated exclusively to Rembrandt's late works. I particularly enjoyed seeing two of my favourite paintings. "The Jewish Bride" and Bathsheba with King David's Letter.

The so called The Jewish Bride is properly known as Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca.  Vincent van Gogh told a friend that he would gladly give ten years of his life just to be able to sit in front of this painting for two weeks. Let's be grateful that he didn't, for a van Gogh dead ten years younger would have cheated the world out of a great number of  his masterpieces.  But we can all understand his sentiment. The moving embrace and the loving yet sad expressions on the faces make this one of the world's most intimate paintings.

The tender embrace

But seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, what struck me most was the complexity of the texture of the painter. It is no wonder that Rembrandt was considered a revolutionary.  The jewelry sparkles and seems to reflect the light on the room. The paint is caked onto the canvas. And I use the term caked deliberately -  I was tempted to lick it! Rembrandt layered the paint on thickly using his palette knife, or probably multiple knives.  Look at this sleeve for instance. You can almost reach out and tug it.

A close up of his sleeve - you feel like you could tug it
Close up of her dress, layered on with a knife
The other painting of Rembrandt that I love is Bathsheba with King David's Letter. It rivals The Jewish Bride for its tenderness. The force of this painting is extraordinary in the way that it makes the invisible visible.

It is the inner emotional turmoil of the mind that is the subject of the work - should Bathsheba agree to the king's demands outlined in his letter that she holds in her hand, or should she remain faithful to her husband. Recently X-radiography has revealed that originally Rembrandt had painted her with a shocked expression on her uplifted head. But in a stroke of genius he changed this. Instead, the picture is almost entirely motionless, she is profiled against a dark background, her white body illuminated by light. Our eyes travel upward, from the servant at her feet, to the letter in her hand, along her nude body and arrive at her face, exquisitely rendered, lost in contemplation. It is, I would venture, one of the most beautiful faces in western art.

One of the most beautiful faces in western art

Late Rembrandt brought together many exceptional works by one of the most exceptional artists. That said, not everyone was impressed. This young lady for instance. While she might share the beauty of Bathsheba's face, her expression does not reflect an inner moral dilemma, just plain irritation. She is clearly thinking, when is my dad going to be done and we can get out of here.


  1. I love the Jewish Bride for the reasons you state: the moving embrace and the loving expressions on the faces make this one of the world's most intimate paintings. Intimate and loving yes, but not sad. Thoughtful perhaps.

    But Bathsheba with King David's Letter IS sad.... silent and sad. Whatever David does to Bathsheba's husband will be tragic and she will be left with a terrible dilemma. Poor woman :(

    1. Thanks Hels. Yes, as we say today, Bathsheba is in a lose-lose situation.