Rembrandt at 400

Astonishing brushwork, wrinkles-and-all honesty, deep compassion. What’s the secret of his enduring genius?

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In 1654 Stoffels was called before the elders of her church and accused of "living in whoredom with the painter Rembrandt," but she stayed with him despite the scandal. Their daughter, Cornelia, was born later that year. Both Stoffels and Titus helped with Rembrandt's business (Titus would grow up to be a minor artist and his father's agent), and the boy was likely the model for several of the artist's evocative figure studies, including Titus at His Desk, painted in 1655. With a few swift strokes, Rembrandt captures the textures of cloth, hair, wood and paper, as well as the reverie of a schoolboy who would rather be anywhere but at his desk. Stoffels posed also: a sensitive portrait of her at about age 34 is at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For nearly 20 years, Rembrandt filled his spacious home on the Sint Anthonisbreestraat in Amsterdam with the bustle of students at work, clients coming to call and paintings and prints for sale. He also amassed a collection of objects that included not only works of art but Amazonian parrot feathers, Venetian glassware, African lion skins and other exotic treasures, some of which provided motifs for his paintings. Never a good money manager, he failed to meet the mortgage payments and lost the house after he went bankrupt in 1656. The inventory of his art collection recorded at that time shows that he took an interest in the work of predecessors such as Dürer and Titian, as well as such Flemish contemporaries as Rubens and Van Dyck. The Rembrandt House (a private home until 1906, when it was purchased by the city of Amsterdam) opened as a museum in 1911.

In 1642 Rembrandt completed his most famous painting, the huge group portrait known as The Night Watch, which depicted a company of civic guardsmen marching out to defend their city. (The painting has been the star attraction at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum since its installation in 1885.) Amsterdam in 1642 was, in fact, a peaceful and prosperous city, and the civic guard served more as a social club for ambitious citizens than a true military force. Rembrandt's imagined scene is a symbolic enactment of their proud readiness to serve. What makes this painting revolutionary is that Rembrandt took what could have been a boring row of figures and turned it into a lively action scene. One contemporary said that it made other group portraits look as flat as playing cards. Over the centuries, The Night Watch has been trimmed to fit a tight location, rolled up and stashed in a bunker to protect it from the Nazis, slashed with a bread knife (in 1975), sprayed with acid by a deranged museum visitor (in 1990) and interpreted on beer steins, on T-shirts and in the works of modern artists. But thanks to Rembrandt's bold invention and to the guardsmen's portrayal of the patriotic spirit on which the nation was founded, it has never lost its status as a Dutch national icon.

For some admirers of Dutch art, Rembrandt competes with van Gogh for the title of favorite son. But this year even Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum hosted a blockbuster Rembrandt show— "Rembrandt-Caravaggio." The Italian master Caravaggio, who died in 1610 when Rembrandt was only a child, is best known for his treatment of biblical subjects with a rugged truth to nature, enhanced by dramatic light. His revolutionary approach sparked an international movement that reached Rembrandt (who never left Holland) through Dutch artists who traveled to Rome. The 2006 show compared the two masters' treatments of several related themes, but we don't have to look far to find evidence of Rembrandt's interest in Caravaggio's ideas, particularly his notion of biblical stories as emotional dramas enacted by people who still strike us as profoundly human.

A moving example from Rembrandt's later years is his 1656 Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (above right). Here, we see the patriarch Jacob, ailing and nearly blind, as he reaches out to bless his two grandsons. Jacob extends his right hand to the younger brother, Ephraim, not to the elder, Menasseh. Rembrandt follows the text in Genesis as he depicts the boys' father, Joseph, gently trying to shift the patriarch's hand. But the old man is adamant, his action prophetic: he knows that the younger son is destined for greatness. Quietly watching is the boys' mother, Asenath. Her presence is not mentioned in the relevant passage, but she is named elsewhere in Genesis, as Rembrandt clearly knew. By including her in the picture, the artist emphasizes that this is, at heart, a family crisis. (He may, in fact, have painted this work for a Dutch family, each member standing in for a biblical character.) Despite the moment's fateful consequences, we sense, above all, the profound love and faith shared by three generations, enclosed in an intimate circle of light. While the strong play of shadow owes something to Caravaggio, the thick, almost sculptural surface of the paint, applied with strokes that are broad and quick but still marvelously descriptive, is Rembrandt's alone—his most original contribution to the history of technique.

For many modern viewers, this is Rembrandt at his best, but in his own time, his rough paint surfaces, dramatic lighting and pensive, down-to-earth characters increasingly set him apart from prevailing trends. Toward the end of his life, a taste for ideal beauty was sweeping Europe, and Dutch connoisseurs were demanding elegant figures and settings, clear light and refined technique. For refusing to conform to this fashion, Rembrandt was labeled in 1681 by dramatist Andries Pels as "the first heretic in the history of art." To Pels and other proponents of classicism, Rembrandt's expressive handling of paint seemed sloppy and unfinished. Yet, according to 18th-century biographer Arnold Houbraken, Rembrandt maintained that "a work is finished when the master has achieved his intention in it." Another target for critics was his treatment of the nude. While classicists argued that artists should aspire to the cool perfection of Greek sculpture, Rembrandt assiduously recorded his subjects' wrinkles and garter marks, knobby knees and wispy hair. For this, he was accused of failing to master the rules of proportion and anatomy.

Rembrandt was no less the nonconformist in his dealings with clients. Most artists welcomed them in their studios, but Rembrandt was gruff. If a prospective buyer tried to look at a painting too closely, Houbraken writes, Rembrandt would shoo him away, warning that "the smell of the oil paint will make you sick." In a notarial document of 1654, a Portuguese merchant named Diego d'Andrada complained to Rembrandt that the portrait of a girl he had ordered looked nothing like her. He wanted the artist to change it or return his deposit. Rembrandt told the notary that he wouldn't touch the painting until D'Andrada paid the balance due. Then, he said, he would submit it to the directors of the painters' guild for their judgment and would make changes only if they agreed with the client. If D'Andrada still wasn't satisfied, Rembrandt would keep the painting and sell it at auction. There was no mention of returning the deposit. How the case was resolved is unknown, but Rembrandt's attitude was as risky as it was courageous. It surely cost him some business, but in the long run, his enduring impact owes much to his creative independence, a mark of the "modern" artist.

By the time he died at 63 in 1669, Rembrandt had sold paintings and prints to distinguished collectors throughout Europe, trained dozens of students, made and lost a fortune, and created some of the 17th century's most memorable works. While his bold, unconventional approach to both life and art has been admired by some viewers more than others, the fundamental authenticity of his response to the human condition remains unquestioned. In Rembrandt's Eyes, an eloquent study of the artist and his milieu, the cultural historian Simon Schama observes that for Rembrandt, "imperfections are the norm of humanity. Which is why he will always speak across the centuries to those for whom art might be something other than the quest for ideal forms."

Stephanie Dickey teaches art history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of three books on Rembrandt.


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