Listen to this article
Standing before a Rembrandt, Lucian Freud remarked that “it is ennobling to be told something so truthful” about “the nature of people”. David Hockney called Rembrandt’s sketch of a mother teaching a child to walk “the greatest drawing ever made”. Frank Auerbach was rebuked by a guard at the Rijksmuseum for lingering too long over “The Night Watch”. Van Gogh said he would give 10 years of his life to sit for 10 days with “The Jewish Bride” there.
How long to spend at the Rijksmuseum’s splendid, unique new exhibition All the Rembrandts? Every moment counts. In fleeting pen sketches we eavesdrop on a weary pancake seller waiting while a customer digs into his pocket for a coin, or watch a tousled lion stretch out, just disembarked at the port of Amsterdam. “The Rat Catcher”; “The Persian”; “Old Man with a Divided Fur Cap”; a silversmith, Johannes Lutma, swollen like a king; a bony beggar with patchy beard, lent grandeur by the brief respite of an armchair in which to pose: the extremes of the Dutch Golden Age stream by, each individualised, like so many expressive snapshots.
Then some of them reappear, transformed. An old tramp becomes the weeping prophet, head in hands, the sweep of his purple gown, the glinting gilt and silver at his side, all slowly enveloped in a glow from the blaze in “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem”, a cadence in paint: quomodo sedet sola civitas, how doth the city sit solitary. Rembrandt painted this, with precocious empathy, at 24.
Thirty years later comes the mirror image when age depicts youth in lone contemplation: Rembrandt, now old and bereaved himself, modelled his son, pale, long-lashed, lovely, downcast face broadly brushed to give a soft, trance-like appearance, as the fervent young mystic in “Titus in a Monk’s Habit”.
Marking the 350th anniversary of the painter’s death, the Rijksmuseum for the first time is showing all its Rembrandt drawings and paintings — the world’s largest collection — plus hundreds of his fragile, rarely seen 17th-century prints. The result is utterly engrossing. Time here can be stilled within glittery impasto surfaces thick with mystery and interiority of thought. But it also flows across vast chiaroscuro dramas of incomparable velvety monochrome variation: the passage of light to darkness, the veil of the temple rent, across different impressions of the etching “The Three Crosses”; the richly articulated figures meandering in and out of “Christ Preaching”, entering from a darkened archway into the cavernous space, brilliantly illuminated, where Jesus draws crowds eager, desperate, dismissive, uncertain.
In the yet more architectonic “Christ Presented to the People”, the mob shoves and swarms before Jesus, led on to the balcony of a Roman building with towering columns and statues: frontal, unyielding architecture, symbolising the rule of justice, versus disordered humanity. The Rijksmuseum owns several impressions of this marvellous large etching; in a very unusual later version, Rembrandt replaced the throng with two irregular, shady arches. Between them rises a shadowy figure with the long beard and braided hair of an antique river god — a subterranean form looming from the unconscious depths, converting classical composition into unruly dream.
Storyteller, psychologist, rebel, Rembrandt the supreme artist of inwardness unfolds with exceptional intimacy here. Broadly chronological, the show has the scope of a retrospective, but the concentration of little-seen works on paper gives freshness and immediacy, and sharpens biographical insight.
There is a stunning array of self-depictions in all media, from the flamboyant intrigue of shadowed eyes and unkempt curls in the first painted “Self-portrait” (c1628) and the snarling wayward etched “Self-portrait, wide-eyed and open-mouthed” (1630) to the late ravages of bruised skin, broken veins and quizzical look, resigned but not without hope, “Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul” (1661).
As engaging and poignant are private, everyday sketches. “Bedroom with Saskia in a Canopy Bed”, for example, where Rembrandt’s pregnant, wan wife sits up, with effort, between the four-poster’s curtains, is a tender ink drawing with delicate transparent brown washes, recording the illness that dominated their marriage: Saskia, after giving birth to four children — only Titus survived infancy — died aged 29.
While Rembrandt was jotting personal tragedy on tiny sheets, he was simultaneously in these years — the 1630s — reinventing the commissioned portrait in showstoppers of flabbergasting bravura. The Rijksmuseum’s latest acquisitions are “Maerten Soolmans” and “Oopjen Coppit”, full-length depictions of Amsterdam’s most fashionable newly-weds in black satin and scalloped lace, with details such as his gaudy shoe rosettes, her pearl choker, picked out in near sculptural paint. Is Rembrandt sympathetic or alienated? Above all he conveys character through energy — Oopjen’s contained vitality suggested in her rippling collar and slightly rising skirt as she subtly twists her body; slow-moving Maerten a listless fop.
Rembrandt said just six words about his art — that he wanted to create “the greatest and most natural movement”. He meant, surely, emotion as well as motion. The two fuse anyway in his free yet exquisitely nuanced manner, especially in later work where paint is so dynamic that it takes on independent life beyond narrative composition.
Brushstrokes in “The Jewish Bride” are sometimes smooth — fixing the woman’s glistening forehead, the lank hair falling across the man’s brow — and sometimes dissolve into flickering folds and patterns, the immaterial, the abstract, distilled from the very tactility of the lavish brocaded costumes. This is the fabric against which the play of light on clasped hands on the woman’s breast implies solemn sacrament as well as erotic love.
The worldly and the unworldly: the convergence even underlines the Rijksmuseum’s star secular spectacle “The Night Watch”. Just beyond the show, this presides in its own gallery, where its baroque exuberance never fails to thrill: portraits of 34 musketeers, a swagger of pikes and drumbeats, feathers and leather, are rhythmically orchestrated into complex pictorial architecture, yet the gathering feels naturalistic.
Ahead of the tumult, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, tassels on breeches flying, steps forward and gives the order to march. His outstretched arm invites us in, but his expression is blank; we are drawn more intensely to an inexplicable figure in the centre — a luminous straw-haired little girl with a chicken hanging by its claws from her dress. What on earth is she doing? The golden claw was the emblem of Banninck Cocq’s militia, but the girl, her costume a century old, has the shimmer of an apparition, of time lost yet made eternal here, layering this performance of movement and materiality with a deeper vein: mortality and its transcendence in paint.
To June 10, rijksmuseum.nl
Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published