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The National Gallery’s jaw-dropping exhibition of late Rembrandt masterpieces begins, astutely, with a small, ostensibly summary etching. If your instinct is to move on past the craning necks and jostling elbows, resist it or you’ll miss one of the most poignant images in the history of European art. It’s the last self-portrait etching Rembrandt made. The plate is lost and the fact that only a very few impressions survive mean that Rembrandt must have made it merely for his own painful self-contemplation.

The date is 1658, two years after the sale of his moveable property and the filing for a form of bankruptcy that would disqualify him from conducting any business in his own right. In 1658, his ruinously expensive house went on the auction block, and Rembrandt was forced to move out of what had served as family home, showroom, studio and workshop. Worse, he lost the encyclopedic collection which was simultaneously his memory archive of artists and the props and paraphernalia – oriental weapons, exotic musical instruments, casts of classical busts – with which he packed his histories and portraits. Now he had to carry around this immense freight of objects in his head.

No wonder, then, the expression on the face is that of an artist struggling to refocus on his work amid a world of brutal pain. The piggy eyes in the dumpling face are screwed up in the making of this very etching while the feather in his cap wilts over the labouring mind. Yet when Rembrandt resumed painting again, he did so in heroically recuperative mode. The massive, frontal self-portrait in the Frick Collection of the artist mantled in a tabard of gold, was painted in that same disastrous year of 1658. His mahl stick has become a cane of turned silver; the reassertion of mastery so adamant that it is as nothing troubling had befallen him.

The Frick painting couldn’t travel to London but the National Gallery in Washington has sent a comparably confident self-portrait from one year later. The show has also brought in the three-quarter-length masterpiece from Kenwood House in north London: the retort to critics who had begun to mutter about the self-indulgent looseness of Rembrandt’s paint handling, his slovenly way with the strictures of drawing. Questions of draughtsmanship were answered by two free-drawn half circles in the manner said in Vasari’s biographical sketch to have been accomplished, impromptu, by Giotto.

Every detail of Rembrandt’s own head – the wayward greying curls; the wisps of moustache clinging to the upper lip – are exactly described with the tightest fine motor control, but the materials of painting, brushes, palette and mahl stick are rendered with revolutionary freedom culminating in Rembrandt’s own hands, which are nothing but an illegible blur of motion. Although patrons more than once tried to return works they supposed unfinished, increasingly Rembrandt made a point of insisting that he was the one to judge finito.

In one spectacular case, “The Conspiracy [or “Oath-swearing”, as the exhibition literally translates the Dutch Samenzwering] of Claudius Civilis”, Rembrandt’s reinvention of what constituted “finish” cost him dearly. The barbaric masterpiece swimming in brilliant, lemony light that seems to rise from the surface of the table around which the conspirators are gathered is the showstopper of this exhibition. Along with the startling “St Bartholomew” from the Getty, the saint looking like a mid-level insurance executive with a penchant for dangerous cutlery, the “Civilis” disposes of the cavil that seeing Rembrandt’s late experiments as pathways to modern painting is to commit a vulgar anachronism. Sometimes great artists do jump the centuries. But “Civilis” has been mistakenly hung at eye-level, instead of much higher as the artist intended, making it almost impossible to take in its breathtaking radicalism.

The sketch of the full work Rembrandt delivered to the burgomasters, of which the present picture is but a small fragment, is helpfully provided alongside. But the curators might have been less stingy with their minimal wall captions. They might have made it clear that the painting was intended to be installed high up, in an arched niche at the end of one of the long corridors of Amsterdam’s classically elegant town hall, and that Rembrandt carefully calculated the optics of this approach by supplying a flight of great steps at the threshold of the original painting. Seen from far below, the oncoming visitor’s eye would have entered the picture space through an optical ascent, moving over the backs of the saluting conspirators towards the glimmering spectacle of the one-eyed rebel chief, enthroned at its centre surrounded by rowdy or reverent accomplices.

The aim was to create a political-historical altarpiece, numinous with sacred excitement, but painted with impulsive ferocity exactly matching Tacitus’s account of barbarian liberty. As a raucously exuberant piece of painted theatre, there is nothing like it until Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784). But David knew his audience; Rembrandt was too optimistic in his assumption it would understand how the rawness of his technique fitted the commission, notwithstanding the fact that the norm for the town-hall paintings was the chilliest classicism. Decorum required physical deformities to be hidden. But the massive old tartar stares out at us from under his multi-tiered headpiece from one good eye and a scrunched-up cicatrix on the other side of his face. Freedom, in politics as well in brushwork, the painting declares, is not a dainty thing.

The burgomasters evidently disagreed. The picture was taken down and truncated to its present form, its painter left hoping for a sale which never came.

For every disappointment there was always a chance of a comeback. It is a mistake to think of post-bankruptcy Rembrandt as bereft, destitute and ignored. He was always famous, if increasingly controversial; always able to count on supporters, admirers and long-suffering friends still optimistically hanging on to IOUs. The debacle at the town hall was offset by the triumph of the group portrait for the “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild”, another of the stupendous masterpieces in a show choked with them. Rembrandt, faced with the same design challenge posed by the “Civilis” – men at a table – did his textile thing to the max (for he was, aside from anything else, one of the greatest still-life painters Holland ever produced). The glowing Turkish rug on the table projects out from the picture plane and over it, the men themselves, arranged in contrapuntal, musical intervals, converge their glances along the line of its projection to . . . someone. You, perhaps. Thus the dullest genre imaginable – team boardroom – becomes a scene of dynamic human animation.

Greedy late-Rembrandt hounds may long for some items that aren’t here: the greatest of the late portraits, “Jeremias de Decker” (friend and admiring poet) from the Hermitage, and the “Prodigal Son” with those lacerated soles of the returning penitent tearing our heartstrings; the glorious “Family from Braunschweig”, painted at the same time and in the same manner as “The Jewish Bride”. But the gathering of stunners should be enough for anyone. Both the Lucretias are in the show (albeit perversely hung in different galleries, in mistaken deference to the organisation of the excellent catalogue essays). In the Washington National Gallery version, the raped wife, eyes red and brimming with tears, makes her last theatrical speech before committing her honour suicide. Mantled in a olive-green robe, the armour-casing of the dense impasto only reinforces by contrast her helplessness against the violence committed on her body. In the Minneapolis version, the deed is done and one appalling penetration has been succeeded by another. Lucretia’s blood, rendered with tragic precision, is leaching her life away, sticking to her chemise.

And there is “The Jewish Bride”: one of those few paintings, like Picasso’s “Guernica” or Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Paul”, which defies visual exhaustion. Here, too, Rembrandt has matched an almost sculptural handling of paint to the theme of loving touch: physical and emotional. The picture embodies all at the same time: tenderness and desire; wistfulness and content; nature and nurture. It is above all else a play of hands; not just the hands of the couple, but the hand of the painter trowelling on layer after layer of textured complexity, especially in passages of the man’s sleeve and robe which are in themselves an almost abstract weave of pigment.

When so much conceptual art shouts emptily of its own immediately forgettable cleverness, it is not bad to be lost once more in the unfathomable universe of pure paint.

‘Rembrandt: The Late Works’, National Gallery, London, to January 18 2015

nationalgallery.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: Kenwood House/English Heritage; Roger-Viollet/REX; The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden; Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Amsterdam Museum

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