Friday, 12 December 2014

Rembrandt: The Late Works

Every year numerous exhibitions take place all over the world, but once in a while there comes an exhibit of a lifetime. “Rembrandt: The Late Works,” currently at the National Gallery, is without a doubt such an event.

An exhibit highlighting an artist’s last years brings to mind the image of someone distressed by an awareness of the end of one’s life. In Rembrandt’s case, he had financial troubles and was ousted from his church due to his common-law wife to whom he was not officially married. In 1656 he declared bankruptcy and had to let go of his atelier, lavish home and collection of artwork and antiques. It’s not hard to imagine that under such circumstances, one’s artistic motivation would decline. But the exhibited works give no such impression. Instead, what emerges is a painter eagerly exploring new approaches to his art that appeal to the soul.

The exhibit’s starting point are the self-portraits that were Rembrandt’s life work. From his 80 self-portraits, the exhibit shows seven that were painted in his final years. The figure proudly holding a paintbrush and palette in Self Portrait with Two Circles (c. 1665-1669, fig.1), which Rembrandt painted 10 years after he went bankrupt, imparts the self-respect of an artist. In Self Portrait at the Age of 63, painted in the year that he died, Rembrandt depicted himself clasping his hands and looking straight outward from the canvass. But an X-ray of the painting revealed that originally he had been shown holding a paintbrush. In the painting engulfed in a warm light, Rembrandt had shed his artistic pride and expressed a deeper inner self.

This exhibition moves on to the next venue: Rijksmuseum (photo) in
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 12 Feb - 17 May, 2015.
In addition to these famous works, this exhibition is showing some magnificent but so far not very well known paintings. The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis (about 1661-2) is Rembrandt’s largest piece, measuring five square meters. The painting thoroughly demonstrates Rembrandt’s mastery as “the painter of light and shadow.” A candle is hidden behind the characters while the golden light from the flame reflects against the white tablecloth and lights up the faces of the rebels from below. It is also remarkable that the entire painting was mostly done with shades of brown.

This painting is one of many that portrayed the Batavians who rebelled against the Roman Empire, an uprising that the Dutch identify with their own Eighty Years’ War for independence from Spain that ended in 1648. But Rembrandt’s piece was taken down after just a few months of display at the Amsterdam town hall. The reasons are not known although there are rumors that it was because Rembrandt had painted the bad eye of the main character Gaius Julius Civilis that was traditionally not depicted. The work was returned to the artist and he was not paid. Rembrandt later had to cut the piece down to one fourth of its huge original size in order to sell it, which explains its current dimensions (196 x 309 cm).

The exhibition is showing 40 oil paintings, 20 sketches and 30 prints, including self-portraits, historical paintings and portraits, as well as paintings of his common-law wife Hendrickje and biblical tales conveyed through renderings of daily life. In the spring of 2015, Rembrandt: The Late Works will travel to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the birthplace of the artist.
The National Gallery, London
Trafalgar Square,
London WC2N 5DN
The United Kingdom
+44 (0)20 7747 2885
Opening times:
Mon-Thur, Sat, Sun 10:00-18:00
Fri 10:0-21:00
Closed 1 Jan and 24—26 Dec