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Rembrandt's Late Religious Paintings at the National Gallery

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is one of those painters who make people rapturous. Even the most sober critics get a little weak in the knees thinking about the best of his paintings. I saw this happen in person last fall, at the lecture given by Peter Schjeldahl, the sure-eyed art critic for The New Yorker (see my post from September 23, 2004). In that post, I wrote the following:

[Schjeldahl] spoke at some length about Rembrandt's Lucretia (1664) in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington as a shocking portrait of a noble woman at the point of committing suicide (to save her husband's honor, after she has been raped). The work is unique, Schjeldahl said, an image "never seen even in our world of television and video." He thinks that the version of Lucretia (1666) in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is even better and more dramatic. (Schjeldahl is originally from Minnesota.) His description of the work of Rembrandt (as he put it, nothing more than "dirt on cloth," which is one way to think of how you make a painting) does make you hunger for figurative art.
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes (Knopf, 1999)

Available at Amazon
Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits (ed. Arthur K. Wheelock)
That lecture coincided, quite happily, with the start of my reading (still in progress) of Simon Schama's magisterial study Rembrandt's Eyes, which I have been slowly digesting on and off for months. In the face of this sort of critical rapture, I am reminded of Swann's infatuation with Vermeer in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu: just how much can we know about an artist's life and what he was thinking when he created a masterpiece? The answer, I can assure you from Schama's book, is a hell of a lot.

The Critics:

Michael Kimmelman, Rembrandt's divine touch (The New York Times, republished in the International Herald Tribune, January 29)

Blake Gopnik, Turning a Prophet (Washington Post, January 30)

Joanna Shaw-Eagle, Brush with the spiritual (Washington Times, February 5)

Christopher Andreae, Rembrandt painted thought (Christian Science Monitor, February 10)

Chuck Myers, Reflections on Rembrandt: Religious-themed works by master painter part of mystery (Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 18) (weirdly political slant)

Dan Bischoff, Bringing saints down to earth (New Jersey Star-Ledger, February 27)

Gary Tischler, Spirited Rembrandt: Painter’s Religious Drawings Pull In Viewer With Atmosphere (Washington Diplomat, March 5)
So, I was delighted to take in the small but enthralling exhibit devoted to Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits (at the National Gallery of Art until May 1). If you cannot find yourself in Washington to see the show in person, the NGA has a Flash presentation (if you can bear it, the images are quite good) and a series of 17 images in good ol' HTML. (There are large images of four paintings in the show at this page from local radio station WAMU.) You will not see Schjeldahl's favorite Lucretia near this show for comparison, but you can peruse the gallery's rather impressive collection of paintings and drawings by Rembrandt. Running in parallel to the exhibit of paintings, there is a special installation of the National Gallery's collection of Rembrandt's Religious Etchings.

The selection of paintings is not exhaustive but struck me as a perfectly sized assortment of delights. The saw repeated by many of the critics listed to the right, that Rembrandt brings his divine subjects closer to his human viewer, is absolutely true. However, I was really struck by how Rembrandt's mature style elevated these subjects at the same time. For example, the gorgeous Resurrected Christ (1661) from the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, in Munich, somehow communicates by figural means (no halo, no heavenly aura) the words Christ spoke to Mary Magdalen, "Noli me tangere" (Don't touch me): I may appear to be of this world, but not so. I saw the same effect in the other portrait of Christ (c. 1657-1661), from The Hyde Collection (Glens Falls, New York), although it seemed to me that this is more the unsettling Jesus of the public ministry. We sometimes like to think of Jesus as the cuddly preacher of cozy humanism ("Love your neighbor as yourself"), but he said some things that should still make us pretty uncomfortable (come to think of it, like "Love your neighbor as yourself"). It's something about the rendering of the face and the lighting in these paintings that signals my eye that something is not as it seems.

The same can be said of The Evangelist Matthew and the Angel (1661) from the Louvre, which captures the whispered angelic confidences of the gospel writer. Most moving of all is Rembrandt's treatment of The Virgin of Sorrows (1661), from the Musée Départemental d'Art Ancien et Contemporain in Épinal, France, whose mournful gesture (hand to breast) is dolorously maternal, although it's a strange juxtaposition to have her other hand clasping what are, I think, rosary beads. These paintings, my favorites in the show, stand out from the others, which are mostly dark, somewhat hazy portraits of apostles or other saints, attired like 17th-century Dutch burghers. The similarity of these ostensibly religious portraits to their secular counterparts means that some of the paintings in the exhibition have their saintly attributions identified only with cautionary question marks, like Man in a Red Cap (An Evangelist?) (1660), from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

The exception among these paintings is the problematic portrait attributed to the School of Rembrandt van Rijn, Saint James the Minor (?) (1661), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has the same qualities as those I described for the two portraits of Christ above, and it is no coincidence that it has been sometimes been identified not as St. James but as a portrait of the Risen Christ. While most of the saints' portraits are of well-known apostles, there is also one splendid portrait of Saint Bavo (c. 1662-1665), from the Göteborgs Konstmuseum in Sweden. He is shown attired as a falconer, a reference to an incident when he stole a falcon as a young man. The NGA materials mention that Bavo is the patron of the cathedral in Haarlem, but there are churches named for him throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, like the cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, where he entered the monastic life in a Benedictine monastery (as shown in this altarpiece by Rubens), which he had had built on his own lands in Ghent. Here's a list of some other images of St. Bavo.

Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits will be at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., until May 1. It will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it will be on view from June 7 to August 28.

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