‘’A work is complete if in it the master’s intentions have been realised.”
The late works of the great Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, are now on display at the National Gallery in London. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with many institutes from around the world such as: Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, RAFA (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) Sweden, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, to name but a few. This is a rare chance to experience the passion, emotion, innovation and artistic skill of the great master with a never before seen view of a collection of his late works.
Many of these works of art were not displayed in his life time. And although his later years were tumultuous and included many personal tragedies, he continued to paint right up to his last days.
Rembrandt’s creativity got new strength in his later life, when he was experimenting with new ideas, contemplating new techniques with brush strokes, palette and playing with the ever present enigma of light and shade. There are 91 paintings and etchings and drawings exhibited in seven rooms of the gallery. The exhibition explores the Dutch master’s highly expressive and radical artistic style in works from the early 1650s until his death in 1669.
Born in Leiden, The Netherlands (15 July 1606-4 October 1669), Rembrandt grew up in a well-to-do family. His father was a miller and his mother was the daughter of a banker. Rembrandt drew inspiration from the world around him as well as works of his predecessors. He even got inspiration from Mughal miniature paintings and made copies of them, perhaps in order to study the costumes and textiles, a subject that obviously fascinated him, as can be seen by his depiction of oriental costumes and turbans in many of his paintings. He was also inspired by Italian and German artists and the arts of Netherlands of the 15th Century. He suffered many losses in his later life, like the loss of his beloved wife Saskia and three of their children. He also suffered bankruptcy, and a legal and acrimonious
battle with a former lover. He also suffered the loss of his common law wife and only remaining son Titus.
In the final years of his life in spite of all the sadness and losses he encountered in life, he gained a powerful insight into expressing human characters. The themes that preoccupied Rembrandt as he grew older were self-scrutiny, experimentation, light, observation of everyday life and even other artists’ works; as well as expressions of intimacy, contemplation, conflict and reconciliation.
More than any other artist, Rembrandt consistently represented his own likeness throughout his artistic career. Around eighty painted, drawn or etched self-portraits are known, ranging in style from quick sketches to highly composed likenesses. The late self-portraits in particular are incredibly thoughtful and honest, and attest to Rembrandt’s ability to convey old age in a highly sympathetic light. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, painted in the final year of his life, reveals that he never lost the urge to experiment, even with compositions as familiar as his own likeness. In the portrait of the artist’s son Titus (about 1656) we can find a familiar representation of the sadness of the young boy with his downcast eyes and pensive expression.
His last self- portrait was painted at the age of 63. There is a kind of detachment that we find in this painting. He was a keen observer, even of himself, and we can see his unsparing honesty which includes even the loose flesh hanging under his chin, the pouches under his eyes, all accurately conveyed. Rembrandt was a master at portraying light and shade in his paintings. Through this he conveyed even themes of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. For example, in the painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds, Mary and baby Jesus are seen resting in a stable at night. A man carrying a lantern leads a group of shepherds towards the holy family. Here Rembrandt added a surface tone to capture the subtle nuances of light. In his painting Christ at Emmaus, the image portrays heavenly light emanating from Christ’s halo.
Another painting worth mentioning is called The Suicide of Lucretia, 1666, which is one of the greatest paintings of Rembrandt’s final years. This sorrowful picture illustrates the poignant death of Lucretia which led to a revolt that overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Rome. It illustrates Rembrandt’s masterful use of chiaroscuro—enhancing the three-dimensional quality of Lucretia’s face and body. In addition, Rembrandt goes to great lengths to express Lucretia’s inner mental feelings of virtue, family honour and duty—through her eyes and facial expression. He was the first artist to manipulate paint on the canvas with a palette knife.
In his later years, Rembrandt tried to find a way to represent a figure immersed in thought or contemplation. Contemplation and introspection were his main theme at this time. One of his greatest gifts was that he could turn anything ordinary into an object of art.