‘What are you doing staring at that fake from Aix?’

Julian Bell

  • Rembrandt by Himself edited by Christopher White and Quentin Buvelot
    Yale, 272 pp, £25.00, June 1999, ISBN 1 85709 252 X
  • Rembrandt : The Painter at Work by Ernst van de Wetering
    Amsterdam University Press, 340 pp, £52.50, November 1997, ISBN 90 5356 239 7

With Rembrandt, as with other totem figures of the arts (Shakespeare, Mozart), longstanding reverence from fellow practitioners coincides with immediate appeal to the community at large. In Rembrandt’s case this appeal comes chiefly from his treatment of the human figure, in his portraits especially, and above all, the self-portraits he painted in his old age. In the current exhibition in the National Gallery basement, seventy-odd likenesses of the artist have been brought together. Its central hall, holding more than a dozen of the late self-portraits, compactly presents the case to be made for Rembrandt.

The appeal of these paintings stems from our capacity to empathise with the subject. As we turn to the portraits, the subject’s eyes draw ours into their darkness, and we infer a consciousness. We feel that this consciousness is of the same stuff as our own and that it relates to the spread of oily marks on the canvas in the same way that our self-awareness – our sense of owning an identity with a history – relates to the body it occupies. The physical evidence – the variegated clots, swathes and traces of paint with which Rembrandt represents the figure – is not what we identify as the subject’s conscious life or spirit; rather, we feel it as a weight to which that life or spirit is inextricably bound.

This weight, heaving forward into a geology accreted around the bridge of the nose, is then diffused over the breadth of the canvas, in the broadly-brushed clothing. It subjects the warm, indefinite darkness underneath it – to which the consciousness held within the painted eyes seems to belong – to a determinate, clenched form. The ease with which Rembrandt conjures up gold chains and fabrics loosens the tensions of a flesh that is felt as tremulous and awkward. When he paints the young, they are vulnerable, open-mouthed, waiting to be bruised by experience; he celebrates the old for their evident display of such bruises. Each painted figure offers cues for the viewer to infer a narrative of passions suffered. At the same time, this manner of painting seems to set up a model for our own experience; it makes some kind of general proposal as to the nature of human life.

In response, we attempt to supply the pictures with narratives, relating the poised stance of the Vienna portrait of 1652, say, to the assurance of international fame that had accompanied Rembrandt from his late twenties; or the wrinkles and pinched lips in the Washington portrait of 1659 to the painter’s recent bankruptcy and critical eclipse. Then, perhaps, the Zeuxis from Cologne of 1662 could take up the story – Rembrandt now defiantly posing as the painter whose unfashionable images of ugly humanity caused him to laugh himself to death.

Further, sensing that Rembrandt’s proposal about human experience is in some way exemplary, we reach for terms of value to corroborate it. Critics regularly invoke Shakespeare, plucking down phrases like ‘the tragic experience of all mankind’, or call the self-portraits ‘the greatest autobiography ever presented to posterity’. They speak of psychological penetration and posit in Rembrandt ‘a conscious and progressive quest for individual identity in a truly modern sense’. The ‘keen and steady eyes seem to look straight into the human heart’. Rembrandt, in sum, is our culture’s chief pictorial repository for the so-called human condition.

John Rupert Martin, Kenneth Clark, H.P. Chapman and E.H. Gombrich (respectively) were, each of them, writing out of a scholarly knowledge of the 17th century. Nonetheless, their terminologies raise a major problem: does the strength of our emotional response to Rembrandt lead us into conceptual anachronisms? Did ‘the tragic’ or ‘individual identity’ or ‘the humane’ carry the weight for a painter living in Holland between 1606 and 1669 that they do for 20th-century writers? What, if anything, in Rembrandt’s cultural equipment could suggest that a series of paintings might constitute an autobiography, let alone an analogue for King Lear? Did any sense of a ‘series’ exist for Rembrandt? Isn’t that simply a retrospective fancy in the minds of cataloguers and biographers, finally given concrete reality in this exhibition?

This is exactly what the scholars behind the show want to emphasise. The lead in the catalogue is taken by Ernst van de Wetering, the present head of the Rembrandt Research Project in Holland that has been investigating the master’s oeuvre since 1968. He and his fellow contributors are concerned to sponge away from the self-portraiture the biographical varnish clinging to it as a residue of 19th-century Romanticism. Set him firmly back in the Leiden of his youth and the Amsterdam of his maturity, and we will find that there is no such term as ‘self-portrait’. Painting in this era was not the diary form that the modern ethos of self-expression has made familiar; if we try to relate the pride or pathos of the late works to Rembrandt’s circumstances, these inferences cannot be verified. There remains the conundrum: why did he depict himself so often? But it turns out that there are plenty of answers to that: education, adding to his saleable stock, emulation, self-promotion.

First, Rembrandt employs his own person, the cheapest and most docile of models, as a heuristic tool. The chief business of the painter – according to a tenet of Italian art theory restated by Karel van Mander in his Schilder-Boeck of 1604 – is to make invisible passions visible; to this end he must study how anger, pleasure, fear, etc manifest themselves in the features. The young painter duly snarls and grins and tries to startle himself at the mirror so as to catch the code for each emotion, suitable for transfer into dramatic compositions. Then there is the matter of Dutch contemporary taste to be accounted for: the fashion for the tronie, the single-figure study in mood and dress. This leads to the farcical try-outs of breastplates and turbans that enlarge Rembrandt’s studio stock in the 1630s.

Next, the new star of Dutch art looks his predecessors in the eye. He strikes poses and dons funny hats so as to align himself with the artistic legends of the preceding century – Titian, Dürer, Raphael. Finally, there is his own legend to promote. A piece of the master’s own handiwork, depicting his very own features, makes for a doubly collectable item in the expanding 17th-century culture of connoisseurship that van de Wetering describes. In this yearning for artistic authenticity, if in nothing else, Rembrandt’s age is held out as one we can identify with.

All this illumines and rationalises what happens in the first three rooms of the show, which take the painter from the ‘And here’s me!’ head inserted into a crazily gauche history painting to the imposing self-presentations of the early 1640s. But it doesn’t begin to address the impact of the majestic works gathered in the central hall. And it ignores the evidence that this impact is not something wished retrospectively onto the paintings. In a final room devoted to the self-portraits of pupils, we see Govert Flinck, one of the most attentive, trying his hardest, not so much to ape the master’s illusionistic techniques of rendering flesh and finery – Gerrit Dou and Willem Drost handle those tasks more smartly – as to have a Rembrandt-style experience of himself. Facing the mirror, Flinck aspires to match his own material presence with the gawky, tender, malleable format proposed by his mentor.

Even if Rembrandt did not come to his painting armed with a critical terminology of ‘tragic experience’, ‘individual identity’ and ‘the human condition’, he nevertheless made it possible for such terms to seem relevant to painting. The question is not so much one of anachronism as of innovation: how did he come to deliver this new sense of what a person was? Van de Wetering has a singularly clear understanding of the basis on which the innovation occurred. His Rembrandt: The Painter at Work is a collection of papers composed over twenty years, coming from various angles at the painter’s practice.

Van de Wetering is the kind of writer Anglophone art faculties don’t see much of any more: a courteous, scholarly pedagogue, full of ingenuous wonder at his subject, trusting his readers to follow him through the necessary longueurs, rewarding them with lightly delivered but deeply informed knowledge concerning the history of painting. Trained as a painter himself, he was caught up in the scientific zeal with which the Rembrandt Project began, in the late Sixties, to set about defining the corpus once and for all. Under van de Wetering’s mentors, Bob Haak and Josua Bruyn, the Project slashed away at long-established attributions, armed with dendrochronologies and radiographs, terrorising museums as their masterpieces were demoted to derivative dross. This reductive rigour is represented in van de Wetering’s book by a chapter picking away at Dutch canvas twills, with the support of imposing statistical tables correlating thread-counts. But all this analysis turns out to be a blind alley; no patterns emerge, no principles on which to judge attribution; as the author concedes, the informative value of the exercise is almost entirely negative.

For the most part, however, science bows in this book to close examination of the historical evidence – pictures and texts – in an attempt to discover exactly how Rembrandt painted a picture. The findings are illuminating. Beneath the paint we see on a typical canvas lies the ‘dead colour’, the preliminary dun monochrome in which the painter has first blocked out his dispositions of light and shade. But the paintwork building on that basis has not moved forward with the overall attention to tonal and chromatic unity that painters have been trained towards since the Impressionist, if not the Romantic era. Rather, Rembrandt has worked at different areas of the picture at different times and according to separate procedures, each appropriate for the particular visual qualities of the objects to be rendered. To each passage, a distinct palette, prepared by the studio assistant. Following the customary practice of the time, he has begun work with the most distant objects, and gradually moved up to the foreground: ‘One must see 17th-century (but also earlier or later) painting as a composite image made up of interlocking passages.’

This articulated practice – responding to the differences between objects and setting them down in a kind of hierarchy, culminating in the head and hands, the parts that best reveal the passions of the soul – has been downplayed in painting ever since it became a means of asserting the unity that one pair of eyes can command across the field of depiction. Van de Wetering brilliantly makes us see how Rembrandt can bring such a variety of procedures together in one picture – the fine, sabled lacing of a chiffon scarf against the embossed impasto of a chain, a grossly volumetric nose against a tender blur where the lips meet; he also explains how such a diverse illusionism can encompass the brushy ‘rough manner’ that Rembrandt adapted from Titian in his later paintings. Nonetheless, he doesn’t address the point that these late paintings – contemporary as they look to us, and looked to painters like Van Gogh – would in due course serve as exemplars when the old articulated practice was overthrown, seeming as they did to posit the new presence of personality in painting.

To find correlatives for this innovation, one needs to look beyond the world of the painter’s studio which van de Wetering explores with such attention. At the other end of the National Gallery, Belshazzar’s Feast seems to have survived the Project’s visitations. (I noted that the Old Man Seated in an Armchair, which I had long responded to as a Rembrandt, is now relabelled a ‘sentimental’ imitation and felt my responses changing accordingly. There is plenty more of this doubt-spreading game to be played among the ‘selves’ downstairs.) Belshazzar, King of Babylon, as depicted c. 1635, is having an enjoyable evening spoilt by a sudden and violent rip in the façade of materiality. Beyond the gold and furs and flesh, the terrible crystalline reality stands revealed: the divine script of the Hebrews to whom Rembrandt’s portraiture reverentially defers. The pre-eminence the picture gives to the arcane letters is indicative of the cultural milieu of the painter, the Northern European lower-middle classes among whom the cabalistic doctrines of Fludd, Kircher and Boehme were widely popular in the early 17th century.

What this suggests about Rembrandt’s conception of picture-making is that its status was open to question. For the urban groups who leant towards cabalism – a quietist position offering inward resistance to the era’s religious hegemonies – painting possessed no firmly located value. It replicated the surfaces of the world, but it did not directly give onto the world’s reality, in the way that Italian art theories – whether the naturalism of Leonardo or the idealism of Michelangelo – proposed in the secondhand redactions offered by the likes of van Mander. Rather, reality descended from God by emanations, downward through letters and light and the human spirit, to its lowest limit of physicality. Among the same commercial classes, evidence was plentiful of the multiple ways that the stuff of the world had been represented pictorially – from Venetian prints to Mughal miniatures; evidence with which Rembrandt surrounded himself in the form of the art collection that bankrupted him.

Into this uncertainty Rembrandt launched himself – the miller’s son, from a background outside art – with a matchless, obsessive energy. His extraordinary proliferation of scripts – from the microscopic hatchings of his burin to the reckless blasts of his two-inch brush – make up the pleasure of this exhibition. It is his quality of mark that singles him out, the exuberance and urgency of his desire that this be that. But for all his rich repertory of illusionism, there is no one method that will guarantee the picture’s arrival at representational security.

A few blocks away, in Rembrandt’s 1630s Amsterdam, another man is sitting in a darkened room alone, observing himself. ‘There is the fact that I am here, seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having this paper in my hands and other similar matters. And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine?’ In trying his hardest to deny every contingency, Descartes will evolve a representational method which secures the stability that eluded Rembrandt; it is accompanied by a uniform conception of space, rendering obsolete the hierarchy of objects on which painters’ practice had been premised, and it would pin down and eventually marginalise the question of the spirit around which Rembrandt’s paintwork hovered. The ‘new philosophy’ moved into vogue with the mid-17th-century shift in temper towards classicism, which saw the great painter briefly relegated to yesterday’s news. It is the period in which, according to Baldinucci’s report 17 years after Rembrandt’s death, he turned towards the Mennonite congregation, another of the subterranean conduits into which his society’s spiritual resistance movement was channelled.

It is the period also to which the crucial paintings belong. They, too, like Descartes’s First Meditation, set out the extreme case – but in their context they stand as a defensive, possibly rearguard action. If I put this stuff onto this surface, what is demonstrated? When I close my eyes, I am still here; my spirit is anterior to visibility. Can I affirm the positive, potent darkness that is its medium by means of these palpable paints? How can I show that there is something beyond the surface they form, how can I make known the ‘thing which thinks’?

The ‘I’ in such questions is representative; insofar as he poses them, Rembrandt does indeed posit a ‘human condition’, permanently and irresolutely poised between God and the world of material evidence. Though he inflects the doubts differently from one large pictorial undertaking to the next – here he poses as St Paul, there he stands before segments of some primal abstract circle – the obsession is constant in its nature. It generates, more through sheer accumulation than anything else, a solid residue of character and biography and authentic personal mark. Thus Rembrandt adds a lasting new dimension to the art of painting, and even to the culture beyond – yet it is an achievement built on the conceptual basis of a marginalised, losing tradition.

The ascendant tradition, of analytic method, still nags away at that aura of authenticity. In the wake of the Rembrandt Project and its damning dendrochronologies, it is fun to tease: ‘What are you doing staring at that fake from Aix?’ another viewer taunted me. ‘I wouldn’t pay a tenner for it at a car boot sale!’ Maybe we should settle for some pat Post-Modernist position, contending that ‘Rembrandt’ is merely the brand-name for a strand of production in certain 17th-century Dutch workshops with uncertain staff responsibilities – a product-line marked by odd cohesive traits, such as the depiction of potato-nosed individuals staring at the viewer. Faced with such cynicism, which his own team’s zeal for reattribution might be said to provoke, van de Wetering begins on a defensive note: ‘Rembrandt van Rijn really existed once – there can be no doubt about that.’ His opening line is also the closing line at which Rembrandt’s own work never quite arrives.