‘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?

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