Monday 2 February 2015


Rembrandt - the Late Works, at the National Gallery,

Trafalgar Square.

We went to see this exhibition on its penultimate day at 2:00 in the afternoon. A recipe for disaster? Definitely. The crowds were horrendous, not just in front of the paintings, but throughout the rooms - you had to keep excusing yourself in order to move even an inch. Do I regret it? Absolutely not as it was fabulous. But, we gave up on looking at the drawings early on as we could not get anywhere near them, and concentrated on the paintings instead. It was still worth it and I am so glad we did see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

This exhibition is dedicated to the last twenty years of Rembrandt's life which were extremely difficult: the bankruptcy from which he would never recover; falling out of artistic favour; the death of his common-law wife; the death of his only son Titus. These were also the years when he produced his best work.

According to the booklet provided for the exhibition 'it is [Rembrandt's] late works that define our image of him both as a man and as an artist. Far from becoming complacent as he aged, or falling into artistic decline, he radically changed course in his later years to create many of his most daring drawings, prints and paintings. He embraced new challenges even as he suffered reversals of fortune, and personal tragedies that included the deaths of his son and common-law wife.

The works exhibited... reveal a relentlessly experimental approach to technique, an extraordinary skill in rendering the effects of light, an appreciation for mundane or even ugly subjects, an avid plundering of diverse visual sources for creative inspiration and a quest to understand and represent humanity's deepest motivations and emotional states'.

I found it very difficult writing up this post as my emotional response to the exhibition was very strong and I still have not managed to sort all of my ideas out. I would definitely recommend Simon Schama's video on the exhibition, as well as the articles he has written on the subject: you can read one of them here .

Self Portrait, 1659

The exhibition began with five self-portraits which chronicle Rembrandt's ageing over the last decade of his life. These are not documents of his appearance: they are about the inner person, a process of self-scrutiny, that reveal the soul and which question what it is to exist.

Unlike many of the old masters, who wrote down their observations, or exchanged ideas with other leading scholars, Rembrandt did none of these things. Yet we feel we know him more intimately and this is because of the series of self portraits which span the whole of his life, from when he was a young man to his lonely old age when his face reflected the tragedy of bankruptcy and the unbroken will of a great artist. In his self portraits he observed himself with sincerity and what we see is the face of a real human being: there is no trace of a pose, or vanity. It's the face of a person who wants to know about life, what it means being a complex human being who has experienced love, warmth, loneliness and suffering. They are magnetic and draw you in.

Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661

This is my favourite of the self portraits, full of pride beneath all the suffering he experienced in his last years and so much vulnerability too. A narrow shaft of light draws attention to the figure's head, and may also suggest spiritual enlightenment.

Self Portrait, 1669

The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, (1661-2)

Hidden by the figures in the foreground, a single lamp lights the scene, turning the tabletop into gold and eerily illuminating the conspirators with reflected light.

Self Portrait with Two Circles, (1665-69)

The enigmatic circles in the background probably refer to the traditional claim that the ability to draw a perfect circle freehand was the ultimate proof of an artist's skill.

Lucretia, (1666)

Simon Scharma on this painting: 'There has never been a Lucretia like this, her face shiny and pallid with death, a painting of slits and gashes and apertures, where the torn, punctured body of the woman is made utterly naked by being ostensibly covered. The powerless belt slung across her hips has... become a slung sash extending from her right shoulder down to the left side of her waist and so travelling across the sites of her violation. It fixes our gaze, first on the deep V-shaped opening of her shirt and then on the terrible, spreading, soaking bloodstain that extends from her heart down toward her thighs. There is nothing like this bloodstain in all the countless martyrdoms of baroque painting, in all of the spurting severed heads and severed breasts; nothing that pulses quietly and fatally out of an unseen wound. Rembrandt has even made the folds of Lucretia's shift hang forward on either side of the wound, while between them, in a saturated depression, as if rehearsing the site of her rape, the blood-soaked fabric clings wetly to her skin...

Her pathos is of resignation. She has opened herself bodily, to the possibility of mercy. Faultless, she has nonetheless sinned; spotless, she has become stained. But she hangs on to the cord, life ebbing away from her, awaiting the embrace of compassion, the reception of grace'.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman, (1656)

Juno (1662-65)

Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan, (1656-8)

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as the Syndics,  (1662)

Portrait of Jacob Trip, (1661)

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip, (1661)

Titus at his Desk, (1655)
An Old Woman Reading (1655)
The woman is seen extremely close at hand. Her cloaked body fills the entire width of the picture; her hands and her massive book seem to project from the canvas. Shrouded beneath a dark hood, the woman's face is illuminated by light reflected upwards from the open pages. By drawing the viewer so close to his subject, Rembrandt invites intimate access to the woman's innermost thoughts.
She is totally absorbed in the act of reading - there is complete concentration here. This painting is the act of reading itself.

Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as 'The Jewish Bride', (1665)
A painting about intimacy, and we become witnesses to the emotion between the two.  'I would gladly give up 10 years of my life to sit in front of the painting for a fortnight, with only a dry crust of bread to eat', was Van Gogh's rather melodramatic response to this painting.
A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654)
The first impression of Rembrandt's paintings is that of a rather dark brown. These dark tones give even more power and force to the contrast of a few bright and brilliant colours so that the light on some of his paintings looks almost dazzling. These effects of light and shade enhance the drama of the scene.

Titus in a Monk's Habit, (1660)
As always with Rembrandt, this is not a description of the sitter's physical appearance, but of their interior life, their thoughts and feelings. The brown monk's habit and cowl isolate Titu's face, making it the focus of the picture's visual interest. The imperceptible smile on his lips, as in the Mona Lisa, makes the picture mysterious.


Lucretia, (1664)
Simon Scharma on this painting: 'The artist has made something crushingly weighty of the costume, building the paint until it is as solid and impenetrable as the ironclad armour of the heroine's virtue. Yet it is an armour that has been pierced. The deep green impasto... is worked and layered in the lower part of the painting where Lucretia's skirt is vainly girdled by a belt that circles her body just below the waist. But all this heavy casing of the paint layer is calculated to make the sense of the soft vulnerability of the body within - not just in painfully delicate exposure of the flesh at her throat and between her breasts, but in the fore-shortened left forearm at her opened sleeve - even more poignant. The fastening of her bodice have been loosed and hang freely down to her waist. A teardrop pearl, the insignia of her virtue, is suspended just above the site where the dagger will rend the flimsy veil of her shift and into her heart. But her eyes are red with tears already shed, others gathering and brimming; her upper lip moist with misery...Lucretia holds up her left hand, both in affirmation of her innocence and also to still the protests of the horrified household'.


  1. I'm glad that you managed to enjoy it, despite the crush! It certainly is work that is worth some effort to see. Have you read Rembrandt's Whore by Sylvie Matton?

    1. It was quite an experience despite the crowds. Still thinking and processing it all. I have not read the Matton, but thanks for the recommendation, I am going to order it now.