17 December 1997 – 15 February 1998 | Index to the exhibition catalogue
In 1876 the French artist and critic Eugène Fromentin offered his readers a telling summary of the enduring mystique of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn:
This very insignificant man, this rummager, this costumier, this wise man nurtured in incongruities, this lowly man of such high flight; this moth-like nature attracted by whatever shone, this soul so sensitive to certain forms of life, so indifferent to others; this ardour without tenderness, this lover without visible flame, this nature of contrasts, contradictions, equivocations, moved and not eloquent, loving and not lovable, this ill-favoured man who was so gifted, this so-called materialist, this trivial, ugly man was a pure spiritualist, in a word, an ideologist I mean a mind whose domain is the domain of ideas and whose language is the language of ideas. There is the key to the mystery.
[Eugène Fromentin, The Masters of Past Time, trans. Andrew Boyle, Phaidon, Oxford, 1981, pp. 232-233.]
Drenched as it is in nineteenth-century hyperbole, Fromentin's Rembrandt is a vivid figment of the French author's Romantic imagination. Every age invents its own Rembrandt. Our own era seeks less for the soul of the master, than for physical traces of his artistic DNA in an attempt to wield the sciences of dendochronology and x-ray photography as ultimate indicators of the `true' hand of the artist. Latter-day declarations that long-cherished paintings are now either Rembrandt or non-Rembrandt have only increased the mystique surrounding this celebrated artist.The essence of Rembrandt and `Rembrandtness' survives both Fromentin's flights of fancy and more modern incarnations, steeped as it is in our eternal fascination with `the language of ideas' of Rembrandt and his world.
Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact is a rich and rewarding exhibition, offering a choice of paths for exploration and consideration. Rembrandt the master painter is the star attraction. We can track Rembrandt's development from the meticulous precision of the young `student' painter in Leiden in 1625-30, to the worldly celebration and self-confidence of the successful portraitist-about-town in the bustling Amsterdam of the 1630s and 1640s. Against this younger, worldly Rembrandt stands the laissez-faire bravura of the old master artist less concerned with capturing the external appearance of things than with manipulating paint and light in the majestic search for inner, spiritual truths. Enjoying the sheer beauty of his paint is one of the most immediately satisfying ways of entering the world of Rembrandt.
Another path within this exhibition circumnavigates the life of Rembrandt the man - his progression from the limited horizons of his student days in Leiden to a life of social success and material comfort as a fashionable portrait artist. With the astonishing development of Rembrandt's artistic prowess, comes also the tragic death of his first wife Saskia, as well as the loss of three of their four children in extreme infancy. In the final years of his life, we can track behind Rembrandt's art the course of the artist's descent into bankruptcy and the cumulative deaths of both his second lover, Hendrickje Stoffels in a plague epidemic, and of his only son Titus. The myth of the artist dying, financially straightened and alone, became Rembrandt's reality at the close of his career.
Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact also affords the viewer a fascinating exploration of Rembrandt the teacher. The work of a dozen younger artists who at one time or another studied under or worked alongside Rembrandt in his studio, are included in the exhibition, allowing a wealth of comparisons and contrasts to be made between their work and that of Rembrandt himself. Some pupils, engaged in tenebrous and overtly `painterly' compositions, are obviously following in the master's footsteps. Others, however, move significantly away from Rembrandt's final direction turning towards more classical or `Caravaggist' Italianate models, or the Flemish tradition as imparted by Rubens. Tracking the divergent paths trodden by the `master' and his `pupils' is one of the many rewards which repeated visits to Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact can offer.
In addition to inviting us to look afresh at Rembrandt the painter, this show also gives us a superlative insight into two other extraordinary personalities - Rembrandt the draughtsman, and Rembrandt the etcher. In the world of Rembrandt's etchings we find the core of the artist's `language of ideas'. Stripped of the tactile appeal of oils and canvas, and the `vanities' of colours, pigments and glazes, the etchings reveal, through consummately controlled line and chiaroscuro, the keen intellect and compositional finesse of Rembrandt at his finest. As Fromentin eloquently wrote a century ago: `The whole of Rembrandt is in his etchings - his mind, tendencies, imagination, reverie, good sense, chimeras, difficulties of rendering the impossible, realities in nothingness . it is the same craftsmanship, the same set purpose, the same carelessness and insistence, the same strangeness of style, the same desperate and sudden success achieved by expression'.
As a draughtsman, Rembrandt's eyes were as acquisitive as his wallet's legendary compulsion for acquiring the rare and the beautiful. While he stocked his studio with exotic objects from the Far East, and pursued the collecting of prints by his favourite Italian and German artists with a zeal bordering on fanaticism, he also personally `acquired' virtually everything appealing that he saw, through the mastery of his infallible sketching hand. This exhibition contains a wonderful range of Rembrandt drawings, from preparatory sketches for his own paintings and copies after other artists, to vividly sketched portraits and meticulous landscape studies.
Whichever Rembrandt you choose to visit first, you will find him in abundance in Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact.