Rembrandt in America

Rembrandt in America; Collecting and Connoisseurship

The Old Times, August 2012

By Jim Billings

MINNEAPOLIS–Paintings by 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt (Harmenszoon van Rijn) are holding their final reunion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.   Through this travelling exhibition, Rembrandt in America; Collecting and Connoisseurship, viewers can savor and compare 50 works borrowed from American museums and a few private collectors.  This chance to become friends with many masterpieces, mostly portraits, continues through 16 September.

Breaking with contemporary Baroque styles and their soaring motion, Rembrandt expresses genius through a balance of technical virtuosity, compositional brilliance respecting proportions, and novel layered treatment of surface.  Viewing Rembrandt’s career through this chronological arrangement of his paintings, offers an experience while fleeting — long enduring.

When purchased by American financial, mercantile, and industrial wealth, all 50 paintings were thought to be by Rembrandt.  Now that number is just over 30, as some paintings are attributed to his students or to other artists altogether.  Regardless of authorship, this assemblage allows his masterworks to tell the stories.

Baroque works, contemporary to Rembrandt, cause the eye to wander without rest.  Rembrandt, however, devises more focus, grounding and restraining the eye, calming the viewer.  His portraits direct the viewer toward eyes – framed by technically superb highlighting of eyebrows — then other facial features and hands.  The clothing, usually darkened, may be embellished with gold embroidery and lace, yet eventually the viewer is mesmerized by facial features, particularly the eyes.

Rembrandt’s portraits respect proportions found in Italian Renaissance architecture and painting.  The sitter is positioned centrally; eyes within a portrait beam in accordance with renaissance Golden Ratio, positioned about ⅓ from the painting’s top.  According to legend this hearkens from ancient Greece.  Confident and calming, the portraits beacon their story.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits pose interesting dilemmas, technical and intellectual.  Before photographs, one needed a mirrored reflection. Using oneself as model is free, convenient, and familiar.  The artist is viewer and view, subject and object.   As exhibition co-curator Tom Rassieur has noted, artist becomes both audience and actor. Rembrandt’s self-portraits reveal autobiographical insights, comparing callow early days with later times of deep hurt following personal and financial tragedies.

Paintings are about surface.  Often Rembrandt prepares his wooden panels or canvases with a double-layered ground.  This is augmented with opaque and translucent materials as a primer.   He experiments with many materials: powdered glass, lead white with chalk or charcoal, opaque white to exaggerate contrasts.   A sharp tool cuts into wet paint, simulating hair, intensifying shadows.   Rembrandt’s many experiments with materials and techniques enhance depth in paintings.  Thick layers of paint with their translucency and reflective qualities bring the subjects to life.

Rembrandt’s palette is a quieting blend of blacks and whites, highlights in reds and yellows, frequently effecting red-orange ochre in oil; other blends darken clothing and background.  His famed sharp contrasts of light and dark tones — chiaroscuro  — enhance depth, embellishing the figure, which, surrounded by burnished gold, lifts forward.   Over time his colors became richer, brushstrokes bolder, sometimes thinner, facilitating superb detail.  Soft candlelight casts both single-source and reflected light, bringing out shadows and evoking mystery.

Among the many options, I am pulled toward the painting I’ve known for 49 years:  Lucretia (1666), select among masterpieces.

According to legend, Lucretia was raped by a son of the last king of ancient Rome.  To negate rumors implicating her and to uphold her honor – she committed suicide.

Through clever compositional schemes Rembrandt brings drama into present time.  Action unfolds from left toward right.  Viewers are drawn toward the fatal wound, and then directed along the golden chain, symbol of honor, toward her forlorn eyes, sad face.  While holding a knife in her right hand, blood drips from her chemise, a cord in her left hand summons attendants.   Rembrandt’s motion is intense, pulsating, combining the immediate past, present, and future actions.

This gathering, which includes masterpieces along with comprehensive examples, continues Rembrandt’s teaching mission. Rembrandt’s power long endures through the gaze of his subjects.