The Magazine

Looking at Rembrandt

A portrait of the Dutch Master at 400.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Nothing else pumps up the municipal pride of once- glorious cities, now moribund, like the pertinent anniversaries of their artistic native sons long dead.

Amsterdam may have capitulated to the whoremongers, real and metaphorical, years ago, but the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth evokes the Dutch Golden Age, when piety and prosperity honored each other, and when artistic excellence served them both. This year, at several removes from gold, Amsterdam department store façades sported outsized Rembrandt reproductions; Rembrandt Square featured a Night Watch consisting of 22 life-size bronze figures, in the midst of which the admirer can stand and be photographed; and Rembrandt the Musical regaled the theatergoer with the dirt on "'the master of light' whose life had very shady sides to it," in the words of the publicity agent's all-too-resistible come-on.

It is hard to blame the Dutch for trading on a homegrown brand name that everyone else has been cashing in on for ages. Alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo, Rembrandt is one of the three most famous artists ever, with whom the public is on a first-name basis; and the name Rembrandt has lent the cachet of greatness and the grace of familiarity to sell everything from kitchen countertops to whitening toothpaste to fancy hotels in Bangkok and Knightsbridge. No work of Rembrandt's has attained the iconic status of the David or the Mona Lisa; yet Rembrandt seems to rank with the greatest of the great. The 400th provides a fine occasion to consider why that should be so.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's lineage was almost as honorably homespun as a 19th-century American president's: His father was a miller, his mother a baker's daughter. The ninth of ten children, with his shining intelligence, Rembrandt embodied his parents' hope for better things, and they sent him first to the Latin School in Leiden, then to Leiden University, the Dutch Oxford. Like many another born artist, Rembrandt soon realized the university route was not for him, and he signed on as apprentice to the painter Jacob van Swanenburgh, who went in for ever-popular (and lucrative) history and architectural painting, though his most famous work shows a fiendish set of jaws macerating sinners in the depths of hell.

Rembrandt never did paint any infernal landscapes, but his three-year stint with Swanenburgh served him well; his progress so heartened his father that he sent Rembrandt to Amsterdam for six months to learn what he could from the eminent Pieter Lastman. Upon his return to Leiden in 1625, Rembrandt established himself in a master's studio of his own, and took to cranking out history paintings--the Bible being his principal historical source, as in The Stoning of Saint Stephen, The Apostle Paul, Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver--which were always in hot demand and which secured his early reputation. The impression he made on the connoisseur Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, gained him some choice princely commissions; and the prospect of incalculable triumph lured him to Amsterdam in 1632.

The capital city did not disappoint him, and there he certainly lived up to his own vision of himself. He continued with history painting, added portraiture--notably self-portraiture--and the occasional landscape to his repertoire, and taught many able students. Riches and high esteem were his reward, and Rembrandt evidently thought well enough of himself to take after Leonardo and Michelangelo in signing his works with his first name alone. He took after Peter Paul Rubens more directly, investing clinically precise realism with dashing brilliance.

Marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of an art dealer who helped set him up in business, not only brought him personal happiness but provided him with a nonpareil artist's model. In perhaps their most famous collaboration, Rembrandt sits as well as paints: Self-Portrait with Saskia on His Lap (The Prodigal Son in the Tavern) presents him as a laughing, hard-drinking rascal, holding aloft a glass flute of ale long as a telescope. His wife is cast as that evening's pick-up, disdainfully peering over her shoulder at the viewer, who probably wishes he could order some of what the Prodigal is having. This spirited roistering in the Frans Hals manner defies homebound Dutch respectability, and in this strangely joyous image that seems to celebrate renegade sexuality within marriage, love declares that it lives strictly on its own terms, glowingly.

However, the glow would tragically fade, or rather become the hectic flush of tuberculosis on Saskia's cheeks: In 1642 she died at the age of 30, and was buried in the plain cloth shroud prescribed by Calvinist law. In 1639 Rembrandt had produced a prescient etching that showed a newly married couple paying their obeisance to Death: To the skeleton arising from the grave, the bride holds out a flower, an offering to tide Death over until He can claim her beauteous self. No sacrifice--not even the three infants who preceded Saskia to the grave--could propitiate the Reaper. He took what He wanted when He wanted it.

Work and love--or at any rate, work and sex--remained Rembrandt's way of holding off the darkness. Saskia was not long gone when her surviving son's nurse, Geertje Dircx, took her place in Rembrandt's bed. During the years of their affair, Rembrandt turned out sexual etchings so frank and coarse as hardly to be considered erotic: a faceless monk in a cornfield plowing some faceless woman whose clenched feet and straining legs are all one sees of her; a cavalier whose plumed headgear dangles from the bedpost servicing a lady who demonstrates no particular thrill at the privilege.

In 1649 the arrival in Rembrandt's household of a younger and much prettier servant, Hendrickje Stoffels, announced a new romantic dispensation, and Geertje was not pleased to be sent packing. No doubt this is the stuff that has Rembrandt the Musical salaciously wailing the blues: Geertje's charging Rembrandt with breach of promise and his publicly denying her claims that she was his mistress; the pregnant Hendrickje's being hounded before an ecclesiastical court and officially proclaimed Rembrandt's whore, while Rembrandt, who had left the Reformed Church, skates by without reprimand; Rembrandt's getting his own back against Geertje and then some, by contriving to have her declared mentally incompetent and confined to a virtual dungeon for five years.

The sexual scandal was topped off by financial ruin as dissatisfied customers for grand commissions, and the artist's own insatiable taste for the finer things in life, plunged Rembrandt into bankruptcy. When death came at last, in 1669, it may not have seemed entirely unwelcome.

Few lives have known the tempestuous ethical and emotional amplitude of Rembrandt's, and in his work one sees the sun-graced uplands and the pits of degradation, sometimes at once. His Bathsheba (1654), for which Hendrickje was likely the model, shows the nude Hebrew beauty having her feet washed by a gray-visaged servingwoman; in Bathsheba's hand is the letter from King David commanding her to come to him, for he has fallen in love at the sight of her, though she is the wife of Uriah.

Rich adornments--an earring, a necklace, a bracelet--bespeak her familiarity with luxury, and Bathsheba's sensuality is palpable, her lush body radiant where the light falls on her breasts and belly. But her lower body is in shadow, as the darkness of David's longing and her own--David shall arrange Uriah's death, and David and Bathsheba's infant son shall die--falls across her purity like advancing night. And it is with a strange melting ache that Bathsheba looks at her servant, who in turn is utterly absorbed in the job at hand. Importunate longing is in the mistress's look, and one cannot but think that she is wishing she were not Bathsheba anymore but could be this lowly servant instead.

It is, of course, but a pang of misgiving Bathsheba feels, not a moral compulsion strong enough to overcome the king's lust, or her own. Rembrandt captures the moment of trial for a woman whose taste for finery, even for grandeur, and whose regard for her own beauty, already proclaim her lost. The artist understands what it means to want the thing you want most, even though it might cost you your decency and self-respect and the life of someone you once claimed to love.

From early in his career, Rembrandt knows the perils of staking everything on a critical moral decision. Even men we commonly think of as saints and heroes fear at times that they have lost all, and Rembrandt portrays them as simply spent, unable any longer to continue the struggle. His The Apostle Paul (1630) shows a haggard old man whose struggle is not to elucidate some crux of heavenly wisdom but to keep from falling asleep over his work. Behind him, bathed in pale golden light, a pair of scimitars hangs from a roof beam, and one is reminded that Paul was beheaded for allegiance to the faith. However, here is not a martyr ripening toward a heroic end but a worn-out thinker in danger of nodding off into his eternal slumber. Earthly agonies and heavenly aspirations no longer touch him; his drooping gaze settles on a desk piled with books that are just a shadowy jumble. He looks forward to nothing. Paul has given everything he had to his appointed task, and the immensity of the task has finished him.

Rembrandt painted other pictures of old age, rheumy and crumbling or pugnacious, to the end; but this is a portrait of utter spiritual exhaustion. Faithfully to do God's work on earth may leave you in this condition, and one is hard-pressed to know whether Rembrandt here extols Paul's perseverance, which will win him a place in heaven, or laments his final wreckage.

In the annals of Christendom, the ultimate perseverance in, and triumph over, suffering is of course Christ's, and Rembrandt's renderings of the Crucifixion occupy a signal place in his oeuvre and in Christian iconography. Most Christs on the Cross depicted by Renaissance artists--in paintings by Cimabue and Giotto and Grunewald, in sculptures by Ghiberti and Donatello--were emphatically dead, whether as prelude to Resurrection or as unspeakable finality. Michelangelo changed that tradition with a 1539 drawing that showed a muscular warrior, a more powerful version of David, crucified and fighting mortal and spiritual destruction with every ounce of his strength. Rubens's 1613 painting takes after Michelangelo: His Christ strains upward toward salvation with every heroic sinew flexed, so that He resembles a heaven-seeking missile.

Rembrandt, for his part, returns to the image of the broken victim, as in his 1631 painting of a man tortured beyond endurance and about to breathe his last, a spindly and pitiable human specimen quite unlike Michelangelo's and Rubens's indomitable figures. In The Elevation of the Cross (1633), Rembrandt's Christ is once again wiry and strong, but his strength is unequal to the extreme physical pain that dominates the rendering: He stretches and braces himself in order to lessen the jolting agony that strikes like lightning when the cross is being raised. And in The Descent from the Cross (1633) the dead body is an unwieldy sack of guts, the crumpled Savior nearly bites his own left haunch as the laborers manhandle the corpse without concern for the decorum befitting a dead god.

The face of the man receiving the main weight of the body is so near to Christ's crotch as to disturb the viewer; there is surely no more striking reminder that the Word was indeed made Flesh than this man's chin scraping against the Lord's lower abdomen. Yet for all the pungent details of the Incarnation, a light with no possible earthly source envelops Christ's body: For all its resemblance to the saddest human end, this is indeed a death like no other. Rembrandt knows it, and makes you know it.

As the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century (1941), Rembrandt's predilection for biblical subjects lay outside the common run of the national art at that time, which dwelt on homely faces in homely places, upstanding burghers and picturesque peasantry in the settings of ordinary life. Yet Rembrandt, too, took prominent part in the portraiture of the newly ascendant middle classes. Indeed, essential to the certification of one's esteemed social position was a portrait by an artist of such stature, and Rembrandt was always glad to perform the service. As in the portraits of Nicolaes van Bambeeck and Agatha Bas (1641), his earnest merchants clutch their moneybags, and their thin-lipped wives try to dissemble their plainness behind lace brocade and Babylonian jewelry. But there is no trace of mockery in the pictures. The way Rembrandt shows them is the way they wish to be seen, and there is no evident presumption of the artist's moral superiority to his sitters.

Where Rembrandt's biblical works represent spiritual colossi straining to the very limits of their strength, or even broken by the struggle, his contemporary portraits show persons honored in their own time and living in well-cushioned circumstances. Yet the life dedicated principally to prosperity, to winning comparative ease and comfort, is not without seriousness of its own, in Rembrandt's eyes. Indeed, although seriousness in the midst of prosperity has for some time been identified as the hallmark of this new middle class, Rembrandt's eyes suggest a connection between the economic life and the spiritual life that the sociologists overlook.

For Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Protestant capitalist industriousness is conceived of Calvinist metaphysical terror: In a universe where every soul's eternal fate is predestined by God, successful worldly activity can best serve to dispel religious doubts about one's everlasting destiny and provide "the certainty of grace." (Although if Calvinist doctrine is rightly understood, nothing can really provide such certainty.) For Rembrandt, on the other hand, industriousness and the luxury it affords are sources of satisfaction here and now rather than desperate relief from the fear of hell. Worldly fulfillment matters in its own right, not merely as supposed evidence that one is cut out for heavenly glory.

You cannot tell by looking at these pictures whether the artist believes his subject bound for salvation or perdition. Souls do not make themselves known that way in these faces. What does become salient is the sense of notably ascetic faces enjoying their worldly deserts in so far as their nature permits. By their efforts, these well-to-do men and women earned their finery and their expensive portraits, and Rembrandt recognizes the virtues of industry, thrift, prudence, and perseverance that won them their earthly prizes.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Huizinga wrote, widespread prosperity would begin to wilt the energetic Dutch--or redirect their energies into ever more trivial affairs. A man who once would have felt obliged to devote himself to work would instead spend his time "running after his gardener or talking to his steward or notary." Rembrandt painted the flower of the Dutch middle class, which was its ruling class, at the height of its glory. The painter's good fortune and the sitter's were reciprocal.

Although the current academic industry is out to make the chief interest of Rembrandt's painting "the way he applies his paint" (in the words of one fashionable art historian), the ordinary cultivated viewer can always hope to find in him the traditional artistic virtue inherent in the word vision: a species of wisdom, connected in representational art with insight into human, inhuman, and divine nature, as acquired by the most attentive observation, a working knowledge of great literary texts, and some sharp-elbowed acquaintance with philosophizing.

Rembrandt thinks in paint, and it is the quality of the thinking that makes for the greatness of the painting. Eye and hand do their genial part, but it is principally the mind of Rembrandt that we still remember today, and that will be remembered 400 years from now.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.