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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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.