William Swetcharnik

Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits
at the National Gallery of Art (March, 2005)

It is said that every portrait, in some sense, is a portrait of its maker.

Looking at Rembrandt's late religious portraits, one is struck by the similitude of his self-portraits to his paintings of the apostles. In one, he even poses himself as the Apostle Paul. Is he suffering from a surfeit of self-esteem? Not at all, so far as I can see. These seventeen images, brought together from museums around the world, are mostly of humble monks and saints facing suffering and in many cases, martyrdom. Sometimes the subjects are accompanied by the instruments of their impending death. In another portrait of the Apostle Paul, almost hidden in the brooding background, we descry the sword by which the old saint will shortly meet his end. Saint Bartholomew, who according to tradition was flayed alive, is twice shown with a knife. Was Rembrandt also identifying with Michelangelo's Last Judgment, in which that artist painted a self-portrait onto Saint Bartholomew's flayed skin? Indeed, self-examination and self-identification seems to be very much at play in Rembrandt's late religious art. The occasional saint who might not seem so humble at first glance—Saint Bavo, for example, in extravagant garb with an enormous feather in his cap—represents a Belgian nobleman who had spent a wild youth and later gave all his belongings to the poor and became a monk and recluse. Rembrandt could identify with that.

Three decades earlier, Rembrandt had been flush with fame and more inclined to paint feathers in his own cap, as he did in an early laughing self-portrait with Saskia, his wealthy first wife, perched on his lap. Now, in the late 1650's and early 1660's, his portraits are of a somber man facing mortality. Most of the portraits in this exhibition are likewise austere, simple, half-length memento mori. Gone is the Baroque bombast of his earlier days. The occasional echo of showy fabric and theatrical prop, as in The Apostle Bartholomew, is belied by a pensive pose. It is also possible that this portrait was commissioned it as a "tronie", a Dutch tradition in which the portrayal serves as a stand-in for some other purpose. Three times during the flowering of his earlier career, Rembrandt had painted Saskia as Flora, goddess of the ancient Roman May Day celebrations. Before she died, Saskia had stipulated in her will that Rembrandt should not remarry, and now he paints his common-law wife Hendrickje as a sorrowing figure, perhaps as the Virgin Mary.

In another painting, Titus, the only of Rembrandt's four children with Saskia to survive infancy, for whom Hendrickje had served as a wet-nurse, whispers inspiration to the Apostle Matthew as he writes his Gospel account. Directly or indirectly, the central figure of the Gospels stands at the center of all these works. Rembrandt paints many portraits of Jesus during these years: his usual model was a young man from the Jewish ghetto of Amsterdam, a subject of strong but sensitive features, a man of sorrows. To scholars, it is quite a mystery that Rembrandt would have created so many religious paintings. Reformation Holland was still reacting against the propagandistic pageantry of Italian Catholic art; moreover, Reformation sentiment had little traffic in figures of Mary (here seen twice) or martyrs (Peter, Simon the Poor, James the Major, and Paul (there are two more versions of Paul in this exhibition) or hermit saints (Bavo, and the figure of a monk—Saint Francis, perhaps—on loan from the Finnish National Gallery). No, Holland was discovering the gospel of prosperity. It was an engaged culture, bustling and bourgeois, and a bit impatient with their own pietist, Anabaptist sects such as the Mennonites, a group with which Rembrandt had many sympathies.

During these later years, Rembrandt has become very acquainted with grief. His art has passed out of fashion and he has been forced to declare bankruptcy, his beloved collection of art and antiques auctioned off to settle the debts from his high-living days. His common-law marriage has been condemned by the Dutch Reformed Church, and a few years later, Hendrickje and Titus will also die. Publicly shamed, bereft of the props from his former career, Rembrandt would become increasingly concerned with issues of identity and interiority.

But we do not see an artist engrossed in melancholy and self-pity. Ever the observer, he chooses to examine the meaning of sorrow, the common language of the life examined. Rembrandt has already examined the history of his face more than any other artist. Now he describes the autumn of a life that has moved past bitterness, it would seem, but not pain. His late self-portraits brood over the thresholds of love and limitation. As with the Apostle Paul, he also proffers a book that might help carry us beyond ourselves. At least this is what he seems to be doing in his self-portrait as apostle. Having traded success for self-knowledge, his work has acquired a different kind of dignity, which he now offers the viewer as a legacy. It is a way of looking at ourselves, layer beneath layer. It is a way of looking that will become Rembrandt's particular posterity, unique in the history of art. It is not just as an unprecedented way of using paint to describe the surfaces of things—the wrinkle of a brow, the splay of a feather—but a vehicle for psychological penetration.

Rembrandt was buried in an unknown rented grave. However, his reputation would soon be resurrected. Sir Joshua Reynolds, eighteenth-century founder of England's Royal Academy and himself a collector of two Rembrandt paintings—including the Evangelist in a Red Cap, now on loan from a museum in Rotterdam—would proclaim Rembrandt as the greatest of all portraitists, a status that has remained unchallenged, for the most part, to this day.

Alone and abandoned by fate and fashion, the elderly Rembrandt remained at the height of his artistic powers and kept making art at a prodigious pace. These portraits, all three-quarter length, all in characteristic chiaroscuro—figures spotlighted against deep, mysterious shadow—reveal a mysterious range of conception and technique. While some of the portraits employ his famously pentimenti-laden technique, glaze upon glaze on top of descriptive impasto texture, creating layer after layer of visual and meditative depth, others, especially the Getty and Timken Museum versions of Saint Bartholomew, have a marvelously direct and vivacious paint quality. One can just feel the paint brush flickering joyously across the surface; one thinks of an earthy El Greco. But one also thinks of a grave and sober Caravaggio when looking at Rembrandt's Virgin of Sorrow. This remarkable painting, unlike any of the others, arrives at its interiority by a different route. Almost always, Rembrandt will cover his backgrounds—even when first established with robust layers of paint—with transparent umber glazes, obscuring everything underneath and forcing the viewer to look deeper and deeper to discover milieu and meaning. In his Virgin of Sorrow painting, however, the darks in the background go black and opaque. It is a picture of despair, except that the figure herself, clutching the womb whence her Christ had come, continues to remember.

This memorable exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, is on view in the newly reinstalled Dutch galleries on the main floor of the West Building. It is accompanied by a companion show of Rembrandt's Biblical etchings on the ground floor. Both close on May Day 2005.