Art review: Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Melissa York
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Rembrandt self-portrait aged 63
Rembrandt knew he was a genius. You can see it in his eyes as they stare witheringly from his self-portraits in the first room of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works.
Authentic Rembrandts are such a big draw for art galleries that few museums are willing to loan them out for fear of seeing a dip in visitor numbers. But after many years of negotiations, the gallery has managed to team up with Amsterdam’s Rijiksmuseum and a number of private collectors willing to loan their works to showcase artworks from the 1650s until the artist’s death in 1669.
The first room is entitled “Self-Scrutiny”, which seems fitting; not only is this collection the first in-depth exploration of the final years of the Dutch master’s work, it’s also a great study in reflection and contemplation. Rembrandt’s self-portraiture in his 60s has him in a simple painter’s cap, the intrepid artist intent on his work, and in the next as a haughty Saint Peter the Apostle. His “Jewish Bride” gazes uncertainly past her new husband, while Bathsheba stares off into her troubled future as she contemplates the meaning of King David’s letter, which dangles at her wrist.
The diversity of styles and materials on display is indicative of the newfound energy and experimentalism that Rembrandt toyed with in his later years, creating a body of work with no trace of a decline. Unlike Vermeer – Rembrandt’s contemporary – madness or bankruptcy never diminished his work; instead, life’s hardships seemed to have brought about a creative fervour. Rather than concentrate on one painting at a time, he’d dart between sketches on Japanese paper to lavish oil paintings on canvas.
Rembrandt didn’t care for the limitations of his advancing years, so it’s right that this exhibition doesn’t either, showcasing these pieces thematically instead of chronologically.
The oil paintings imprint themselves on the viewer, layered with thick blobs of gaudy jewellery, as in The Jewish Bride, and pink, gooey membrane, as in the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman. Even the ink sketches on vellum, while relatively rudimentary, betray a heavy, purposeful hand. Earlier etchings of Faustian scenes and Christ on the cross are almost reminiscent of early photography, with flashes of light illuminating focal points otherwise surrounded by dark scribblings.
These works may be drawn from Rembrandt’s twilight years but few other artists in history could gather such a collection in their prime.
Admission £18; 15 October to
18 January 2015

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