From now until January 2015, an exhibition of drawings and paintings from the last years of the life of Rembrandt van Rijn (better known as Rembrandt alone) can be viewed in a series of connected rooms in the basement of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.
It’s essential to pick up one of the booklets (and probably an audio guide, too) as you go in, as there are no explanatory texts on the walls to accompany the works, which are linked under headings such as ‘Self-Scrutiny’ (a group of Rembrandt’s famed self-portraits), ‘Light’ (including 1661’s ‘Conspiracy of the Batavians’ which was rejected for Amsterdam’s Town Hall, existing now only as a fragment of painting which sits beside the original, full drawing), ‘Experimental Technique’ (including 1665-9’s famed ‘Self-Portrait With two Circles’ and 1666’s ‘Lucretia’ (the first of two paintings on the subject in this exhibition), ‘Emulation’ (with 1662-5’s ‘Juno’, taking the work of Titian as inspiration), ‘Observation of Everyday Life’ , ‘Artistic Conventions’ (including 1662’s ‘The Syndics’, with its playful depictions of officials, and the dual portraits of man and wife Jacob Trip and the formidable Margaretha de Geer), ‘Intimacy’ (with 1655’s ‘Titus at his Desk’, showing Rembrandt’s son at study, and the masterly ‘Jewish Bride’ from the same year where a couple who could be the Biblical Isaac and Rebecca share a moment of tenderness within the painter’s gaze), ‘Contemplation’ (with its studies of apostles Simon and Bartholomew), ‘Inner Conflict’ (with the second ‘Lucretia’, from 1664, in anguish at the point of suicide by dagger, and 1654’s compelling ‘Bathsheba with King David’s Letter’, in which the lady emerges from her bath with the letter inviting her presence in the sovereign’s bed), and finally, ‘Reconciliation’ (with the 1655 etching of ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’ and Rembrandt’s final painting, 1669’s ‘Simeon with the Infant Christ in the Temple’).
Alongside the showy paintings (which are sometimes lit in a way that you cannot see full details close up and need a lot of space to get the full effect from afar) are a number of drawings, etchings and drypoints which exist in various ‘states’ (in which Rembrandt would make copies of the drawing at certain point and then make further revisions – in the case of 1653’s ‘The Three Crosses’ we can see three versions of the same composition side by side for the first time (they belong respectively to the British Museum, Rijksmuseum, and the V&A). The techniques of an artist at work are fascinating to see, whether his constant revision of the same subject, or his use of scratches or pallet knife work on his oils.
Like the exhibition of the works of Leonardo da Vinci which showed here three years ago, this is unmissable precisely because of the chance to see works together which are usually found elsewhere, and this is a beautifully curated exhibition. I was also reminded of the Korda film of the 1930s on the life of Rembrandt which featured Charles Laughton in the lead, and that obviously took inspiration from the later self-portraits – although, of course, Rembrandt only lived to the age of 63, so never got to what we term ‘old age’. Look in the face of his portraits though and you see an artist who is quite aware of his place in the world and of the realities of mortality.