Wednesday, February 2, 2005
The exhibition includes paintings from around the world.
By BLAKE GOPNIK
WASHINGTON -- "Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits," a stunning new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, is playing host to some powerful characters. There's Saint Paul, busy firing off letters to those Corinthians and Romans. The Apostle James, who was called Jesus' brother, is nearby. He looks like a cheery version of his holy sibling, as tradition says he should. Bavo, patron saint of the Dutch city of Haarlem, is got up like a grand medieval knight out hunting with his falcon. There's also Jesus himself, looking properly otherworldly, and Mary, deep in mourning for her son.
But despite these famous names, the most imposing presence in the show, by far, is Rembrandt van Rijn.
Before you notice any other details in the sacred characters on view, you notice the Rembrandt-ness that pulls them all together and makes them worth looking at in the first place. Here, late in life, Rembrandt sets out to assert the power of his brand.
This exhibition gathers 17 paintings from museums on both sides of the Atlantic. By dint of vigorous diplomacy, curator Arthur Wheelock has managed to assemble what's left from one of Rembrandt's last great bodies of work: For the first time, viewers get to see all the "portraits" of great Christian figures that Rembrandt painted in the last decade or so before his death in 1669 at 63.
These pictures represent a large percentage of all the pictures Rembrandt made during that time, perhaps a third of the total. The "Late Religious Portraits," when considered along with the National Gallery's six other late Rembrandts that hang in nearby galleries, can be thought of as a first draft for the kind of "Late Rembrandt" exhibition the experts have yet to organize.
What the exhibition lacks in scale, it makes up for in intensity and focus. It's easy to spend the time you'd pass in a much larger exhibition on these 17 pictures, and more rewarding.
In a controversial book called "Rembrandt's Enterprise," art historian Svetlana Alpers argued that Rembrandt's ideas about art and artists were wrapped up in ideas about the market and entrepreneurship. Where many of his colleagues turned to noble courts or wealthy patrons to make a living, Rembrandt, Alpers argues, chose instead to turn his art into a commodity for sale on the open market. He would supply a product good enough to stir up demand, then sit back and watch the guilders contribute.
Things didn't go exactly as planned. Rembrandt became a famous name, set up a booming art production company and, for a while, managed a lavish lifestyle. But his extravagant spending began to surpass a declining income. Public taste changed; his product didn't. In 1656 Rembrandt was forced into the Dutch equivalent of a reorganization in bankruptcy court. Rembrandt Inc. was restructured, with the former CEO now officially "employed" in a smaller company headed by his wife and son, but the basic market model stayed unchanged. Instead of relying on the support of meddlesome patrons, the aging artist would continue to turn out the goods he thought worthwhile, and the market would buy them.
The National Gallery exhibition gives us a crucial window into one aspect of Rembrandt's post-bankruptcy business plan that hasn't been fully spelled out before. In this show, we get to see him consolidating his artistic trademark. It isn't Rembrandt the man that we feel floating as a guiding force behind the artworks in the exhibition. It's "Rembrandt" the brand -- guarantee of a certain type and quality of high-end merchandise.
All the paintings but three are prominently signed, in Rembrandt's flashy, first-name-only form that tied him to art history's earlier stars, like Leonardo, Raphael and Titian, and set him off from his Dutch colleagues. That signature wasn't necessarily a record of the presence of the master's hand: Rembrandt let it be affixed to assistants' works he barely touched. It was a mark that a painting was a Rembrandt in the sense that it deserved to be priced as such.
And if Rembrandtness was the pitch line, then nothing said it like one of the self-portraits. Among all the stupendous pictures in the National Gallery's current show, the best may be the one self-portrait, in which Rembrandt appears costumed as the Apostle Paul -- a favorite figure in Dutch culture.
Rembrandt's signed self-portraits, which we tend to think of as his most "personal" work, may in fact have been among his most public, market-driven images -- a kind of "signature" product that functioned as the flagship for his larger line. A signed self-portrait, not only has the name inscribed across its surface, it displays the visible presence of the artist, which is then in a sense further "authenticated" by the artist's trademark style and technique.
The "Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul" has all the qualities collectors might look for in a great Rembrandt -- it's almost a catalogue of the pictorial goods that Rembrandt had for sale. Other pictures pick and choose from all the options that it offers.
An unusual picture of the mourning Virgin Mary, on loan from a small museum in Epinal in France, begins with the brushiness of the self-portrait, then takes it about as far as such brushwork can go. The image of Saint James the Minor shows the artist at his most tidily realistic, as he takes care to display the youthful beauty of the figure at hand. A painting of Saint Bartholomew uses illusionism to the opposite effect, as it displays every wrinkle in the subject's flabby skin.
For all the sacred names in their titles, these pictures aren't most notable for how hard they try to illustrate the stories of the saints; they're notable for how weakly Rembrandt makes the attempt. I'd say that the religious subjects, pretty standard for the era, are a pretext Rembrandt used to craft a pile of portrait-style pictures with broad market appeal.