“Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, who took the practice of signing his own works simply “Vincent” from van Rijn, the 17th Century Dutch Master who identified his work by his first name alone.
I last visited the Denver Art Museum six years ago, when Becoming Van Gogh was on exhibition. This time around, I came to spend time with Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker, on view through January 6, 2019.
In a noisy world, a museum is a silent solace, a sanctuary of quiet beauty.
A few days before my trip to Denver (my son Ben is a most generous host in his city), I searched Amazon Prime Video and watched two documentaries on Rembrandt’s life and work. The preparation did much to enhance my time with Rembrandt’s lesser known works, his etchings.
It’s said that the young Rembrandt cared little for the formal schooling his parents provided, playing hookey to explore and draw until they accepted his desire to apply himself to art.
Viewing the body of work this master created, one is grateful for the artist’s lifetime of unrelenting application of his craft, for Rembrandt had begun steadily applying himself to art by age 19 and he continued creating until just before his death at 63.
The etchings in Denver’s display reveal a man of intense dedication, curious experimentation and deep contemplation. We see Rembrandt play with various interpretations of his subjects; we feel his delight in the sheer materiality of the world around him, from a helmet’s golden sheen to the windmill blades jutting into the Amsterdam skyline. We contemplate the beauty of ordinary objects: feathers, kegs, books and bodices all rendered in exquisite detail.
Rembrandt silently offers appreciation for the dignity and diversity of humanity, from beggars and peasants to scholars and statesmen. Spending time with his etchings brings us not only into the bustling world of 17th century Amsterdam, but into classical mythology and the world of the Bible and the saints.
If we’re open to it, he brings us into serious spiritual contemplation.
Whatever his theological leanings may have been, no evidence exists of his membership in any church, though the women he married were Calvinist and his children were baptized as Dutch Reformed. The artist’s work shows a heart alive to Christian mystery.
We see Old Testament figures, including Joseph telling his dreams and Tobias with the Archangel Raphael. We see New Testament stories and figures, including the Good Samaritain and St. Paul. We see St. Jerome kneeling and St. Francis at prayer.
And we see Christ especially: Christ offering mercy to the woman caught in adultery, Christ calling Lazarus forth from the tomb, Christ before Pilate, Christ raised on the Cross (with the artist conspicuously present at the scene), Christ taken down from the Cross, Christ risen from the dead.
A highlight of the Denver exhibition is Rembrandt’s etching known as the Hundred Gilder Print. This piece, named for the price it allegedly garnered, differs from the usual illustration of a biblical story in its interpretation of the content in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
Four enlarged panels beside the print provide explicit insight into the artist’s choices. Christ with open arms is placed at the center, light emanating from His person.
Placed around Him are depictions from the biblical text. Matthew 19:1-2 tells of the large crowds who followed Jesus the healer. Rembrandt’s heart for human suffering is revealed in his depiction of the sick, crippled and blind, whose crutches, trolleys, bandages and weary faces wound our hearts and reveal our own pain.
The third panel comments on the text, “some Pharisees came to test him.”
The loose, light outlines of the Pharisees (members of a religious sect) on the far left contrast with the solid, fully rendered figure of Christ, from whom they turn away after he rebuts their arguments against him.
In a fourth panel, we see the children around Jesus and are reminded of His welcoming words, “let the little children come unto me…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” We connect these innocents with the troubled sick and impoverished whom Christ does not refuse and we are touched by His humble love for both groups.
In the final panel we’re given an enlarged view of the camel shadowed on the etching’s far right. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” Christ said. The panel’s text points us as well to the rich young man on Christ’s left. We’re thus coaxed to ponder the contrast between the “little ones”–the children, the poor, the infirm–who follow Christ with all their heart, and the self-assured overconfidence of many among affluent and educated.
“Then who can be saved?” the disciples asked when confronted with the mystery of salvation’s obstacles. “With God, all things are possible” we recall in hope, understanding that humility of soul is of greater value than honor or wealth.
The painter’s life-long fascination with his own self-portrait provides an interesting correlary to the message highlighted in the Hundred Guilder Print.
Viewing Rembrant’s portrayals of himself through the decades of his life is a study in the growth in humanity’s most elusive virtue, humility.
Rembrandt is a self-styled master in his early poses. As he matures we see the painter emerge into self-possession, yet he seems haughty and superior when his gaze meets ours.
But in his later years, Rembrandt allows his suffering to temper his spirit. Art historian Bruce Cole notes the “extreme psychological complexity and profundity”of Rembrandt’s 1658 self portrait. Canadian artist Lori Bagnérès adds in her post Rembrandt & Self-portrait: A lesson in simplicity and humility:
In his time he was considered to be one of the most subliminal innovators of the chiaroscuro technique. Every young painter wanted to apprentice under his wing, every nobleman and woman wanted to have their portrait painted by him. Mismanagement of his works and collection led him to losing his home. By the time he had painted this self-portrait, his wife had died, he had gone completely bankrupt, but he continued to paint showing complete humility and his mastering talent.
He had once (in 1637) depicted himself as the laughing Prodigal Son in a Brothel. The parable of the wayward son who makes his way back to the Father’s house apparently fascinated the artist, who through the years painted and etched several versions of the story.
But in 1669, toward the end of the artist’s life when he was at the height of his powers, Rembrandt offered a moving, traditional rendering of The Return of the Prodigal Son. This later portrayal of the prodigal’s return “enlarges and deepens one’s understanding of compassion” and is considered one of history’s greatest works of art.
The paintings included here are not part of the Denver exhibit, which as a display of the artist’s etchings, contains few of the oil paintings for which Rembrandt is most revered.
But Rembrandt’s etchings are a roadmap to the artist’s soul and time spent with them leads to a deeper understanding of his life and work.
Rembrandt’s technical mastery, his insight into humanity and contemplative spirituality say, in Van Gogh’s heartfelt words, “things for which there are no words in any language.”
I emerged from Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker slowed and quieted in spirit, grateful for the artist, grateful for the experience.
I want to make more room for these silent experiences in my life. An exhibit like this does much to put souls driven by distraction back on the road to recovery.
Marc Chagall is another favorite of mine (see Sparrowfare’s Links to the Soul-Washing Art of Marc Chagall). What artists inspire your soul? I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Sparrowfare’s Facebook page….and if you know an art lover who would enjoy this post, please share Sparrowfare!
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View a fascinating two-minute morphing of Rembrandt’s self portraits on this Youtube video.