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Telling late Rembrandts’ tale

14 November 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees the big show - plus one intriguing portrait

© 2014 Kunsthaus Zürich. All rights reserved

Swiss loan: Rembrandt's The Apostle Simon, 1661, on loan for the National Gallery exhibition from the Kunsthaus Zürich (Ruzicka Collection)

Swiss loan: Rembrandt's The Apostle Simon, 1661, on loan for the National Gallery exhibition from the Kunsthaus Zürich (Ruzicka Collection)

THE statistics are awesome: in this show, which is jointly organised with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (where it will be seen from 12 February to 17 May next year), there are more than 90 works. Although Rembrandt (1606-69) was a prolific artist for much of his life, this represents a comprehensive survey that is confined to his final two decades.

As it will be larger yet when it is back on home soil, and more spaciously accommodated, the prudent may wish to defer going until real justice is done to the show.

The years after Rembrandt reached his mid-forties were characterised by court cases involving his mistress, who was arraigned three times, for having relations outside wedlock in 1654, his own bankruptcy in 1656, and a clever financial operation in which he assigned all his paintings to his son and his mistress to evade his creditors. In the end, his much loved but sickly son Titus predeceased him, and the inheritance passed to his posthumous daughter.

There are even carefully sustained rumours that he visited Kingston upon Hull in 1658, when his own inclination towards the Mennonite tradition would have passed unnoticed among the Puritans of the seaport. He was certainly sympathetic to Calvinism, but he also had friends in the Jewish community of his native city. Later (18th-century) records claim that Rembrandt had visited Hull in the first years of the Restoration, but also that he had been there some years before.

At Frieze Masters (14-19 October), it was fascinating to come face to face with the Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo that some say was a work painted in East Yorkshire in 1658 (photo, page 35). It is currently owned by the New York dealer Otto Naumann, who last year showed an equally impressive late Velázquez portrait head at Frieze.

When the same portrait was sold last, in 2009, for £20.2 million at Christie's, its price constituted a record for the artist, so that the market has watched this follow-on sale with particular interest, more as an indicator of the recession-beating fine-art market than from devotion to the golden age of Dutch art, in which Rembrandt's commanding position has largely been usurped by Vermeer.

Whether or not it was painted on the shores of the Humber, a claim sometimes made for a self-portrait of the same date (Frick Collection, New York), it offered a wonderful introduction to the later works on show in the National Gallery. Only a couple of other paintings can be securely dated to that troubled year.

The bravura with which the pudgy splayed right hand is rendered and the strong gaze speak volumes of a successful merchant economy, whether from the Low Countries or from further east; in a sale in 1839, it was said to represent a Dutch admiral, but some suggest that it may be a portrait of a Mediterranean visitor to the Low Countries, as it wittingly recalls earlier Renaissance portraits of courtiers.

Rembrandt had depicted himself some years before (in 1652) with his arms akimbo for a self-portrait (which is now in Vienna), and wearing a similar beret, which prompted more recent discussion that the portrait at Frieze, too, might be a self-portrait in a deliberately historicising way, although I was unconvinced by the eyes.

By coincidence, the first work that the visitor to Trafalgar Square sees is a small etching on Japanese paper of a self-portrait from the same year. This is by no means the earliest work on show, since there are those from 1652; but it makes a good place to start. As we screw up our eyes to look at the small image (11.8 × 6.4cm), we observe the artist's own beady eyes set in his capacious head.

Turning the corner in the first of several distinct coups de théâtre, we are faced with four large self-portraits sent from Washington, DC, Amsterdam, and The Hague, as well as the National Gallery's own portrait of the artist at the age of 63.

The work from the Mauritshuis in The Hague is regarded as the last of his works, but it shows little diminution in his skill and consummate artistry, even though he represents himself as a frailer older man with limp hands and blotchy pale skin. Broad swipes of paint enfold his cheeks and his pugnacious nose, and something of the audacity that characterised him eight or nine years earlier remains.

Then, in the Rijksmuseum picture from 1661, he assumed the part of St Paul as if he had become the apostle of a new gospel. This was the only occasion on which Rembrandt chose to depict himself in a biblical role, and one of only two in which he showed himself as a historical person: the other was an earlier self-portrait in Cologne of him as Zeuxis (not in this show).

Did he identify with Paul because he regarded himself as a flawed man whom God had invested with a particular mission, a gift of undeserved grace? We shall never know; but the drama of the image is telling, and introduces us to the resourcefulness of the artist, who was as much at ease with civic commissions as with private work.

The exhibition is not set out chronologically, but rather attempts to survey his oeuvre thematically, encouraging us to reflect first on his experimental techniques, and to see how he emulated the stylistic compositions of earlier Masters, and then progressing to his life drawing and observation of nature. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of his more intimate relations, and offers almost biographical suggestions for the hard path towards later reconciliations.

Broadly, this is successful, but I had two great regrets about the staging of the exhibition which had a negative impact on my enjoyment of the embarrassment of riches.

The first is that, although occasional drawings are paired with the corresponding painting, and prints of the same subject are grouped together, each room has a mix of all media, making viewing the exhibits frustrating.

The portraits of the Dordrecht merchant Jacob Trip and of his wife Margaretha der Geer (both National Gallery) have to be seen at a distance to work, and in a crowded room that is next to impossible. This is even truer of the vast canvas of "The Syndics", the group portrait of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild painted the following year in 1662.

On the other hand, the smaller etchings deserve minute scrutiny. Where they are side by side on the wall, one is forever forced to juggle depth of field and of focus.

Similarly, much has been made of the presence in the exhibition of the painting that is usually called The Jewish Bride, as it depicts a couple dressed as Isaac and Rebecca. To be understood at all, the intimate gestures of their hand-holding and his enfolding gaze have to be seen from close up; but the composition can be read only at a distance.

Patience is a virtue, and it is possible (just) to achieve this, as it is on a wall on its own beside an emergency exit; but the press of those trying to see Titus at his Desk (1655) or the poignant depiction of old age in An Old Woman Reading (Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry) on the neighbouring wall across from a display case of female nudes makes it impossible to guarantee much success.

The second great complaint is that the already cramped gallery space of the notorious basement of the Sainsbury Wing is ill-served by the introduction of a series of screens that narrow most of the doorways, plywood sound baffles, and room dividers. This serves only to hamper the flow of visitors, and to close off rooms.

It also blocks what would otherwise have been desirable glimpses of what is to come. The extraordinary painting Juno (1662-65), from the Armand Hammer Foundation Museum is not so widely known outside Los Angeles, for instance, that we should not be able to take it into account, even at a distance when looking through from the Kenwood Self-portrait with Two Circles, or the late Lucretia (Minneapolis), in which the Roman heroine who died by her own sword is subjected to the artist's palette knife.

So, on balance, I left with a feeling of disappointed frustration rather than the more fitting response of an unquestioning rapture, which the organisers clearly would like, and which the works palpably demand.

"Rembrandt: The Late Works" is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 18 January 2015. Phone 020 7747 2885.

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