ABOUT 15 years ago, I was given a copy of Will Davenport’s The Painter, a readable novel with, as I remember, a weak ending (but I am not a literary critic). Holiday reading, perhaps, for a journey from the Low Countries to Humberside.
The book is set in the year 1662-63, when a bankrupted Rembrandt took ship to flee his creditors and a messy love affair and ended up in Kingston upon Hull, poor man, then the major fishing port of the East Coast and centre of Continental trading.
There are well known claims, based on reputable 17th-century memoirs, that the Dutch artist spent a year living in Hull on the High Street, although a fire in 1743 may have destroyed any works that he undertook there. It is a fascinating thought, and the Ferens Gallery in the City of Culture would surely love to hear from anyone who has a Rembrandt at home.
Nor is that such a far-fetched idea as it may at first seem: from time to time, previously unknown works attributed to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69) turn up, and I imagine that Fake or Fortune is not short of a steady supply of contestants. But not all Rembrandts are quite what they seem.
The Wallace Collection, built up by the Hertfords, father and son, between 1803 and 1868, claimed to have a dozen of his paintings by the time it was opened to the public in 1897. Scholarship (including previously unavailable scientific tests) and successive attempts at producing a catalogue raisonné of the Amsterdam artist’s work has steadily whittled away the numbers.
In 1986, the Rembrandt Research Project rejected two of the last five canvases to survive this academic scrutiny in Manchester Square when it downgraded the delightful portraits of the Pellicorne family to studio works; in 1989, two more works were toppled, leaving the outstanding portrait of the artist’s teenage son Titus (1641-68).
When Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo came up for sale at Frieze Masters in 2014, it was posited that it might have been one of the master’s portraits from the year he spent in East Yorkshire. Owned by the Bader family in Canada, it has been donated to Queen’s University, appropriately enough at Kingston, Ontario.
There were no Rembrandt oil paintings at this year’s comprehensive Frieze Masters (4-8 October), but Emanuel von Baeyer, a dealer who is based around the corner from the Abbey Road Studios, on Hamilton Terrace, London NW8, showed an impressive wall of his etchings.
Collectors have long valued Rembrandt’s powers of observation, and his works on paper, and, in 1951, Percy Moore Turner (1877-1950), a cobbler’s apprentice turned art dealer, bequeathed 93 prints and one drawing to Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery. These constitute the heart of the present exhibition.
Turner became Samuel Courtauld’s principal art adviser and buyer. He also bought for several French museums. At his death, he left his collection to institutions across England. This gem of an exhibition is the first time since 1990 that all the Norwich Rembrandts have been brought together, with several significant oil paintings. Norwich has the fourth largest print collection in England, after the British Museum, Oxford, and Cambridge. There is a new illustrated catalogue by Giorgia Bottinelli and Francesca Vanke (£12.99).
The exhibition is carefully arranged so that we first meet the artist. Rembrandt probably produced more self-portraits than any artist before or since, which suggests a compulsive nature that might be reflected in the close detail for which the medium of etching is such an obvious vehicle.
At the age of 25, Turner had left the leather trade in London and joined an art gallery in Old Bond Street. At the same age, Rembrandt portrays himself after moving from Leiden to Amsterdam. He has a spiky moustache and curly hair, over which he has later etched in a fur cap. He looks at us thoughtfully; his expression is sad rather than quizzical.
The marvel is that the single state print measures just 6.3 x 5.8cm. Unimaginably smaller, little more than the size of a modern passport photograph, his 1634 self-portrait (“Rembrandt aux trois moustaches”) was made in the year that he married. Happy and confident, he puts us in need of a magnifying glass (helpfully provided) to observe his quiet contentment.
By 1639, the artist had become bloated and conceited. His self-portrait leaning on a stone sill seems at first cold, but all the hauteur is affected. Rembrandt deliberately portrays himself as a nobleman in the traditional style of the Italian Renaissance, with two well-known masterpieces specifically in mind.
We know from a sketch that he made (Vienna, Albertina) that, in the summer of 1638, he had attended an auction at which a Dutch merchant sold Titian’s highly regarded Portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo (National Gallery, London).
In the late 1630s, Raphael’s slightly later Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Louvre) also had an Amsterdam owner. Rembrandt greatly admired Raphael (and owned two of his paintings); so the pose of resting a voluminous sleeve on a balustrade and wearing a gold chain is all part of the homage of one artist to another.
In Regents Park, von Baeyer showed the 1641 Windmill, one of many such structures on the Osdorp rampart south-west of the city on the Lauriergracht canal. The windmill and the tumbledown cottage next appeal perhaps to our romantic notions of landscape, but it was not known as “stinking” mill for nothing; tanning is an unpleasant, noisome experience, unless you have an affection for cod-liver oil.
Rembrandt’s depiction of landscape, as a subject in itself or in the background of a narrative scene, shows his love of realism. The Queen’s version of The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen and the 1634 print of The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds demonstrate how, much like Dürer a century before him, Rembrandt looked at foliage around him, and St Jerome’s lion sidles off into an imaginary Italian landscape, the distant hill dominated by a basilica.
One of the more affecting prints von Baeyer showed was that of A Blind Hurdy-gurdy Player and Family Receiving Alms, an etching and drypoint in paper dated to 1648, which offers a vignette of day-to-day hard living in the economically lean years after the Thirty Years War had torn the heart out of the Low Countries. The musician with the unseeing eyes is the model that he often used for representing Tobit; in addition to the etchings, the National Gallery has sent the famous painting Anna and Tobit, a work by the 24-year-old artist.
Day-to-day scenes, biblical narratives, and academic studies abound in this richly diverse exhibition, which is more than complemented by the collection of Dutch paintings in the gallery next door, including the extraordinary Cornelisz Engelsz 1612 Supper at Emmaus, bought by Sir Nathaniel Bacon in 1613; the Poelenburgh Landscape with Roman Ruins, and the Tower of Babel (Tobias Verhaecht, 1561-1631). In the winter months, the Norfolk Museums Service has found a terrific way to lighten our darkness.
“Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness” is at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Castle Hill, Norwich, until 7 January 2018. Phone 01603 493625/495897.