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Art review: Rembrandt’s Light at Dulwich Picture Gallery

13 December 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Rembrandt show that was a crime scene

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638,

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638,

ANTHONY AMORE became security director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, in the autumn of 2005, when he set out to recover 13 great works of art, including three Rembrandts, that had been stolen in March 1990. That theft remains one of the unsolved heists of all time.

He and Tom Mashberg have written a book, Stealing Rembrandts (2011), that covers any number of thefts of works by artists as diverse as Dürer, Renoir, van Dyck, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, but which comes back to a central thesis; why art thieves have a penchant for stealing Rembrandts.

Their book includes a list of all reported thefts of the Dutch Master’s work from 1920 onwards. Excluding works looted by the Nazis in the Second World War, this is a tally of more than 40 paintings and an equal number of etchings and engravings. One painting, the portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, has been stolen on four occasions, from the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1966, 1973, 1981, and 1983).

The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam.Rembrandt van Rijn, The Presentation in the Temple (in the “dark manner”), c.1654, on loan from Amsterdam  

I read the book in October by way of preparing to view the current Dulwich show, which is a brilliant celebration of the theatricality of Rembrandt van Rijn. It opened on 4 October, 350 years to the day on which he died, and it concentrates on the period from January 1639 when Rembrandt, with a new-found fortune, moved to a larger house until his decline and bankruptcy.

Despite the title, the Amore and Mashberg book is not a self-help manual; otherwise I might have expected the Flying Squad to raid my vicarage, as I had been seen reading it in public. Six weeks into the exhibition run, on the night of 13 November, two paintings were stolen.

Both were recovered within the grounds of the gallery and have now been safely returned to their international lenders. It is a remarkable tribute to the staff (and to the police) that the gallery reopened within a fortnight. It is such a good show that it did not need the sensational coverage of an attempted heist to gain publicity.

Alan Bennett, it turns out, is no great fan of Tony Robinson or of Time Team, with its three-day challenge to find out the facts. In his inimitable, flat voice he observes, “The Angel appearing to Mary in the Garden was probably Alan Titmarsh.” I was glad I heard this former Trustee of the National Gallery speak about the first Easter only after I had visited Dulwich, as the 1631 Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (Royal Collection) is spotlighted and is very much at the heart of the show.

Seen by any light, this is a moving and heart-wrenching painting in which the Risen Lord of Easter, wearing a gardener’s shovel hat and wielding a spade, as if he has just dug his way out of the tomb, startles the kneeling Magdalen. Dressed — and, one might think, overdressed, as if she had already gone back to her alleged profession as a lady of the night, in heavy fabrics — she has set aside her alabaster pot of ointment on the topmost step leading to the tomb.

The two angels, whose dialogue with the weeping woman (John 20.13) is in a proper sense vital, sit nonchalantly around the sepulchre in the alcove. Their one-line part over in this eternal drama, they are now no more than extras, waiting stage left to disappear into the wings of history.

© Ashmolean Museum, University of OxfordRembrandt van Rijn, The Artist’s Studio, c.1658  

Seemingly equally unconcerned, two women walk on towards Jerusalem, wrapped up against the early-morning chill. If Rembrandt has borrowed them as the two other Marys mentioned in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, they are headed in the wrong direction. Rather, they are simply passers-by, negligent of the world changing beside them, setting out on the first day of the week to get to market or run the usual domestic errands once the sabbath is over.

Dawn bristles across the cityscape, where the twin towers of the Temple stand abandoned, and it flares up again in the oak leaves above Christ’s head. A new order and a new light bring new life, even to the world of Creation. Peter Suschitzky has unveiled the canvas for us in quite a new light.

As the curator, Jennifer Scott, has taken as her premise the 17th-century interest in optics and the emerging contemporary theatre. The director of the newly opened theatre in Amsterdam in the year 1638, Jan Vos, in a bid to win over an audience to a new (non-religious) form of drama, said that “a play is like a speaking painting.”

Rembrandt’s masterful use of light and shadow in a dramatic and often emotional way, much as can be found in the art of the Caravaggisti of the same period, has his characters walk on and speak. In his “dark manner” etching of The Presentation in the Temple, we see Simeon’s mouth open as he is about to surrender the infant Jesus to the waiting mohel under the wary gaze of the High Priest. “Lord, now lettest thou . . .”

© The RijksmuseumRembrandt van Rijn, The Denial of St Peter, 1660, on loan from Amsterdam  

The Girl at the Window, one of the gallery’s own Rembrandts, levels us with her gaze in the last room. Is she a prostitute with her gold chain necklace and braided hair, or a young girl, innocent of the effect that she has on anybody passing? Fifteen years later, a similar serving girl challenges Peter outside the Praetorium to acknowledge his friendship with the condemned Jesus (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

This bold show, amply supported by drawings and etchings, is not only a reminder of how the sacred and the profane respond to one another on stage as in life, but also of the harmonies that light reflects across our mundane world. However small it is (and it is not on the scale of some of the commemorative exhibitions being held this year), it is more than enough to make one stop and think, or, in one case, sadly, make you contemplate breaking and entering.


“Rembrandt’s Light” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 2 February 2020. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk


Charles Daniels (tenor) and Timothy Roberts (harpsichord) present “Musical illumination from the time of Rembrandt”, a programme of sacred and secular music from the period, on Wednesday 15 January 2020, at 7.30 p.m. Tickets available from the gallery.

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