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Art review: Young Rembrandt (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

18 September 2020

How did Rembrandt become so accomplished so early? Nicholas Cranfield goes to Oxford to find out

Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, AltePinakothek, Munich

Self-portrait, oil on oak panel (1629)

Self-portrait, oil on oak panel (1629)

THE last Rembrandt exhibition that I reviewed in these pages closed overnight a month after it had opened (Arts, 13 December 2019). The present exhibition, which has come from Leiden to Oxford, opened at the end of February and closed equally suddenly the net month.

The thief in the night of 13 November, who broke in at Dulwich made off with two of the paintings loaned to that show, but, when challenged, ran off without them. No arrests have been made.

The killer who stalked by day and night, closing galleries and museums in March, has yet to be apprehended, understood, or eliminated; but what better way to reopen a museum than with a reprise of this stellar display for a generously extended loan period?

Whereas the Dulwich Picture Gallery broke new ground examining the final years of Rembrandt (1606-69) alongside the optical revolution of his lifetime, this exhibition concentrates on the first ten years of his artistic activity, a period during which he confidently came to sign himself simply “Rembrandt”.

The youngest of ten children, he grew up in a mill-owning family without known artistic inclination or expertise, in Leiden, a cramped immigrant town known for its wool and linen. After Latin School, aged 14, he matriculated at the Calvinist University of Leiden, 400 years ago, on 20 May 1620, as shown in the entry in the register displayed here.

Coming up the main stairs into the topmost galleries of the museum, we are first confronted by three self-portraits: a celebrated oil-on-oak panel from Munich, a pen-and-ink sketch (British Museum), and an etching of the young artist wearing a striped jacket, an effect created by using a split nib.

Each one dates from around 1628-29 and shows the 22-year-old, with curly tousled hair, his bulbous nose, and his small, piggy eyes. More than any other artist, Rembrandt painted himself again and again until his dying day, often dressed up to impress, wearing studio vestments. We can watch how he progressively aged over four decades.

Ashmolean Museum, University of OxfordSelf-portrait in a cap, etching and drypoint on laid paper (1630)


Often as not, whether with pen, stylus, or brush, he simply portrayed what he saw. In the little German oil painting, his head is turned awkwardly as if constricted by looking at himself in a mirror. Both the drawing and the etching are looser, the head more realistic and the gaze less credulous.

At much the same time, he celebrated, or maybe invented, his burgeoning success in the oval self-portrait “in a Black capp and furrd habbitt with a little goulden chaine uppon both his Shouldrs”, as recorded in the inventory of King Charles I. Now, it is one of the gems of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It is not without contention, and has been variously attributed to a contemporary, as artists often painted one another.

Robert Kerr was a Scots nobleman from Roxburghshire who, through his namesake and cousin, one of James I’s favourites, served his king as a gentleman of the bedchamber and his country as a member of the House of Commons. It seems that, while he was part of an official delegation to the Stadtholder of Holland, the Stadholder’s secretary, Constantijn Huygens, introduced Kerr to the young artist.

Kerr bought three paintings from the young artist to present to the Stuart king: the oval self-portrait, a portrait of an old woman (always called “The Artist’s Mother”), which has come back into the royal collection, and a lost picture of a scholar in his study. Few artists in their mid-twenties could expect to gain such royal approbation so young, although it did not secure Rembrandt any future service at the Stuart court.

As a child of older parents, Rembrandt seems always to have been comfortable around old age, observing unpityingly and sympathetically with a largesse of spirit and a wealth of detail. Whether in a sketch of his father slumped in his chair in sleep (The Louvre), or the wondrous 1626 painting of the blind and impoverished Tobit accusing his wife Anna of stealing a goat for their supper, for which the sketch might be a study, we are offered compassion rather than ridicule.

Where Rembrandt wished, he could caricature old age, as in the wizened and gnarled faces in the colourful painting from the series of the Five Senses (c.1624, of which only Sight is displayed) and in the slightly later (and largely unsuccessful) Christ driving the Moneychangers out of the Temple (Pushkin State Museum, Moscow).

The Royal Collection, HM Queen Elizabeth IIAn Old Woman called “The Artist’s Mother”, oil on panel (c. 1627-29)

In contrast, his painting of a bearded old man (Fogg Museum, Harvard Cambridge, Massachusetts), and its related sketch in the Louvre, and the (slightly surprising subject) head of the repentant Judas in a large-scale composition manifest kind-heartedness as well as empathy.

How did Rembrandt come to such acclaimed assurance so early? He was first apprenticed to a local-history painter in Leiden, Jacob van Swanenburg, who is mercifully passed over in silence in the exhibition, to judge by his work reproduced in the exemplary accompanying catalogue.

It was with his move to Amsterdam in the winter of 1624-25, that things took off. He spent six months with Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), who also taught Jan Lievens (1607-74), whose skill and friendship with Rembrandt is also generously saluted here. Lastman’s influence was impressive, judging by the couple of his paintings on show.

Lastman painted the baptism drama of Acts 8.26-40 at least four times, in a flurry of orientalism. His 1615-20 large-scale piece St Philip baptising the Eunuch (Collection Lugt, Paris) includes dromedaries, parrots, turbans, feather headdresses, and a wooded landscaped by a river with oversized plants in full leaf in the foreground.

Rembrandt, for his 1626 painting (Utrecht), reduced the chorus line of attendants to just five onlookers who watch as Philip pours water from his outstretched hand over the eunuch, who genuflects but has not stripped off his robes. It is still a costume drama, but there is a deeper emotional commitment on the part of the protagonists. His later attempts (not shown in Oxford) are rather lifeless.

Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MABearded Old Man, oil on panel (1632)

Like other artists of his day, Rembrandt would have had access to any number of prints of works by other hands. One of his earliest engravings shows The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. It is hung next to the 1506 engraving by Lucas van Leyden, a conventional pious scene in which the Virgin suckles the infant baby under a tree while the older Joseph, booted and hatted, vainly attracts the baby’s attention.

For Rembrandt, Joseph has become the main provider, as the Virgin ladles food into the toddler’s mouth from the bowl that he holds out. He is seated on the ground, with his legs stretched out on either side of the little fire on which he has been boiling supper. It is a simple bucolic scene that, but for the radiance of Christ’s halo, could be a picnic set in the Netherlandish landscape.

In a painting of the episode, Rembrandt again rejected pious devotional models. On a small panel (27.5 × 24.7cm), a nocturnal scene shows the young bearded Joseph in a straw hat leading the donkey through a sudden patch of light which illuminates the Virgin in her toque carrying a precious burden (Tours).

The exhibition comes to a triumphant conclusion with the full-length Noble Slav (1632, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is, in fact, a portrait of a man dressed à la Turque, according to his headgear and the crescent pendant; Rembrandt loved borrowed robes, but had no need to counterfeit his own artistic skill.

“Young Rembrandt” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 1 November. Phone 01865 27800. Admission is free, but pre-booking is essential. ashmolean.org

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