I’ve always liked the exhibitions at the Ashmolean in Oxford. They offer sensible examples of art historical explanation – something that can’t always be said for official institutions that present equivalent exhibitions in London. The new Young Rembrandt show just opened at the Ashmolean is an excellent example of their approach.
It doesn’t pretend that Rembrandt’s artistic genius was immediately apparent – ELS
It doesn’t pretend that Rembrandt’s artistic genius was immediately apparent. There were a few stumbles before he fully found himself. It also makes the point that he was to begin as an outsider. He came from Leiden, which wasn’t a city famous for art. In some ways, this left him freer to develop than he would have been in Amsterdam, to which he moved during the period that the exhibition chronicles. It is very much the story of a young artist on the way up, learning from and overtaking contemporaries such as Jan Lievens. At the very end of the sequence of galleries, we see him beginning to exercise an influence over his contemporaries in Holland, to the point where there is occasionally some doubt concerning the real authorship of the picture we are looking at.
One of the keys to Rembrandt’s work is his liking for painting self-portraits. Quite several famous Old Masters have left us images of themselves, often painted as calling cards to show potential patrons what they could do. Few, if any, important artists previous to the Post Impressionist epoch painted quite so many. The next prolific maker of self-portraits was Vincent Van Gogh. Today they are staple fare. There are a number of supposedly important contemporary artists who seem to produce nothing else. Self-portraiture has become the last bastion of traditional forms of painting, as opposed to the image-making powers of photography.
Looking at Rembrandt’s self-portraits, even the early ones displayed here, one can tell why this is so. Self-portraiture is a means of examining the self. It is a way of asking ‘Who am I?’ which is a very modern kind of question. In some of his work of this kind – paintings, drawings and etchings – Rembrandt asks this question. In others, as he becomes more successful, he says simply ‘This is who I am’. In others still, he pulls faces, practising expressions that it may be useful to transfer into a composition that will have nothing directly to do with himself. The images offer fascinatingly full access to his personality, which is why he has continued to fascinate posterity. David Hockney, whose work is now on show at the National Portrait Gallery, cites Rembrandt as a significant influence, together with Ingres and Picasso.
Where other works on view are concerned, there is a major emphasis on biblical themes – the Old Testament as well as the New. This reflects the age in which Rembrandt lived, passionately religious, and torn with religious conflict. Rembrandt is on the Protestant side. He empathises with the humble status of the Holy Family, in flight from Herod. One of his most ambitious paintings of this period of his life shows Judas trying to return the thirty pieces of silver he was paid for betraying Christ and being scorned by the Jewish elders. Technical analysis, plus three surviving drawings, shows that the composition was changed many times.
Another constant theme with young Rembrandt was images of old men. Now, when men and women typically live much longer than they did in Rembrandt’s time, we seldom meet this subject in figurative art. Rembrandt’s elders sometimes seem to contemplate their own approaching end. Or else they simply look out at us, bearded, with hooded eyes. The irony is that the Rembrandt who immortalised them is long gone, while they are still here – very much alive.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2020 Photos © P A Black 2020
Young Rembrandt – Ashmolean, Oxford Until 7 June 2020