Rembrandt’s late works: Contemplation, introspection, inner conflicts
University Milan , Rome
From the youth, Rembrandt van Rijn defied fashionable trends to create powerful works of great individuality. Yet in many ways it is his late works that define our image of him both as a man and as an artist. Far from becoming complacent as he aged, or falling into artistic decline, he radically changed course in his later years to create many of his most daring drawings, prints and paintings. He embraced new challenges even as he suffered reversals of fortune, and personal tragedies that included the deaths of his son and common-law wife.
The National Gallery in London exhibits works dating from the early 1650s until his death in 1669 aged 63, exploring the qualities that distinguish this period. They reveal a relentlessly experimental approach to technique, an extraordinary skill in rendering the effects of light, an appreciation for mundane or even ugly subjects, an avid plundering of diverse visual sources for creative inspiration and a quest to understand and represent humanity’s deepest motivations and emotional states.
Rembrandt drew inspiration from the work of earlier artists as well as from the world around him. He adopted and reworked motifs from an impressively diverse array of sources, from antique statues to Italian, German and Netherlanders arte of the 15th to 17th centuries. Rembrandt probably owned many of these works: he spent extravagant amounts of money assembling a collection of art and curiosities. An inventory of his possessions, made in 1656,ù when he was on the verge of bankruptcy, lists dozens of paintings and about 70 albums of prints and drawings, along with sculptures and other precious objects. Emulating or referencing the work of others was not considered a failure of creativity on the part of an artist, on the contrary, it indicated a learned understanding of great artistic traditions and the ability to adapt or improve upon them.
Rembrandt’s group portrait for the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild was damaged by fire in 1723, but his sketch for the frame gives un idea of the entire composition. In the surviving fragment, only Deyman’s hands can be seen, dissecting the brain of an executed criminal. The corpse is boldly foreshortened, its grubby feet jutting out of the picture plane. Rembrandt drew inspiration for the dramatic positioning of the body and the symmetrical arrangement of figures around it not from the established tradition of Dutch anatomy lesson portraits, but from illustrations in anatomical textbooks and depictions of the Dead Christ.
From the beginning of his career in the 1620s and until the very end of his life, Rembrandt’s artistic vision was formed by the world around him. He was captivated by life’s peculiarities – its randomness and its defects, its anomalies and its ordinariness – and considered it an artist’s responsibility to record images and events without preconceptions of beauty or ugliness. A hanged woman, a scruffy landscape or an exotic beast were equally deserving of his scrutiny. This attitude was in complete opposition to the classically oriented art theory of the day, which held that only beauty and perfection were worthy of an artist’s notice. Rembrandt’s insistence on truth to nature eventually resulted in him being branded an idiosyncratic “ art heretic “ by critics and theorists during his lifetime and immediately after his death.
Rembrandt refreshed traditional narrative themes by enriching the story of a key protagonist; thoughtfully considering their fate, their affliction, or their spiritual or emotional conflict. While his earlier depictions of historical subjects tended to focus on dramatic external expressions of passion, in his late works, he made contemplation and introspection his dominant themes. Rather than describing a narrative with numerous characters, broad gestures and a detailed setting, he often concentrated the psychological power of a story into a single person. Many of his most moving compositions represent an inner conflict brought about by the necessity of weighing strong passions and sentiments against each other.