Thursday, August 22, 2019

Why Leonardo and Rembrandt Still Matter Today Part II

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

This August 2019 ArtWithHillary blog post concentrates on Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669); the ArtWithHillary July 2019 blog post focused on Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

The year 2019 draws attention to the artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Leonardo da Vinci since it marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's death and the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's.  These artists continue to be meaningful after hundreds of years which attests to their talents and the appeal of the work they left behind.  For a discussion of Leonardo, see ArtwithHillary July 2019.  

Rembrandt, painter, draughtsman and printmaker, endowed his art with a deep sense of what it means to be a sentient being.  He captured life in all its aspects rendering portraits, historical narratives, biblical scenes and landscapes with a compelling realism.  Rembrandt communicates through the manipulation of paint the importance of feelings, relationships and the character of individuals.  For all who care about these things, Rembrandt matters.

Self-portraits, etched, drawn and painted, occupied the artist all his life.  They amount to about 70 works - approximately 10% of his entire output. Among them are some 40 paintings.  The question arises as to why so many?  By analyzing his own face and thus his own self, he was able to understand the innermost characteristics of others who sat before him.

Rembrandt's largest and, many hold, his greatest self-portrait is in the Frick Collection, New York.   Seated in a wooden armchair with thighs apart, the artist's figure almost completely fills the lower pictorial space.  His upright posture is not purely frontal.  His body is turned slightly toward the right.   He wears a costume made up of a collarless yellow-pleated robe over a white shirt. An ornamental scarf is draped about his neck along the sides of the robe's neckline. A red sash wound twice around his waist ends in what has been identified as a dried pomegranate pendant.  In his left hand he holds a silver-knobbed jointed rattan cane. On his head is a large black beret whose broad brim casts a shadow on the painter's forehead.  A fur cape hung from his shoulders completes his outfit.  Rembrandt looks straight out of the picture plane with an authoritative gaze.     

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Artstor

Rembrandt shows himself with sagging, blotchy skin and prominent age lines.Verisimilitude is achieved through dabs and drizzles of paint, glazes and layers of pigment that at times appear sculptural.  He could turn his brush around and use the point of his handle to gain desired effects.  A multiplicity of tones achieve a striking naturalism.  

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Artstor

The composition is triangular with highlights such as the specks of light in the artist's pupils, on his nose and the silver tip of the cane. Horizontal and diagonal lines such as the lower part of the red sash and the shadow cast by the cane on the back of Rembrandt's left hand animate the canvas.  This includes the slight turn of the artist's body. His hands, the tools of his trade, seem unusually large.  His right hand is more highly delineated than the left.  Thickness and thinness of the paint create a pulsating, life-like effect.  The means of painting are brought to the surface and the hand of the painter in the act of creation stands out.

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Some iconographic points:  The painter's garments are similar to the clothing of the Jupiter figure, king of the gods, in the painting Philemon and Baucis, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., signed and dated the same year as the Frick self-portrait.  It was Rembrandt's habit not to depict his characters in contemporary garb but rather to paint them in antique-like dress with items possibly taken from his own costume collection.  The rattan cane and pomegranate allude to abundance and riches - an imported wood and fruit not indigenous to Europe.  The cane also suggests a painter's maulstick, a stick which supports the hand holding the paintbrush. Employing these attributes along with the fur cape implies the artist's success.  The seated position with legs in front and thighs 1 to 2 feet apart is a pose of power, strength and confidence. Rembrandt's posture, cane, held like a royal scepter, his large beret crowning his head and clothing make the painter appear like a monarch. 

The oil is signed and dated 1658 on the front of the chair's left arm, beneath Rembrandt's left wrist.  Rembrandt was 52 years old, an advanced age considering the male life expectancy at this time was about 40.  This may, however, be distorted because of the high mortality rate for children. The period around 1658 was an unfortunate period for the artist.  He had seen all his worldly possessions auctioned off to pay his creditors and had to move out of his large house into a rented residence in another part of town.  There was more than financial woe.  His beloved wife, Saskia van Uylenburg (1612 -1642) who he married in 1634 died 8 years later at the age of 30 leaving Rembrandt with a 16 month old son Titus (1641 - 1668).  The couple's three other children had died in infancy. 

Geertje Dircx ((c. 1610 - 1615 - c. 1656) was hired as the child's nanny. She soon became Rembrandt's mistress.  Geertje was apparently very fond of Titus for she made a will leaving him her property.  Rembrandt gave Geertje some of Saskia's jewelry which did not go down well with his deceased wife's family.  By 1649 Rembrandt had switched his affection from Geertje to a young housemaid in his employ, Hendrickje Stoffels (1626 – 1663).  Hendrickje probably joined his staff about 1647.  Rembrandt, Geertje and Hendrickje were all likely living under the same roof for a period. Geertje did not move out until 1649. She quarreled with Rembrandt about financial support.  She sued him for "breach of promise" that is she had slept with Rembrandt who, Geertje claimed, had promised to marry her.  Even if the artist wanted to marry, he would not, because Saskia's will determined that if he remarried, his share of her estate would go to one of her sisters.  This was not a meager sum.  Rembrandt had offered Geertje a stipend before the lawsuit but the nanny did not think the offer adequate. She ultimately won a court settlement with a promise not to change her will in favor of Titus and not to sell any belongings Rembrandt had given her, some of which she had pawned to have means to live on.  A year later, she was showing unstable behavior. Rembrandt along with, it appears, some of Geertje's family members and neighbors, tried to have her sent to a house of correction, more of an asylum for the mentally ill. She was committed foaling 12 years but after 5 years a friend intervened on her behalf and she was released in 1655.  She took up her cause against Rembrandt once more suing him for wrongful imprisonment.  Geertje may have been ill by now and passed away about 1656.  She was listed among Rembrandt's many creditors the same year.  The painter owed her some of the promised maintenance allowance.  

Rembrandt was a notorious spendthrift.  He had, as they say, married well for Saskia's family came from a higher status than Rembrandt's. By the time of their marriage,  Rembrandt was a celebrated painter. He had moved from Leiden, the city of his birth, to the commercially thriving city of Amsterdam. He had lots of commissions. The wealthy lined up to have him paint their portraits.  In 1639 Rembrandt and Saskia moved into an expensive town house in the better part of the city.  Rembrandt needed to borrow money from the seller to obtain the home and still owed a major part of the debt when he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1656.  Rembrandt made much money but he spent more.  In fact, relatives of Saskia had accused the couple of squandering Saskia's inheritance from her parents.  Rembrandt's collecting habits were wide-ranging and costly. He purchased prints, drawings, paintings, costumes and more. His worldly possessions were sold at auction in 1657 and his home auctioned a year later. Even so, the sales did not yield enough funds to pay off his debts.  However, the records of these transactions allow us to know a great deal about what Rembrandt owned.  

Hendrickje and Titus formed a company in 1660 to trade in Rembrandt's art.  The painter in effect became an employee of his lover and son.  This protected him from creditors as well as allowing him to continue to market his work. The painter's guild had passed a ruling that prohibited any painter who filed for bankruptcy from selling his art and operating independently.  

As if monetary issues were not enough, in 1654, his common law wife Hendrickje was brought up on charges of "fornication with Rembrandt..." before the Council of the Reformed Church.  At that point she was pregnant with a daughter by Rembrandt, Cornelia (1654 - 1684).  She admitted "unwedded cohabitation" with the painter and was admonished.  As punishment, Hendrickje was banned from receiving communion.  Actually, documents indicate that after 1655 Rembrandt could have married without losing Saskia's inheritance. This had to do with Titus turning 14 and legally being able to make a will.  Rembrandt had Titus make him his heir and in so doing ensured  Saskia's legacy. 

A change of taste in painting styles in the mid-century may have had negative consequences on Rembrandt's income.  A manner of painting called  fijnschilder came into favor. These works were usually small in format, highly detailed and smoothly finished.  They were antithetical to Rembrandt's rough, tactile mode. Also, the classical style of the seventeenth-century French court captured its share of the art market. Although Rembrandt's saleability may have declined, he was esteemed and regarded as the great painter. As testament to the artist's continued high regard, in 1667 when Cosimo III de'Medici (1642 - 1723), soon to be Grand Duke of Tuscany (1671), visited Amsterdam, he made a point of meeting with Rembrandt.  Cosimo's compatriots called him Rembrandt pittore famoso.  

More sadness came to the artist.  Hendrickje died in 1662 most likely from plague.  Titus married in 1668 but died some 8 months later during another episode of the plague.  Titus' posthumous daughter was born in the early part of the following year.  Rembrandt was left to live with Cornelia and an old housekeeper.  He passed away a year after his son.

Spending some time before the Frick self-portrait, I fell into conversation with a woman next to me who seemed equally enthralled with the Rembrandt work.  She was an artist from Canberra, Australia.  She told me it was this Rembrandt self-portrait that she saw when she was 10 years old that made her want to become a painter.  The self-portrait fascinated her  and she felt showed her how great paintings were made.  For her, Rembrandt made clear his compositional format, handling of paint and highlights.  We chatted, marveling at particular passages of the oil such as the way Rembrandt chose to draw attention to his eyes by making the shadow cast by the brim of the beret stop just above the portrayed eyes. Thus, the glint of the pupils catches the spectator's attention and links to other highlights in the work.  We stepped back away from the canvas to better appreciate the painting's three-dimensionality.  More talk ensued.  The more we looked, the more we saw as the artist's painting made manifest the intangible qualities of the man.

Rembrandt's and Leonardo's genius live on.  Leonardo astounds with his unquenchable inquiring mind and Rembrandt with his scrutiny of the human soul. Please visit the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick Collection and the Leonardo St. Jerome at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1 East 70th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Saturday, 
10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
First Fridays:  
On the first Friday of the month
(except January and September)
the museum is open until 9:00 p.m. 
Closed Mondays and holidays.
Check The Frick Collection Web site for holiday and limited hours schedule.

Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome
July 15, 2019 - October 6, 2019
1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Open Seven Days a Week
Sunday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May. 

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