Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 27, 2005
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art in association with University of Chicago Press, 2005. 150 pp.; 40 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. $40.00 (0226894436)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., January 30–May 1, 2005; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Calif., June 7–August 28, 2005
Rembrandt van Rijn. Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul. 1661. Oil on canvas. 91 x 77 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In the 1600s, a convert from Roman Catholicism to the new Protestant faith might have felt disconcertingly bereft of the supportive community of saints in whose company she or he was accustomed to encountering the divine. For women, one of the greatest challenges must have been the loss of the Virgin Mary as empathetic listener and spiritual guide. Yet Martin Luther sternly condemned belief in the intercession of saints as a reliance on works rather than faith to procure salvation, and John Calvin adamantly rejected the mediatory role of saints, along with the veneration of their relics and images, as idolatry. Nevertheless, while the implementation of these new doctrines in the Netherlands led to the sometimes violent iconoclastic destruction of church interiors, it apparently could not prevent private consumers from retaining an interest in representations of the saints and their exemplary life histories. Furthermore, Calvinist theology preserved respect for the disciples named in the Bible as witnesses to Christ’s ministry, teachers of his message, and examples, through their own failings, of flawed humanity redeemed by grace. This special dispensation may help to explain the continuing production of narratives drawn from the Acts of the Apostles in the seventeenth century, as well as the near-iconic “portraits” of New Testament figures produced not only by Rubens and Van Dyck in the mostly Catholic south, but also by Dutch artists such as Frans Hals, Lambert Jacobsz, Gerard van Honthorst, Jacob Cuyp, and—over decades of work and generations of students—by Rembrandt and his circle. While one might wonder if such paintings and prints were aimed at Catholic buyers, the diversity of Rembrandt’s patronage and the multiconfessional nature of the Dutch art market in general suggest that this cannot be taken for granted. To date, there is insufficient documentary evidence to demonstrate conclusively who owned most of these pictures or what they saw in them. Yet the phenomenon exists; and in Rembrandt’s hands it produced a sustained, evocative meditation on the variety and complexity of human personality, second only to the artist’s pictorial dialogue with himself. Intriguing is his persistent fascination not only with biblical saints such as Peter, Stephen, and Paul (as well as the Virgin Mary) but also with later figures including Jerome and Francis—a fascination found in paintings and prints extending from the juvenilia of his Leiden period to the Denial of Saint Peter (1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and other works of the 1660s.

Scholars seeking information on Rembrandt’s early and middle periods can turn to the three massive volumes of the Rembrandt corpus produced so far by the Stichting Rembrandt Research Project (covering the period up to 1642). Recently, reappraisal of Rembrandt’s Leiden years (ca. 1625–31) has inspired two significant exhibitions (Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2000–2001, and The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, and Museum het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam, 2001–2002). However, Rembrandt’s late work remains less thoroughly investigated. Thus, the decision to focus this exhibition on a close-knit group of paintings from the late 1650s and early 1660s was both brave and useful. Included in Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits are not only readily identifiable images of apostles, such as Matthew inspired by a whispering angel (cat. no. 7), but also two figure studies (cat. nos. 1 and 13) that lack sufficient contextual detail for conclusive identification, but suggest, through exotic qualities of costume and physiognomy, allusions to a biblical past. Several heads of Christ have been attributed to Rembrandt, and two are listed in his inventory of 1656; exhibited were The Resurrected Christ (cat. no. 6) and the half-length version from the Hyde Collection (cat. no. 15). Paired with the Munich painting, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1660 portrait of the matronly Hendrickje Stoffels is somewhat tenuously cast in the role of the sorrowing Virgin (cat. no. 4). The 1661 Monk from the Sinebrychoff Art Museum (cat. no. 16) may or may not be Saint Francis, but begs the question of why, and for whom, Rembrandt painted not one but several models in Franciscan or Capuchin habit during this period, including a figure for which his son, Titus, apparently posed (see cat. no. 16, figs. 1, 2, for the related paintings now in the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum). The catalogue fails to mention a convincing link between these paintings and the Franciscan mission located near Rembrandt’s home, as proposed by Valerie Lind Hedquist in “Rembrandt and the Franciscans of Amsterdam” (Dutch Crossing, Summer 1994, 20–49). In this exhibition dedicated primarily to representations of first-century figures, the Helsinki Monk and the bearded man identified as Saint Bavo, richly attired but with his hooded falcon perched somewhat inexpertly on his fist (cat. no. 17), are somewhat anomalous representatives of the vast community of later saints, whose images might invoke such sentiments as local patriotism as well as faith.

Brilliant in execution and typical of Rembrandt’s spare but trenchant characterizations is the monumental The Apostle Bartholomew from the Timken Museum of Art (cat. no. 3). With a broad, economical touch and a palette limited entirely to browns, blacks, and whites, Rembrandt presents a life-size figure paradoxically brimming with energy while grasping the instrument of his torturous demise. In the dim, undifferentiated space, glints of light focus attention on his alert, wrinkled visage and on the menacing knife held in his hand. The thick white linen of his cuff, sketched with a bravado reminiscent of the masterful Portrait of Jan Six, was alone worth the visit. Also valuable was the chance to examine rarely exhibited works such as the Hyde Collection Christ and the fragile Virgin of Sorrows from Épinal (cat. no. 14).

Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits was a small exhibition with enormous potential for stimulating further inquiry. At the scholars’ study day hosted in January 2005 by the National Gallery (a unique opportunity to discuss this show alongside the impressive Gerard ter Borch exhibition), a distinguished gathering congenially agreed to disagree on fundamental questions of connoisseurship and purpose. It was suggested that the seventeen paintings on view may well include the work of several different hands, and that the composition of Rembrandt’s workshop at the end of his life, after he had moved from the Sint Anthonisbreestraat to more modest quarters in the Jordaan, is still unclear. An informal “Titus Research Project” was convened to discover the work of Rembrandt’s son, whose contribution to the family firm is so far known only through documents and purported service as a model. (As noted in the catalogue 120, Rembrandt’s inventory includes a “Head of Mary” by Titus van Rijn.) While this project proceeded partly in jest, the discussion pointed up how little is known of the artists who must have produced the many extant works that emulate Rembrandt’s late manner without quite living up to his mastery. With the exception of Aert de Gelder (an artist of distinctive personal style), those names that have been traced, such as Abraham van Dijck and Karel van der Pluym, are so far linked only with paintings of middling quality. Also unknown is the extent to which Rembrandt’s late paintings of apostles (and/or studio versions of them) were created or sold as programmatic series. None can be assembled into the typical roster of twelve disciples or four evangelists. What might prompt a Dutch buyer to request a painting of an obscure figure such as James the Minor (cat. no. 12)? Could it be as simple as desiring an image of one’s namesake? Are some of these pensive, middle-aged faces (e.g., cat. nos. 4, 8, 13) representations of the patrons themselves, portrayed in the role of their favorite saint? Reflecting Calvin’s realignment of the biblical pecking order, Rembrandt’s own Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (cat. no. 11), the fulcrum of the show, honors the convert embraced by Protestants as a strong counterpart to the papal archetype, Peter, and as a spokesman for justification by faith. Yet, perhaps Otto Benesch was right to observe, as quoted in the exhibition catalogue by Arthur Wheelock, that Rembrandt’s complex studies in character “have nothing to do with confessional distinctions” but are “simply Christian, as simple, deep and human as Christian faith is” (32).

The catalogue includes well-researched analyses and full-color illustrations of all the works exhibited. Three essays situate Rembrandt’s representations of apostles and evangelists within the artist’s life and career (Arthur Wheelock), as well as within a larger pictorial and religious tradition (Volker Manuth), and in relation to the vogue for role portraiture or portrait historié (Peter Sutton). Both Wheelock and Manuth address the contemporary theological context of Rembrandt’s work, noting the admiration for the biblical apostles expressed not only by Calvinists but also by Dutch Mennonites, whose own sectarian history was built on martyrdom (30–33, 40–53). For Wheelock, Rubens’ forceful depictions of Saint Paul and other apostles demonstrate the contrast between triumphant Catholicism’s idealization of its heroes and a Protestant emphasis on introspection and humility (33). Manuth lines up a sequence of paintings of Saint Paul by Lambert Jacobsz, Jan Lievens, and Govert Flinck that are remarkably similar to each other and to Rembrandt’s characterizations of the saint earlier in his career (52–53); this brief case study hints at a lively pictorial context deserving of more extensive treatment than the concise catalogue allowed. Furthermore, while Rembrandt’s minimization of saintly attributes might be explained as a concession to Protestant taste, the spare format and color scheme of the paintings on view bespeak a pervasive trend in the artist’s late work: like the aged Titian, the accomplished Rembrandt of the 1660s condenses even complex narrative scenes such as the Denial of Peter down to the barest essentials of figure, context, and handling, and does so in defiance of prevailing pictorial fashion (see also Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s Eyes, New York: Knopf, 1999; 655–656). As markers of the artist’s achievement, the distilled power and courageous independence of these works are as significant as their psychological intensity.

Whether any of these paintings should actually be called portraits remains, in my view, uncertain. The catalogue might have been enriched by grappling more substantively with the question of how, given the absence of identified sitters and the impossibility of knowing what any of the evangelists actually looked like, one might locate these recreations of historical personages between truth and imagination, and between the portrayal of “real” people (conterfeytsel in most Dutch inventories) and the colorful character type that has come to be known as a tronie (literally, “face” or “head”)—both staples of Rembrandt’s output since the time of his association in the 1630s with Hendrick van Uylenburgh (who, incidentally, brokered a set of Apostles by Van Dyck in the 1620s). But the imprecision of terminology that bedevils this issue has a long pedigree, nowhere better exemplified than in inventory references to heads of Christ painted from life. As noted by Sutton (122), Rembrandt’s inventory includes an unattributed Christus tronie nae ‘t leven). Now that would be something to see.

Stephanie S. Dickey
Professor of Art History and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University