Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) The National Gallery London
“Rembrandt the Late Works” at the National Gallery until 18 January (and at the Rijksmuseum from 12 February – 17 May 2015) is one of the great exhibitions of our lifetime. The NG must have called in every favour it was owed to have borrowed some of the finest paintings and works on paper of Rembrandt’s last years – the selection of 91 works displayed is stupendous, with objects you’d otherwise have to go to Paris, Washington, Amsterdam, Munich, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Rotterdam, Melbourne, Toronto, The Hague, Budapest, Zurich, San Diego, Glasgow, Stockholm, Berlin – and Oxford and Cambridge – to see.
The curating is particularly intelligent as well: the show opens with a room of five late self portraits. It’s a bonus that among them are some of the greatest self portraits ever made (one is an etching), as the point of grouping them together is to demonstrate in the most economical way the truth that we can ascribe a “late style” to Rembrandt. All five were made between 1658 and 1669, the year of his death, and there is even a difference between the NG’s 1669 Self Portrait at the Age of 63 and the Mauritshuis Self Portrait painted the same last year. If the subject appears a little more frail in the London picture (the catalogue says “his skin pasty…even his wiry hair seems to lack its customary vigour”), there is also a stunning difference in the handling of the paint: the brushstrokes depicting the cap in the Mauritshuis painting appear to have been amazingly free and few, and the X-radiographs show some very impulsive changes: “He first painted himself with the now familiar white painter’s cap, then scraped away much of the white paint before laying down a layer of reddish brown underpaint, over which he dragged broad stokes of grey, orange and yellow before finally adding a few quick scratches in the wet paint to decorate the lower band of this fanciful beret.” The curator/author Betsy Wieseman concludes, and as you stand before these paintings you can only agree with her, that these creative gestures and changes “are as characteristic and as natural to Rembrandt at the close of his career as they were at the beginning, vivid evidence that his technical prowess, emotional insight and inventive power only deepened as he aged.”
From the sparkling, jewel-like palette-knife impasto on the sleeves of The Jewish Bride (c.1665) to the daring thrust of his son’s right hand almost protruding from the picture plane in Titus at his Desk (1655), to the boldness and swagger of his only equestrian portrait Portrait of Frederic Rihel on Horseback (c.1665) and the complete unorthodoxy of the never-before-loaned The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c.1661-2), this is a jaw-gaping as well as moving-to-tears show.
It is worth crossing the Atlantic if you can get to see it. I have a couple of cavils, though, both relating to the venue of the basement Sainsbury Wing of the NG. As there is no daylight (and there are so many works on paper that it is obvious that natural light would pose a conservation problem), the lighting is crucial. Many of the paintings are glazed, and there is a glare issue with several of them. In every case there is a “sweet spot” somewhere in the room, where you can see the picture properly lit, and without glare. I was incredibly lucky to see the show on my own, and could always find that single spot – this will be impossible, I’d imagine, with many other people in the room, though the timed admissions policy is designed to keep the crowds down. It’s a minor point, but The Conspiracy of the Batavians is hung tens of feet too low – but this does let you see why the Amsterdam City Council who commissioned it was so alarmed by the one-eyed chief conspirator.