Rembrandt TV series: group and self-portraits

I’ve been watching a fascinating series on BBC4 (unfortunately probably not available outside the UK) about the painter Rembrandt, featuring not only his work but his life. While the artist earned sizeable fees for his many paintings, but especially the portraits of wealthy individuals or groups and from fees made by his pupils, Rembrandt was not financially astute. He bought a large house in 1639, which came with a sizeable mortgage and Rembrandt could not keep this up and was declared bankrupt in 1656. He also spent money which he did not have at auctions. There is an excellent overview of the artist provided by the Het Rembrandthuis museum.

The best part of the programmes is about Rembrandt’s many paintings and self-portraits. One of the artist’s specialities was group paintings and the first painting below is The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild and is also known as The Syndics. What Rembrandt did, unlike many other artists of his time, was to present the officials as individuals with different facial expressions. There appears to be a discussion going on between the men, with a servant observing from behind, as the man third from the left holds his hand in a way which might suggest him saying “What about these figures in the book” or “Do you not see what these figures imply”? We do not know and neither do we know what the men might be looking at. Is Rembrandt painting the figures to look at us, the viewers or have they seen someone approaching? It is a fascinating work of art and like all great works, the more you look at it, the more you see.

The Syndics by Rembrandt van Rijn 1662 (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Rembrandt’s most famous group painting and one which is studied in detail in one of the programmes is The Nightwatch, and this large group portrait is one of the most famous Dutch paintings. The painting shown below, like the one above , is downloaded with permission from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a stunning and detailed work of art, with a host of characters, mainly of militia men who were to protect the city from outsiders. The focus is on the captain who is giving orders to his lieutenant to his left, to lead the militia men out. This is a very active painting, with people talking and gesturing, a man preparing his rifle, a drummer on the right and a girl in a dress with a chicken hanging from the dress’ belt. Some of the detail is symbolic, like the chicken, and Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a group of men. some of whom were very wealthy. What distinguishes this work from other contemporary group portraits is the variety of characters and expressions which the artist captures, as well as the detail shown in the clothing worn by the militia men. The title of the painting was changed to Nightwatch at a later date and it is inaccurate as Rembrandt use of a dark interior was misinterpreted.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn 1642

Throughout his painting career, Rembrandt completed a series of self-portraits, so we have a record of what he looked like or certainly a record of his interpretation of what he looked like. The first portrait below is an etching and shows a wide-eyed and open-mouthed young man who looks surprised or maybe frightened. Rembrandt did these drawings in front of a mirror and it was part of his learning to be a portrait painter. The unruly hair fits the expression on the face and one of Rembrandt’s great skill as an artist in many paintings, including those above, was to depict a range of human emotions.

Self portrait in a cap by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

A later example – seen below – shows the artist at the age of 63 and was downloaded with permission of the National Gallery. This was one of Rembrandt’s last paintings and shows him in a stoical mood, perhaps accepting what his life has brought him. There was no attempt by Rembrandt to enhance his looks and this makes the portrayal of the artist as more likely to be true to life. The broad forehead and the prominent (and once broken looking) nose plus the wispy hair, plain hat and comfortable, but probably not fashionable coat, give the impression of a man of some status in life, but not wealth in Rembrandt’s case. The hands are clasped and there is a definite air of contentment in this painting. Rembrandt is relaxing, looking straight at us and commanding our attention and admiration, which he would enjoy were he still alive.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63

So a very enjoyable and informative TV series on this great artist – watch it if you can. This reminds me that I must go back and see Rembrandt’s Self Portrait Aged 51 (below) at the National Gallery of Scotland, when I’m next in the capital city.

Self Portrait Aged 51 by Rembrandt van Rijn 1657

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