“Rembrandt: Thinking on paper”
“Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper” at the British Museum presents 60 drawings and prints by the legendary Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmensoon van Rijn. The works are from the British Museum's large collection of Rembrandt's works on paper and span the artist's career thus illustrating Rembrandt's artistic development.
Rembrandt lived a tumultuous life. He was born in Leiden, Holland, in 1606. The son of a prosperous corn miller, Rembrandt was sent to Latin school after elementary school in recognition of his intellect. He was enrolled at the University of Leiden but did not stay long as he wanted to become an artist. Accordingly, he was apprenticed to two master artists in succession, first in Leiden and then in Amsterdam.
After completing his apprenticeship, Rembrandt returned to Leiden where he set himself up as a master artist. Working primarily on history paintings and portraits, he began to find success. In fact, he was so successful that he was able to shift to Amsterdam by 1631.
His success continued in Amsterdam. Not only did he receive revenue from his paintings but he was also a successful printmaker and he received revenue from teaching young artists who paid to study in his studio. In 1634, he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the daughter of a wealthy Burgess.
Intoxicated by his success, Rembrandt purchased a large house in Amsterdam, paying only the down payment. At the same time, he was vigorously purchasing art, clothing and various other items for his collections. He continued in his lavish spending even as the art market turned away from his realistic style towards Classicism.
By 1659, his debts had grown to the extent that there was a court-ordered auction of his possessions. The large house was sold and Rembrandt had to move to a less fashionable part of town. In addition, the local painters guild issued a ruling that no one in Rembrandt's financial situation could sell art in the city. Consequently, a front had to be created under which Rembrandt sold his works as an employee of a partnership between his son Titus and Rembrandt's second (common law) wife Hendrickle Stoffels.
Rembrandt's personal life was no less tumultuous. His first wife, Saskia, bore him four children but only one survived infancy. When she died prematurely at age 29, Rembrandt hired Geertghe Dircx to take care of the house and the young boy Titus. She and Rembrandt became lovers and she claimed that he promised to marry her. However, when she pawned some of Saskia's jewelry that was part of Titus' inheritance, Rembrandt arranged for her to take up residence in a house of correction.
By that time, Rembrandt had hired Hendrickle to act as housekeeper. Soon they became husband and wife in all but name. (Rembrandt would have lost the income from the inheritance Saskia had left Titus, if he had re-married). Hendrickle had a calming effect on the artist. Unfortunately, she died before him in 1663.
Although Rembrandt remained internationally famous until his death in 1669, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
As its title suggests, this exhibition gives a glimpse of Rembrandt's creative process. The works are small in size and thus make for more intimate dialogue between the artist and the viewer than Rembrandt's large finished paintings.
It is believed that Rembrandt started making prints around 1628 and was probably self-taught. His prints were rarely commissioned and thus can be said to reflect his thinking without the influence of a specific purchaser. However, the prints cannot be said to be completely free of outside influence. The international fame that Rembrandt enjoyed during his lifetime was largely due to the dissemination of his prints. Rembrandt knew this and it would have been only natural for it to have influenced his creations to some degree.
For example, Rembrandt made numerous self-portraits including prints. In these, he explored his moods and the changing countenance of his face over the years. They are renowned explorations of the self. However, at this time in Europe, there was considerable interest not just in art but in artists. A modern day analogy would be to the way the public is interested in rock stars as well as in their music. Self-portrait prints were a means of capitalizing on this interest.
His drawings stand on a different footing. They were primarily done as preparatory works or casual works rather than as finished works for sale in their own right. In these, the artist was trying to work out artistic problems or simply creating something for himself.
The exhibition also illustrates Rembrandt's thinking by arranging the works by subject matter including self-portraits and pictures of others, landscapes and biblical scenes. You can see the various approaches that he took to these topics as well as the evolution of his style.
One of the things that stands out in both the prints and the drawings is the looseness of Rembrandt's style. Rembrandt is known as a realist but in most of these works, there is little detail. It is not precise scientific drawing like some of Durer's works but rather a drawing style similar to the Impressionists and other late 19th century artists.
The group of biblical scenes are thought provoking for another reason. These works are not superficial illustrations. Rather, they have human emotions as well as drama. They appear to reveal a deep religious conviction. Perhaps they are rooted in the bible stories his mother read to him as a boy or the scripture lessons at the Latin school in Leiden. However, Rembrandt is not known to have been a member of any religious community. Furthermore, both with regard to financial matters and his personal life, Rembrandt was no saint. Thus, the works are very much a look inside to the man's aspirations.
Rembrandt was one of the great artists of all time. He was also a very complicated man. Thus, an exhibition like this which gives a glimpse into his thought process is profoundly interesting.
Rembrandt's "Young Woman Sleeping."
Above: A self-portrait by Rembrandt.
Below: Rembrandt's drawing of Cornelis Claesz Analo.
Above: Rembrandt's drawing of a man playing with a child.
Art review - British Museum (London) - “Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper”