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Sep 16 / Simon

Favourite themes taken from life

Art Quarterly, Summer 2014
Simon Taitcelebrates a book focusing on Rembrandt’s sources of inspiration

Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art; Richard Verdi; Yale University Press; £25

If you want the essence of this book at a glance, look no further than the frontispiece. The illustration Richard Verdi and his publishers have chosen is not one of the savagely honest self-portraits Rembrandt made throughout his life, nor the exploration of the tragic Titus – did a father ever know a son so well? – nor the glimmering landscapes (though some of the more intimate portraits appear towards the end of the book). It is a simple etching of indigent travellers at the door of a rather grudging householder who is dropping a few coins into a hesitant-looking palm, because these are not habitual mendicants but ordinary people fallen upon hard times. This is Rembrandt the man speaking.

Verdi hurries into his subject leaving behind the biographical facts he assumes we all know – for the record, Rembrandt died in 1669 aged 63 – along with his best known works, old ground not necessary to cover again. He is searching the life of the man looking back from the difficult later years when he was out of fashion and lack of commissions and penury forced him to look deep into his own psyche and powers of invention for his narratives. These are Rembrandt’s best work, and Verdi ranges back through his career to find their sources.

The book sprang from a series of lectures Verdi gave in New York the mid-80s to accompany an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings. He skips aside the arguments of attribution that have dogged Rembrandt scholars in recent years, and brings the gaze of a non-expert, he avers, to bear on relatively few works connecting them with what was happening in Rembrandt’s imploding life. His 1654 version of Bathsheba, contemplating David’s letter summoning her to his bed, has Uriah’s wife almost lasciviously proclaiming her nakedness and with the features of his mistress Hendrickje, the very year in which she was summoned by Amsterdam’s church council three times to answer charges of “acting like a whore”, presumably for living with the painter out of wedlock. He’d been here before: Hendrickje appears as Bathsheba in a much smaller version with a more modest nudity, an arm across her breast, a gauze kerchief in her lap, the year after Rembrandt’s wife Saskia had died.

Biblical stories were Rembrandt’s favourite themes, despite the Netherlands’ Calvinist church forbidding sacred imagery, and he returns to them for his uncommissioned work, but with slightly different takes on the familiar tales. He choses to make a drawn version of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, for instance, which has them preparing to leave, not actually en route as they are more usually depicted, and Verdi returns to the theme of this subject which Rembrandt painted almost throughout his life. More than two dozen versions survive and in none of them are the figures formally posed in the traditional manner.

Rembrandt, like Durer before him and Hogarth later, made ends meet by creating etchings he could make prints from, and Verdi has found an important influence on him in his home town of Leiden in Lucas van Leyden whose drawings and prints he collected from his 20s. They gave Rembrandt a source of subject matter as well as instruction in this very particular and technically complex form, and it is in these black and white works on paper that Rembrandt commands the high drama if narrative, such as his 1653 etching The Three Crosses. Verdi acknowledges, too, the debt Rembrandt owes to his teacher in Amsterdam Pieter Lastman for his painting and to his fellow Lastman pupil Jan Lievens with whom he worked back home in Leiden, working up themes between them in their own styles.

So biblical themes seem to have dominated Rembrandt’s creative intent throughout his career, despite the religious strictures of Holland at the time, and Verdi shows us the artist’s development through them from his formative Leiden years in the 1630s but skipping past his fame to the painful final decade when, for instance, his 1654 etching, Presentation in the Temple, another favourite theme, is so sparingly drawn and so poignant as to make the drawing move in the imagination.