Rembrandt at the MIA

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The advance publicity does not do this exhibit justice: it is a major exhibit of Rembrandt’s works from American collections, not just a comparison of a few “authentic” masterworks with many that have come under suspicion.

     We saw almost from the first moment that we would learn to tell the difference between Rembrandt’s exquisitely deep portrayal of character and the “flatter,” more decorative works of students or colleagues. Even the quasi-historical portraits which are really contemporaries done-up in historical dress show Rembrandt’s tendency to go to the heart of personality and character. Yet some of the works “under suspicion” are luminous and charming, such as the red-haired young woman in antique, brocade-and-pearl-topped cloak.She seems on fire with youth and promise, from her brilliant, wispy hair, on down.

     By the time he was 30, Rembrandt was making very good money in this bourgeois, Protestant society where individual effort and talent, rather than inherited title and wealth elevated one above the mob. By then he had moved to Amsterdam from Leiden, married Saskia whose family had wealth, and was painting portraits of wealthy burghers and their wives. We muse on the difference between 17th century Dutch society and that in Italy where many artists flourished because Catholic churches commissioned monumental works. Not so with Protestant churches. We note that the Christs in many Italian works are beautifully proportioned, with soulful, regular features. Not so many of Rembrandt’s burghers and their wives. They wanted a “likeness.” These Rembrandt could provide. I find them often rather stiff and boring, but they helped make the artist wealthy.

     More compelling is his huge portrayal of Saskia as Minerva, wearing the helmet and shield associated with Athena, the Greek counterpart to the Roman Minerva. She is not beautiful; in fact, her jowly, heavy-lidded face is strongly at variance with her lavish accoutrements and Rembrandt’s sumptuous painting. It’s a very strange work. And I may not have the proper attitude to rightly interpret it. Let’s just say, realism trumps the idealized notion of goddess, or else her beauty is all in the eyes of the painter. Or our standards of female beauty have changed. This we debate afterwards, comparing Penelope Cruz whom we just saw in Woody Allen’s “To Rome, with Love,” with say, Marilyn Monroe–Marilyn being far more rounded and buxom even than the beautiful (to our eyes) Penelope. (Side note: Woody himself has a major role in this film, and he’s way way way past whatever prime he had as a cinematic object. Ruemy-eyed and faltering–it’s self-indulgence to the max.)

     The exhibit also subtly chronicles Rembrandt’s decline in status and wealth, even as his artistic power reaches its zenith. When Saskia dies, leaving him the proceeds of her estate as long as he does not remarry, Rembrandt takes up with first one, then a second mistress, both who work in the household. Years of poor management and mounting debt, plus one suspects a kind of depression, bring him to the edge of financial ruin. Plus, his second and must younger mistress Hendrickje is brought before the church court who charges her with being Rembrandt’s “whore” and excommunicating her. (Such a thing would not have happened in the more accepting culture of Catholic Italy, I suspect, where most men from the popes on down indulged in extra-marital affairs. I mention this simply to emphasize another important difference in the ways religion affected artists in Protestant Amsterdam and Catholic Venice, let’s say.)

     It’s in the last room of the exhibit, with the MIA’s truly extraordinary “Lucretia,” and off to the side, one of Rembrandt’s greatest self-portraits in a flat, turban-like hat, that Rembrandt’s genius deepens so as to beggar all previous works. His brush-work becomes looser and rougher, heightening the sense of immediacy. This is particularly vivid in “Lucretia,” where the tear in the corner of her eye glistens almost as if the paint were still wet, and her blood-soaked chemise is so transparent, it seems to stick to her body. Did he paint this in one sitting, as suggests the Institute’s commentary? If so, it must have been a day of agonizing empathy.

     The self-portrait flatters only in its intense gaze–the eye more to the light being the “social,” observing eye; the one more in shadow, more inward, sadly self-aware. Yet the head is proud, the lips firm, the nose bulbous and warty as in life. I hope to be so aware, and self-confident even in self-recognition amid decline. It is an unforgettable image.

     We exit to the etchings, all from the MIA’s extraordinary collection of works on paper. Here Rembrandt had far more freedom with subject matter. Here his bravura drawing, the intensity of his observation of character, and his flare for designing large groups for stunning effect make me wish he’d done more large works on canvas.There’s “The Night Watch” in Amsterdam. I have to see it again–soon. I don’t want to wait too long. Delta Airlines will be happy!

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