Today I started a new project.
I have a thing for the past. And drawing. So what better to do than to bring the two together.
I thought it would be fun to give a few thoughts on one special artist, or important era of the past and decorate it with a nice drawing or two. Once a month. Just for fun. And perhaps a little for my brain too.
It’s just a little homage to some of my heroes. I guess my way of saying thanks; a little wave and a thumbs up to what has been. It may not be the best writing you’ve ever seen, but it’s something that I think some of you will enjoy reading.
So, here goes mark 1.
Here’s to the past!
Part 1: The Humanity of Rembrandt Van Rijn.
We all know that Rembrandt (1606-69) is considered to be one of the greatest artists in European art history. Indeed, he was a sophisticated draughtsman, a precocious painter, prolific printmaker and he worked with an inventiveness not seen before his day.
But it was the great warmth with which Rembrandt approached his subjects, which seems to particularly endear him to us. For he had an almost intrinsic ability to reveal a sense of humanity in his work; his extraordinary variety of images present a personal and surprisingly intimate view, not just of the Dutch Golden Age, but of the subjects and scenes themselves.
The Holy Family is one of my favourite drawings by the Dutchman. I had the privilege of seeing it whilst working at the British Museum a couple of years ago. As in almost all his work, Rembrandt approached this subject with great humility, conceiving the Holy Family not in the traditional way, but quite literally as a family: Mary nurses her son, whilst chatting to a friend; Joseph works at their side.
Calvinistic 17th Century Dutch society frowned upon religious painting. Artists therefore began to look beyond classical iconography for inspiration, to a war-torn society that began to see a growing number of wealthy middle-class citizens. Scenes of every day life or â€˜genre paintings’ became popular amongst these successful mercantile patrons. Seascapes, for example, reflected their source of trade and naval power. Traditional history and portrait paintings were still evident (Vermeer’s notorious Girl with a Peal Earring comes to mind), but a huge variety of genres, such as still lifes, landscapes and scenes of domestic and peasant living became popular amongst artists. Most of all Rembrandt.
Rembrandt’s knowledge of classical iconography is evident in The Holy Family. However, he cleverly represented the figures informally, in a 17th C domestic setting, so that the scene might have passed unconnected with biblical story. But, what Rembrandt did here was far more profound than merely responding to the needs of society.
In bringing his biblical subjects out of context and into a familiar environment (still, I might add, as relevant today as it was in the 1600′s), Rembrandt makes the scene more accessible; inviting us, much like Caravaggio had done (although not quite as literally or dramatically), to identify with the individuals portrayed. In addition, although his assimilation of classical composition and subject is evident, we no longer see classical ideals and canons, found, for example, in the days of Michelangelo, who epitomised all that the Renaissance had stood for. Instead, rippling muscles have been abandoned in favour of more naturalistic figures and blank faces are filled with emotion. Furthermore, despite the title, the sanctity of the occasion, a popular focus of many 14th C Fresco paintings, is not recognised. It seem’s Rembrandt identified with the idea of God becoming man. The division between the divine and the mortal has been obliterated.
Rembrandt’s empathy for the human condition is more evident in his depiction of the Apostle Peter Kneeling. The painting shows the apostle in his prison cell following his arrest by Herod’s soldiers. He is exhausted, weary of running from years of persecution: his shoulders sunken, his aged face haggard. He is touched by the warm light, yet overwhelmed by melancholy and the seemingly hopeless mission he has taken on. His death is imminent.
It is a vision of injustice, ageing and foreseen death. Also of stillness: the stillness of reflection, bewilderment and prayer. Rembrandt’s Peter again embodies humility. For he realises that by his strength alone, he cannot escape from the heavily guarded cell. He kneels, his hands clasped not only in prayer and desperation, but in sorrow. His gaze, cast slightly downwards, stares vacantly beyond the viewer into sadness and disbelief; his mouth slightly open. Perhaps, in this moment, he questions his faith. Will he deny Christ again? He seems to have almost given up hope, offering just one last prayer for his release. He cannot know that an angel will soon appear to bring about his miraculous escape.
Clearly visible is the saint’s attribute: two large metal keys signifying the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, and coincidentally suggesting the irony of his imprisonment. In the background we see a pillar, a reminder of his divine assignment as one of the last remaining disciples and legacy of a pillar of the early church. In rendering Peter in a sympathetic manner, Rembrandt uses his celebrated techniques. His warm palette, use of chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark) and soft brushstrokes heighten the humanity of the scene. In his use of light, traces of 17th C european baroque art are evident; Caravaggio having been a strong influence.
Rembrandt looked to society for inspiration, to the everyday man, to the beggar on the street, giving them status; a voice. Much like Hogarth, he celebrated real life situations and challenged attitudes towards society, creating a window to 17th C Dutch life. The injustice for Peter is reflected in the injustice for painting itself; a shout against dead traditions, of classicism, of high art, of Michelangelo’s marriage between art and reason, of practice and technique over real life: it promises a new art, a new era.
If Michelangelo had come to epitomise the divine artist, Rembrandt came to speak for the rest of us.
TL;DR: Rembrandt was wicked.
Clark, Kenneth, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance, New York: 1966.
Kitson, Michael, Rembrandt, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969.
Royalton-Kisch, Martin, Drawings by Rembrandt and his circle in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press,1992.
Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the
Golden Age, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987.
Van de Wetering, Ernst, Rembrandt The Painter at Work, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.