The age of Rembrandt:
When portraits came psychologically alive
(Part IV of Andrew Mangravite’s idiosyncratic tour of the National Gallery of Art.)
Now we are crossing over to the galleries located on the right side of the Main Floor. Rather than return to my original starting point, I’m continuing my circuit in the form of an upside down “U.” All the galleries opposite the Chester A. Dale Collection seem to be undergoing renovations, so I proceed directly to the Grand Rotunda, and moving beyond it I continue my tour, entering the first of two large galleries given over to “Rembrandt and His School.”
We are now in the world of Northern Art. The Rembrandts are dark-hued paintings that paradoxically seem to emit a golden glow— their great fascination to me. Rembrandt’s Lucretia (1664) captured by the artist as she’s about to plunge a dagger into her chest, is no maiden of Ancient Rome. She’s very much a Dutch matron of the Baroque period in her heavy embroidered gown and wearing her rich jewels. Perhaps Rembrandt isn’t even trying to depict a noblewoman who has been ravished by her king. Maybe she’s just a merchant’s wife caught in flagrante delicto or, even worse, at the collapse of a speculative financial bubble (tulips, anyone?). She seems not so much distracted as merely unhappy with recent events.
In a slight diversion from my strict itinerary, I’ll pass directly into the other large room containing Rembrandts. Here we find The Polish Nobleman; a portrait of the painter’s wife, Saskia; a self-portrait; and the Portrait of a Boy with Fancy Dress, also known as Titus because it’s popularly believed to represent the artist’s son (although spoil-sport art historians have since splashed cold water on that idea). Whomever it depicts, it’s a beautiful piece of painting, suffused with that by-now-familiar inner golden Rembrandt glow.
This room also contains an example of a “pure” Rembrandt landscape, The Mill (1645-48). This stark, rather dramatically colored work lacks the golden coloration of the artist’s later work. It’s rather picturesque— but then, one expects a picturesque quality from any landscape of the Dutch School.
Even so-so Ruisdaels are better than none
In the galleries behind the first large Rembrandt room is a pair of typically Romantic landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael, Forest Scene (1660-65) and Landscape (1655-60). Their nondescript names give some insight into their so-so quality. But even so-so Ruisdaels are better than none at all. These two works possess the poetry, but in a decidedly minor key. They are quatrains rather than sonnets or epics.
Willem Claesz Heda’s Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635) is an allegorical still life and a good example of how “Art Grows Old.” No doubt in 1635, this painting said much more to its audience than it does today; L.P. Hartley was quite correct in asserting, “The past is a foreign country.” Unfortunately, more of us have lost the Berlitz guide that would allow us meaningful communication with Claesz.
Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s Margarita Elena Grimaldi-Cattaneo is a splendidly forward-looking work. Though painted in 1622-23, it could almost be mistaken as a work by Millais or one the Victorian portraitists (who were no doubt assiduously attempting to copy Van Dyck’s winning style). Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael’s Moses Striking the Rock (1624) offers a fantastic compression of figures rendered in glowing jewel-like colors. Half the cast of the Old Testament seems to be on hand to witness the prophet’s miracle.
The great divide: Vermeer and Rembrandt
Johannes Vermeer of Delft— Jan Vermeer, for short—is another of those who, like Rembrandt, inhabits his own world. Outside of art books, I had never seen a Vermeer. Astonishingly, all of the Vermeers in the National Gallery are quite small. Reproductions in art books make you think they must be very large, very grand works. But the truth of it is: They’re far smaller than the posters in the lobby of your local movie theater. Vermeer’s Woman Holding A Balance (1664), Girl With A Red Hat (1665) and A Lady Writing (1665) all date from the waning years of Rembrandt’s career, and it gives me a bit of a start to realize that both men were active at the same time. They seem to exist on two sides of a great divide. Rembrandt still lives in a world governed by faith and trust, a pre-scientific world. Vermeer exists in a world were nothing is certain— except, perhaps, the mathematically exact lines of his art.
Meinders Hobbema’s Hut Among Trees (1665) is a typically charming example of the “romantic hovel” motif in Dutch landscape painting. Wrack-and ruin was never rendered so tastefully and desirably. You probably wouldn’t want to spend a night inside of Hobbema’s hut, but buying it cheap as a fixer-upper might not be such a bad thing. Isack van Ostade’s Workmen Before a Hut (1645) offers more of the same thing.
Rubens chronicles the ancients
Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1614-16) offers a rather brio-less depiction of the prophet as male damsel-in-distress, surrounded by a pack of anthropomorphized grumpy-looking lions, one of which reminds me of my high school geometry teacher. But The Fall of Phaeton (1604-08) is the real deal in Baroque spectacle—swirling action, dizzying perspective, and so on. In Decius Mus Addressing the Legions (1616), The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (1626), and The Meeting of David and Abigail (1630), we see Rubens as the chronicler of the ancients. Of course Rubens wasn’t hamstrung by the 19th Century Orientalists’ mania for authenticity, and he was no historian, so he really had no problem in decking out the patriarch Abraham and King David as Roman legionaries. He even employs the same gestures of greeting, only “flopped” from the one painting to the other. Rubens also likes that colorful red cloak. Of course, Baroque art is all about visual spectacle and the telling gesture—and Rubens doesn’t skimp on those qualities.
Interestingly enough, Rubens as the originator of the Big Nudes is nowhere to be seen. The closest we come to that is the painting of Adam and Eve taking their ease in the Garden of Eden, painted in 1616 by the lesser artist Hendrik Goltzius.
Netherlandish painting can be moralistic, with a nasty streak of black humor running through it. Quentin Masys’s Ill-Matched Couple (1520-25) depicts a comely young thing caught in the act of selling herself off to a lecherous old goat. But it’s the matchmaker standing in the shadows, his tongue literally lolling from his mouth as he pockets his fee, that sums up the beauty (or ugliness) of the affair.
A suitably creepy Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and the Miser (1485-90) is a suitably creepy work with mouse-like imps handing up letters (commissions? Property deeds?) and bags of gold to the expiring miser even as Death pokes its head through the door. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, executed something between 1550 and 1575, demonstrates the ease with which a distinctive painter might be expropriated by a lesser light.
Portrait of an Ecclesiastic (1480), by an anonymous artist, is one of the works that stopped me in my tracks. It hangs in the same space as Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (1480) and manages to hold its own quite comfortably. In this small portrait of an elderly man in a plain black robe and ecclesiastical hat, we have genuine psychology being captured. This work, nearly contemporary with Da Vinci’s portrait of Genevra but done by an artist whose name has been lost to us— reveals a vital truth about art, history, and life itself: namely, that our store of knowledge does not remain constant, nor does it endlessly expand. Rather, like the tide, it advances and falls back.
Rembrandt Peale’s psychological miracle
When I reviewed the “Tesoros” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art earlier this year, I was struck by how lifeless and unreal-looking the portraits were: The sitters looked more like mantises than men. Yet these were not the work of amateurs or uneducated artists. Nor was it a Spanish problem. Our own Colonial-era portraiture existed in a similarly sorry state. It’s like a miracle when Rembrandt Peale arrives on the scene and we begin to get portraits that are psychologically alive—living representations of living people. But see—three centuries before young Rembrandt Peale plied his brush, there was a nameless artist, a painter of churchmen and so perhaps a churchman himself, whose work was as fine as young Peale’s. Where did this knowledge go? Why did artists forget how to craft portraits that were alive?
Granted the world was a much larger place then. Artists in Spain, let alone New Spain, didn’t necessarily know what artists in the Netherlands were up to. The painting may have been in a private collection, or some isolated venue such as the charterhouse of a religious order where viewing it wouldn’t be easy. There were no cameras— the best an enthusiastic art-lover who lacked the skills of a copyist could do was render a spirited “portrait in words.” And styles change. Perhaps the answer is that artists chose to turn their backs on psychological realism in order to produce stilted hieratic images that “represented” the sitter, rather than give him to us, warts and all.
A Commie-Socialist fad?
After my encounter with Portrait of an Ecclesiastic, much of the rest was anticlimactic. Yes, Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation (1434-36) is a magnificent work, and I must again trot out the overworked term “jewel-like” is sum up its many tiny perfections. The rudeness of Juan de Flandres, whose The Temptation of Christ (1500-04), which depicts the Devil in Franciscan robes, did not escape me.
This suit of galleries still held a few delights. The Repentant Magdalene, by Georges de la Tour (1640), offers a glimpse at an artist whose mastery of the effects of light might have rivaled Vermeer’s. A work like this always reminds you that, while there be many Le Nains, there is usually only one de la Tour.
Lastly there is a smaller version of Matthias Grunewald’s The Crucifixion (1511-1520). The smaller version is no less compromising in its depiction of pain and horror than its more celebrated “big brother.” This is one of the paintings that validate Expressionism against the charge that it was merely a fad concocted by bleeding-heart Commies and Socialists. The heightened depiction of human emotions has always been present in Western art, albeit not usually keyed to the pitch at which Grunewald depicts it.♦♦
Fourth of five articles.
To read the series from the beginning, click here.
To read the next (concluding) article, click here.
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