[Paleopsych] NYT: 'Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits': Humanity With Flaws Forgiven

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'Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits': Humanity With Flaws Forgiven
January 28, 2005


    THE woman, hand to chest, leans a little forward, head turned and
    tilted, lips slightly parted, liquid eyes gazing into the ether. She
    is dressed in a dark, fur-lined cloak that reveals a peek-a-boo white
    chemise; a robe sewn with gold is draped over her right shoulder and
    it glints, like the gold fillet in her hair. Her round, pretty face is
    a little puffy and sad, and she seems oblivious of us. But she is no
    doubt alert to the painter, her lover, whose gifts are so surpassing
    that simply by virtue of being the object of his devotion she looks

    This is a portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt's companion. In
    the little Rembrandt show opening Sunday here at the National Gallery,
    the picture is tentatively identified (with a question mark after the
    title) as "The Sorrowing Virgin."

    Had he been a poet instead of a painter, Rembrandt would have seduced
    countless women with his love sonnets. Every lover would have believed
    him when he wrote yet another poem that swore undying devotion to her
    unrivaled feet and peerless earlobes.

    His portraits convey pretty much the same message, after all. Each one
    says: "Here, stripped bare, is the true essence of this person, the
    depth of his or her soul in paint. Have you ever met anyone so
    authentic and remarkable?" Painting after painting makes that point.
    Rembrandt's touch was itself about his own individuality, suggesting
    the inimitability of his genius (never mind that his style was
    imitable enough for assistants and followers to flummox future
    generations of experts, and delight those who mischievously enjoy
    seeing other people's gold turn out to be brass).

    Not everybody would want to be painted by Rembrandt - launched into
    posterity in such an eloquent brown fog, bearing the weight of the
    world on one's shoulders, looking watery-eyed and wrinkled. But it's
    flattering to think of yourself as the sort of person, spiritually
    speaking, that Rembrandt concocted: soulful, substantial. Every Dutch
    burgher became a saint in his hands. My favorite Rembrandt portraits
    may be a pair of pictures in London, the ones of Jacob Trip and his
    wife, Margaretha de Geer, at the National Gallery there. Trip was a
    Dordrecht mining honcho and an arms dealer, rich as Croesus. In his
    portrait, he looks like the aged Moses leaning on a cane instead of a

    Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the curator of this focused gem of an
    exhibition, contemplated including the Trip portrait, which was
    painted sometime around 1661. It would have joined 17 other works from
    the 1650's and 1660's, pictures late in Rembrandt's career (he died in
    1669, at 63), which have mystified scholars.

    They are paintings of Jesus, Mary and assorted evangelists, apostles
    and monks. Or some are. Others may be. Some look like "portraits
    historiés," commissioned portraits in which Rembrandt decked out his
    hoity-toity patrons as holy men and women. Some are clearly not
    commissioned portraits but models. We know this because the same face
    appears in different pictures, here as a St. Bartholomew, there as a
    St. Paul.

    Portraits like the one of Stoffels are more ambiguous: an "Apostle
    Bartholomew" is so titled because the alert, heavy-lidded, mustachioed
    man with his hand to his chin staring melancholically at us, clasps a
    knife, the symbol of Bartholomew's martyrdom. But at one time this
    same painting was called "Rembrandt's Cook," then "The Assassin."

    Cook, assassin, lover or the Virgin Mary? The first question is why
    Rembrandt, reared a Protestant, whose religious beliefs nonetheless
    remain largely unknown, would have painted saints and apostles at all.
    In Protestant Holland, Catholic religious orders and monasteries were
    banned. Reformationists regarded saints as needless intermediaries in
    the quest for salvation. For whom did Rembrandt paint these pictures?
    For himself? Did he have Catholic patrons, perhaps, outside Holland?

    It's clear he was going through a bad patch at the time. The church
    condemned his relationship with Stoffels when she bore him a child out
    of wedlock in 1654. Debts forced him to auction off his house, his
    personal effects, his art collection, even his wife's grave. His style
    of painting also fell out of fashion in Amsterdam; young artists were
    deserting his brand of expressiveness. It's hard to know how much
    trouble Rembrandt really was in, whether he sheltered income from
    creditors, whether he still had assistants. He was commissioned to
    paint not just Trip's portrait but also the "Syndics of the Drapers'
    Guild," so he was not without opportunities.

    But in various ways, Rembrandt's difficulties might have caused him to
    identify with saints and apostles. His self-portrait as St. Paul, Mr.
    Wheelock speculates, is "about the supremacy of grace over law" and
    the notion of "the great but flawed man who, saved by God's grace,
    reveals the power of the Christian faith to those struggling with
    their own human limitations." Rembrandt's Paul is not a sturdy and
    forbidding pillar of righteousness but a scruffy, ordinary old man,
    hapless, weak-chinned and quizzical, gazing at or just past us with
    arched eyebrows, crumpled brow, a big, fleshy nose and wild tufts of
    hair escaping from his turban: a humble Paul, on whom God happens to
    shines the bright, consoling light of grace.

    Perhaps Mr. Wheelock is right. It's as if Rembrandt, at odds with the
    law now, were saying the only law that matters ultimately is divine
    law. He's also admitting in this picture, "I'm not perfect."

    The flawed humanity of his saints is the heart of the art, and what
    gives it spiritual truth. Plain sight suggests that some of the
    paintings might have been linked as a series because they're the same
    size. But others differ; their touch varies wildly - so much so that
    people might well wonder whether Rembrandt even did them all.

    I prefer to flip the question: could any other artist have painted
    with such affective variety? Rembrandt by this stage knew how to do
    everything: how to scuff and scratch and scribble, where to leave
    passages rough, where to smoothen, how to telegraph forms, to hint at
    volumes, to paint thin and dry or thick and pasty. In a version of
    "Apostle Paul," this one with a bearded model sitting before a table,
    hand to brow, rapt in thought, Rembrandt painted flesh tones as a thin
    layer over a warm primary. Then he suggested eyes, nose and beard
    without drawing any sharp contours, letting light sculpture the hair,
    skin and bone, a different tack from the one he took for "Bartholomew"
    or Stoffels or himself.

    What's constant is the human aspect. It's what Rembrandt focuses our
    eyes on: on St. James's meaty hands; on Simon's long, rugged face,
    like a lumberjack's, brooding, his thumb casually hooked over the
    handle of the cross saw that is the instrument of his martyrdom; on
    the sad eyes of the man with the reddish mustache and bushy beard, a
    portrait that used to be called "A Jewish Rabbi."

    Rembrandt's power was to show us ourselves in these portraits of holy
    men and women. Which is to say, the divine in us.

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