Talking of Rembrandt’s ‘The Jewish Bride’ to a friend, Vincent van Gogh went — characteristically — over the top. ‘I should be happy to give ten years of my life,’ he exclaimed, ‘if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’ Without undergoing such rigours, visitors to Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery next month will be able to see the picture that drove Vincent to such a paroxysm of enthusiasm, along with many other masterpieces from the artist’s last years.
It may be that in recent decades other 17th-century masters — Caravaggio and Vermeer, in particular — have toppled Rembrandt from first place in the affections of the general public, but the same is not true, in my experience, of artists. Van Gogh was not alone in his fervour. Recently, for example, David Hockney had this to say of Rembrandt: ‘I think he was the greatest of all draughtsmen. Anyone who draws can see how good his drawings are: fantastically good.’
A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to the Netherlands to find out more about Rembrandt. In company with Betsy Wieseman, curator of the National Gallery exhibition, and the team who have been working on the version of the show that will open at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam next year, I looked again at some of his greatest works.
The exhibition is devoted to the last two decades or so in the life of Rembrandt (1606–1669). Earlier in his career he produced much magnificent work — sometimes in emulation of other artists such as Rubens. However, Gregor Weber, head of fine and decorative arts at the Rijksmuseum, argues that ‘the late Rembrandt is the Rembrandt Rembrandt’. Between around 1650 and 1652, his style changed to one of profound originality.
‘The Jewish Bride’ (c.1665) is one of the outstanding works from that late period. There are two figures in the painting, a man and a woman; he is embracing her in the tenderest of ways. ‘What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting!’ as Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1885. It scarcely mattered that he, like all his contemporaries, was under a misapprehension about the subject.
That familiar title, ‘The Jewish Bride’, was not Rembrandt’s; it first appeared in 1835, and with it a mistaken view that the scene was a contemporary one from the artist’s lifetime. In reality, as Jonathan Bikker, the research curator at the Rijksmuseum, pointed out to me as we stood in front of the picture, the story he was painting was a Biblical one, that of Isaac and Rebecca (or Rebekah). The two were married, but such was Rebecca’s beauty that Isaac — a refugee in Philistine lands — feared it would lead a Philistine to kill him, and marry her himself. Cautiously, he pretended that he was her brother. One day, however, ‘Abimelech, king of the Philistines, looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.’ This is the incident that Rembrandt painted. But, characteristically, he omitted the figure of King Abimelech.
Consequently, we, rather than the Philistine king, become the witnesses of the couple, and what we see is the emotion between them. This is one of the most modern things about Rembrandt. ‘You don’t have to know all about the subject of the painting,’ Gregor Weber observed. ‘You feel straight away that it is about intimacy.’
So you might say that ‘The Jewish Bride’ is a typical late Rembrandt; except that there is in a way no such thing. This was a point made by Betsy Wieseman and the Dutch scholars alike: Rembrandt did not work to a formula, especially late in his career. Of course, he tended to paint both freely and loosely, but not equally so in every picture — nor in the same way. One of the techniques for which he was famous — or notorious, in the view of conservative critics among his contemporaries — was the use of the palette knife. He used this tool in ‘The Jewish Bride’, slathering up the pigment on Isaac’s sleeve into the thickest passage of impasto he ever painted (or perhaps anyone else did in the 17th century). One can see why Van Gogh responded to such brushwork.
However, Bikker explained, he only used the palette knife sporadically, and there are only three late pictures in which he truly ‘went nuts’ with it. The truth seems to be that he was constantly trying things out. As Betsy Wieseman said, in front of his last ‘Self Portrait’ (1669) in the Mauritshuis, ‘There is such a variety of ways he applies the paint, a variety of brush strokes from one centimetre of the canvas to the next.’
Often the result is that the mark of a brush, pen or etching burin does not describe the object he was depicting: it seems to become it. Wieseman noted that in that last self portrait ‘a thick swipe of paint perfectly recreates the effect of those fleshy bags under your eyes. Rembrandt just does that in one stroke.’
Howard Hodgkin once remarked to me that this kind of passage, ‘when a brush full of pigment is put down and just turns into something is not easy to analyse, because it is a type of magic.’ That, as it happens, was another of Van Gogh’s views: ‘Rembrandt is above all a magician.’