Baroque and Rococo





The Mystery of the Revealed Form



 Baroque and Rococo Art Map
     Rembrandt van Rijn
     Rembrandt - a never-ending experience  
     Rembrandt the thinker: The structural conception of Rembrandt's early pictures  
     The encounter between observer and subject  
     From interpretation to observation: The Night Watch  
     Observation as comprehension: The Staalmeesters  
     The search for life in the picture: Susanna and the Elders  
     The search for life in the picture: The Return of the Prodigal Son  
     The mystery of the revealed form: The Jewish Bride  
     Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn -1606-1669: Chronology  
     Rembrandt - DRAWINGS  



Rembrandt - a never-ending experience



Oil on panel, 15,5 x 12,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich


Raising his head, the young man turns it briefly to one side. His tangled, flying hair falls over his brow and the nape of his neck. His soft lips are slightly opened, his eyebrows raised. The movement that he makes brings his face into the ray of light falling over his left shoulder. For a moment, his cheek and the tip of his nose are lit up above his white collar. The shaded eyes meet those of the observer, without fixing themselves upon them, as if they had become aware of something, as if they were searching for something. The open countenance appears lost in thought, given up to the world around it. The very small format nonetheless reveals a highly effective interplay between the light and dark elements. The application of paint is varied, carefully smoothed transitions being visible alongside spontaneous brushstrokes, scrapemarks, smudges and dabs.

Oil on canvas, 102 x 80 cm
National Gallery, London


Dressed in furs, brocade and velvet, a man rests his forearm on a barrier, in such a manner that his elbow with its sumptuously heavy stole projects forwards. The face, in half-profile under the sweeping cap, reveals a hint of noble melancholy. Its gaze is directed towards the observer, yet keeps to itself. The precisely composed figure stands out against the neutral, predominantly bright background as an individual, present form. The posture of the portrait's subject and the perfection of the manner of painting call to mind the work of other great artists, such as that of Titian or Raphael. "Rembrandt f. 1640", written in a broad hand, may be read on the barrier to the right.

Oil on canvas, 86 x 70.5 cm
National Gallery, London

Simeon with the Christ Child
in the Temple

The old man wears a gown and cap of dark velvet of a reddish-violet hue broken towards brown. His hands are folded in front of his body, his facial features composed. His gaze, resting upon the observer, notices him, meets his eyes, communicates with him, enquiring. Resignation and expectation, scepticism and familiarity, lack of fulfilment and contentment with his lot are present in equal measure in the tranquil countenance. His brow and the cap's white border are lit up against the background, which disappears to the right into a darkness of immeasurable depth. The figure appears near, and yet also unapproachably distant. Its atmospheric surroundings pull the observer in. The lines delineating the eyes, the bridge of the nose, and the side curls are finely distinguished; in contrast, the surrounding contours disappear in such a manner as to give the impression of incompleteness. The colour of the garment is simultaneously comprehensible and incomprehensible: it can be defined — and yet defies definition. As with the fulness of expression contained in this figure, so with the colours and forms: they, too, do not appear here as something enduring. That which creates such a vivid impression upon the observer escapes any defining concept, going beyond the realm of words. The open structure, with its almost uncompleted appearance, nevertheless asserts itself as one that is finished, one in which the observer directly and completely participates.

Three figures, three styles, three worlds. The change in Rembrandt's painting, taking place over a creative span of forty-four years, is one of an extremely far-reaching nature. The richest display of unparalleled artistry in painting and virtuosity results directly from what are sometimes almost clumsy or wild beginnings - although a closer look reveals them to be most eloquent - until a pictorial form finally develops, the enigma of which remains unsolved to this day. The succession of paintings, together with the no less important etchings, point to a restless searching. Each picture, every version of the same picture, represents a new experiment, referring back and looking forward, with new qualities constantly coming to light. The great abundance of freehand drawings provides evidence of unrestrained creative powers allowing of no submission to any step-by-step process. This development nevertheless constitutes a unity: from beginning to end, Rembrandt was to remain true to those tasks and motifs which he had originally adopted. In retrospect, this development can be seen as following a consistent course.

This becomes particularly clear when one examines different versions of the same subject-matter. For example, the seventeen different sketches and arrangements of Simeon with the Christ Child alone offer a succession of new versions.


Self-Portrait with Wide-open Eyes
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Self-Portrait, Bent Forwards

Furthermore, the series of self-portraits - surely not the result of the artist's later occasional financial straits preventing him from coming up with the fee for a model - is without equal. These pictures should not be seen merely as a portrayal of Rembrandt in the various stages of his life, nor do they simply reveal the variety of possibilities by means of which he could convey facial expression - although he did experiment with this in impressive ways as a young man. The series is still capable of causing astonishment as one of the most radical self-portrayals in the world of painting. The portraits referred to above include one of his earliest, one from the middle years of his life, and one of the last pictures that he was to produce. On looking at the pictures for the first time, the observer is immediately struck by the diversity of this personality through the manner in which the artist depicts himself as a young man, presents himself in mid-life, and achieves the effect of a personal contact in the final year of his life. If one wishes to get closer to Rembrandt's art, however, it is more important to examine the pictorial qualities by means of which these differentiated inner qualities first become comprehensible.

These portraits give us an insight into a career which outwardly consisted principally of constant work with no spectacular incidents. Rembrandt lived in Leiden during his apprenticeship and initial years as an artist, thereafter spending the rest of his life in Amsterdam; unlike other artists, he never travelled to Italy. The climax of his civic prestige was overtaken by the death of his first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, in 1642, while legal disputes and a bankruptcy created difficulties for him. However, he was enabled to enjoy a number of years of undisturbed creative work thereafter through Hendrickje Stoffels, his mistress, and his son, Titus. He lived in a secluded manner, but not in isolation, and received commissions from cultured friends and collectors.
After times of mystification, Rembrandt's circumstances and his work have been the subject of extensive research. The conditions under which his pictures were produced, his clients, those depicted in his portraits - all these have been investigated; his subject-matter has been related to the art of that time; his painting technique has been reconstructed. Most important, those works originating from Rembrandt's own hand have finally been separated from what soon became an equally high number of pictures attributed to him - for whatever reason — and accepted as such until very recently. The fact that questions still remain, among them those in the field of motif interpretation, for which research has failed to find an answer does not suffice to explain the present interest in his art, something which was not sparked off until the beginning of the 20th century and has yet to die down. The latest knowledge made accessible by the 20th-century art world appears to have served merely to heighten, rather than diminish, this fascination with Rembrandt's painting.
Rembrandt's complete works have a characteristic nature all their own, yet it was only in the course of his development that the effect of his pictures, so totally his own, unique in the history of art, would take on such a nature. It is those qualities of the later works requiring the observer's active involvement that are still to be discovered today.
It is the intention of this little book to point to the effect upon the observer of Rembrandt's painting. What follows will concentrate accordingly upon the pictures. A process of selection proved necessary; nor was it possible to embark upon any comparisons with other painters. If attention is to be focussed upon the qualities in question — albeit only in broad outline — then there is space here to go into only a few examples in depth.

An attempt will be made to follow Rembrandt's development via the observation of his pictures. Suggestions will be put forward in this context with regard to the reader's own observation of the pictures - after all, if it really is a question here of observation, then nothing can replace the experience gained when the observer himself sees a picture.
A division into three parts emerges here, one which might appear to be behind the selection of the self-portraits considered above. Reality is far more complicated, however. Many phases can be distinguished, but it is almost impossible to separate them from each other. One characteristic merges with the next. Individual observations can be used merely as an opportunity to notice the change taking place in an overall context, the analysis of which would have to remain ever in question.
In interpreting a picture as a representation of something, one usually fails to notice its effect upon the observer from a purely visual point of view. However, an attempt to follow Rembrandt's artistic path by means of an observation of his pictures cannot afford to pass up an understanding of the subject(s) portrayed in those pictures. If the observational qualities of Rembrandt's pictures are to be clearly grasped, it must first be quite plain to what extent the purely visual elements in a picture — the depiction of a particular event, for example — convey to the observer the underlying meaning of the work in question. It is only through a precise and thorough examination of the concrete details, together with a reflection as to what it is that makes one or the other feature recognizable, that the pictorial qualities themselves can be appreciated — not in some general, unfocussed manner but each in the quite individual form in which it is effective. Accordingly, the following examination will take a course such as will first go into Rembrandt's manner of representation, in particular the structural conception of his pictorial scenes. This in turn will gradually render essential a direct discussion of the pictures' purely visual qualities. A mandatory passage through those elements which can be appreciated in the pictures will be necessary to clear the observer's gaze, so that he can then see with the same awareness where it is only a question of seeing - namely, in the later work.
The development that Rembrandt's paintings undergo is no path from the incomplete to the perfect, from the approximate to the precise, from the sketched to the accomplished; nor does it follow the reverse course. It completely converts everything comprehended in the picture — the symbols, the narrations, the figures, the spatial dimension, the light, even the temporal event -into the observational reality of the picture: in short, it changes comprehension itself into vision. This art thereby touches upon the fundamental certainties of recognition. The experience of Rembrandt's art appears more relevant than ever before. It can reveal itself today as a never-ending challenge to make oneself conscious of the chances offered by the observational act. Rembrandt - a never-ending experience.

Self-Portrait Open-mouthed

Self-Portrait with Cap, Laughing

Self-Portrait with Knitted Brows

Self-Portrait drawing at a window


1650;    1652;    1660


Little Self-portrait
Oil on wood, 48,5 x 40,5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Oil on canvas, 133,5 x 104 cm
Frick Collection, New York

Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 67,5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague


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