Progression of Art
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp
In this pyramid-shaped composition, seven awkwardly posed men with bright white, ruffled collars are intently observing a man named Dr. Tulp who is facilitating an anatomy lesson. He completely commands the right side of the painting, demonstrating on a male cadaver. The unity of the parts is remarkably well planned with the angle and size of the dead man drawing the viewer's eyes into the center.
The work depicts the important annual January anatomy lesson, which was an eagerly anticipated event for all the local senators, burgomasters, and aldermen of the city. The curators and rectors from the university also attended with crowds of professors and students while the general public purchased tickets to sit on benches in the back row. In The Body Emblazoned, Jonathan Sawday noted that, "...anatomization takes place so that, in lieu of a formerly complete 'body,' a new 'body' of knowledge and understanding can be created. As the physical body is fragmented, so the body of understanding is held to be shaped and formed."
This type of group portrait was a purely Dutch institution; a unique and long established tradition that helped document and honor the officers of a guild or other organization. Usually six to twenty individuals shared the cost and composition equally. In this piece, Rembrandt's carefully rendered and illuminated faces stare at the corpse or glance out at the viewer to establish their sense of importance and inclusion. The scene is highly staged and dramatic with the esteemed physician wearing his hat to denote his status for the rapt audience. Rembrandt ensures that the viewer understands the narrative without distraction by limiting the colors to simply dark or brightly lit except for the bloody left forearm being dissected near the center of the composition. The brightest areas: the prone body, the faces, and Dr. Tulp's hands, which are meticulously drawn and subtly rendered, are meant to capture the viewer's attention. Rembrandt earned the highest esteem with this brilliant group portrait and received many similar commissions of this type.
Oil on Canvas - Mauritshuis Art Museum, The Hague, The Netherlands
Man in Oriental Costume
This ambitious painting depicts the Dutch notion of a Near Eastern Potentate, an exotic foreign subject that would appeal to an experienced, knowledgeable collector. A swathed and stately colossal figure stares sternly out, his shoulders and head dramatically illuminated from the front and back. His golden garment gleams beneath a metallic scarf and silver turban while ornaments and jewelry sparkle and glint.
During the 1630s Rembrandt depicted many figures wearing Middle Eastern garments in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. The commercial enterprises of the Dutch Republic had reached the Middle East by the early seventeenth century and Levantines were to be seen in the streets and marketplaces of Amsterdam. Portraits of imaginary Persian, Ottoman, or other "Oriental" princes became popular in the bustling city. But Rembrandt's images are not mere portraits of those people. Rather, they are imaginative representations of a distant culture that feature Dutch models, including Rembrandt himself, dressed in exotic attire.
The piece shows Rembrandt's mastery as a painter of light, as well as figures, which explains his use of a limited, muted palette to create endless depth. He used deep shadows that disappeared into obscurity with uneven golden illumination and highlights brushed in with bold, dashing strokes. Sometimes he used an abundance of paint, sometimes very little and sometimes he scratched the canvas with the handle of his brush; he worked to create the exact effect he desired. Curator Walter Liedtke voiced his opinion: "I think Rembrandt satisfies a need for modern tastes...He's so contemplative...It's also brilliantly preserved...on a polished oak board here with oil paint, and wonderful textures...the linen, rough, you can actually...feel it."
Oil on Canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
This painting, Rembrandt's only seascape, depicts the dramatic miracle when Jesus intervened to calm a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee. The biblical story from the New Testament would be familiar to the Dutch people of Rembrandt's time period. The influence of Rubens can be seen in the darkly churning, frothy waves that threaten to overturn the small wind-whipped boat. The mast of the boat creates a diagonal line that divides the composition into two triangles. In the left triangle, extreme danger and intense activity loom but there is a golden light illuminating the edges of the dark clouds, the agitated men and the ripped main sail. In the right triangle, a figure in red is draped over the side of the boat and the helmsman steadies the rudder against the bucking waves. Only one figure, dressed in blue, and holding onto his cap looks directly out at the viewer by steadying himself with a rope; he has Rembrandt's features. The artist often painted himself into his compositions and here he engages the viewer in the turbulent activity. It is a concentrated scene of drama played out within a large, changing fearsome space. The enormous dramatic power of nature is shown testing mankind but the impending miracle is emphasized. To finish the story, the gospels say, once Jesus understood their dire plight, he stood up and pointing towards the storm, said, "Quiet! Be still!" and the vicious storm abated.
The extremely detailed depiction of the scene and story, the figures' varied expressions, the polished brushstrokes, and bright colors characterize Rembrandt's early style. 18th century critics, especially Arnold Houbraken, a biographer of Dutch artists, preferred this style to his later less specifically detailed manner. As in most Baroque art, the viewer is invited to share an emotional experience, to become involved rather than passively observe.
Oil on Canvas - Stolen from Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990
Belshazzar's story as the King of Babylon was described in the Old Testament. He committed sacrilege by having gold and silver vessels that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem stolen back for his own use. When he ordered the vessels to be filled with wine for his many guests and nobles at a great banquet, a disembodied hand emerged from a small cloud to inscribe mysterious symbols on the wall. The prophet Daniel explained that the hand of God wrote the message to signify King Belshazzar's downfall. The interpretation of the symbols was: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians". This is the moment Belshazzar abruptly rises and twists his head around to see the glowing message on the back wall; he knocks over precious items and startles the people around him. He ended up being killed that very evening.
Rembrandt painted this canvas to establish himself as a master of large-scale Baroque history paintings, as Rubens did in the European courts. He painted the concentrated shock of physical force, as the scene is a study of action, fear, and surprise; each figure is shown in a dramatic, recoiling posture within a composition of illusionistic effects and compositional arrangements to involve the viewer. Belshazzar's solid triangular form and stance determines the compositional arrangement: three areas are established with shocked guests to the left, a bending, lushly attired servant to the right and the ghostly image on the wall above. Rembrandt's mastery of chiaroscuro makes the forms seem to gently emerge or disappear back into the darker areas.
As a young art dealer in the 19th century, Vincent Van Gogh visited museums and galleries to study the master works. Rembrandt especially influenced his subject matter and drawing style. He called Rembrandt the "...magician of magicians..." and the "...great universal master portrait painter of the Dutch Republic."
Oil on Canvas - National Gallery, London, England
This richly appointed scene depicts the story of Danae, a character from Greek mythology. In the tale, her father King Akrisios secludes the young woman after he receives a prophecy that his daughter will have a son who will eventually kill him. But Zeus manages to appear to Danae as a ray of golden light, slipping by the eyes of her maidservant. Through the union of Danae and Zeus, Perseus is born, and he indeed goes on to kill his grandfather.
Mythological stories are often complex but in this painting, Danae has been described as welcoming. In the foreground, an elaborate sparkling gold bed support, a thick rug with Danae's bejeweled slippers, and a velvety draped form bring the viewer into the composition. A majestic celestial shower of golden light pours in from the left to warmly illuminate Danae's face and body. The effect creates softness and sensuality in all the bedding, draperies, and shining metalwork that surround the alluring woman. The female figure, adorned only with floral bracelets and other jewelry, is the subject but the golden light truly occupies this space and is the heart of the story. Hovering above Danae in the life size painting is a golden Cherub with bound hands, symbol of chastity.
Rembrandt did not paint many mythological scenes but this one is possibly his most masterful due to the tender beauty of the young nude, perhaps influenced by Titian, and the genius handling of the light. Upon studying this Danae, the German Impressionist Max Leiberman remarked, "Whenever I see a Franz Hals...I feel the desire to paint; but when I see a Rembrandt, I want to give it up..."
Oil on canvas - Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia
The Night Watch
The group portrait, often called a "corporation portrait" was uniquely Dutch and was oftentimes as enormous as a modern billboard. Rembrandt painted this large canvas between 1640 and 1642 on commission for the musketeer branch of a civic militia, a wealthy segment of Amsterdam society. Any of the members could be assigned to guard gates, police the streets, put out fires and maintain order. Their presence was also required at parades for visiting royalty and other festive occasions. Rather than using the accepted standard convention of a stately and formal pose, such as lining up in rows or sitting at a banquet, he presented a bustling, and semi-confused scene of members in preparation for an event.
The painting is also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, which are the names of the men who are brightly illuminated and stepping forward in the center foreground. There was no set standard for dress in the militia, so the outfits could be quite elaborate. Captain Cocq, a law school-educated and prosperous by marriage citizen, is elegantly dressed in black with a large lacy collar and deep red sash trimmed with gold around his chest. Captain van Ruytenburch, from a family of grocers, has a more dazzling costume: a stunning golden coat made of yellow leather ornamented with fancy French bows and rich patterns, complimented by gloves and Cavalier riding boots with spurs. It is believed that this painting was hung low and the two central, almost life-sized figures would have seemed to step out of the composition while the other participants assembled to follow.
As with other group paintings, Rembrandt incorporated details that defined the identity and purpose of its members. For example, to the viewer's left behind the men is a small female figure, also highly illuminated. She is identified as a mascot, carrying the main symbols of the group: the claws of a dead chicken which represent a defeated enemy, a pistol representing the klover, their main weapon, and one golden drinking horn. In the rear a group of men, armed with an array of weapons, wearing various bits of armor and helmets assemble before a massive, but imaginary archway that represented the city gate to be defended. On the left, the standard bearer, dressed in blue, raises the troop banner while on the far right the men hold their pikes high. A drummer hired for the occasion, shown in partial view on our right, taps out a cadence while a dog barks enthusiastically at his feet. Various other participants, included to heighten the activity and drama, are in the background with their faces obscured or partly visible. However, one figure wearing a beret and peering up from behind a helmeted figure near the standard bearer has been identified as Rembrandt himself.
Rembrandt was at the height of his career when he painted this ambitious painting, which was a success at the time and is still regarded as one of his most celebrated works. Critic Clement Greenberg once defined the pre-Modernist painting as the struggle against confinement to two dimensions. The Night Watch certainly seems to burst forth from the canvas, a virtuoso of Baroque vigor, dramatic intensity, and powerful lighting.
Oil on Canvas - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Bathsheba at Her Bath
This life size canvas presents the biblical character Bathsheba in an ambiguous shallow space, illuminated from the left posed in front of a darker, obscure background. The story from the Old Testament describes how King David noticed a woman bathing out of doors when he was on the terrace of his palace. He learned that she was the wife of one of his generals. Bathsheba is shown holding a letter in her right hand while her servant dries her feet; King David had summoned her to appear before him. Her somewhat melancholy yet still musing expression reveals that Bathsheba is pleasantly interested but sadly concerned for if she goes to King David, she will betray her husband. In order to conceal his adultery and marry Bathsheba, King David sent Eliam into battle and ordered his other generals to abandon him, leaving him to certain death. God later punished King David dearly for this sin.
Earlier artists had painted the scene of King David spying on Bathsheba but Rembrandt's depiction brings a tighter pictorial focus and more erotic vitality, achieved through broad, thick brushstrokes and vibrant coloration. The model was probably Rembrandt's mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, and here the nude young woman is sitting on delicate white drapery; an opulent body caressed with delicate shadowing and finely worked jewelry amid fine fabrics. The warm harmony of the cream, gold and copper tones, inspired by Titian and Veronese, create a luminous setting for the pensive Bathsheba. The mellow chiaroscuro, chromatic richness, and psychological subtlety made the painting one of the artist's most popular; a study of innocence and seductiveness.
For the art historian Kenneth Clark, this canvas was "...Rembrandt's greatest painting of the nude..." For its insight into Bathsheba's moral dilemma, it has been described as "...one of the great achievements of western painting." The idea of the nude itself being the subject of the painting was still unusual, especially in presenting a non-idealized body. For Rembrandt, the boundary between art and daily life was not so strict; in his portraits of the 1650s, he adapted his painting technique to express his perception of the sitter.
Oil on canvas - The Louvre, Paris, France
Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph
In another Old Testament scene, Joseph, who has become a successful chief advisor to the pharaoh of Egypt, brings his two sons to their almost blind grandfather Jacob on his deathbed to receive the family blessing. Although according to tradition, the eldest son should be blessed first with the elderly patriarch's hand, Jacob deliberately puts his right hand on the head of the younger, fair-haired, and more angelic son. Jacob, apparently guided by God, could foresee that the younger son would be a greater person. The children's innocent Egyptian mother Asenath looks on during the solemn but tender family moment.
The dark draperies are shown drawn aside to permit the viewer to observe the intimate scene, illuminated from the left in golden cream tones. Joseph's right hand and the children mark the center of the composition but our eyes are also guided by the diagonals of the red blanket, the golden fur shawl, and the faces which are all focused upon the central action. The paint is applied quickly, thickly, or thinly depending upon how much is needed to attract the light and the viewer.
Rembrandt's signature can be seen in the lower left of the painting with the date 1656. His practice of signing his work with his first name, later followed by Vincent van Gogh, was probably inspired by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo who then, as now, were referred to by their first names only.
Rembrandt's Biblical paintings from this mature period are often cited as his most masterful works but they were not truly known by artists and critics until nearly the end of the 19th century. Rembrandt believed that human emotions were more important than any other aspects of life and two centuries earlier, he began expressing those beliefs in his art. His subjects' feelings and experiences are what he wanted to depict more than history, religion, or society. As explained in the NYU School of Medicine's Literature Arts Medicine Database, he had the "...ability to capture the human drama of a religious theme (which) earned him the appellation, the Shakespeare of painting..." This painting was created the year that Rembrandt experienced bankruptcy; it was a melancholy period of time when he sought peace of mind through his work.
Oil on Canvas - Schloss Wilhelmshone, Kassel, Hesse, Germany
Self-Portrait with Two Circles
Rembrandt painted more than 40 self-portraits yet he did not routinely pose himself plainly dressed for painting as he did here. He is not artificially posed or acting out a part dressed in an elaborate costume. He is simply dressed in a fur-lined robe over a red garment and a white beret. He holds his wooden palette, brushes, and a long maulstick used as a rest to steady his hands while painting. The artist stares directly at the viewer with one hand on his hip, while standing in front of a light-colored wall or canvas with large circles depicted upon it. This late work has seemingly unfinished areas such as the face and hat where the paint was rapidly and thickly applied. In some areas, Rembrandt drew or scratched into the paint; lines are cut into the moustache, left eyebrow, and shirt collar. The face shows his vulnerability and realism while the soft shadows suggest an actively searching and intelligent mind.
The flat, pale background with circular designs was atypical for Rembrandt and the meaning has been speculated upon greatly over the years. The favored explanation, which has historical precedents, is that a perfect circle symbolizes artistic skill. The early Italian Renaissance artist Giotto was once summoned by the pope to demonstrate his mastery so he drew a perfect circle in one single motion. An older story describes how Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great, engaged in drawing perfect lines to prove his superior talents. It is possible that Rembrandt's intent was to create an honest image of himself for posterity, more profoundly concerned with his personal character than a conventional self-portrait. The British Academy's President Sir Joshua Reynolds remarked about the "...very unfinished manner..." but found the painting "...admirable for its color and effect..." and Jean-Honore Fragonard painted his own copy of this work. In the 19th century Édouard Manet repeated Rembrandt's technique of the quick brushstroke with a painter's restless, alive, and hurried hand. Rembrandt may not have considered the work complete, which is suggested by the omission of his signature and date, which was unusual for a self-portrait by the artist.
Oil on Canvas - Kenwood House, London, England
The Jewish Bride
This painting from Rembrandt's mature period was intended for a small selective audience who could appreciate him as a painter of psychologically expressive paintings. The size of the canvas is moderate, there is no scenery, and the focus is completely on the intimacy of the moment. Although the true identity of the couple has been debated over the centuries, the most credible identification is that they were the Biblical Isaac and Rebekah. Historically the story explained that the patriarch Isaac pretended that Rebekah was his sister while they lived among the Philistines, only daring to embrace her in private for fear that the local people might kill him due to Rebekah's beauty. In this depiction, Issac's left hand rests protectively and gently on Rebekah's left shoulder while his right hand is placed on her bosom with affection rather than lust. Rebekah touches his right hand with her left; the lightness of physical contact between the pair suggests a deep and loving innocence. Their hands and faces are so expressive of sincere human elements; the drama is played out in the center of the composition. As one of Rembrandt's tenderest Biblical paintings, it is serene, thoughtful, and gentle.
This is a perfect example of the portrait historie, which was common during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age. It gave patrons an opportunity to dress as biblical or mythological figures to stress their fidelity, piety, and virtue.
Also characteristic of Rembrandt's later paintings, the paint is as much the subject of the composition as the figures. Rembrandt surpassed the inventiveness of Titian and Velazquez in that he was leaving the paint loose or as rough brushwork. The surface of the canvas might be smooth and creamy as it is on the glistening forehead of Rebekah or Isaac's brow. But in the garments he used a palette knife to apply layers of pigment to represent textures such as rich brocades, delicate lace, glistening jewelry, and intricate folds. He experimented with different effects according to the different rates of drying.
In 1885, Vincent Van Gogh sat in front of this painting in the Rijksmuseum and stared at it as if he was in a trance. He later told a friend "...I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting in front of this picture for ten days with only a crust of bread..." And according to the Rembrandt biographer Christopher White, the composition is "...one of the greatest expressions of the tender fusion of spiritual and and physical love in the history of painting..."
Oil on Canvas - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam