This video from Britain says about itself:
4 November 2014
Every Rembrandt exhibition is eagerly anticipated but this major new show, focused on the final years of his life and hosted by London’s National Gallery and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is the biggest in many years. Given exclusive & privileged access by both galleries, the film documents this extraordinary show and interweaves Rembrandt’s life story with the behind the scenes preparations at both institutions. For many, this is the greatest artist that ever lived – this film will take a close look at the man behind such acclaim.
On 15 April 2017, I went to see this Rembrandt exhibition film. Another film in the Exhibition on Screen series was about Hieronymus Bosch.
The theme of the exhibition is Rembrandt’s later years, 1651-1669. Usually, art historians take 1651 as a starting point, as Rembrandt then changed technically, using broader brush strokes in his paintings.
During the preparations for the exhibition, people discovered that Rembrandt had made changes compared to the earliest versions of his works of art. In one case, Rembrandt had done quite some work on a painting, but did not finish it, and later made another painting on that canvas.
The film names four influences on Rembrandt: Caravaggio; Rubens; Lucas van Leyden, from the same Leiden city as Rembrandt; and Pieter Lastman, who taught the young Rembrandt. Lastman inspired Rembrandt to make paintings about biblical history, antique history and mythology. Yet, if we (not the film) compare what Rembrandt painted about and what his older contemporary and inspiration Rubens painted about, then we see a striking difference. 75% of Rubens’ work had religious or antique historical and mythological subjects. With Rembrandt, only 25% of his work fitted into these categories. While 70% of Rembrandt’s work were portraits, including self-portraits. Only 15% of Rubens’ work were portraits; 0% self-portraits.
In this, Rembrandt went against the traditional view of which visual art categories were supposedly superior and which were supposedly inferior. Traditionally, painting Christian religious or antique historical or mythological scenes was seen as more ‘noble’ than painting portraits. However, the seventeenth century Dutch republic was different in this, the film remarks. In other European countries, painters worked for the Roman Catholic church (or for princely or other noble courts, the film makers might have added). In the Netherlands, the urban bourgeois, recently victorious in the revolt against the monarchy of Spain and its aristocratic old order, wanted portraits of themselves. And Rembrandt and others painted them. While in Rubens’ southern Low Countries (roughly what later became Belgium) the Spanish armies had managed to suppress the revolt and save the old social and religious order. The film, describing the revolt against the Spanish kings in Dutch national terms, does not use words like ‘bourgeois’ or ‘class’; but studying the context of Rembrandt’s and Rubens’s works suggests them.
One can speculate whether Rembrandt was also an inspiration for Goya in depicting monarchs’ relatives unflatteringly. Rembrandt got a commission from the princely court in Holland (princely, as the Stadhouders in the Low Countries were also absolute monarchs in the tiny statelet of Orange in southern France). But when his portrait of Princess Amalia von Solms turned out to be not flattering enough, his relationship to that court deteriorated. Maybe a bit in the vein of Goya a century and half later, who is said to have mocked the Spanish royal family in his portrait painting of them.
Talking about Rembrandt and princely families: he twice made a painting about Lucretia, a woman from ancient Roman historical tradition. According to that tradition, in 509 BC the son of the king of Rome, Sextus Tarquinius, raped Lucretia. Sextus Tarquinius thought he could commit that crime with impunity, as he was a man, Lucretia a woman; he was a prince, Lucretia a subject. Like in 2015 a scion of the Saudi royal family harassed women sexually in the USA, saying: ‘I am a prince and I do what I want. You are nobody!’ Sextus Tarquinius told Lucretia that if she would not submit to being raped, then he would kill both her and one of her slaves, place their bodies together, and claim he had defended her husband’s honour when he caught her having adulterous sex. In despair, after the rape Lucretia then committed suicide.
The film points out that Rembrandt’s first Lucretia painting shows the subject (in seventeenth century rather than Roman antiquity clothes) on the verge of killing herself with a dagger, still a bit uncertain whether she would do it.
While the second painting shows Lucretia just after she had become sure about her decision, having inflicted a lethal wound in her breast, and ringing an alarm, summoning witnesses to tell them Prince Sextus Tarquinius had raped her, as her last words before dying.
Anger in Rome about the rape and suicide of Lucretia led to a revolt in which the royal family was deposed and replaced by the Roman republic.
That Roman republic became an inspiration for later revolutions in which monarchs were overthrown and replaced by republics. Like the eighteenth-century American revolution against King George III of Britain, in which the first president of the USA, George Washington, was compared to Roman republican statesman Cincinnatus. During the French revolution against King Louis XVI revolutionary painter David painted scenes from Roman republican history.
Earlier, during Rembrandt’s lifetime, the Roman republic had been an inspiration for English revolutionaries who deposed and beheaded King Charles I and made England a republic.
The film is quite elaborate on how Rembrandt painted Lucretia’s clothes, her blood and her facial expressions telling about her inner feelings. However, the film does not ask why Rembrandt considered Lucretia a worthy subject. According to ancient Roman historiography, Sextus Tarquinius’ royal dynasty were tyrants, killing people and taxing the people heavily. They were also Etruscans. These Etruscan royals did not speak their Roman subjects’ Latin, but a very different language as their mother tongue. Like taxation and bloodshed had been causes of the Etruscan-Roman royals’ downfall, Spanish royal taxes and the Spanish inquisition burning Protestants at the stake had also been factors in the Dutch revolt. May Rembrandt not have seen a parallel between the royal dynasty of Rome and King Philip II and his successors in Spain; and between the successful republican revolt in Rome, and the succesful (at least in the northern Low Countries) Dutch revolt against the monarchy?
I don’t know any writings by Rembrandt confirming that; so, for the moment this is just speculation by me.
In the film, there is another speculation: that the exiled French philosopher Descartes and Rembrandt knew each other and influenced each other. Again, as far as I know, neither in writings by Descartes nor in writings by Rembrandt there is proof of that.
Finally, the film mentioned and illustrated that Rembrandt was an important innovator in art techniques. In painting, and also in etching.