Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, or simply Rembrandt – needs no introduction. He reigns supreme in the world of art with masterpieces like The Night Watch (1642), The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667), and the infamous, and sadly still missing, Christ in theStorm on the Sea of Galilee (1633).
Born on this day – July 15, 1606 – in Leiden, Netherlands, Rembrandt was a prolific artist who, in addition to the masterpieces, painted over 80 self-portraits throughout his life. He plays with light and darkness on his face, he plays dress-up as in The Apostle Paul, he captures raw emotion and drama on his face, he documents his fames and fortunes over time – from a cocky young man with the unblemished smooth face of a young man, to a famous and confident middle-aged artist, and then again as a bankrupt and tragic artist with a face that captures the passage of time – it’s all there in his self-portraits – a lifetime captured on canvas with technical brilliance and ruthless honesty. Not repeated perhaps in that prolificity until the selfie generation of the 21st century came along.
Rembrandt elevated selfies to an art form in the 17th Century and continues to dignify the relentless and dedicated selfie generation of the 21st. So here’s wishing the king of selfies a Happy 415th!!
I am fascinated by the cross-cultural exchanges that were starting to take place in the world in the 17th Century, and the manner in which they manifested themselves in contemporary art. The Dutch and East India companies were trading with Mughal India and other countries in the East and apart from the spices they also brought back Mughal miniatures.
In a previous blog post, East meets West – in 17th Century India, I talked about the influence of European art on Mughal miniatures during Jahangir’s reign as a result of trade and the presence of Jesuit missionaries in the region. On the flip side, the Mughal miniatures that were brought back by the traders from Agra to the Netherlands were of keen interest to many including the most famous artist of the era, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69). He made several ink etchings of Mughal miniatures on Japanese paper – of which 23 are known to survive.
While some were more or less exact renditions, albeit monochromatic, of the colorful miniatures, in others Rembrandt showed movement – something that is almost always missing from the static miniatures. He mainly focused on the people, their mannerisms, and costumes, and ignored the intense colors and vibrant floral background of the miniatures. Interestingly, the miniatures seemed to have an influence on his later works, which can be seen in Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656). The circular seating of the figures, the appearance of the bearded Abraham, the round plate and jug all seem inspired by the Mughal miniature Four Mullahs (1627-28) and his copy Four Orientals under a Tree (1656-61).
(Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, British Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, The Getty Museum)
While I was looking up info for the wartime evacuation of paintings, I came across the really fascinating start to the Picture of the Month concept that was initiated by the National Gallery in London during wartime. The Gallery had just purchased and exhibited a Rembrandt painting in an otherwise empty museum. Following this exhibition, on January 3, 1942, a Mr. Charles Wheeler wrote a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper.
“because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days we need more than ever to see beautiful things. Like many another one hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces now stored in a safe place. Would the trustees of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk one picture for exhibition each week? Arrangements could be made to transfer it quickly to a strong room in case of an alert. Music-lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture-lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good.”
In response, the trustees decided to show one picture every three weeks instead of one a week because they, “felt that many people could not spare time to visit the gallery so often and might be disappointed at missing a favorite picture.”
The first painting selected by the museum was Titian’s Nole me tangere. The picture with its biblical subject matter that invited contemplation and its themes of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, seemed like a perfect choice for a nation at war. The picture was selected on March 11, 1942 and was on display for three weeks.
I looked through many months of archives of the Times and could only find three more such notices.
What fun I’ve had with the research for this blog!! As always, I am amazed at the power of art to bring joy and to heal.
(Sources: Times archives and the National Gallery, London).