Rembrandt – The Late Works at the National Gallery

Peter Morrell visits the new blockbuster exhibition at the National and finds that it exceeds all of his expectations

Rembrandt The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as ‘The Syndics’, about 1662 Oil on canvas 191.5 x 279 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (SK-C-6)

Having visited the culturally rich city of Amsterdam many times the works of Rembrandt are very familiar to me. There is a large collection in the Rijksmuseum and examples of his etchings in the more intimate Rembrandt House Museum (Rembrandthuis) on Jodenbreestraat.

The exciting thing about the new exhibition at the National Gallery, Rembrandt – The Late Works, is the number of paintings that have been pulled together from both public and private collections from around the world. Here is a unique opportunity to see a new body of works and compare it to the more familiar paintings and drawings.

The exhibition covers Rembrandt’s output from about 1652 to the year of his death in 1669. This was a period of introspection for the artist. He had suffered both personal tragedy, he lost his wife a children, and he was impoverished by lavish spending on other works of art and the mortgage on his house.

The exhibition space is a series of small rooms which add atmosphere to the collections. The first room is dedicated to his self portraits. He painted more than 80, making him probably the father of the ‘selfie’. One particular work, painted just months before his death, shows him as old and poorly dressed but still with a look of defiance on his face.

In the next room is one of the most exciting paintings,’The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis’ on loan from the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine arts. Although still large this is a fragment of a panel painted by Rembrandt for Amsterdam City Hall. The original was the subject of some dispute between him and the people who had commissioned the work.

Moving through the exhibition it is evident that as he aged Rembrandt had not lost any of the confidence in his abilities. Paint had applied before the earlier coat had dried and details made on the canvas with fingers, palate knife and the wooden end of brushes are all evident.

Breathtaking works come thick and fast, The Anatomy Lesson of Joan Deyman is gory but compelling, Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph is superb and a detail of the image being used in adverts for the exhibition, The Jewish Bride is excellent.

There is a very personal piece of Rembrandt’s son Titus, chin on hand leaning on a sheaf of papers, doing his homework. A clever piece of curation has been to put the painting ‘Old Woman Reading’ from the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection next to Titus, showing that the artist could capture the very essence of people young and old.

My favourite work is towards the end of the exhibition, The Sampling Officials, also known as the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild painted in 1662. Five men, obviously of some importance, with a servant in attendance are assessing a piece of cloth, it catches the mood perfectly. I have seen this work in the Rijkmuseum and never tire of looking at it.

One final work to look out for is ‘The Apostle Bartholomew’, although painted in 1661 it could equally have been produced in the 1930s, it has an uncanny modernity about it.

This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this unique collection and the combined efforts of the curators from the National Galley and the Rijksmuseum are to be applauded.

The exhibition runs in London until 18th January when it moves to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and runs between 12th February and 17th May 2015.

For the duration of the exhibition in Amsterdam there will be a series of events including walking and boating tours to Rembrandt’s House and where he is buried, the West Church (Westerkerk). For more on this visit www.rijksmuseum.nl/rembrandt

For more information and to book tickets go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk/rembrandt

For more on visiting Holland go to www.holland.com

This article first appeared on www.theculturalvoyager.com