Exhibition: Rembrandt | Britain’s Discovery of the Master
Date: 7 July – 14 Oct 2018
Venue: Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, UK.
Posterity has taken upon itself to avenge the oblivion into which Rembrandt fell. And yet we should be wrong to bear too harshly upon his contemporaries for their want of appreciation. Rembrandt’s art was too original, too diametrically opposed to receiving ideas for things to be otherwise. The average man could not understand it, and the touch of moroseness in the artist’s self-contained personality was not calculated to attract his affection. He scandalised his fellow townsmen by some of his proceedings, and in none did he lay himself out to please them. Always in extremes, his temperament offered many contradictions.
From one point of view, he was a dreamer, incapable of managing his affairs or even of arranging his daily life. On the other hand, in all that touched his work, he showed tenacity and a sense of system which are rare even with the best-regulated artists. He created his own methods of study from the very foundation. Simple in his habits and of an extreme frugality, he yet shrank from no expenditure when it was a case of satisfying an artistic impulse. Good-humoured, kindly, and ready to do a service as he was, he nevertheless lived apart, in a solitude which had something forbidding about it. He took an interest in all things, and yet, although his movements were perfectly free, he never left his native country. Gifted with a fine imagination, he nevertheless clung to the skirts of nature; eager for every novelty, it was yet in the humblest and most beaten tracks of life that he sought and found the subjects he dressed in unexpected poetry. His sense of beauty was perfect, and he spares us no extreme of ugliness.
On a single canvas he combined the highest aspirations with the commonest trivialities, the most absolute lack of taste with an almost excessive refinement of delicacy. As we might expect with so complex a temperament, Rembrandt’s life, like his painting, was full of lights and shadows. He underwent every variation of fortune, and experienced all the joys and trials of existence. After having won the first place amongst the painters of his native country, he did not hesitate to compromise his reputation with The Night Watch, a challenge to public opinion, and an injury to the egos of those who took care to make him suffer for his exploit. With a little tact, he might have replaced the applause of the crowd with the patronage of the upper class.
Between the timidities of his prudent, though ardent youth, and the audacities of his old age, there was a whole life of labour. Review his various phases with care, and all his transformations fall into their respective frames; his genius appears as a perfectly regular and naturally whole. Rembrandt took great pains to observe his own personality. He could find no better model than his own countenance and his own person, and in every study he learnt something new. Each head he painted added to his power of distinguishing the vital traits, of keeping, under the superficial changes of varying expression, the persistent character of his sitter, and of grasping an emotion in its depth, or a fleeting sentiment in its rapid passage across a face.
Scarcely any artist has produced more than Rembrandt, and we know of none who has made so many drawings. He lived in retirement, and suffered no break in his constant labour. He never seems to have cared for amusements. His one care was to prevent his time from being interrupted. His chief pleasure, after a day spent in painting, was to pass the evening with his pen or his burin. He drew everything he saw, and the vast number of his designs is the best proof we could have of his fertility of fancy, as well of the excellent use of his time.
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