The idealisation of Rembrandt on his 400th birthday is inevitable, as is the reaction against it. None of this helps us to look at the paintingsby Sebastian Smee / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Few artists ever profit from overly awed responses, but there are those—Raphael, for instance, or Rothko—whose work contains an element that cries out for, and is somehow amplified by, idealisation. Rembrandt is the opposite. He had an almost animal thirst for the real, complemented by a maverick disregard for accepted conventions of visual beauty. In painting, in drawing and in printmaking, no artist has ever expressed more naturalness, which is why none is diminished quite as much by genius talk, by the kind of piety that short-circuits true feeling.
This is why, when I think of Rembrandt, I try to remember the drawings and etchings that, for centuries, many wished he had never made: the Woman Making Water and Defecating, for instance, or The French Bed, or the Monk in a Cornfield. “Une horreur artistique” was how the first of these, a simple depiction of a woman squatting outdoors, was described in a catalogue of Rembrandt’s graphic work published in 1890. Even today, most surveys of Rembrandt omit all mention of it, as well as of prints such as Monk in a Cornfield, which shows a monk copulating vigorously with a nun.
Faced with Rembrandt’s depictions of naked women got up as goddesses or biblical heroines, the poet Andries Pels (1631-81) wrote, with evident revulsion: “When he would paint a naked woman, as sometimes happened, he chose no Greek Venus as his model, but a washerwoman or peat-treader from a barn… Flabby breasts, wrenched hands, yes, even the marks of corset lacings on the stomach… must all be followed, or nature was not satisfied.”
But such pictures, along with Rembrandt’s The Rat Catcher, The Pancake Woman and his old man pissing into the soil are inseparable, in the end, from his more famous subjects—Dr Tulp and the students in his anatomy class, Jesus being lowered from the cross, and David playing the harp for Saul. Relieving oneself into the dirt and being lowered from the cross are all of a piece, Rembrandt keeps on reminding us, and we would do well to meditate on the fact. Piety be damned.
Unfortunately, an anniversary is a time when hagiography tends to triumph over cooler consideration. This year, the 400th since Rembrandt’s birth, the Netherlands is hosting what amounts to a Rembrandt love-in: exhibitions, activities and gimmicks, all blessed by the Dutch tourism industry. The exhibitions are too…