Review: The Religious Vision of Rembrandt

Courtesy of University of Chicago Press
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 150 pp., £29.50/$42.50 cloth.

This catalogue accompanied an exhibition of seventeen works by Rembrandt from late in his career, held in 2005 at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles). The volume was put together by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery and professor of art history at the University of Maryland.

View images of Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits at National Gallery of Arts website here.

The paintings brought together in this exhibition date to the late 1650s and early 1660s, a particularly difficult time in Rembrandt’s life. Each depicts a half-length, portrait-like image of a figure from Christian history, including Jesus himself, the virgin Mary, and several apostles and saints. These pieces have much in common. The individuals portrayed appear deep in thought; pensively, even broodingly staring out from dimly-lit backgrounds. While they are undoubtedly by Rembrandt, the portraits stand out as distinct from the rest of his corpus and from the favoured artistic conventions of their day. The similarities amongst these works have led many scholars to wonder whether or not they were intended to be a series. Prior to this exhibition, however, the paintings had never been shown together. Thus, the curators brought together these works from collections in London, New York, Munich, Paris, Amsterdam and elsewhere in order to facilitate discussion about their relationships to one another and to the artist himself.

The catalogue begins with three introductory essays. The first, “Rembrandt’s Apostles and Evangelists,” is by the aforementioned Arthur Wheelock. Wheelock presents an engaging and insightful analysis of these portraits within the context of Rembrandt’s life and career. He focuses on Rembrandt’s own religious beliefs and the cultural and theological factors which may have influenced the artist in his creation of these works. The second essay, “Rembrandt’s Apostles: Pillars of Faith and Witnesses of the World,” is by Volker Manuth, professor of art history at the University of Nijmegen. Manuth’s contribution is a concise treatment of the significance of the twelve apostles for Protestant Christianity of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Finally, in “Rembrandt and the Portrait Historié,” Peter C. Sutton, director at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, situates these paintings within the artistic tradition of the portrait historié – “the depiction of known individuals in the guise of biblical, mythological, or literary personages.”[p. 58] The remainder of the volume consists of a catalogue of the seventeen paintings themselves. Beautiful photographs of each work are accompanied by short essays which are descriptive, analytical and insightful.

Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits is an informative and beautifully-presented catalogue of these unique works by Rembrandt. The essays do an excellent job of evaluating the paintings in comparison to Rembrandt’s other art and situating them both within his personal and professional life as well as the religious and artistic context of the time. The photographs of the paintings are rich in colour and sharp in detail, enabling the viewer to get a sense of the artist’s brush-strokes and application of his medium. In the mind of this reviewer, however, the volume has one rather significant shortcoming: nowhere does it present the seventeen works all together – either small-scale, arranged together on two pages—or large-scale, displayed one after the other. Instead there are as many as four pages of text and smaller images between the large photographs of each painting. Therefore the main purpose of this exhibition – to enable the viewer to experience these unique works in direct juxtaposition with one another – is not effectively enabled for the reader of its catalogue.

Aside from this, the catalogue does a commendable job presenting this exhibition. Though its central motivation – the question of whether or not Rembrandt conceived of these paintings as a series – is not, and perhaps may never be, definitively answered, the contributors enable the reader to critically appreciate these powerful works of the Dutch master with an informed perspective.

Review by Jesse Nickel

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