PART 1: A Quick Background to the Context of Rembrandt.
There was an idea propounded in Baldesar Castiglione's writings known as "The Book of The Courtier". (A renaissance treatise on what might be required of a Courtier). This idea was that somehow Grace, defined there as "Gods gift to mankind" could be contained or expressed through an artwork in some way. What an Idea. Could such a thing be possible?
|Baldassare Castiglione Not by Rembrandt but By Raphael|
The conversations in this book, which sometimes quoted Raphael and referred to his paintings ( an artist who Castiglione knew personally and had paint his portrait) ..... were concerned with the idea that art could contain or at least point one towards goodness by passing on the effortless grace through the artist into the painting and on to the viewer this extension of Gods Gift. (Tap on images to see them in more detail )
Raphael's work was held up for many years to be a perfect example of this idea along with all things believed to be good about the rediscovery of the qualities of classical art. Indeed the academies of the arts around Europe held up his work to young artists for a number of centuries as the ultimate achievement of this endeavour, this aspect of art.
|"The Taking of Christ" by Caravaggio from the National Gallery Dublin Collection|
In time Caravaggio, a baroque artist was also was held up as an example to follow, his style acquiring a whole group of artists who would come to be known as the "Caravaggisti " (Baroque is the name given to the époque to follow that of the High Renaissance. Take time to have a look at "The Taking of Christ " by Caravaggio in The National Gallery as an example of this and other ideas. )
We recognise the Caravaggisti by the way they treated their subjects in light, mostly with a dark background. This dark background was dominant because artists by this stage were often secretly using the camera obscura to help them set up the stage for their work and create compositions that made the figurative subjects come to life, lighting up, as it were, the darkness directly from the reflected light observed on their skin and clothing for instance.
|The Transfiguration by Raphael featuring the predominant use of chiaroscuro which was to become the visual trademark of the Caravaggesti|
This painting and drawing technique known as chiaroscuro, which was part of the mannerists skillset actually goes directly back to one painting in particular created by Raphael known as "The Transfiguration" Believed to be his very last painting before he died. " (A full scale and very good copy that used to hang in the National Gallery "Shaw Room" hall is sadly now returned to to the archives. This is the hall that features the "Marriage of Strongbow by Daniel Maclise whose work here was influenced by Pre-Raphaelite ideas )
"The Transfiguration" contained a scene in the lower section where Raphael used the effect of figures emerging from the darkness which was probably the style that Caravaggio chose to emulate the most and use to become his own signature effect. This he did with great success though not without a lot of opposition.
So why do I mention this when talking about Rembrandt? Well Rembrandt was a follower of this style he was a Caravaggesti himself. Though he is regarded to have brought it to a whole new level which makes light appear to glow in his painting in a very convincing way. Also his version of chiaroscuro was much more freely applied and quickly rendered as indicated by this incredible facility to use brush marks (and drawing marks) and a deliberately limited palette to create a sense of material volume. He also does this by using impasto and a build up of glazes to create highlighted areas.
The idea that light had a symbolic meaning as well as a physical one permeates the work of Rembrandt. "The Light" in Rembrandt's paintings I would argue, has a symbolist intention. It is a Lux that shines through the work and expresses a desire to portray the Divine, the ephemeral and ineffable... a mystic inclination. I would like to refer to to one image in the National Gallery Exhibition as a very good example of this inclination. An inclination to express goodness as the all important idea.
PART 2: Now where is the goodness of Rembrandt?
(Briefly first . If you want to know what an Etching is . Here is a very good link, a description of the etching process tused in Rembrandt prints in the Dutch prints exhibition at the National Gallery’s drawing and print room at the moment in Dublin. )
We are very lucky to have some beautiful examples of Rembrandts etchings in this exhibition. What is it that makes him so special?
With Rembrandt apart from his sheer talent and drawing facility which I know are the most material aspect of his gifts …. what does strike you about even the nine or ten works you can see in Dublin is the choice of subject matter. To choose one work as an illustration ….
|The Annunciation to the Shepards: The Etching by Rembrandt mentioned here. (Tap on image to see more detail.|
At the heart of Rembrandt is a down to earth emphatic and passionate humanity which he even brings to imaginative religious scenes. When the angel appears to the shepards. They are so scared you would think they are about to be abducted by a UFO!! The animals are freaked and are not hanging around, being shown dashing away at full pelt along with one of the shepards with large grasping hands reaching for escape as he runs for his life.
|Rembrandt : One of many self portraits with his characteristic hat .|
The shepards, who Rembrandt sees as being other Dutch workers just like himself, dressed like shepards he sees in his own everyday life…. are blasted in the darkness by this intense radial light which, when you look at it closer, is actually made up of a myriad of little perfectly rendered cherubs.
The angel appears lower than this light in the scene solemnly makes his annunciation. He stands on a cloud that hovers above the river, where is portrayed the silhouette of a bridge in the distance. On it stands a lone observer. This seems to be a symbolic image …. a man on a bridge making a crossing as this significant moment is happening, an intimate but profound piece of news . On the other shore can be seen, dimly back lit by their campfire, are gathered the wise men perhaps? And way off in the distance is the dimly lit town of Bethlehem.
Set below a beautifully depicted blasted tree surrounded by hedgerows and remnants of another old tree. ….is one shepard alone who provides us with an all too human look of shock, surprise, praise and confusion in what to my mind must be a mini portrait of Rembrandt who is the central actor in the scene. Wearing his characteristic hat we have seen many times in his many self portraits, this Shepard looks out towards us rather than at the Angel who he has already observed along with the other two of his companions.
He is either shocked at one of them, who runs away toward us ominously towards a calm seated goat in the foreground ( a symbol perhaps for the momentary triumph of fear over courage ) ….. or he is registering his awe at the scene that he has just witnessed. Either way he manages to portray both expressions instantaneously. Here is Rembrandts goodness of spirit .
It has a comedic effect. It made me chuckle when I saw this. Here is Rembrandt himself making his choice and recognising the mixed emotions experienced at first, then he has capped that with happiness at the outcome while seeming to exclaim himself …... “This is great news dear God …..and why are you running off mate ? “
As the animals, the cattle and sheep nearly run over each other trying to get away. A lone figure , the third shepard emerges from the dark cave of his sleep to awaken to the commotion. Another animal that is courageous is the sheep dog who stands beside his watchful master.
Here are three different responses each encapsulated by one of the Shepard’s. This is the whole of mankind’s response. Rembrandt humbly plays the central role…. seeing himself as one of these men hundreds of years ago who witness this scene. He shows us in a mirror, a view of ourselves as funny in the face of a heavenly vision, lovable and familiar, almost foolish but steadfast in spite of ourselves. Lucky enough to be a witness but surrounded by chaos and fear. Another aspect of ourselves portrayed is the lone figure in the platonic cave of the mind looking out from the darkness into the hopeful light of the future. The potential questioning mystic perhaps?
As for the fearful figure running towards the goat, he will see his mistake soon enough and reappear at the scene of the nativity to join his other two companions. He will recognise his mistaken but natural inclination and despite it will come back with his friends and view for himself the hopeful miracle of a new born baby. He will reappear in Rembrandts painting of the “Adoration of the Shepards. “ this again emphasising this radial Rembrandt lux but this time it appears to come from the figure of the baby Jesus. Even though it is light rendered coming from a candle and holder in the hand of Joseph beside the child.
|The Adoration of The Shepards A painting by Rembrandt, showing the central shepard with the large hat again featured|
This mystical radial light of Rembrandts work seems to express this goodness and lends to us the ability to see the meaning and potential of humanity within visions of spirituality. Again therein lies his goodness to my mind.
All of the above acid-etched into copper and printed on paper no bigger than an A4 page in which he has encapsulated this heavenly vision.
Within the limits of this material medium what more could be shown to be good?