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Mysterious turn

Getty showcases Rembrandt's late embrace of religious subjects.

June 15, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

No one knows why Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn began painting half-length portraits of religious figures late in his life.

The subject was uncommon in Protestant Amsterdam, where he lived. Paintings and sculptures, deemed idolatrous by Luther's followers, were not permitted in churches; existing images were removed and often destroyed. In 1681, a local authority described Rembrandt as the "foremost heretic in the art of painting."

At the Getty Center, "Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits" brings together, for the first time, 16 of these mysterious paintings. As with nearly everything Rembrandt, art historians have argued for decades over the dates some were painted, the identities of some sitters, whether some are finished or have been damaged and restored, whether the group forms a series and whether Rembrandt even painted some. With such basic facts disputed, the reason they were made is open to interpretation.

Some scholars speculate that foreign clients commissioned the life-size images, which depict apostles, Christ, the Virgin, a saint, a monk and an anonymous old man. Others believe that he made these dark, heart-wrenching pictures for a secret Mennonite sect, whose persecuted members opposed Calvinism and identified with the martyred apostles. Still others suggest that Rembrandt (1606-1669) painted the sorrowful works for himself as a sustained meditation on human mortality, probably brought on by a spate of personal tragedies and professional misfortunes exacerbated by profligate spending and bad investments.

That part of Rembrandt's life is well documented.

In 1634, he married his art dealer's niece, Saskia. They had four children, but only Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. When Saskia died in 1642, Geertje Dircks was hired as the boy's wet nurse. She became Rembrandt's mistress until she fell ill in 1647. Their relationship soured, degenerating into a string of nasty lawsuits. In 1654, it was discovered that Geertje's live-in caretaker was pregnant. Hendrickje Stoffels was publicly condemned by the Dutch Reformed Church for "living in sin like a whore" with Rembrandt, who escaped censure because he was not a church member. Their daughter, Cornelia, was born that year.

The scandal damaged Rembrandt's reputation and did nothing to help his career, which had already declined from its heyday in the 1630s and '40s, when lucrative commissions were plentiful and he ran a factory-like studio with many assistants. His style also had changed, maturing in ways that conventional tastes did not keep up with. The rough, unvarnished directness of Rembrandt's paint-handling was not fashionable among wealthy middle-class art buyers. And students stopped apprenticing themselves to the once-revered master, who appeared to be well on his way to becoming a has-been.

In 1656, Rembrandt was unable to pay his bills and had to surrender his grand home and extensive art collection to the Chamber of Insolvent Estates. His possessions were sold at a series of public auctions over the next two years, while he remained on the premises. He moved to a modest home in 1658, where he had a small studio and, to protect himself from creditors, set himself up as an employee of a company run by Hendrickje and his 17-year-old son.

The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum, presents 12 canvases Rembrandt almost certainly painted in these cramped quarters and three he most likely finished in 1657, just before leaving his luxurious home's large studio. Most scholars agree that one painting, portraying either Christ or James the Minor, is the work of a pupil. (It's the only portrait set in a public space. Prison cells, hermit hovels and shadowy interiors fill the backgrounds of all the pictures attributed to Rembrandt.)

Great suffering, experienced up close and in person, is palpable in the paintings, their mysteriousness only intensifying their haunting power. Each strips away inessentials to focus on the fundaments of a life -- the soul-baring emotions that define an individual by giving character to his or her every expression.

The three images from 1657, depicting a bearded man and the apostles Paul and Bartholomew, are among the most resolved, with layers of exquisitely blended paint balanced against schematic, almost crude passages and dark, substance-devouring shadows. The weapons used in the apostles' martyrdoms are among the only props: a sword behind the desk in Paul's cell and a flaying knife casually held in Bartholomew's right hand. Exhaustion, exasperation and barely contained agitation are powerfully conveyed.

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