Rembrandt's great orchestration.
The National gallery has just hosted one of the most impressive exhibitions of Rembrandt's late works. If you missed it, you'll have a chance to see it next in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum (12 February-17 May 2015)
Without an advance online booking, I arrived on the first day at opening time, and was faced with a demoralising queue stretching all the way outside the building. At the information desk, a man told me this was only going to get worse as it was the last week, and said "it's crazy, it's just like the queues of people waiting for the next iphone!". Next time you walk past an Mac store, and people are queuing for the next iphone, please think to yourself "it's crazy, it's like people queuing for a Rembrandt show!"
The show altogether was great, but I was particularly interested in the self-portrait room, where the first 4 self portraits glow out from the shadows, which you could look at all together and compare to one another. The 5th painting, with the 2 circles in the background (much speculation to their significance) was in the next room, due to its larger size. There were some clear differences in how he handled his subject, the paint, the focus, the set-up.
What I offer here are my observations while I faced the paintings close up; scrutinising the paint surface, analysing how different areas were handled, what choices were made. Clearly, much has already been written about the fantastic paint handling, the fleshiness of the paint, the compositional structures etc. But I write here as a painter fascinated with the different approaches in each image, and curious about the many different "cogs" that all align seamlessly in the great "wheel" that is, a Rembrandt self-portrait.
These portraits are a great lesson in how modelling of form can be handled not only through tone, but subtle colour shifts of temperature (colds recede, warms advance). The green/grey ground in #1 comes through gaps of unpainted areas, to allow form to recede. It's common to see the tip of the nose red, whilst the edge of the temples are grey. But interestingly, in #4, temperature "rules" seem to be broken, with several warm accents within a recess, lying behind cooler tones: Red streaks in far cheek shadow; red accent inside the recess of the eye socket; more red behind nostril than on tip of nose.
When staring at all of them together again, it is clear that the focal depth of each painting seem to narrow over the years. As if a mist is drawn in from the background to envelop the details of anything behind the eye and nose areas. Rembrandt is clearly prioritising when it comes to what features remain prominent, and which ones disappear. He creates a set of engaging anchor points for the viewer to get hooked on, and avoids unnecessary peripheral visual chatter. This juggling of textures, and handling of edges makes for one of the greatest lessons in orchestration by any artist.
P.S Another strong self-portrait (At age 51), that doesn't fit in the timeline of this exhibit, can be found in Edinburgh's National Gallery.