Rembrandt’s Light @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This beautiful exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669 by bringing together 35 of his iconic paintings, etchings and drawings, including major international loans including:

  • The Pilgrims at Emmaus, 1648 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
  • Philemon and Baucis, 1658 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
  • Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1645 and The Dream of Joseph, 1645 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

The theme of the exhibition is Light and each of the six exhibition rooms focuses on different ways and different media in which Rembrandt showed his mastery of light and shadow.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Before we look at any of the works in detail the curators introduce us to a couple of key ideas:

1. Theatrical

Apparently a new theatre opened in Amsterdam in the 1640s, and the curators quote its owners as pointing out that all the world’s a stage. There’s no direct link, apparently, between the new theatre and Rembrandt’s work except as a peg to bring out the theatricality of his conception. Once it’s pointed out to you, you realise how obvious it is that so many of Rembrandt’s paintings have been posed and staged and set and lit as if for a stage play or opera; that Rembrandt time after time chooses moments of great human drama to depict.

Hence the centrepiece of the first room is the enormous, square painting showing the moment the cock crows in the story of St Peter denying Christ, a moment of phenomenal psychological and religious drama.

The Denial of St Peter (1660) by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Rijksmuseum

This painting alone would repay hours of study. Suffice to point out the obvious, that most of the picture is in deep shadow or gloom, with the result that where light is portrayed it powerfully draws the eye – towards the mysterious glow behind the woman’s hand and onto Peter’s cloak. It was possible to spend quite a long time in front of it just enjoying the burnish on the soldier’s armour and elaborate helmet.

Reflections and jewels

In fact a kind of sub-theme of the exhibition, for me at any rate, was not only Rembrandt’s use of light so much as his use of reflections, especially off metallic surfaces and jewels. For me an exciting part of the Philemon and Baucis painting is not the light as such, but the way it highlights the gold filigree work on Jupiter’s chest and what looks like a band of pearls around Mercury’s head.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Detail

Similarly, the exhibition includes Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait with a Flat Hat, but among all the visual and psychological pleasures of this wonderful painting, I was attracted by the light reflected from the pearl necklaces around Rembrandt’s chest, on his gold bracelet, and his cheeky, dangling pearl ear-ring.

Self Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, (1642) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Detail

Light not only has a source and comes from somewhere, but also impacts, illuminates and is reflected back from its targets. What I’m struggling to express is that I didn’t just notice the cunning use of light sources in Rembrandt’s paintings, but the extremely clever, inventive and beautiful ways he uses these often obscure light sources to highlight, burnish and illuminate telling details in the compositions.

A word about reproductions

Back to The Denial of St Peter. What’s a little hard to make out in this little reproduction is that off in the background at the top right is Jesus, a shadowy figure with his hands bound behind him being led away and turning to look at the doleful scene of faithless Peter. Which brings us to a general point:

There’s a good catalogue of the exhibition but flicking through it you realise that all reproductions of Rembrandt are inadequate. No photographic reproduction can do justice to the subtlety and depth, the multiple levels of light and shade and darkness which he manages to achieve with oil painting.

One of the best paintings here is Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt van Rijn (1647) National Gallery of Ireland

In the flesh it is a marvel, with multiple layers of paint conveying a dark and stormy night, hills in the background and up on a distant hill the silhouette of some kind of building with tiny glowing windows, while down in the foreground the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and a servant tend a fire which shines out in a darkness which includes multiple shades of grey inflected with the orange of the fire and morphing into a strange preternatural almost purple sky of dusk. But in the catalogue reproduction almost all of this is jet black.

That’s the point of going to art galleries. The real actual art is always, in the flesh, a thousand times more sensual, rich, deep and mysterious than any colour print.

2. Rembrandt’s house

The curators go large on the biographical fact that in 1639 Rembrandt bought a big house in the Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, where he lived and painted until he went bankrupt in 1656 (today the Museum Het Rembrandthuis). One wall of room two has an architect’s drawing of the building printed on it.

Rembrandt had his studio on the first floor with its big windows. On the floor above were the smaller studios where he supervised his students. Here, we learn, he set his students all kinds of challenges designed to broaden their technique. Draw or paint a composition with a light source above, to the side, beneath the figures. Make an image with two light sources, one outside the frame. Paint a scene at night. Paint a scene at dawn. Thus the exhibition features drawings by a number of Rembrandt’s students showing them working with light, or by the master himself.

The Artist’s Studio (c. 1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Mock-ups

This brings us to another notable aspect of the exhibition, which is the way it is laid out and staged. The curators have gone to a lot of trouble to make it a dramatic experience, with each room lit and arranged in a different way. But over and above the lighting, in the room where the drawing above is on display, they have recreated the scene by building into the partition wall high, latticed windows that you can see in the drawing, and above the windows a sheet of muslin or cotton has been hung in a kind of billow, while the lower tier of windows has been blocked off, either by fabric of wooden shutters.

The point, for understanding Rembrandt, is to show how carefully he arranged windows and fabrics in order to create light effects in his studios. The point, for visitors to this exhibition, is to be impressed by the trouble the curators have gone to to recreate this aspect of Rembrandt’s studio in the gallery.

Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer

Related to the care taken over the design and layout of the exhibition, is the fact that the two curators – Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard – have collaborated with the award-winning cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, famed for his work on films such as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to create ‘a unique viewing experience’.

What this means is that, having established which works they were going to display, they collaborated with the lighting guy to really think about how to group them into rooms each of which has its own special lighting design and feel.

The most dramatic example of this is room five which is stripped back to its simplest essence with just one painting hanging in it, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638). All kinds of things are going on with light in this painting, as you can see for yourself.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb by Rembrandt van Rijn (1638) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The thing, the schtick, the gimmick or the stroke of brilliance cooked up by Suschitzky, Scott and Hillyard, was the decision to have one narrow spot light focused on this painting and have it set to very slowly fade away to nothing, and then very slowly come on again till it’s bathing the painting in full light.

As it fades and then returns, something really weird happens: at certain moments in the dimming and fading process, it really as if a ray of light from heaven is falling across the scene. In particular, there’s a certain pint when the face of Mary, the light lower left half, becomes briefly luminescent. And you can simply see why this experience required a whole room to really savour.

Draughtsmanship

The middle rooms contain the etchings and drawings, including ones from his pupils. I have to be honest and say I was underwhelmed by these. His capture of light and shade in the punishingly difficult medium of drypoint etching is marvellous; but his actual draughtsmanship isn’t. In fact sometimes it feels positively wonky.

A good example of this mixed impression is Woman with an Arrow, which is important enough to have an audioguide item devoted to it. Now I can see the dramatic contrast between the whiteness of her naked body and the deep gloom of the background. But.. but if you look at her right arm, at some point I think you realise it isn’t quite in the same picture plane as the rest of her body, has a kind of deformed look. It took me a while to notice there’s a face (presumably of a student drawing her) by her left shoulder. Not very good is it? Crude.

Woman with an Arrow (c. 1661) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

This kind of rather blodgy wonkiness with the human figure runs throughout Rembrandt’s work. Sometimes he rises effortlessly above it. But other times, I found it distracting. If you scroll back up to the painting at the start of this review – the painting captures the moment from the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis when the old peasant couple welcome in two wandering strangers and go to the trouble of slaughtering their best goose to make  meal. And at this point, the wanderers reveal themselves to be no other than king of the gods Jupiter and  his messenger Mercury.

It is a typically dramatic moment, and the lighting effect is characteristically subtle, with the natural light coming from the little fireplace on the left eclipsed by the golden light now suddenly emanating from the heads of the visiting gods.

But look closely at those godheads and you might be disappointed by their wonkiness. Jupiter’s eyes in particular look uneven, almost making him look like a cranky Cyclops rather than a figure of majesty and awe.

Heartbroken tenderness

So I’m a big fan of very precise draughtsmanship, for me one of the great thrills of art is the way a handful of pencil or brushstrokes can create a world, and so I felt myself being brought up again and again by the apparent wonkiness of many of the images, viewed as pure exercises in draughtsmanship.

BUT, and it is an enormous but, Rembrandt’s paintings (especially) have a quality which supersedes and outweighs any strict concerns about linesmanship, and this is their immense human warmth. The catalogue quotes a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother in which he describes Rembrandt’s tenderness and then goes on to be more precise, praising the heartbreaking tenderness of his images.

Rembrandt in fact made a very large number of images – paintings, drawings and etchings – and you can see why it’s possible to argue – even on the basis of just the 35 works here – that he inhabited a number of different styles.

But the ones we remember, the famous ones, the ones in the anthologies and you were shown at school all share his great and wonderful quality, a sense of almost superhuman sympathy and understanding with the poor weak vulnerable human animal. He liked painting old people because their faces convey the depth and ravages of experience and yet tremendous dignity. His own mature self portraits convey volumes about human experience which no words can match.

Which is why the sixth and final room of this exhibition is worth the price of admission by itself because it brings together half a dozen of Rembrandt’s greatest hits and the impression is overwhelming. There’s the Self Portrait in a Flat Cap, the Girl At a Window, a wonderfully sensuous and intimate portrait of a woman in bed. All of them convey that sense of immense, almost god-like tenderness which van Gogh described.

Maybe most tender of all is the famous painting of the woman wading into a stream, supposed to be a portrait of his mistress.

A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) by Rembrandt van Rijn, © The National Gallery, London

In line with my narrow (and maybe illiterate and philistine) views about Rembrandt’s abilities as a draughtsman, I don’t think the face bears too much scrutiny. But detail like that is beside the point. By this stage (the end) of the exhibition, we have been tutored to appreciate:

The theatricality of the image – not a melodramatic moment from the Bible or classical myth, but nonetheless a very telling, precise and revealing moment of domestic intimacy and candour.

The human tenderness the tremendous feel for the beauty of the exposed, trusting human being in a moment of vulnerability and honesty.

And – to bring us back to the main theme of the exhibition – to the importance of light in creating the overall effect. In a sense, it is only because he is such a master of light that you don’t really notice the importance of the light to the impact of the image until it is specifically pointed out to you, it is so totally subsumed into the overall composition.

The cumulative effect of looking closely at, and having explained to you, Rembrandt’s various ways and techniques with light is eventually to make you realise that rather startling fact that light alone can convey emotion. Light alone can create meaning in a painting. Light alone can shape images which prompt such powerful feelings of human sympathy and compassion.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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