Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits
The J. Paul Getty Museum 2005
I arrived at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles around noon on a Sunday. The air was clear from the mountain top facility and a cool summer breeze swept across the grounds. With a six-year-old clutching my right hand and an infant strapped to my chest, I ascended the glistening marble staircase toward the third floor exhibition room that held the late religious paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn.
Rembrandt is one of the world’s most renowned painters. He was and remains to be an inspiration to artists with his use of color and blending. I have read that Rembrandt studied and mastered chiaroscuro, the Italian method of modeling light and dark paints to give artwork tridimensionality. His paintings of life in 17th century Amsterdam and his famous portraiture were said to be luxurious; his brush strokes bold and elegant, his use of color astounding, and his ability to render depth of emotion in his subject matter unparalleled. On paper, Rembrandt was truly a master, in person, he was simply breathtaking.
I stepped into a red room that housed 16 portraits, and was awe-struck. I may have seen these images in textbooks or postcards. I may have read of Rembrandt’s mastery and yet, as I stood before it I was dumbfounded. I approached each painting and breathed heavily. I could taste the linseed oil in the back of my throat and I felt as though I was devouring genius.
My eldest daughter fiddled with her audio tour and found most images to be only slightly interesting, that is, until we came upon Christ. The portrait of Christ with brown hair and beard was a more conventional image of Christ, but the eyes were arresting. His skin was painted with light, rich colors that caused his face to glow. The broad strokes of reds and brown in his hair complimented the fine detailed lines of grey in his eyes. Rembrandt had captured a depth of emotion in his masterful strokes. There was an intensity, yet a gentleness in the eyes of Rembrandt’s Christ that made an impression on even the youngest of viewers. The use of dark neutral colors and subtle blending around the figure made the bold, bright flesh of Christ glow like hot embers in a dark fireplace. Christ appeared very human. Unlike many other images of Jesus, this one seemed to be grounded in reality. Christ looked as though he were living, breathing flesh; a person that one could touch.
As we stood silently admiring the portrait of Christ, I noticed some discoloration. At first, I thought that at some point in time something had spilled on the painting, or perhaps it was once hung in an oval frame, or it may have been an effect, such as a halo, to illuminate this religious icon. However none of these scenarios seemed right, the discoloration and distortion created a jagged oval around the center of the painting and Rembrandt hadn’t used effects to illuminate heavenly figures in any other painting on display. I consulted the little pamphlet I was handed upon entering the exhibit, “… the central portion of the image was cut away and removed by thieves and later reattached.” Mystery solved.
My daughters and I slowly viewed the rest of the exhibit. One of the last images we saw was a portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, Possibly As the Sorrowing Virgin. This work seemed to glow more than any other in the room. The warm yellows and pinks in her face contrasted with the cool green and muddy violets in the shadows of her chin. Rembrandt had also done something bold, it appears as though he took the end of a bristle brush with a dab of bright red and lightly tapped it on the apple of her cheek to cause a slight blush. He rendered her dark, ebony eyes to radiate intelligence and sadness.
Although the portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels was listed as possibly being the sorrowing Virgin, I couldn’t help but wonder if she may have been a depiction of Mary Magdalene. I have seen many prints of historical portrayals of Mary Magdalene in similar poses, garments and facial expressions. Both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene have been depicted throughout art history as being melancholy women who carry the weight of divine love upon their delicate shoulders. Another reason the portrait reminded me of Mary Magdalene was because of the model’s costume of furs, and gold in her hair. Usually Mary Magdalene is shown wearing jewelry or flashy clothing to depict her former life as a prostitute, while the Virgin is usually shown as being simple and pure, untainted by materialism. Regardless of which Mary this portrait was intended to be, it was a magnificent, realistic, and stirring work of art.
My overall feeling about this exhibit is that Christian icons have never looked so human, so approachable. They seemed as though they had lives and secrets beyond the stories that are written. The sheer beauty of these artworks moved me deeply. Not only did I want to meet the men and women depicted in these sixteen canvases, but I wanted to meet the man who could breathe life into oil and pigments.