Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Love of the Art and Others": Rembrandt and Elizabeth Jennings

Rembrandt, Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, 1662. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A few weeks ago, the Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition wrapped up at the National Gallery in London. I went to see it with a friend on the last entrance slot of the last day, which even by my standards is leaving things late.

Had I missed this exhibition, I would have had to kick myself around the block for eternity. It really was that good. Especially because I've been to the great art galleries in Amsterdam and The Hague, I had already seen many of these paintings before, but there were also many from the US and elsewhere that I had never seen. Besides that, it was simply overwhelming to walk through room after room filled with such masterpieces.

Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, above, is a favourite: a small digital reproduction can't show the liveliness, patience, eagerness to get back to work, and polite weariness in the eyes of the various men in this painting. Among other masterpieces, there were also The Jewish Bride, Saint Bartholomew, and various remarkable late self-portraits.

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c. 1667. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, Saint Bartholomew, 1657. Timken Museum of Art

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659. National Gallery of Art, Washington

It's hardly original to say that when you look at a Rembrandt painting, you feel as though you gain an insight into that person's soul. But I would go a step further and say that when you look into the painted eyes of the people who sat for him, or who he imagined from stories and from history, you seem to feel what that person is feeling. No wonder this exhibition was overwhelming.

As much as I love most forms of art, I generally have my doubts as to whether art can really make us better people. But when I look at Rembrandt's paintings, I sense that they actually can make us better, for one simple reason. Rembrandt looked at everyone - including himself - with empathy and interest, and without judgment. He gave his subjects dignity, no matter who they were. And when we gaze at his paintings, they invite us in to do the same.

English poet Elizabeth Jennings wrote this poem, 'Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits', in tribute to some of the finest paintings I looked at that night a few weeks ago, and in tribute to the artist. Like the portraits themselves, the poem looks at Rembrandt both delicately and unflinchingly, seeing past the surface to all the implications of love, pain and self-scrutiny which lie underneath. You can read the poem, or listen to the poet herself read it, on the link below.



  1. I left it so late I missed it but thanks for translating some of the magic so eloquently.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, but sorry you missed the exhibition! It really was something special. I almost wish now that I'd gone earlier and then gone a second time...

      Of course, you can see many of these masterpieces in London, Amsterdam, etc at non-exhibition times, but it was a lot of amazingness in one place at once!