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Searching for Answers

New Exhibit Looks at Religion And Rembrandt

What spurs art? Is it money, personal turmoil, religion or other strongly held convictions?

In the case of “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits” — a new exhibit opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art — the answer may be some, all, or perhaps even none of the above.

The show, populated by less than two dozen half-length portraits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles, saints, monks and evangelists painted in the late 1650s and early 1660s raises myriad questions as to why Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch master who died in 1669, chose to produce so many thematically and imagistically similar works — all featuring pensive figures peering out from dark backgrounds — at that point in his career, says the exhibit’s curator, Arthur Wheelock.

Were the paintings meant to be part of a series? And if so, for whom? What was the market for such works? Or were they motivated more by personal spiritual or psychological reasons?

Such questions, Wheelock says, have beguiled scholars for the better part of the past century. But never before have they had the benefit of having all the portraits — which had to be drawn from private and public collections scattered across Europe, Russia and the United States — together in one place.

“In order to have this show, you had to have all 17 paintings,” says Wheelock, whose interest in the portraits was first piqued while a graduate student at Harvard University in the 1960s.

That Rembrandt produced these paintings during a period of personal upheaval is well known in the art world. After the death of his wife, Saskia, in the early 1640s, Rembrandt entered into a series of illicit relationships, first with his son’s wet nurse, and then with

another woman — Hendrickje Stoffels — who had come to work at his home, and who later gave birth to his daughter. Neither entanglement did much for his social standing given the mores of the time. (His wife’s will forbade his remarriage.)

Concurrently, Rembrandt’s more expressive works were falling out of favor with the Amsterdam establishment, and his debts were mounting. Finally in 1656, he was forced to effectively declare bankruptcy, and soon after, he auctioned off his stately home and personal art collection, among other effects.

Against such a backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that Rembrandt may have identified with the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, such as the apostle Paul, whom he represents as himself in one of the most famous depictions of the saint included in the exhibit. (Rembrandt’s own religious affiliation is somewhat vague — he was raised a Protestant but also had ties to the Mennonites and Roman Catholics, among other Christian sects, and was friendly with the large Jewish community that lived in his former neighborhood.)

Rembrandt’s self-portrait as Paul forms part of a “core group” of a half-dozen paintings — also depicting Matthew, Bartholomew, Simon, James the Major and James the Minor — all dated 1661 that provide the basis for the religious series hypothesis. Not only are they similar in size, says Wheelock, but the brooding faces and painted black borders surrounding the works indicate that they may have been part of a preconceived grouping. Moreover, that Rembrandt used the same model — possibly a Jewish man — in “A Bearded Man in a Cap” and two other works in the exhibit, “Saint Bavo” and “The Apostle Paul,” also gives credence to the notion that these works may have been undertaken as part of a broader project.

(To further underscore Rembrandt’s propensity for seriality, the gallery has included a collection of 24 of his religious etchings in an adjacent room that cover subjects ranging from the Holy Family to the ministry of Christ. Wheelock also notes that earlier in his career Rembrandt produced a “Passion” series for Prince Frederick Hendrick of Orange.)

Other paintings in the show have less overtly religious connections, and whether they were meant to be part of a series or are even religious in intent is more problematic. Many of Rembrandt’s works appear as portrait historiés — in which modern-day subjects are depicted as historical figures — but not all are explicitly labeled. Among these portraits is “Man in a Red Cap” (once in the private collection of the great English painter and critic Sir Joshua Reynolds) and “Hendrickje Stoffels,” which have been interpreted, respectively, to potentially represent an evangelist and the sorrowing virgin. Still, Wheelock concedes playfully that the virgin interpretation “could be my total fantasy.”

Taken on their individual merits, the paintings represent an artist at the pinnacle of his technical abilities. “You can’t straitjacket Rembrandt,” says Wheelock, noting the impressive range of brushstrokes used in the individuals’ faces. Unlike other artists, such as Rembrandt’s contemporary, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who chose to portray the apostles as idealized figures, Rembrandt’s religious figures represent the story of the human condition writ large; and the visual sense of human frailty — conveyed in many of his figures’ facial expressions as well as in his frequent, though often camouflaged, inclusion of the implement of their martyrdom — hardly romanticize their condition.

As to Rembrandt’s ultimate intentions behind creating the works, Wheelock suspects that’s a question whose answer will remain enticingly elusive.

“The debate rages on,” he says. “I still don’t know.”

“Rembrandt’s Late Religious Paintings” will be on view from Jan. 30 to May 1 in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, before traveling to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. At 2 p.m. Sunday, Wheelock and Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project will hold a discussion on the works. For more information, go to www.nga.gov.

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