The exhibition at the National Gallery of Rembrandt’s later works from 1659 onwards. This was a time when Rembrandt was no longer fashionable and he was facing increasing difficulty obtaining commissions. He had overstretched himself financially, borrowing heavily to build a large house and investing in a wide ranging art collection. His wife, Saskia had died, leaving him looking after their young son, Titus.
The premise of the exhibition is that, as Rembrandt’s fortunes waned, he showed no signs of compromising his painting style to the then fashionable, polished and detailed style, and he created works which said far more about the human condition.
The exhibition includes two paintings representing Lucretia, a roman woman who, according to Livy, committed suicide rather than face the shame of having been raped. In the 1664 painting, she stands poised to thrust a dagger into her abdomen, but her red rimmed eyes are fearful, unresolved, agonised and her hands war with each other, one ready to thrust, one almost beseeching. Rembrandt captured an emotion which goes far beyond the usual historical or mythological painting of the time. Loss, sadness and regret were clearly emotions he understood.
He revisited the subject in 1666, by which time his model and mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, had also died. This time he departs even further from the usual painting conventions and shows Lucretia dying, not artfully draped over a bed or drooping into someones arms, but standing, her shift soaked with blood, deathly pale. She stands confronting the world, reproaching us all for the dreadful position she has been put into.
Both these paintings demand that we engage with Lucretia’s feelings.
As his life descended into tragedy and increasing financial chaos, Rembrandt’s works become more expressive of human frailty and emotion and his brush work became freer and more inventive. He used a wide variety of marks in any one painting, indeed, on one forehead, and in the two Lucretia paintings, one can see where he has used the palette knife to create decoration in the fabrics, for instance on the sleeves and lay in broad sweeps of colour in the skirt. His exhibition credits him with probably being the first artist ever to manipulate paint directly in the canvas with a palette knife.
He died in 1669, relatively young at 63, worn out by hardship, but still at the height of his creative powers.