‘Do you think he was slightly bonkers,’ someone asked in the first room of the new Rembrandt show at the National Gallery, where the visitor is surrounded by Rembrandt self-portraits staring out from his self-imposed gloom. No, not bonkers, but obsessed, desperate to set down in oil what he could see in the mirror. Unlike most he wasn’t interested in self-flattery or delusion, just in the never-ending task of painting his changing features. He couldn’t have foreseen that one day four of his self-portraits would hang in one room at the National Gallery, his own sombre face telling the story of ageing to thousands of visitors.
The National Gallery always has a good collection of Rembrandts on display, but until 18 January they have been augmented with many more, dating from the early 1650s until Rembrandt’s death in 1669 aged 63. Organised in collaboration with Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt: The Late Works brings together prints and oils in a rare chance to experience a large variety of his techniques and subjects.
That first room of self-portraits is memorable, and not just because of Rembrandt’s penchant for a hat. He never lost the child’s love of dressing up, or maybe he just had unruly hair. Tired clothes disappear into the background. The main focus of his interest is always that carby face, painted with loose, expressive strokes that pleased him and not everyone else. No wonder pictures were returned to his studio with the complaint that they were unfinished.
His famous self-portraits are not the only subject on show. Many pictures are commissioned portraits, where Rembrandt indulges his love of painting flesh with layers of thick, creamy oil. But there are also some unexpectedly gruesome images. An 18 year old executed for murdering her landlady is depicted twice in ink on Japanese paper, her corpse hanging from a gibbet. Rembrandt also carefully created The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman, an unpleasant image of a hugely foreshortened corpse being cut up. The skin is detached from the head exposing the brain, the surgeon reduced to a pair of omnipotent hands. Deliberately patchy painting makes the scene less awful but it is still a horrible image and shows Rembrandt’s need to process everything he saw through his art.
Rembrandt’s experimentation during his later years did not abate. Drypoint, etching, engraving, pen and ink are all on display along with the large oil paintings. He printed on vellum and Japanese paper. Sequences of similar prints demonstrate how he altered his printing plates and changed the mood of the images as the impressions mounted. For Rembrandt there was no technique that couldn’t be tinkered with. Both ends of the brush were used on the canvases, palette knives ladled on the paint. All contributed to his outstanding ability to characterise a human being, to portray a sense of the internal – achieved to great effect in An Old Woman reading from 1655. Tightly cropped, the woman’s eyes focused on her Bible we can feel her concentration. Some pictures use props to help tell a narrative or identify a sitter – a lapdog, a bird, a charging horse. But it is always the human flesh on which Rembrandt lavishes most attention.
As he aged his personal life had several bitter setbacks, including the deaths of his son and wife. But he kept on working and the National Gallery has been able to borrow (or bring down from upstairs) enough work to fill seven rooms in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing. Few exhibitions are must-see, but this comes close, being an amazing chance to see so many Rembrandts in one place. Book early, with a popular name and a large selection of works this one could be a sell out.