Rembrandt spent most of his hours in the quest for the nature of materiality and light. He loved surfaces flesh against fur, steel against velvet, how they glowed and clashed. He looked for brightness coming out of darkness, how it worked as counterpoint and harmony.
In his oils he rendered holy scenes as if happening in ordinary daily life, he made portraits of his friends and sponsors with great psychological insight, he made dozens of self-searching self-portraits.
He worked with chiaroscuro, a new intriguing style that his master, Pieter Lastman, had brought back from Rome. But he used it differently from Caravaggio, who had fire or candlelight glancing over bodies, polished cuirass or feathers, sparking them up with highlights and accents. In Rembrandt light is a great shine, an apparition from behind the figures, from the side or from the ground. Rembrandt hollows out light from the dark. Christ stands as if in summer lightning in a bloom of whiteness among the dirty and humble.
Today some of the deep, dark passages seem too deep. It has always been a question if they were due to the chemical ageing of pigment, specially in the yellows, or if they were there on purpose to accent drama.
That in his oils the handling of contrasts and shapes are his joy, that the painting itself is the subject matter, that he celebrated the materiality of life, make him a forerunner of modernism.
He was also one of the most trenchant of printmakers, raising the technique from a ploy to publicise oils. Having to use line, which does not exist in reality, having to do without the sensual seduction of colour, he pushed etching, dry point and engraving to their limits of expressive energy. No one, except Goya, ever explored printmaking to the heart like this.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a millers son born in Leyden in 1606. He went to university at the age of 14 and then became a painters apprentice in Amsterdam. Soon a master, and painting with exuberance and rare virtuosity, he became the darling of the burghers of the busy flourishing centre of commerce of the north.
In 1632 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh. With her he had his beloved son Titus. Blonde voluptuous Saskia and delicate Titus served as bright models many times over. When Saskia died in childbirth in 1642, Rembrandts life was shaken. But his search for light and for materiality became ever deeper. Then the Nightwatch became his undoing. So immersed was he in his quest for the development of chiaroscuro that he managed to paint his rich commissioners, who had paid a high fee, in the dark, and a poor little girl, who had paid nothing, in the light. His scandalous obstinacy was the beginning of the downfall of the fashionable painter.
Bankrupt in 1656, he moved to the Amsterdam ghetto. He had always preferred the common people for his models anyway. He not only portrayed his friends, but used his immediate ghetto neighbours for his religious scenes: milling crowds in a slum alley or yard with Christ stopping the traffic; Christ standing humbly unprotected, without exaggerated gesture, on a loading platform, exposed to people; Christ hanging from some wooden beams in an empty lot in the suburbs.
Titus and his second mistress Hendrickje Stoffels (the first had died) did their best to protect his financial affairs. But though he remained famous to the end, and had an enormous output 600 canvases, 1,500 drawings, 350 prints were counted he died a pauper at the age of 63.
The present, well-installed show is difficult. It is too rich in prints and too poor in oils. It is not clear if the prints are here to augment the scarce availability of oils, or if the show is meant mostly as an in-depth appreciation of the 150 prints accented by ten oils, some of them minor. Prints are essentially miniatures, welcome to the specialist, but their wealth is confounding and tiring for the ordinary viewer. I suggest that viewers look at the first-floor self-portrait oil from Washington, maybe give a quick glance at the early etchings, and then proceed to the mature prints upstairs.
The oil of the Young man with gorget from the Uffizi, on the second floor, and the oil of Rembrandt aged 53 on the first, run the whole gamut of Rembrandts self-portraiture. The young man is rosy and confident, his skin and hair are as glistening as his metal throat-guard, his head is poised as if listening to a far, sweet melody. By contrast, Rembrandt as a middle-aged man is sour and suspicious. His skin, loosening into papery wrinkles, is still pink, his eyes are still penetrating, but the ravages of time are made pitilessly plain, materiality is fading. In another oil, the Sofonisba from the Prado, a plump blonde Saskia, fetchingly turned out in silks, furs and pearls, shines from the dark. The Flight from Egypt from Dublin is a small nocturnal pastoral, the holy family like gypsies taking shelter in a fire-lit cave by the waters of a dark pond.
The prints are made directly on the plate, without preliminary drawing, which gives them an unparalleled looseness and immediacy. Christ before the people can here be seen becoming ever clearer in its various editions. The final one, bright white wreathed with scratchy black, is majestic, and one of the finest examples of all printmaking.
In these swirling but serenely controlled black and whites the whole kaleidoscope of daily life in 17th-century Holland is laid out in brilliant virtuoso printmaking but also humane understanding.
The elaborate show, overshadowed by prints, really does not need any rounding out. So, even if we welcome them gladly, the examples from Venetian hands after Rembrandt are jolting. Several ravishing Tiepolo portrait paintings, some of his rare religious oils and his sprightly prints are of course good to see again. But, compared to the dark Dutchman, they are too sunny and playful. There are similarities in brushwork and style, but no kinship in spirit. As shocking as this may sound, Rembrandt would have best been followed by two of his countrymen: Van Gogh and de Kooning. Even if from totally different periods, they have a similar straightforward intensity, a similar commitment to expression and to painting as matter.
Rembrandt. Un pittore incisore.
Until 6 Jan. Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV Maggio 16, tel. 06696270. 10.00-20.00. Fri and Sat 10.00-23.00.