Among the great artists of the past there are a few Masters who have the miraculous ability to speak in an especially personal voice to ever changing generations. My short list includes: Titian and Vermeer, Goya and Velasquez. And then, set apart from the rest, is Rembrandt.
In his tumultuous life, Rembrandt experienced it all; fame and fortune to follow with a crashing bankruptcy and the sale of his large art collection and personal belongings. He experienced a happy marriage and fatherhood which abruptly ended with his wife's death at childbirth. He outlived two mistresses, one of whom bore him a daughter that we know little about. His only son, Titus, died shortly before the death of Rembrandt himself in 1669 and although he died in poverty, he was never forgotten. Rembrandt's reputation as the most famous painter of the Golden Age of Dutch art in the 17th Century has never been questioned. Royal collections assembled in the 18th and 19th century couldn't be considered complete without his masterpieces. American robber barons, in the early 20th century paid ridiculous sums of money for his canvases. In the 1960s, when Norton Simon shelled out a then unheard of $2.2 million for the unfinished portrait of Rembrandt's son it made headlines around the world. With all that, you would think that Hollywood would mine Rembrandt's life for a weepy blockbuster staring Russell Crowe chewing the scenery.
But never mind Hollywood. Sixteen late religious portraits by Rembrandt arrived at the Getty Museum last week as part of an exquisite exhibition first seen at the National Gallery in Washington. Surprisingly enough, the L.A. Times hasn't mentioned it yet - saving its breath, I guess, for the upcoming King Tut extravaganza. No one knows for sure why Rembrandt painted this series of Apostles and Saints using himself and his friends and acquaintances as models. There is no information about who commissioned this series, if it was commissioned at all.
What this expertly installed exhibition offers is a chance to immerse ones self into a stream of consciousness that only Rembrandt's art can provide. After the bankruptcy, Rembrandt was forced to move to less fashionable, Jewish quarters of Amsterdam whose inhabitants often served as his models. Here they stare at us as Apostles Paul and Peter, James and Bartholomew, Christ and The Virgin of Sorrows. Their bodies are immersed in a warm darkness with only a few details of their clothing highlighted with energetic brush strokes. All attention is concentrated on the faces depicting various degrees of contemplation. But while hundreds of other artists would convey in their compositions, a rather general state of contemplation, Rembrandt's portraits always convinced me that these people -- with their knowledge and experience of life -- have something deeply personal to share with us. Other artists, through their genius, invite us into their world. Rembrandt, every time we encounter his art, steps into our time and into our world, offering condolences and showing understanding of our shortcomings.
I went already to see this exhibition twice and plan to go several times more. The longer you stare at the 300 year-old canvases, the more comes to the surface from their deep physical, emotional space, with its palette of glowing coal. Ask your self: when was the last time you were in the company of sixteen wise men and women, who cared about you and offered their compassion? Here is your chance.
Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits
1200 Getty Center Drive
Ends August 28