Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69) probably never visited the UK, but as the Scottish National Gallery’s Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master illustrates, his importance to collectors, dealers and other artists on these isles has been profound. The UK has the largest collection of works by the Dutch master outside of the Netherlands. Although paintings from the US and Netherlands have also been assembled for this exhibition, all the works on display have at some point been owned by a Briton, and many still reside in the UK.
The exhibition tracks Rembrandt’s British reception since the seventeenth century. But it could also be regarded as one big ‘pat on the back’ for this country’s collectors who had the insight and good taste to acquire large numbers of this Dutch master’s works. Taking such pride is not uncalled for. One highlight of the exhibition, Girl at a Window (1645), is normally held at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. Although you can see the artist’s brushstrokes and the cracks on the painting’s surface, the girl’s inquisitive gaze and rosy cheeksmeans she appears convincingly real, and is not a simplistic idealisation of childhood. Next to this, another portrait of a child, Titus at his Desk (1655), shows the artist’s son and perfectly captures a child lost in thought.
Rembrandt’s mastery of intimate portraiture is well known, but even his more dramatic Belshazzar’s Feast (1636–8) – whose exaggerated facial expressions I normally find overdramatic – bore reassessment here. The sumptuous gold details and the individual clumps of fur on the king’s coat are a joy to behold, demonstrating how Rembrandt never loses his eye for detail even in his most extrovert works.
Britain’s ownership of prints and drawings deserves praise too. The etching Bearded Man Wearing a Velvet Cap with a Jewel Clasp (1637) is tiny, but its incredible detail – each hair of the man’s beard and wrinkle on his face is intricately depicted – is a feast for the eyes. The Hundred Guilder Print (1648) acquired its name after the large amount its copy sold for, but it is also known as Christ Healing the Sick. It initially seems like a rather unassuming biblical scene, yet the more one examines it, the more one realises why it fetched such a high price. The scene is populated with numerous characters, each with highly individual facial expressions. There is so much going on here: from a camel waiting in the background, to a dog facing its owner, while people grieve, gossip or pray. Even though Christ remains the quiet focus of this otherwise busy scene, he is rendered with less precision than the other characters, perhaps hinting at his unearthly nature.
The exhibition is peppered with the artist’s British imitators. Most of these cannot compare with the original and I was not convinced these added much other than to highlight Rembrandt’s mastery. What was intriguing, however, was reading about the criticisms aimed at Rembrandt – a reminder of the partiality towards the Italian Renaissance through the seventeenth to nineteen centuries. Rembrandt’s nudes were described as being ungainly; and although Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) admired and collected his works, he found Rembrandt a lesser artist to Raphael, considering A Man in Armour ‘Achilles’ (1655) ‘too black’.
Rather than displaying Rembrandt’s works next to his lesser imitators, a more interesting comparison would be between Rembrandt and Raphael or the other Italian Renaissance masters he was measured against. Would we agree with Reynolds that Raphael was superior to Rembrandt? Surely, we can only understand how Rembrandt was perceived in Britain since the seventeenth century by also looking at the art that he was judged against. Containing some of the artist’s finest works, Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master does not disappoint, but neither does it completely succeed in making the story of Rembrandt’s British reception a particularly thrilling one.
Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of a Master is at the Scottish National Gallery until 14th October.