Rembrandt at the Frick: A Case of "True Grit"
Study Rembrandt's self-portrait, a monumental painting in a new show at the Frick Collection in New York City, and you see a man who looks much older than 52. Rembrandt presents himself as a bear of a man, draped in a luxurious fur cape, a golden pleated smock with a red sash wound around his waist. He holds a silver-tipped cane. He looks indomitable, strong, and resolute. The American painter Kenyon Cox's description of the painting in 1910 says it all: "It is the head of an old lion at bay, worn and melancholy, yet conscious of his strength, determined, and a little defiant." Yet in reality, in 1658, the year he painted the portrait, Rembrandt was morose and troubled. He had declared bankruptcy two years earlier. His family was hounded by debtors. He was forced to sell his many collections and even the house and studio he had occupied since 1639. His reputation suffered. Commissions lagged and his once large group of students and followers had all but abandoned him and in some cases, even his "Rembrandtesque" style.
The monumental self portrait has pride of place in the Oval Room in the Frick's new show, "Rembrandt and His School; Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collection." It presents work by the master, his pupils, and followers in a blockbuster celebration of Rembrandt's paintings, drawings, and etchings. Henry Clay Frick (1849--1919) and Dutch art historian and collector Frederik Johannes Lugt (1884-1970) were both great admirers of Rembrandt van Rijn. The precocious Lugt at 12 had started to catalog Dutch and Flemish drawings in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum while Frick once said that the the talents he would most like to have possessed were Rembrandt's. These two admirers were renowned collectors with the eye, the connections, and the deep wallets to buy what pleased them.
"The Polish Rider," another of Frick's major acquisitions, also on view in the Oval Room, was painted by Rembrandt in 1655. It is surrounded by mystery. Who is this young horseman in military costume? Is he a biblical, historical, or allegorical hero? In spite of meticulous research, no one thus far has the answer. The scene is puzzling. The rider has a serene expression yet he is armed for battle mounted on a swiftly galloping horse. The setting is nocturnal and forbidding. Roger Fry, the art critic, brought the painting to Frick. Yet he was the founder of Britain's National Art-Collections fund, established in 1903 to save major works for the UK. "One cannot help but wonder how he reconciled the Fund's patriotic mission with the (sometimes aggressive) initiatives he took privately to sell his country's artistic heritage," wrote Esmée Quodbach in a catalogue essay.
The Oval Room features five paintings including the two mentioned above from the Frick's permanent collection. In the Cabinet, 10 rarely displayed prints purchased by Frick are on view. The lower galleries are devoted to a special exhibition of 65 works on paper by Rembrandt and his school from the Lugt collection which is in the Fondation Custodia in Paris. As a whole the paintings, drawings and etchings cover all the stages of Rembrandt's career. Here's where you can see what made Rembrandt Rembrandt -a wide range of techniques, rapid strokes of the pen, loose draftsmanship, small scale works , and a focus on intimate, domestic scenes.
One well-know drawing in the Lugt Collection is known as "Interior with Saskia In Bed," (1640-42). It represents Rembrandt's wife nestled under the covers and her maid sewing beside her. Note the the painter's rapid work with a pen and his use of a brown and gray wash to color the composition as if it were a painting. The drawing has a tender quality, perhaps an expression of the artist's feelings for his ailing wife confined to her bed.Rembrandt was drawn to domestic scenes of teaching kids to walk, or as "A Woman Having Her Hair Combed."
Every bit as commanding as the domestic scenes are the landscapes by both student and teacher. In the 1644 "Cottage near the Entrance to a Wood," loaned by the Met, Rembrandt uses his pen, inks and and brown washes with touches of white and red.
His student, Lambert Doomer's "Old Farm at the Edge of a Wood," painted about ten or 15 years later is so similar, it could easily be taken for a Rembrandt.
But not all of the master's students were as scrupulous about Rembrandt's style. Govert Flinck became a successful portraitist and history painter who worked hard to differentiate himself from his teacher. Flinck's "Reclining Female Nude" of the 1640s, black and yellowish white chalk on blue paper, is as slim as a swimsuit model. She looks like a sleeping Greek Daphne bathed in moonlight awaiting some godlike suitor. Such idealizing of the female figure is something Rembrandt rejected preferring to draw fleshy women with thick waists and more mature bodies like the standing woman helping another comb her hair.
Together with the portraits in the Oval Room, the Cabinet, and the works on paper in the lower galleries, you get a sense of how Rembrandt genius and how his students interpreted and responded to his guidance. This stunning show demonstrates a master and his followers, all with great abilities, who used light and shadow to create works of remarkable intimacy.
The Frick is one of the great treasures of New York City. It is located in the mansion at 1 East 70th Street near Fifth Avenue that the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) built and moved to in 1914. "Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and the Lugt Collection" is on view through May 15. A series of seminars and lectures by curators and specialists are well worth attending. For details, check out www.frick.org/education.