No one would claim that Rembrandt was untalented; that painting wasn’t his forte, that he would have been better off joining the family mill, being a writer, or 17th century comedian. And yet, while not directly highlighting Rembrandt’s stand-up skills, the new exhibition at the Ashmolean The Young Rembrandt revels in Rembrandt’s difficulties and the less-than-perfect developments in his career progression.
The exhibition proclaims to have the “largest collection of works devoted to the Young Rembrandt” and is dedicated to his “remarkable metamorphosis from insecure teenager to the greatest Dutch painter of all time”. The curators are committed to this bildungsroman narrative: the exhibition begins with reams of miniature drawings and etchings from Rembrandt’s apprenticeship in his hometown of Leiden to Jacob van Swanenburg, before moving on to his early paintings – including the newly attributed Let the Little Children Come to Me (1627-28) – and finishing at the moment Rembrandt has just moved to Amsterdam.
Some of Rembrandt’s ‘big name’ works are included: Man in Oriental Costume (‘The Noble Slav’) (1632) makes a dramatic appearance in the last room, and Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630) reveals the young painter’s capacity for biblical themes and tragedy.
But the focus of the exhibition is not really on Rembrandt’s most famous paintings. There have been exhibitions aplenty which give attention to those: the 2014 National Gallery exhibition The Late Works, and the recent Dulwich Picture House exhibition Rembrandt’s Light spring to mind. Rather, one could make the case that the focus of the exhibition is not on Rembrandt’s paintings at all. The curators have given so much focus to the narrative of Rembrandt’s development, and have the binocular-like attention of an avid twitcher when ‘spotting’ Rembrandt self-portraits hidden in his larger works (I lost count of the number of times the curatorial comment next to a large biblical or history painting was nearly entirely devoted to identifying Rembrandt and his associates in the faces of the figures present). It is the artist, rather than the art which steals the light in the gallery rooms.
Evidently with an artist so famous for his self-portraits, a focus on the man himself is not completely flawed. The transition from the study of emotion with the early etching Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed (1630) to Self-Portrait in Oriental Attire with Poodle (1633) is an artistic development that reveals a continued ability to use himself as his own subject; he is his own study for emotion, and his own study for modish oriental clothing with self-aware, comedic flair.
The exhibition ends with Self-Portrait Wearing a Feathered Bonnet (1635) which the curators laud as “the moment when the young Rembrandt’s career can be said to come to an end and the mature artist emerges”. Walking through the galleries, viewers do get a sense of Rembrandt’s growth and development. The young artist changes in the faces we see, and in his skills when depicting other common subjects: his early etchings of his aging mother and father have lovely later counterparts in his Portrait of an 83-Year Old Woman (1634).
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But, in both cases – depictions of himself and depictions of old age – the exhibition is crying out for Rembrandt’s much later works: Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1665-9) is perhaps Rembrandt’s apotheosis of the self-portrait and ‘old age’ portrait. It would have made the most perfect end to the bildungsroman-narrative as an embodiment of the grown-man and the grown talent. The painting is only forty-eight miles away in Kenwood House; the decision not to include it seems one of choice rather than inability to loan it. The curators have devoted so much energy to the formative attempts and development of the young Rembrandt – and the language of the exhibition is so unremittingly teleological to at times be ridiculous; at one point it claims that a copper-plate with discarded, partially finished figures on it is a sign of Rembrandt’s budding originality in composition. The exhibition ends just as it reaches its argumentative height.
Some might say it is wrong to criticise an exhibition on what it chooses not to include, and it does have a wealth of material that gives a much richer understanding of the young painter than many other exhibitions. Yet, the exhibition’s language is so obsessed with finding an end-point – “the greatest Dutch painter of all time” – that to end where it does feels unfinished and unsatisfying. We don’t get as far beyond “insecure teenager” as we would like. The Ashmolean leaves Rembrandt somewhere around the twenty-something-living-away-from-home-for-the-first-time-mark, and that’s a sticky place no one wants to be left in.
Young Rembrandt is at the Ashmolean, Oxford from 27th February to 7th June 2020.