A Young Rembrandt comes to the Ashmolean, Oxford
by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, 1630, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
What is on the mind of the bearded old man in Rembrandt’s painting? Is he worrying, is he daydreaming, lost in thought, or merely caught in a moment’s repose?
His stillness, his furrowed brow and downcast rheumy eyes, hinting at some sorrow, draw you into his world. You lean in. You notice the grey and ginger hairs of his long beard painted with enormous care. There are no clues as to his identity; his costume is dark, he wears no hat, and he is unnamed. But it was not intended as a portrait of a person; it represents a type rather than an individual. Even so, it radiates humanity.
He’s labelled just as a Bearded Old Man, but oh how you feel for him. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669), known simply as Rembrandt, was fascinated by old age from his earliest works. As this incredibly sympathetic portrayal of age shows, painted in 1632 in oil by Rembrandt, he was already showing an extraordinary ability to suggest psychological narratives through the gestures and facial expressions depicted.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Bearded Old Man, 1632. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
This is one of many highlights in the Ashmolean’s The Young Rembrandt exhibition, which looks at the first decade of the career of the man who in time became the most famous of all Dutch artists.
The largest collection of works devoted to the young Rembrandt exhibited to date, it features 30 Rembrandt paintings, 13 by his most important contemporaries, plus a further 90 drawings and prints from international and private collections.
Born in Leiden in 1606, to a family of prosperous millers to the local brewing industry in Leiden, there was nothing at all remarkable about Rembrandt’s work when he began as a painter around 1624/5. But between the years 1624 to 1634, working in painting, printmaking and drawing, he was determined to improve.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an 83-Year-Old Woman (possibly Aechje Claesdr.) 1634. National Gallery, London
In three galleries it’s as if we watch him honing his craft – passing from teenage beginnings in Leiden, dotted with mistakes, clumsy efforts, experiments and successes – via a“truly meteoric” rise to fame, to works from his “glory days of Amsterdam”. Among the latter are portraits that rank among the most sensitive and closely observed of his entire career. Star among them is the Portrait of an 83-Year-Old Woman (possibly Aechje Claesdr), 1634, an exquisitely expressive study of an elderly woman in a black dress and white ruff.
Like many a young artist embarking on a career, Rembrandt practised by drawing himself and his family - readymade subjects after all – as models were expensive. One of his favourite subjects was himself. Between 1628 and 1631 the young artist produced ten postage stamp-sized etched self-portraits. Primarily they were studies of facial expressions, and the small size allowed him to practise in a medium in which he was not yet fully familiar.
Thus, three self-portraits greet us at the exhibition entry and thereafter portraits of the bushy haired, bulbous nosed young Rembrandt in countless modes and guises punctuate the show – open mouthed, startled, grimacing, eyebrows raised, bare headed, cap on, cap off… He also had a fondness for fancy dress, and was 22 years old when he first dressed up for a painting. It seems he found it funny, for in Rembrandt Laughing (painted on copper around 1628) he is leaning back openly laughing at himself dressed in a soldier’s gorget.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Rembrandt Laughing, c. 1628. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Jan Lievens, his childhood friend and contemporary, is among the artists included in the show for context and comparison. Unlike Lievens who showed great promise by a young age, Rembrandt was no prodigy. The pair worked together, drawing and painting each other, and often using the same models and subjects. The exhibition compares their work, showing, for example, versions of Samson and Delilah (c. 1628), as well as Lievens’ sensitive portrayal of a bearded old man alongside Rembrandt’s. Soon enough old men with flowing beards became a staple subject for Rembrandt.
This fascinating show, which in March had to close just as it got going due to the coronavirus lockdown, is now extended until 1 November 2020.
Latest News! Ashmolean uncovers Rembrandt workshop painting in its museum stores
The Ashmolean has uncovered a painting in its stores, bequeathed to the Museum in 1951, which can now be confirmed as having been painted in Rembrandt’s workshop in c. 1630. The tiny picture, Head of a Bearded Man, is a portrait study of an old man with a downcast gaze, typical of Rembrandt’s work at this time. The painting is included in the Young Rembrandt exhibition where it can be seen alongside other works of the same period, before undergoing further study and conservation in the Ashmolean’s labs to determine whether there is evidence of Rembrandt’s own hand in the work.
The painting was bequeathed to the Museum by a British art collector and dealer and entered the collection as an early Rembrandt. A printed label stuck to the back of the painting has been cut out from the catalogue of a Paris auction which took place on 25 February 1777. The text reads: ‘A Head of an Old Man, painted by Rembrandt. Very (realistic/ true to nature?) colour; height, six pouces by five wide.’ But it was rejected in 1982 by the leading authorities on Rembrandt’s work, ‘the Rembrandt Research Project’, who believed it to be the best of a number of copies of a lost original.
Another version is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Taking the Young Rembrandt exhibition as an opportunity to re-examine the painting, Curator An Van Camp and Conservators Jevon Thistlewood and Morwenna Blewett, brought the picture out of the stores to analyse it with the help of Professor Peter Klein, an internationally renowned dendrochronologist. He has established that the wood panel on which it is painted comes from the same tree used for Rembrandt’s Andromeda Chained to the Rocks (c. 1630, Mauritshaus, The Hague) and Jan Lievens’s Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother (c. 1630, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden), both painted when the artists were working in Leiden.
Professor Klein says: ‘Dendrochronology is a method for dating wooden objects by analysing the growth rings of the tree and determining its felling date. The Ashmolean’s Head of a Bearded Man was painted on a panel which came from an oak tree in the Baltic region, felled between 1618 and 1628, and used in two known works by Rembrandt and Lievens. Allowing a minimum of two years for the seasoning of the wood, we can firmly date the portrait to 1620-30’
The painting depicts an elderly balding man in melancholy contemplation. Despite overpainting and layers of discoloured varnish, expressive brushstrokes show through and convey the troubled face. Head studies such as this are typical of Rembrandt’s work in Leiden and were eagerly collected by contemporaries.
An Van Camp says: ‘As a curator it is incredibly exciting to find out that a previously unidentified painting can be placed in the workshop of one of the most famous artists of all times. I am delighted to have the chance to show the panel in our exhibition where it can be seen alongside other works painted in Rembrandt’s workshop at the same time.’
Jevon Thistlewood says: ‘Examination of this small painting suggests that prior to the earliest known photograph (published in 1936), touches of paint were added by an unknown hand which have considerably disrupted the subtle illusion of depth and movement. When the exhibition closes we will begin the process of restoring the painting and we can’t wait to see what we find.’
While you are at the museum do allow time if you can for a second smaller exhibition (free): Scene Through Wood: A Century of Wood Engraving is a celebration of one of the most astonishingly skilful and richly creative forms of visual art. The show marks 100 years since the founding of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920, and has some wonderful engravings on display. Originally scheduled for March this year, it now runs until 15 November 2020.
Curated by Anne Desmet RA, who is only the third artist-engraver ever elected to the Royal Academy, it includes well-known names such as Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) - who developed the technique in Newcastle in the late-18th century - and William Blake, Samuel Palmer, M. C. Escher and Peter Blake, besides many women artists including Gertrude Hermes RA, Edwina Ellis, and Gwen Raverat.
For more information see: https://www.ashmolean.org/event/scene-through-wood-a-century-of-wood-engraving
The Young Rembrandt
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Showing until: 1 November 2020
Tickets must be pre-booked. Please see: https://www.ashmolean.org/youngrembrandt