Rembrandt van Rijn

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Rembrandt van Rijn

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

This structural conception serves partly to reconcile the events at least, those preceding the brutal blow - with the fact that their portrayal in the picture is motionless. The reconstructing fantasy of the observer need not detach itself quite so far from that which is portrayed in the picture as is necessary with representations showing only a single moment in the sequence of events. Indeed, we can say that his fantasy can return again and again step by step to the picture so as to follow the sequence of events.
A particular role is played by the lance-wielding warrior in the right foreground. He is pausing for a moment, while everything else takes place around him. He is no less involved in the events than the other protagonists: he is keeping watch. However, this watch only becomes clear when one understands his posture as one of temporary motionlessness. His posture of temporary duration finds itself in unison for precisely this space of time with the motionless-ness of its pictorial portrayal, without losing its sense of taking part in the action. This in turn points to a further element in the structural conception of Rembrandt's early pictures.
If the artist has free choice of subject-matter, then his choice says something about the matters of concern which he pursues with his structural conception. It was not long before quieter scenes emerged alongside the dramatically intensified depictions of events, such as the first version of The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and Two Scholars Disputing (Peter and Paul?). These scenes are also dramatic, in that they portray human acts. However, they are not always characterized as climax. It is true that the uplifted hands of the prophetess Hannah in the first example can be regarded as an expression of momentary surprise; however, it is the gesture of astonishment and blessing that lingers for a moment which predominates. All of the other figures can similarly maintain their depicted postures for a time, precisely because they are participating in the event. Similarly with the gestures of the two disputing scholars -in the second example - we are concerned again with lingering postures of temporary duration. In both cases, the importance of the event lies in communication, in speech, in the spoken word. The formation of such dialogue scenes epitomizes a further fundamental theme of Rembrandt's structural conception.

Two Scholars Disputing (Peter and Paul?)

The spoken word or, to be more exact, the gestures accompanying a conversation - offer Rembrandt the possibility of depicting dramatic action pictorially in such a manner that conflict with the static nature of the picture is significantly less than in the case of the turbulent scenes of action. The event of a conversation does not amount merely to the acts of speaking and hearing. Rather, a conversation encompasses a multitude of actions. One example of this may be seen when the listener follows the speaker's train of thought, either agreeing or disagreeing with him; another involves the attempt to object to what the speaker is saying; and so forth. Nor does a conversation consist of a constant flow of speech, but - to an equal extent - of pauses where one thinks about what has been said, or waits for an answer. It is exactly at such moments that the course of a conversation can reach its highest density - in mutual, communicative silence. In the course of his creative work, Rembrandt was to develop the many different kinds of nuance with respect to mutual participation in a word, with ever new accents and a sharpness of expression such as constantly gives rise to admiration. It can be noticed at this point that the wealth of nuances opened up through the gestures of temporary duration would grow and grow. The stage would ultimately be reached in the late work at which the complexity of the expressive gestures was such that it is no longer possible to find words with which to describe the wealth that they offer.

The Apostle Paul in Prison

A third leitmotif of Rembrandt's structural conception becomes apparent when one examines the great number of pictures either containing only one figure or at least totally determined by a single figure. An early example is the Stuttgart painting The Apostle Paul in Prison from 1627, in which Rembrandt depicts the apostle sitting on his bed, sunk in thought. Totally absorbed in his writing, he has placed one hand under his chin, while the other, holding his quill, rests on the leaves of an open book which Paul is holding on his knees. In the painting The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning over the Destruction of Jerusalem, we see a bearded old man brooding at the foot of a mighty column, propping his elbow on a massive tome as he mourns. A shattered temple and the ruins of a town in flames can be made out in the distance, along with figures perhaps attempting to rescue something or flee. Both pictures have in common that the portrayed figure is not merely placed before the observer's eyes but is shown engaged in an activity, as with the figures in the scenes that have been examined up to now. The individual figure in these pictures is also bound up in the course of an event. In this way, the portrayal of the individual figure itself becomes a history painting, even though the action within which the event takes place is purely internal in nature.

The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning over the Destruction of Jerusalem
Oil on panel, 58,3 x 46,6 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In doing this, Rembrandt is adding a further important characteristic. In the depiction of Jeremiah, the inner action is not seen in the aforementioned minor figures: as with Paul's quill and the paper on which the apostle has written, these reveal merely the content of the activity. It is only from the posture of the figure that the observer grows aware of the action - that of brooding itself. It is at this point that the manner in which Rembrandt makes use of the possible effects of this posture upon the observer becomes crucial. It is not only a question of the observer's registering intellectually the inner activity of the figure in the picture through the posture with which he is confronted. Having grasped the content of this contemplation or this mourning, he then begins himself to ponder over what it is that the person portrayed is meditating upon - the apostle's letter, the destruction of Jerusalem. What is important here is not so much the respective content of each picture but rather that the observer should feel himself stimulated to such meditation, that he can make the transition to performing himself in front of the picture the inner activity which he recognizes in the figure in the picture. In this way, it is indeed possible for him to some extent to experience a process through his own contemplative activity, one which can take place in the picture as little as can visible movement. In contrast to visible movement, however, the activity recognized here in the picture is of the same nature as the activity that recognizes it. The cited pictures represent no special cases. It is in precisely this sense that Rembrandt depicts his mother reading, dressed in the same costume as that in which the prophetess Hannah was portrayed previously (Rembrandt's Mother as the Biblical Prophetess Hannah).
She, too has a book on her knees. Her flat hand is laid upon the paper, in order that her eyes may follow the tips of her fingers along the lines. The observer is also able to look at the open book and decipher Hebrew characters. In noticing this, however, he has already begun to some extent to engage in the same activity as that of the figure in the picture. The motifs of the inner activity involved in reading, contemplation, pondering, mourning or meditation may be identified solely through gestures that quietly continue. Rembrandt was to render the character of quiet duration revealed by these gestures equally fruitful for the pictorial representation of events.
It is of course true that other painters, both contemporaries of Rembrandt and those preceding him, also depicted these various gestural characteristics. However, Rembrandt succeeded from the very beginning in forming the gestures and facial expressions of his figures in such a way that they give the impression of being so wrapped up in what they are doing as to be lost to the world. This is especially true of the last-named type. It seldom occurs in the depiction of actions of quiet duration that the observer senses that the figure is aware of being watched. This characteristic of obliviousness to the world around one increases the impression of "naturalness" in the attitude of the figures: they create a direct effect to a high degree, despite the actual mediation of art. It goes without saying that the actions of quiet duration present the least contradiction to the static nature of their pictorial setting. Finally, there is a motif which is deserving of special mention here, since it will ultimately be seen at the end of the artist's development as being of even greater importance than the depiction of the word. We are concerned here with the motif of watching, of being an eyewitness, of becoming aware - in brief, the motif of observation itself in every conceivable internal and external aspect.
This in turn leads us back to the representations of multi-figure events. Figures are to be found in almost all of these scenes, themselves observing the central action - amazed, critical, approving, but not interfering in what is taking place. The motif of the observer in the picture is no invention of Rembrandt's; in all probability, he took over this traditional compositional component from Lastman. However, he develops it in his art into a most important factor in his structural conception. Discussion of the observer in the picture has often seen him as a figure who represents a mediation between the observer in front of the picture and the event depicted in the scene itself. The observer sees not only the event itself but also the manner in which others see it. And it is especially true that the observer experiences reality through the act of observation, a reality which he can experience as the one which the figures in the picture are executing. Rembrandt was later to discover previously unexhausted possibilities in this representational structure. In his final works, this was to determine not only the structural conception but ultimately even the appearance of the picture itself.

Rembrandt's Mother as the Biblical Prophetess Hannah

The Angel Leaving Tobias and His Family

First of all, however, it should be noticed how Rembrandt combines fierce gesticulations, a dialogue's lingering gestures of temporary duration, and quietly continuing actions in the course of the following years to create scenes of ever-increasing complexity. A whole spectrum of individual and collective actions is to be seen in the 1631 Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, all working together to mutually intensify their effect.
Luke's Gospel tells us of Simeon, the old man to whom it had been revealed that he would not die before he had seen the Lord with his own eyes. It was with this expectation that he had stayed on in the temple. When Mary and Joseph wished to dedicate their firstborn child to the temple, as the custom of the Law required, Simeon, recognizing the child, took it in his arms, pronouncing the words of his deliverance: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation ..." (Luke 2, 2238). Rembrandt's sweeping view reveals the event at its climax, depicting the occurrence of the miracle. It is first and foremost the figures in the centre of the picture, the kneeling parents and the prophetess Hannah, her hand raised, who are involved in the happening. A contrast is presented by the many people portrayed in the background, distributed throughout the further expanse of the temple, coming and going in pairs or groups. Some of them take no notice of the incident, while the attention of others, such as the crowd around the High Priest on his throne at right, is drawn to the event from afar. As in The Blinding of Samson, four male figures are portrayed in a succession, in such a way as to depict the phases of approaching the child. The head right at the back under Hannah's hand, the approaching man wearing a high hat, the man standing next to the parents, and finally a man bending over the kneeling Simeon's shoulder from behind they all serve to establish a transition between the customary temple bustle in the background and the central scene, thereby emphasizing the unique nature of the main event. It is clear that the moment in which Simeon speaks the words represents the climax of the incident. The culmination scene is encountered here as a kind of dialogue in the form of prayer. However, the effects of the external action are still predominant, while those of the gestures of quiet duration are as yet of little consequence. The event is presented in this structural conception predominantly as an external happening.

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

The combination of the various gestural characteristics at the climax of an event, in the representation of which the forms of the external action continue to predominate, can also be seen in the five scenes depicting the events of the Passion painted by Rembrandt on commission for Prince Frederik Hendrik and on which he was to work until the end of the 1630s. In contrast, the 1630/31 painting of The Raising of Lazarus offers one of the most striking examples of Rembrandt's allowing the drama to culminate not in actions in motion but predominantly in the lingering gestures of temporary duration of the spoken word.
Among those few scenes which, while not conceived with the culmination of the event in mind, nevertheless bring the various characters involved in the depicted event into interaction with each other, may be numbered the etching mentioned at the start, The Good Samaritan. One may possibly be unable to completely follow Goethe's argument when he claims that the man rescued by the Samaritan, who is being helped from the latter's horse, recognizes in the figure with the feather in his cap - in the window to the left - the robber who has attacked him; nonetheless, it is clear that the whole is developing as a dialogue scene. The man with the feather in his cap belongs to those spectators so characteristic of Rembrandt's pictures. The woman drawing water from the well is not involved; rather, she is going about her normal, everyday business. In this respect, even the defecating dog in the foreground has a meaningful part to play. Here, too, banal and unusual events are combined to create an overall happening, one necessarily involving every pictorial element.

The Raising of the Cross

Deposition from the Cross
Oil on panel, 89,5 x 65 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Descent from the Cross
Oil on canvas, 158 x 117 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

The Entombment of Christ

The Resurrection of Christ

The Raising of Lazarus

Rembrandt's structural conception is not only concerned with the fashioning of his figures' facial expressions and gestures; it also extends to the scene of the action, to the open landscape, and most of all to his interiors. It is important to notice, however, that the arrangement of the spatial elements appears restrained in favour of the figures participating in the action. In the case of The Ass of Balaam Balking before the Angel, the cloud from which the angel is emerging covers almost the entire background. In The Blinding of Samson, the space around the figures is rendered indeterminable through the tent hangings; The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple achieves a similar effect by means of a huge baldachin, together with an enormous temple hall which, while only recognizable thanks to certain details, is nevertheless of totally indeterminable proportions. Whether intentionally or not, the perspective in this latter painting, in which the principal characters are presented as if onstage, is not uniform; in addition, the figures comprising the central group are not shown to the same scale as the others, but are considerably larger. It is only rarely that the location of the observer within the depicted spatial environment can be reconstructed. In The Sacrifice of Isaac, the observer is given a particularly clear impression that the distance from him to the protagonists has been removed, as though the foreground had been taken away from a classical picture composition of foreground, middle distance and background. Scenes with developed foregrounds, such as The Good Samaritan, are to be found far less frequently. The scenic expanse in the early works often serves merely as a backdrop to as effective a presentation as possible of the figures participating in the action.

The Raising of Lazarus

The same may be said of the illumination of the depicted space. The important elements in the action are illuminated in a particularly effective manner. On the whole, it is only those figures functioning as participants in the action -and, even of them, only those parts of the body such as are of particular importance - that are illuminated. Everything else, and especially the surrounding expanse, is placed in shadow. If one disregards for the moment the admittedly influential artistic traditions taken up by Rembrandt - one need only mention the name of Caravaggio here - it can be seen that his concern is obviously to manipulate the illumination in such a way as to dramatize additionally the action of the figures and direct the observer to a greater extent to the "passions".

The illumination of the early scenes has a demonstrative, exhibitory character. However, it usually passes unnoticed that the direction of the light in such pictures only rarely accords with those lighting situations such as would occur naturally in the given circumstances. Thus, the best explanation for the lighting in The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple would be one of sunlight falling on the kneeling figures through a window in the roof of the temple. However, the only possible justification for the gloom to be seen in the expanse of the temple around the figures is that the temple in fact has no other windows besides the one mentioned above. We will observe other examples of this later. It has already emerged here that the illumination does not enable the observer to comprehend an objective space with its own continued existence independent of the figures. The illumination is itself a contributory part of the action. The light acts in dramatic fashion here, providing sharp illumination or darkening effects, in accordance with criteria that are not empirical but in accordance with those governing the actions of the figures. To some extent, the light itself becomes a vehicle of the action. To avoid confusion, it should be stated that what we are concerned with here is not yet a visible bright-dark pattern on the picture's surface; rather, all that we are dealing with here is the representational depiction of light, a light which - following its nature - only shines when energy is converted and maintains its illumination, in the same way that the violinist must use his bow to maintain the vibration of a string, if it is to be heard. Light is an agent. Rembrandt, in depicting the illumination as a sudden spotlight, is showing it as if engaged in external motion. In other contexts, he portrays it as an illumination of long-lasting duration. Light in his landscapes turns the scene itself into a situation in transition. Rembrandt's landscapes do not document the appearance of hills, paths and trees. The atmospheric event, the change in illumination, transfer the topography into a sphere of experience given life by each observer in his own individual manner.
In conceiving the structure of his dramatic representations of illumination, Rembrandt discovered the transitory, progressive, temporal elements of light. This discovery would later enable him to structure the pictorial world itself as something transitory. The appearance of quiet duration, as encountered in his late works, would ultimately open up for him the mystery of the act of revelation itself.

The Presentation in the Temple


Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on canvas, 97 x 71,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Supper at Emmaus
Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Christ and the Woman of Samaria


La cena en Emaus

The Pilgrims at Emmaus

The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen
Oil on wood, 61 x 49,5 cm
Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London

The Incredulity of St Thomas
Oil on wood, 53 x 51 cm
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

St Paul at his Writing-Desk
Oil on wood, 47 x 39 cm
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Oil on wood, 83,8 x 65,4 cm
National Gallery, London

The Dream of St Joseph
Oil on canvas, 105 x 83 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Evangelist Matthew
Oil on canvas, 96 x 81 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Apostle Paul
Oil on canvas, 135 x 111 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Peter Denouncing Christ
Oil on canvas, 154 x 169 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Young Jew as Christ
c. 1656
Oil on wood, 25 x 21,5 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin