Rembrandt the storyteller
The Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) excelled at telling stories through his art. He frequently depicted scenes from the Bible, as was customary in Europe in the 17th century, but Rembrandt depicted these familiar stories in new ways. He was an extremely innovative printmaker, exploiting the possibilities of etching and drypoint techniques to create a wide range of tonal effects that were key to creating the light, space and atmosphere so important in his storytelling.
The artist was a keen observer of life, and he studied a broad range of society both in the home and in the streets of Amsterdam, where he lived for most of his career. Rembrandt used his character studies to imbue biblical scenes with personality – he incorporated emotions and gestures observed from life into his scenes from the Bible, showing familiar stories in a more contemporary way. He carefully composed narratives and populated his scenes with figures observed from his own experience.
He didn’t always depict the best-known part of a story – instead he focused on emotionally charged moments just before the climax, or introspective moments showing figures in quiet thought. In crowded compositions, he depicted individual figures in a remarkable array of responses. Rembrandt was such an effective storyteller, that even 350 years after his death, we can recognise and connect with his portrayal of human character in his scenes from the Bible – the fear, grief, revelation, transformation and ecstasy of the human encounter with the divine.
The Death of the Virgin had a long history of representation by the time Rembrandt turned to the subject in 1639. Prints of the subject by earlier German artists Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer were known to Rembrandt, who was an avid print collector. He never travelled outside his native Holland, so it was through prints that he learned about older traditions of art, both Italian and northern European.
In this work, Rembrandt borrowed the depiction of the bed from earlier versions of the same subject. But he increased the dynamism of the scene by adding in life-like details – a man adjusts the Virgin’s pillow, and another figure tenderly takes her pulse – Rembrandt must have observed similar moments at home with his wife Saskia, who was bed-ridden before her premature death in 1642. The groups of figures show a wide range of responses in the scene – concerned figures look on from behind the bed, and a woman to the right of the bed is shown in a heightened state of anguish. Curious figures peer into the scenes from both sides.
In Rembrandt’s religious prints, light is imbued with significance, and darkness presents a technical challenge that gains symbolic meaning – the artist constantly searched for new ways of representing the divine through line and light. Late in his life, in the 1650s, he made his darkest and most technically complex prints of Christ’s Passion. For these large prints, he worked entirely in drypoint, a delicate technique involving scratching directly into the copper plate with a sharp needle, which quickly wore down. When he reworked the worn plates, Rembrandt introduced drastic changes that altered the narrative. As was characteristic of his late style, he omitted detail, and instead used darkness to evoke despair.
In the first state of The Three Crosses (left), Rembrandt depicted the Crucifixion in accordance with the gospels of St Luke, which describes a large group, both Christians and non-believers, reacting to the events – some look up in horror, others turn away. Rembrandt subsequently reworked the plate and removed much of the composition, and in the fourth state (right) he plunged the scene into darkness, broken only by the bright shaft of light emanating from the heavens. This later state shows the exact moment that Christ died on the cross. St John, shown pulling his hair in anguish in the earlier state, is now seen thrusting his arms outward in imitation of the crucified Christ.
In this episode of Christ’s Passion, we see the precise moment of judgment. The two different states show how different Rembrandt’s prints of the same subject could be.
Pontius Pilate, on the podium, has just asked the gathered crowd to decide Christ’s fate. A man to the left of the podium holds an ewer and basin for Pilate to wash his hands. Rembrandt drew inspiration from an earlier print of the subject by his compatriot Lucas van Leyden, and expanded the architectural setting considerably.
Christ is barely discernible in the first state of the print (left) – the large crowd gathered below dominates the composition, and although most figures are seen from the back, Rembrandt manages to convey incredible movement and energy. Figures from all sides crane their necks to see the figure on the podium. In a dramatic reworking of the plate, Rembrandt eliminated the gathered crowd in the sixth state of the print (right). Christ is dwarfed by the vacuous setting and now the viewer of the print is implicated in this critical moment of judgment.
This etching is the culmination of Rembrandt’s abilities as a storyteller, complemented by his incredible command of printmaking techniques. The subject matter is a series of events from the life of Christ from chapter 19 of St Matthew’s gospels. Rembrandt deftly brought four episodes together – Christ is shown at centre, with the sick and elderly on the right, women and children on the left, and the Pharisees on the far left.
The luminous light radiating from Christ takes on a symbolic quality, and the shadow of the sick man at his immediate right is reflected in Christ’s robes. Christ’s right hand is raised, as he is about to offering a blessing to the sick, who are queuing to the right. Christ encourages children to approach his with his left hand – an energetic boy seen from the back runs to him and urges his mother to follow him. The camel peering out of the darkness at far right refers to the passage in the gospels that states it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
Rembrandt: thinking on paper is open in Room 90 until 4 August 2019. Find out more.