Searching for a Master’s Signature
In Unsigned Work
Glowing under its spotlight, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery graced the far wall of the first gallery, an immediate reward for visitors who had advanced slowly on a snaking line waiting for admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus . In a large room with no other artwork, the painting showcased the best of the master draftsman, printmaker and painter, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.
Dark paintings like this one photograph poorly, so a first-time viewer might be surprised at the delicate brushstrokes of pure color and sparkling highlights that describe the smallest of details. In a modest area (about three by two feet), Rembrandt implies a monumental temple interior by shrinking his figures and staging them at the base of the scene.
Within the area of action, Jesus towers over the men around him, listening to the case against the kneeling woman who dons a penitent face and attempts to either cover her face in shame or wipe a tear from her eye–or both. The accuser lifts the veil to show the audience the face of an adulteress. His gesturing hand, brightly painted against a background of dark cloth, directs the eye to the narrative’s protagonist.
Close scrutiny of the faces in Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery quickly reveals Rembrandt’s interest in individual character types and facial expressions, and his skill in depicting them. That passion for portraying emotions seems to have been there from the beginning of his career.
After his father died in 1630, the twenty-four-year-old Rembrandt spent the year producing mostly small etchings (perhaps at the expense of his painting practice), many of them self-portraits titled with descriptive phrases like: “…frowning,” “…open-mouthed, as if shouting,” and “…laughing.”1 In another one, the artist stares out at the viewer with wide-eyed concern and pursed lips.
Whether in a fully realized painting like The Supper at Emmaus (1648) (shown below), where the face of the surprised pilgrim on the right registers perfectly both his recognition and attendant awe, or in a rapidly executed sketch like Christ and Two Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus (1655-56), where just a few lines convey Christ’s sorrowful attention as he listens to the disciple on his left, Rembrandt demonstrates his devotion to, and unerring ability for, expressing a wide range of human experience.
Just as a person’s physiology and educational background produce a signature not so easily replicated, so too do artists manifest their physical selves and histories in lines drawn and brushstrokes applied. A quick scan of Rembrandt’s ink sketches reveals the spontaneity and confidence with which he used his quill pen to create an assortment of lines from faint to bold. His paintings delight with occasional accents of color, lights scratched out of the darks, and deftly applied impasto highlights. Those marks constitute a unique signature to be sought when attributing work to this artist.
In most of the securely attributed brown ink drawings on display, the sureness and variety of line set a standard of comparison for the questionable pieces. In Christ Preaching (1643), thick lines indicate shadowed areas like that of the small child in the foreground, while thinner ones suggest light in the center of the sketch. Note, too, the brilliance with which Rembrandt develops composition: a diagonal mark runs from the child’s outstretched leg straight to the top of Christ’s proper left foot.
When thinking on paper Rembrandt worked with abandon, having no qualms about going over figures that didn’t seem quite right, as with the kneeling Thomas and leg of the man to his left in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1654). Those pentimenti (in Italian, plural for repentance) reveal the artist’s process. One can imagine him loading his quill with enough ink to leave lines heavy enough to clarify initial explorations or superimpose fresh ideas over original ones.
In the exhibit, drawings with titles that begin with “Studio of,” “Pupil of” and “Copy after” lack Rembrandt’s assuredness, economy and variety of lines. They also fail to mobilize gestures and facial features to convey the emotional expression so present in the master’s work.
After queuing up to examine these small ink drawings, visitors enjoyed quicker access to the works in the next gallery, site of the main event. There on the right wall hung a group of seven paintings, each titled Head of Christ. Although all were originally attributed to Rembrandt, some have since been demoted to “attributed to” or “studio copy.” Dated between 1648 and 1656,2 they depart from the standard portrayal of Jesus in that the models inspiring them were Jewish men, most likely secured from the artist’s immediate environment.
From at least 1639, Rembrandt lived and worked in a house (now The Rembrandt House Museum ) in a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam. Two years before having to vacate the house in 1658 because of dire financial straits, the artist petitioned the court for relief. As part of the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, an inventory of his assets was conducted. It listed among his personal possessions two heads of Christ painted by their owner and an unattributed one with the curious description “done from life.”3
That the ultimate destination of those three paintings remains unknown has not prevented hoards of historians from weighing in over the years with their speculations. In Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, recent scholarship combined with technical analysis of the relevant portraits, complicated by the deteriorated condition of some of the pieces, raised questions about all the attributions.
With that in mind, visitors could play connoisseur and decide for themselves which paintings came from the brush Rembrandt.
The Philadelphia Museum’s own portrait seems to embody the best of the master’s touches. Here the underlying drawing situates the model’s features accurately, unlike in some others where the eyes don’t line up correctly–a common mistake in three-quarter-view heads.
The paint application includes many deft touches such as a brushstroke that creates a shadow under the sitter’s right eyelid. The hair–on the head and in the beard–reflects the confidence and experience that Rembrandt brought to its creation. He used transparent darks to define the masses of waves and indicate a few strands, scratched in a couple of lights at the hairline to the left of the part, and produced highlights with a thin layer of opaque color.
Looking down to his right, Jesus parts his lips as if speaking. His lowered eyelids and slightly knitted brow imply sadness. Rembrandt portrays Christ with an expression of world-weariness that perhaps echoed his own state of mind at the time.
In another version of the Head of Christ (in a private collection, for which no photograph was available), the artist briefly indicated–in the same dark color as the garment–hands clasped in supplication; the eyes, with white showing under their pupils, direct the request heavenward.
Where in the Philadelphia head the shadow between the lips curves slightly upwards at the corners, mitigating the sad expression, here the shadow pulls the mouth corners down, imparting a sense of despair that, coupled with the lowered upper eyelids, suggests this study might have been for a painting of Christ shortly before his crucifixion.
In addition to being one of the most expressive of the paintings, the private collection version (one strains to imagine it hanging over someone’s couch!) retains a rich variety of brushstrokes and color. Red in the corners of the eyes, in the complexion and in the lips infuses the image with warmth, emphasizing Christ’s mortal aspect. The combination of thick impasto in the lights and thin washes in the darks, focuses attention on the exquisitely drawn facial expression.
A beautiful painting in its own right regardless of its creator, the Head of Christ from Amsterdam depicts Jesus looking down with eyes almost closed, a hint of pupil peaking from beneath the lid of his left eye. The portrait contains the same fine drawing and confident use of color seen in the other Rembrandts.
A refined quality in the paint handling, however, differs from the gruffness with which Rembrandt could apply paint, most notably in his Portrait of a Young Jew, on display opposite in the same gallery. Perhaps in this Head of Christ the artist deliberately suppressed his exuberant brushstrokes to reinforce a quiet mood of contemplation.
Before exiting the room filled with paintings, the viewer encountered The Supper at Emmaus, another modestly sized painting with grand proportions. Rembrandt’s signature touch reveals itself in the strokes of red-orange that define the shirt sleeves of the pilgrim on the right, in the sweeps of grey that create the metal plates, in the red wash that hints at blood down the front of Christ’s garment, and in the light patches of color in the aura that surrounds him.
Dwarfed by architecture suggestive of a holy space, the ordinary looking pilgrims and serving boy contrast with the otherworldly-appearing risen Christ, whose oddly drawn face calls attention to eyes that seem to peer into an ethereal realm. The brightest area of the composition, the tablecloth, leads to the blessing of the challah bread, while the handle of a knife projects over the edge of the table in typical still-life fashion.
In The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt referenced the Jewishness of Christ (the challah) in like manner as the Semitic models he used for the head studies. In the exhibit, earlier prints in the first gallery set the stage for the dramatic changes to come in the artist’s vision of Jesus, as evident in the later prints in the final galleries.
In one of those early prints, Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (1632), the barely visible face of Christ allows for a generic depiction of his countenance. Likewise, the faces of those gathered around him contain few discriminating characteristics.
Rembrandt focuses on the drama inherent in the story. The raised arm of Jesus begins a curve that flows down through the shaded back of his robe, ending at a darkly inked figure who recoils in astonishment at the miracle beheld. Bright light floods the scene from the right, revealing the opening eyes and mouth of what minutes before had been an inert corpse. Christ stands above the action, hand on hip, bathed in the glory of the power of the divine he channels.
Flash forward twenty years to Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”) (c. 1652). Rembrandt still uses compositional devices to set Jesus apart from others but now portrays him as a man not so unlike those encircling him. In the lower third of the print the artist leaves several patches of paper unmarked, effectively creating a triangle at the apex of which stands Christ. The outstretched leg of the seated onlooker in the lower left quadrant, coupled with some hatching below it, leads to a boy who has abandoned his toy to direct his attention to something on the ground. Jesus seems to look at the child.
The head of the preaching man tilts downward, his humble appearance reminiscent of the faces in the Head of Christ paintings. The attitudes of audience members reflect Rembrandt’s longstanding skill at using gestures and facial features to portray emotional expression, and his later interest in exploring character types.
The grandeur of Christ in the earlier print, created when Rembrandt was in his mid-twenties, was replaced twenty years later by a naturalism that puts emphasis on the real-life struggles of Jesus and his followers. The shift seems to echo the course of Rembrandt’s own life.
In 1634 he married his beloved Saskia van Uylenburgh, but their first child–a boy–survived only two months and by 1640, the couple had lived through the birth and immediate death of two daughters. The next year they welcomed into their lives a son, Titus, who years later would predecease his father by a year. In 1642, only eight years into their marriage, Saskia died and left Rembrandt with an infant son for whom he had to secure care.
Troubles did not end there. The nursemaid he hired became his mistress and later sued for breach of promise when Rembrandt took up with another woman, whom he never married but who bore him a daughter in 1654. The artist had the nursemaid committed to avoid having to deal with her. As already noted, several years later with finances in complete disarray, Rembrandt was forced to sell first the contents of his house and then the house itself to raise money to pay his debts.4
The young man who perhaps had identified with the creative power involved in breathing life into the dead had grown to view the world with a realism borne of serial losses. In The Hundred Guilder Print, Rembrandt gathered on the right a mass of afflicted humanity desperately seeking healing from their radiant savior in the center of the composition. On the left, less graphically resolved, stand and debate the skeptics.
Dated 1649 in the midst of Rembrandt’s tribulations, the print depicts Jesus with the same heavy-lidded eyes of sorrow that came to imbue the artist’s later faces of Christ. While retaining his ability to transform suffering through divine inspiration, the great man now shouldered the burden of repeated exposure to life’s hardships.
1 Gary Schwartz, editor. The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt Reproduced in Original Size: Rembrandt van Rijn (1977), 8.
2 Mark Tucker, Lloyd DeWitt and Ken Sutherland. “The Heads of Christ: A Technical Survey” in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), 45.
3 Lloyd DeWitt, editor. Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), x.
4 Schwartz, 9-11.