Rembrandt van Rijn is known for many things. In popular culture: his painting The Night Watch, among painters: his depiction of Light against darkness – and finally, among art-historians – the refusal of adapting to technical rules – especially in his late days. For art historians or others who believe in a 30,000 year old Art-history, this is considered outstanding regardless of what kind of rules those times might have held. For contemporary painters however, being rebellious against today’s good taste is not accepted, because of the paradox that the new formality is to have no formula at all. Formula would be kitsch.
Rules are not bad in themselves, certain techniques can be bad, and being free is not the same as being obedient to the ruling philosophy of your time. This aimless desire for pre-modern painters to be “modern” or “before their time” is still very evident in our alleged “post-modern” culture. In an interview concerning the “Late Rembrandt” exhibition, October 2014 in London, Curator Betsy Wieseman said the following about a sketch by Rembrandt:
… There are also incredibly beautiful drawings, for example the drawing of a young woman sleeping. Looks absolutely modern in its simplicity and directness. It’s almost abstract in its beauty…
It is not hard to imagine that if the modern aesthetic rules were different, this statement would be different also.
This being said, some formulas during history have changed for the better. Rembrandt changed some of them, not by looking forward though, but back. Comparing early works with late works one can see some striking differences:
1. His late portraits are less like common noble portraits, he is more occupied with emotional expressions, especially in the portraits of Ashkenazy jews.
2. The late paintings are less detailed in the backgrounds or whatever is happening around the main area of the picture.
3. Late technique is more Macchia, loose strokes to make them more alive or to put certain figures more in highlight.
People can disagree all they like about the benefits of these technical changes, but the point is that Rembrandt did these changes in an attempt to make better, more alive paintings, not more modern ones. The Macchia technique certainly was not modern during those days, as the years for Rembrandt after The Night Watch were completely without commissions. The Night Watch is often quoted among pieces were Rembrandt started to “blur” out figures to a higher degree than earlier.
However, the first “late Rembrandt” piece concerning the changes mentioned above, is by many said to be The Kitchen Maid, painted 1651. Why did Rembrandt change his technique at this time? Some people look at his personal life and all the tragedies, including the bankruptcy. Others, more sensible perhaps, look to Frans Hals, who painted “loose,” like this, long before Rembrandt.
The core of inspiration came to Rembrandt, perhaps not from personal feelings, nor from scouting to the work of a colleague, rather that of history and ideas. If Rembrandt wanted to become the greatest painter in the world, getting information from all of time was crucial. We know that Rembrandt knew about ancient greek painters, because of his self portrait as the painter Zeuxis – Perhaps his inspiration came mainly from the knowledge on greek painters and sculptures?
The notion that Rembrandt was an autonomic artist has until recently, made the titles of numerous paintings ridiculous. The Jewish Bride is actually a depiction of Isaac and Rebecca, two figures from the Old Testament; or a Portrait Historié. Titus As a Monk is a portrait of his son as Saint Francis, and Man In Armor is a depiction of Alexander the Great.
Until the 20th century, The Apostle Bartholomew was believed to be a portrait of a baker. Even though most people now know that Rembrandt was a storyteller, (mostly from the Bible) few people have touched on his philosophical reasons for painting the way he did.
Poet Jeremias de Decker, whose portrait was painted by Rembrandt in 1666, wrote a poem where he pronounced Rembrandt to be “The Apelles of his time.”
So great was the pride of the great Alexander in times past that no one was allowed to paint his portrait save Apelles; Apelles and no one else he asked to perform this task. His vanity would not permit a lesser brush to be involved. I feel no such proud spirit running through me, nor is my breast so swollen and yet it pleases me (I don’t seek to deny it) and arouses my wonder, to see my being drawn across a flat panel, by the Apelles of our time: and this not to derive an income, but simply as a favor..
– Jeremias de Decker (Excerpt from the poem An Expression of gratitude to the Excellent and Widely Renowned Rembrandt van Rijn)
According to de Decker, Rembrandt’s brushstrokes could be compared with and even surpass Raphael and Michelangelo. Ultimately, the celebration poem was given as a gift from de Decker to Rembrandt in return for the magnificent portrait.
The references to Apelles do not stop there. According to Marjorie E. Wieseman in his text “The late Self Portraits” published in the Catalogue for the “Late Rembrandt” exhibition in 2014-15 in Amsterdam and London, Rembrandt’s Frick Self portrait was in fact a self portrait as Apelles, “The prince of Painters.”
If Apelles was the main inspiration for the late works by Rembrandt, it would explain why his palette appear to have become more limited and why his technique changed up. The opinion on ancient greek painters in that time appear to have been that they painted painterly, with broad strokes. This is likely, especially when one takes into consideration that Rembrandt’s self portrait as the greek painter Zeuxis is the roughest portrait he ever did.
This is not the reason however, why Rembrandt changed his technique in 1651. In the late 1640s, the widow of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel; displayed a new painting to her collection in Amsterdam, which she had inherited by her husband; a collection which included Rembrandt too. The painting on display was Flaying of Marsyas by Titian. Undoubtably, Rembrandt must have seen this before painting The Kitchen Maid in 1651 and the more similar Return of the Prodigal Son, finished in 1669. Titian who painted Flaying of Marsyas in the twilight of his life almost 100 years earlier was like Rembrandt: a well-read man, and according to Art-historian Thomas Puttfarken, he too changed both his technique and subject matter after reading The Poetics by Aristotle. The Poetics is a work probably known to Rembrandt as well, as he painted Aristotle with the bust of Homer, the celebrated author in The Poetics, in 1653, only two years after The Kitchen Maid.
Though the subject matter and coloring is different, when placing The Return of The Prodigal Son next to Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, the paintings match like kindred spirits. Equally rough and they both appear as reliefs with the story displaying before us on a two-dimensional line. Rembrandt has painted figures in the background, but they appear to us more like objects then a photographic space inwards.
With Titian as a father, thoughts and works from antiquity seem to have been the role model for late Rembrandt. Ironic when one thinks of certain critics in his own time, like Gerard de Lairesse, who accused Rembrandt of not being classical enough.
I do not want to deny that I once had a special preference for his manner; but at that time I had hardly begun to unerstand the infallible rules of painting. I found it necessary to recant my error and repudiate his; since his was based on nothing but light and fantastic conceits, without models, and which had no firm foundation on which to stand.
– Gerard de Lairesse, Painter and Painting-theorist
When Lairesse said that Rembrandt painted “without models,” it was most likely a comment to his dislike of Rembrandt using family-members and friends rather than more “suitable” models for his historical pictures.
If antic ideas could be divided into two categories: Ethos and Pathos, than Rembrandt in his late years clearly chose the latter, Aristotle over Platon. It brings forth what Aristotle said in The Poetics, that a piece should represent ideas of moral. Contrary to pieces that are ethical in themselves. Gerard de Lariesse complained about Rembrandt not using the proper models for the proper motifs, and Rembrandt did paint his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels for a painting of Susanna from the Book of Daniel (A Woman Bathing In a Stream), in a posture only acceptable to have prostitutes to model for. Rembrandt’s late works are not ethical, they are attempts to reach more human drama, intimacy and sincerity – more kitsch. Rembrandt managed this by looking to Titian but also by trying to surpass his master by directing the viewers eye even more with light and darkness.
Historically, calling late Rembrandt or his production in general “kitsch,” is as wrong as calling it Art, because it is prior to both these terms. Nevertheless, according to numerous philosophers it is fair to say that “kitsch” is more a “human condition” than it is fashion.
There is a sort of mystery to kitsch. When did it begin? If it is just simply another name for faking emotions, it ought to have been a permanent part of the human condition.
– Roger Scruton, Philosopher
It is fair to say, that most paintings from Rembrandt’s time were magical tricks, creating a faked reality. It is not until recent time with Jackson Pollock that it is obvious and clear what a canvas with paint on really is: A lot of dirt mixed with oil.
Kitsch aims to describe universal longings and recognizable emotions. A good work of kitsch will succeed in this and a bad one will not. I would argue that Rembrandt is more kitsch than most of his contemporaries due to the fact that he was more occupied with describing the actual emotions of a story, with the story itself as guide. In the portrayal of old Simeon meeting the infant Jesus, Rembrandt did exactly this. After his death in 1669, two historical paintings were left on the easels in his studio, this painting was one of them.
 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
– Luke 2:25-26
In the depiction by Rembrandt, the very old Simeon is holding the child with his arm-wrists as if he cannot hold the child with his bare hands. His eyes aren’t open nor closed, it is as if he is slowly dying already, loosing his eyesight to begin with. The child is nervous, shakes its small feet under the clothes and anxiously looks at the face of the old Simeon who is in trance. The focus is on Simon, the child looks at him together with us, only the priest in the background is somewhere else in his thoughts. The painting appears as a camera lens from 1848, everything around the content is unclear, loose but precise strokes, which are only there to tighten the composition, thus amplifying the expression.
Eighteen years earlier, one of Rembrandt’s students, Jürgen Oven painted the same motif in similar size and view. Here we see a description of the story which aims to focus more on the fact that Simeon has the grace of God. He holds the baby, who is glowing, for he is holy; and looks up to his master. Behind him are his public, one lady is praying. Simeon is dressed in gold, an expensive color, therefore holy. This painting is a mere presentation of the story, not a representation. It does not focus on the tale: an old man’s last day, meeting his destiny; but the fact that it is from the Bible. The execution is not strictly speaking bad, but unlike Rembrandt, he has decided that the focus should be everywhere, including on Simeon’s golden cape.
The fascination for Rembrandt since the rediscovery in the late 19th century has been a positive one as well as a negative one. The good thing is that a great painter, perhaps the greatest, has been taken well cared for and shown to the public. The bad part, is that his project as a painter has often been misunderstood, he has been labeled a “17th century dutch artist” and approached thus. This is unfortunate. He should rather be remembered as a painter of the world, a brilliant craftsman in the tradition of Apelles; and he should be approached with love.