London’s National Gallery has created six new exhibition rooms on its ground floor, and has filled them with paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters. After spending a few hours immersed in such quintessentially Dutch works as Meindert Hobbema’s 1689 landscape of the tree-lined entry to Middelharnis and Jan van der Heyden’s meticulous 1660 view of Amsterdam’s Westerkerk, I was a bit surprised to walk out of the Gallery and find myself in Trafalgar Square, rather than on Amsterdam’s Museumplein.
For now, the jewel of this new gallery space is two large rooms filled entirely with paintings by the two greatest masters from the Low Countries – Antwerp’s Peter Paul Rubens and Amsterdam’s Rembrandt van Rijn. Rubens’ technical virtuosity is on full display in several wall-sized canvases, including his 1610 Samson and Delilah, his 1635 Judgement of Paris, and his 1630 Minerva, which was presented to Charles I when Rubens, in his role as a diplomat, was in London negotiating a peace treaty. These enormous paintings explain Rubens’ worldly success: their complex compositions, elaborate symbolism, and involved narratives make them ostentatious and opulent entertainments for wealthy, sophisticated patrons.
But the melodrama of Rubens’ gaudy works fares badly in the face of the Rembrandts that hang opposite them. Scholars have puzzled over why Rubens used assistants to perform much of the actual execution of his paintings, whereas the much less prolific Rembrandt did not. The reason was not any lack of desire for wealth on the part of the latter, for we know that Rembrandt went bankrupt because of his love of collecting luxury goods. The true reason is readily apparent in these galleries, in two parts. One is Rubens’ 1615 sketch of a lion hunt. This large, detailed drawing was as much as a guide for a later painting as an architect’s plans are for a building. Thus the conceptual Rubens could assign his preparatory drawings to assistants with complete confidence that his idea for the work would be realized. The second part, across the room, is in the highly personal nature of the Rembrandts. Not only his touch, but also his deceptively simple and spontaneous compositions, could only come from his own hand, and his own eye. The puzzle is thus resolved: the experimental Rembrandt could not have others execute his paintings because he did not know in advance how he wanted them to look.
It is well known that Rembrandt’s greatest art was the product of his old age. Anyone who doubts that wisdom is a source of creativity should be required to go directly to the National Gallery. In this exhibition, Rembrandt’s 1640 self-portrait and his 1635 portrait of his wife Saskia are already the work of a great artist. But his 1661 portraits of Jan Trip and his wife, and his 1656 portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, are the work of a transcendent artist. With mysterious means denied to other painters, Rembrandt portrays the dignity and perseverance of the elderly Trips, and in Hendrickje captures the tenderness and vulnerability of a beautiful young woman in an unguarded moment. With these three people, we feel that we know not only what they looked like, but what they were like.
The greatest work on display is Rembrandt’s magnificent self-portrait of 1669, painted in the final year of his life. In depth of expression, this painting is a pinnacle of human creativity in old age, that stands besides just a few others – Shakespeare’s Lear and Darwin’s Origin come to mind in England – for its combination of technical achievement and psychological insight. Like the very greatest experimental works, the artist’s complete mastery of technique makes technique disappear, and the work seems to communicate directly with the viewer. For centuries, scholars have struggled – and failed – to explain how Rembrandt achieved the profound psychological effects of his late work; and this seems an improbable goal. But what the National Gallery has now done is to create an immediate context in which we can see clearly for ourselves how far Rembrandt outshines his greatest contemporary, and how the aged Rembrandt outshines his younger self.