Tag Archives: Rembrandt

Rembrandt makes you feel holy

Christmas in art is usually represented via the Adoration of the Magi. There are dozens of paintings with three wise men of the East kneeling in front of the cradle, with the Virgin presenting her Son, and Joseph standing back, respectfully. Artists played with light coming from the star right onto Christ, with angels cheering up or even dancing (Botticelli), with various saints and benefactors attending the scene, but few dared to capture the Christmas spirit beyond a trite illustration of the Bible. Most artists didn’t have the creative liberty to experiment. Clients wanted the Magi, and a client’s wish was just as sacrosanct as the story itself, if not more so.

My favourite representation of Christmas is the Holy Family with Angels by Rembrandt (St.Petersburg, the Hermitage), painted three years after Rembrandt’s wife died leaving him a widowed father.


Rembrandt makes the observer actively present, and not a passive voyeur, by using three light sources, with the observer being “responsible” for one of them:



The stove represents a problem though. It is, most likely, a stove like this one:


Jacobus Vrel, the Hospital Orderly, 1654-1662

So the light must travel from the bottom up, and strangely enough, it lights up Joseph’s instruments as if the flame is as high as the stove itself. Rembrandt twisted physics to show the earthly, man-made light (even if it is as huge as implied in this painting) is something far inferior to the light created by God or (!) the observer.

This is the genius design of Rembrandt: the observer walks in, lets the light in, and in its intensity it is almost equal to the celestial light. Don’t you feel holy, standing there, in front of Infant Christ, with the Virgin presenting Him to you?

Yes, Rembrandt makes you not just present, he hints at your holiness as well, and by that he fills your heart with holiness. Even non-religious people say they feel something extraordinary in front of this painting.

Joseph is busy making a yoke (an obvious reference to Christ’s destiny and role), and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of waking his son. It means you shouldn’t be afraid too. Take your time, digest the scene. Rembrandt doesn’t want you to feel an unwelcome intruder (unless, of course, you wear clogs and keep playing your violin).

The Virgin checks on her son, but it becomes a presentation of Christ to you.

So, you are holy, and you are being presented with the Son of God, who would make this individual holiness possible, by showing the road to fighting sin.

I am not religious, but I am awed.

I have to mention the red cover of Christ and the cherry-red dress of the Virgin. Besides their symbolic reference, these “details” create heat in the picture. infant Christ and the Virgin not only give you the opportunity to become a righteous man, they also give you warmth and comfort, which are much warmer and more comforting than the man-made heat of the stove.

Merry Christmas, my dear readers!

Corporate Utopia

Rembrandt is more often compared to writers than painters. He has been likened to Shakespeare in England and Dostoyevsky in Russia for his explores of human character under extreme strain and stress, be it a brush with death or burial under cornucopia’s gifts. That might be true, but for me he is more of a philosopher with prophetic insights into the social order that would flourish many centuries later.

He craved for recognition when he was young, and for money, when he got recognised and bankrupt. At the time, group portraits were as good a commission in the protestant Amsterdam as an altarpiece in Rome, so the order from the Textile Guild was a godsend.


This is a group portrait of the so-called syndics of the cloth merchants’ guild, or people who ruled the textile trade in the Netherlands, using the subtle tools of quality control. They were a powerful group intricately linked to the Republican government that, at the outset, allowed them to oust British textile makers from the market, and at the end, let them exercise a lot of control over the government itself. I can easily see a modern EU bureaucrat in this role.

The first impression from this painting is that the syndics have assembled for their regular meeting. No. Syndics were never getting together for meetings or board presentations. Each of them was elected for one year, and had to come three times a week to the guild hall, one by one, to certify the quality of fabrics presented for inspection. I guess that saved a lot of budget: something modern EU commissions might like to copy. Each syndic paid for his own portrait within this group, as was the custom, so Rembrandt, having learned his lesson from the Nightwatch the hard way (when some of the unfavourably portrayed watch members declined to cash up), gave each of them the representation beyond what they deserved, or could even hope for.

To put it simply, Rembrandt created a portrait of the utopian corporate board. You don’t see such boards in the real life, but each board hopes to be as close to this ideal as possible.

Three of the syndics are watching you, the observer, with the other two eyeing up something to the left of you. If you look at the way the figures are lit, you’d realise it is not the light coming from the window on the left, it must be some large opening, like a big door that you’d left open when you entered.

Now, how does the board react to you and your news, idea, or proposal?

Each of the board members has his own “character”:



They are all different, but Rembrandt makes them united by grouping them around the table that gives off welcoming red warmth as if a fireplace, and by horizontal lines in the wood panelling.

Each of them brings in an ingredient without which a corporation is likely to collapse, but with all of them together, it is destined to prosper. Why? Because it reacts to challenges both effectively and efficiently, just as a management textbook of the 21st century would prescribe:

LogicThe only problem is that such boards do not exist: stupidity, and greed inevitably get in the way.


Five shows in four days

This winter, London is the art centre of the world.

I covered five shows in four days, and will give you the taste of what to expect in this blog over the next couple of weeks.

1. Rembrandt: The Late works – the National Gallery

A deluge of people against an overload of great art.  If you are as fond of crowds as a presidential candidate on a campaign tour, you’d enjoy it. Otherwise, note which museums the works you like come from, and plan on going there when the show’s over. Rembrandt is meant to be watched and contemplated, and not from the back of a couple of dozens of people who leave you only the upper part of the painting to view. This is a great show to introduce someone to Rembrandt but very difficult to enjoy once the introductions have been made.

This photo is as bug a lie as a BigMac photo in advertising:  imagine a hundred more people in this photo to get the feeling of the gloomy reality.

This photo is as big a lie as a BigMac image in an advertising poster: imagine a hundred more people in this room to get the feeling of the gloomy reality.

2. Late Turner: Painting Set Free – Tate Britain

“Painting set free” is a strange way to name a show of the artist who was most calculating and least spontaneous. I agree some of his works appear to be made on the spur of a momentary fit of passion, but as you get closer to see the brushwork, you realise you’ve been tricked.

This is not a work by Gerhard Richter. This is a tiny fragment of Turner's brushwork. It is enough to make a whole painting by a modern artist.

This is not a work by Gerhard Richter. This is a tiny fragment of Turner’s brushwork. It is enough to make a whole painting by a modern painter. I guess Turner would be offended to be called a spontaneous artist.

It is as spontaneous as an Einstein’s manuscript with pages densely covered by seemingly incomprehensible formulas. And then you remember that Einstein was no Cy Twombly. See for yourself:

Enstein Twombly

It is a great show, just don’t believe its title.

3. Constable: The Making of a Master – V&A

Putting sketches next to paintings is always good: it helps to see how artistic thought traveled from the initial impression to its final destination on the canvas. I just wonder if V&A and Tate conspired to stage their shows of the two great contemporaries at the same time. If so, they should have linked them up by a free bus route or something. As it is, both shows lack references to each other, and hence some important historical context.

Constable is a must-see too. Without him, we just might be locked in the postcard canalettos for much of the 19th century, and would never know that it is a silvery gray that makes blue, white, and green colours really alive. Well, we’d find it out at some point, of course, but how many artistic careers would be wasted while the world is waiting for the discovery?

Constable: Seascape study with rain cloud

Constable: Seascape study with rain cloud

4. Giovanni Moroni – The Royal Academy

Moroni was a contemporary of Titian and Veronese, but in a portrait competition he’d win hands down over both of them. I had seen a good share of the paintings from this exhibition at various Italian galleries, and meeting them again was akin to catching up with a good friend. Moroni’s characters stay in memory like friends who neither own you money nor intend to borrow some. Kind of no-obligation friends. The more you look into their faces, the more you feel you understand them. I’d be tempted to call this magic, but it is not, and I will be showing what artistic tricks he used to make it work this way.

Parallel to Moroni, the Royal Academy is running a show of the Royal Academician Allen Jones (I wrote a bit about him here). Both banners hang next to each other on the facade of the building.


The posters illustrate how deep we have plunged since the 16th century. We went all the way down from professing interest in human achievement, condition, and destiny to, well, fetishism about tits. Kate Moss is looking above the observer’s head in the arrogant way of a model who’s got a glamorous half-body of armour to peddle to the masses, and her own sexuality to sell to the highest bidder (even if neither she or the artist intended it to be so).

Standing in the courtyard of the RA, I asked friends was it Kate Moss or the unknown guy they’d like to chat up, and they unanimously voted for the bearded guy. I have to admit most people go to the Jones’ show, but unless you happen to be a feminist of the fetishistic persuasion, you may not find it interesting.

5. Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude – The Courtauld Gallery.


I am not saying art shouldn’t explore human sexuality, sexual relationships, and sex, in general. I simply find it very boring when art is doing only that. Fortunately, Schiele was so much more than a skilled graphic artist slightly (or maniacally) obsessed with teenagers discovering their bodies, sex, and the mortality of the flesh.

I am certain that today he would be isolated as a potential paedophile (he didn’t just collect pictures of naked teenagers, but he made them) for longer than the month he had to spend in an Austrian village prison, but it doesn’t make his take on the human body less interesting.

There is also a show by Jasper Johns (titled “No Regrets”) in the room you have to pass on your way to Egon Schiele exhibition: don’t stop to have a look.