'...successfully combines scenic outside footage with more technical interior shots and museum stills. Heard is articulate and scholarly; he has a keen sense of timing. He knows how to present technical information in a pleasingly beneficial format. The program informs the artist and art historian, teaches the student, and entertains the layperson.' Video Rating Guide for Libraries, USA
CreditsPresenter: James Heard Audio Visual Unit: The National Gallery
Catalog number # 296
20 minutes Color
Age Range: 12 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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Rembrandt was born in 1606, the son of a reasonably prosperous miller. During his lifetime the Dutch people reclaimed their land from both Spanish rule and, their greatest enemy, the sea. Theirs was a self-reliant society with a tough market economy but it was also a Golden Age in which painting prospered. John Evelyn was one of a number of visitors from England who expressed astonishment at the scale of the art trade in the Netherlands. In 1641 he wrote:
"Tis an ordinary thing to find a common farmer lay out two or three thousand pounds in this commodity, their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their kermises to very great gains."
This method of direct marketing to a newly established nation encouraged specialization: seascapes, still lives, winter scenes and if Rembrandt was exceptional in his refusal to work to a set formula, he still fully appreciated the financial rewards of the Dutch art trade.
Here aged 34, Rembrandt projects an image of worldly success: a man who could consider spending 13,000 guilders on a splendid town house in Amsterdam. But this self-portrait also pays homage to Titian the great Venetian apostle of painting in oil. Recent scientific investigation into Rembrandt's paintings confirms that, like Titian, he was a brilliant craftsman who effectively reconciled aesthetic considerations with mundane calculations of cost and time. Just after Rembrandt moved from this house in 1660 its appearance was changed: a third storey was added and the familiar Dutch stepped gable was replaced by a classical cornice. But for 21 years this was where Rembrandt carried on his trade. His studio should be more properly thought of as a factory; the first floor of the house in Sintanthonisbreestraat was the center of operations where apprentices learnt the craft of painting and fee paying pupils were taught to draw. Teaching was a useful source of revenue for a painter and Rembrandt took so many pupils that at one time he hired a warehouse as an additional teaching space.
Artist's studios would be located in streets running from East to West so that their windows could receive the cold, unchanging, but controllable light from the sunless North.
The external wooden shutters on the lower part of the window were kept closed so that unwanted reflections from the canal below could not enter the room reserved for painting. The internal shutters that hinged up against the ceiling joists were used to control the direction and quality of the natural light. An added refinement was an adjustable hanging veil of white cloth. Another very practical problem determined the method of lighting the person posing for his or her portrait. Right handed painters such as Rembrandt worked with the light on their left. The reason for this is that a right handed painter works across the panel or canvas from left to right: daylight from the other direction would cast distracting shadows on the working surface. Rembrandt invariably places his sitters in subdued light from a single unshuttered window on the left. Before painting can begin, the artist must select a suitable support: usually canvas or an oak panel, although during Rembrandt's lifetime wooden panels began to decline in popularity. During his early period in Leiden, Rembrandt only painted on panels: his use of canvas followed the move to Amsterdam in 1631. These panels were commercially made in standard sizes to fit standard frames. Over the years, however many Dutch panels and canvases have been trimmed or cut down so that the original dimensions have been modified as in this panel painted by Rembrandt in 1629. The panel was prepared with an isolating layer of warm animal skin glue followed by a mixture of glue and chalk. The purpose of this foundation layer was to fill the grain and provide the artist with a uniformly absorbent painting surface. However, this chalk ground had one great disadvantage: areas of white paint, such as clouds or ruffs simply did not show up. Therefore a fawn colored imprimatura was applied over it: usually lead white ground in linseed oil with a little umber, an inexpensive earth color that accelerates the drying time. The exact tone of this imprimatura was midway between the light and darks of the sitter's head. This meant the artist simply left the half tones unpainted and concentrated on the lighter and darker areas. Another time saving device based on sound commercial practice!
In this panel of 1634 Rembrandt portrays an unknown 83 year old woman. Under her chin can be seen the brown imprimatura. The old lady's ruff shows two methods of exploiting the drying time of oil paint. The edge of the white ruff is blended with the dark shadow whilst both colors are still wet. But the glistening white lead highlights are painted over dry paint. The range of paint consistency from heavily textured highlights to the transparent glazes is extraordinary and yet we now know that Rembrandt achieved this without the help of waxes or secret nostrums: he merely ground his colors in common drying oil. Canvas was laced to a temporary wooden frame called a strainer. The linen fibers were first sealed with animal skin glue and primed with a ground of lead white tinted with umber or another earth color: a process often undertaken by an outside craftsman. Rembrandt did not make use of preparatory drawings but composed directly on the colored ground with a brush and dark brown paint (the dead color).This painting shows Rembrandt's wife Saskia as Flora, X-rays reveal fundamental changes. On the far right can be discerned a woman wearing a cap. Initially, Rembrandt had a different subject in mind: the story of Judith and Holofernes. His design was loosely based on Rubens' painting of the same subject now in Brunswick. X-rays respond to white lead and vermilion so that faces, cuffs and colors containing these pigments appear white on the radiograph. X-rays taken by the photographic department of the National Gallery cover a relatively small area so a large painting must be photographed in sections: the final prints are pasted together to make an X ray-mosaic. X-rays also high-light paint losses and structural features such as cracks in wooden panels, or as here, the modern, wooden stretcher to which the relined canvas is nailed.
Rembrandt's palette was limited by choice to black, white, crimson, yellow and a range of earth colors. He used no green, very little blue and only tiny quatities of vermilion. This interesting picture of a painter at work is by De Gelder, one of Rembrandt's last pupils and the selection of colors on the artist's palette surely echoes that of his teacher. Investigation of paint samples demonstrates Rembrandt's ability to match the effects of expensive artificial pigment by clever mixtures of cheaper, naturally occurring colors. In his portrait of his mistress Hendrikje Stoffels, the edge of the tablecloth appears to be painted in pure vermilion but the cross section reveals an orangey red earth color, cunningly beefed up with tiny particles of red lake. Two colors are particularly evident on the surface of Rembrandt's pictures: bright lead tin yellow and lead white. They require little oil and can be built up into dough like consistency and spread like icing sugar on a cake. White lead is extremely flexible, dries well in oil and can be used to stabilize the slower drying bone black and lake colors. This indispensable pigment is used by Rembrandt to model his faces: the thick light highlights opposing the thinly painted shadows. The tedious work of making the paint, which meant grinding the pigment with linseed oil, was carried out by apprentices. Each color required different quantities of drying oil. This oil can be thought of as a kind of glue that sticks the pigment to the support but also protects the pigment particles from the atmosphere. The usual drying oil was linseed but occasionally the less yellow, walnut or poppy oil was substituted for passages of white paint. The proportions of drying oil to pigment change the character of paint. As the medium is increased so the color becomes more transparent. Certain pigments are particularly suitable for glazes. Lake colors, extracted from a various tiny insects such as the cochineal beetle, are the basis for the most characteristic glaze - a rich color ruby of syrupy consistency that is applied over a light background in contrast to a scumble, where an opaque is loosely brushed over a dark underpainting to create a lively surface where the two paint layers visibly interact. This glazing technique has several functions: Colors are intensified by the superimposition of transparent paint films. The overall contrasts can be lessened in the way a sunlight scene appears through sunglasses. Soft shadows on the figure can be suggested by the careful application of several glazes and the mysterious half lights of subtle backgrounds are achieved by the same means. The application of one transparent color over another requires considerable experience and a retentive memory. Too many glazes can easily turn into an unpleasant muddy coagulation. Rembrandt exploits the way that thin glazes seem to retreat whilst opaque thick highlights project forward into space. One of Rembrandt's most glorious essays in oil is his affectionate study of a woman bathing, in which the model is possibly a likeness of Hendrikje Stoffels. Here the full range of Rembrandt's technical virtuosity is on display. The brown imprimatura clearly shows in the bottom fold of the shift.
The initial blocking in, the dead color, has been left unmodified, to serve as the arm in shadow.
The wet in wet technique occurs in the drapery. Rembrandt has loaded the same brush with black and white so that the two colors blend with a single brushmark.
Under Hendrikje's other arm, the thick, viscous paint has been scratched into with the wrong end of the brush: this graffito can be found elsewhere in Rembrandt's pictures: in hair, in cloth and even on the tip of the artist's own nose!
The reflection of the red cloak, by contrast, is suggested by a runny, transparent glaze, applied over a dried underpainting. But our first and last impression of this painting on panel must be the bravura brushwork. "...you should accustom yourself to a lively mode of handling so as to clearly express different planes or surfaces: giving the drawing due emphasis and the coloring, when it admits of it, a playful freedom, without ever proceeding to polishing or blending"
This was advice from one of Rembrandt's own pupils, Hoogstraten, and it's not difficult to imagine Rembrandt himself uttering almost identical words. X-radiography has also uncovered the difficulties that even the skillful Rembrandt in his mid fifties could experience. The portrait of Margarethe de Geer and her husband Jacob Trip may well have been commissioned from Rembrandt to hang in the Trippenhuis, the Amsterdam residence of the couples' two sons. The X rays appear to be quite different in character: that of Jacob Trip reveals a portrait resolved at the first attempt whereas that of Margarethe de Geer is a record of struggle. The portraits are likely to have been made in 1661, the year that Jacob died and it is possible that Rembrandt was forced to work from a portrait by another artist. Did Rembrandt use this portrait painted by Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp in 1651 as his starting point? It's evident that Margarethe de Geer was painted from life and she has a directness that contrasts with the more restrained and somewhat hieratic image of her husband, one of the richest men in Holland. One particularly interesting discovery showed up on a cross section taken from a glazed area of Jacob Trip's gown. Particles of blue smalt, a sort of colored glass, were revealed. As Rembrandt's late work glows with an autumnal warmth the presence of a blue pigment seems surprising but this was used here, not as coloring matter, but to bulk out the glaze, as one might thicken a sauce with flour. Blue smalt contains cobalt which speeds up the drying process. Yet another example of Rembrandt's mastery over his materials!
It would be wrong however to honor Rembrandt's exemplary technical methods at the expense of his art. He himself admonished a connoisseur peering rather too closely at one of his pictures: "The smell of the colors will overwhelm you." Scientific investigation merely confirms his astounding ability to marry an inventive but faultless painting technique to a remarkable aesthetic sensibility. This could only be achieved by unusual powers of concentration. Those of Rembrandt were legendary:
"When Rembrandt worked he would not have granted an audience to the first monarch in the world, who would have to return again and again until he found him no longer engaged."
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