All Around are Familiar Faces: Rembrandt and the Portrait of Modernity  

Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-Portrait – Google Art Project – Public Domain

In the sixteenth century it was across the network of burgeoning towns, canal-riven plains, and bustling sea ports of the Low Countries where the winds of change were most profoundly felt.   A marked urbanisation, an exponential growth in the size of cities and the seaside hubs of trade, had allowed for increased concentrations of artisans, investors, businessmen, small tradesmen, fisherman and waged labourers.  Across these sections rippled the ideas of a modern and popular reformation.  A new kind of political agenda which sought out individual liberties, and the destruction of the taxes and tariffs which inhibited trade and which had been visited upon the population  by the gargantuan, grotesque feudal empire whose power was projected out from Habsburg Spain. The new breed of Dutch burgher more and more found himself and his economic interests pressed into irreconcilable contradiction against this mighty behemoth of empire, and in 1566, the pressure reached its zenith, and the damn burst asunder.

Energised by a bout of iconoclasm which saw Calvinists strike out against the religious images and totems of the Catholic orthodoxy – the high bourgeoisie and some members of the nobility used this weaponised Protestantism as a focal point for a revolutionary movement that was cultivated in both national and class terms during the Dutch Revolt.  The Spanish Empire was a glittering monolith; draped in blood, loot and silver from the New World, it might well have crushed the audacious burghers, the stadholders, the fiery Calvinist preachers, the roaming merchants, the intrepid seamen and soldiers – before their movement was ever able to coalesce.  The Habsburg power, however, had its hands full. It was involved in a perpetual series of skirmishes and wars which ranged from the conflict with Protestant England, to the battles with the Catholic Valois dynasty who were seated on the French throne, to the eastern reaches of Europe and North Africa where the Ottomans were the masters of the Levant and much of the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition to fighting on several flanks, the Spanish Empire was also top-heavy, archaic and inflexible. The resistance fighters in the Netherlands, especially to the North, were aided by the topography of the land, the open floodplains, the deep woods, the canals, the estuaries and sea.  The Dutch Revolt began to take on the character of a guerrilla war in which the fighters, the “beggars” as they were known, ran the empire’s troops ragged, striking out suddenly and ruthlessly against any collaborators. Such erratic, unpredictable waspish-like attacks were maintained over decades of struggle and supplemented by sporadic but powerful uprisings that seemed to come out of the blue and engulf whole cities.

After the years of invasion, bombardment and resistance, the Southern territories eventually slipped back into Spanish hands, but the North broke away decisively, establishing itself as a republic and in 1609 signing an armistice with Spain which included its right to trade with Spanish territories. The upshot of this was the consolidation of a merchant oligarchy in the North which took the reins of state and which facilitated a revolution in production on the land.  This, in turn, would help revitalise industry including textiles and ship-building, and thereby provide the impetus for the creation of a world empire; an empire which would send commodities and riches flooding back into the major cities like Amsterdam, Leiden and Gent.

These wealth-saturated cities, alleviated from the archaic pressures of feudal power and Catholic inquisition, became the havens of free thinkers and exiled intellectuals from all over Europe. At the same time the new economic model – unfettered by feudal constraint – drained away aristocratic privilege and sanctified the economic middle; alongside the bigger industrialists and oligarchs – the class of merchants, artisans, side-street businesses and petty traders held sway. The spoils of empire as well as a spirit of internationalism and economic individualism were crystallised in the cultural and ideological creations of a breakaway bourgeoisie which stood at the dawn of a new epoch.   It was into this context – into the bustle of the large, open northern cityscapes that had been enlivened by new freedoms and the sweeping sea breeze – that the young Rembrandt was born.

He was born in Leiden in 1606.  His father in many ways epitomized the new man of the epoch, for he was a “self-made man”, a mill owner – and his mother was the daughter of a baker.   She was also a Roman Catholic while Rembrandt’s father, more typically, was a devotee of the Dutch Reformed Church, so together they exemplified the emancipatory spirit of the new middle classes and a greater sense of religious toleration.  The child was enrolled at the University of Leiden at thirteen – probably because his father envisaged his son’s future in terms of some lucrative and practical trade.   Nevertheless the young Rembrandt left the university after only a few months in order to follow his passion for painting.

He went on to be apprenticed to the painter Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh who had studied in Italy and whose art was imbued with the classical perfection of the high Renaissance alongside the dark, dramatic power of the Baroque, influences which the young student would greedily imbibe. Rembrandt, then, was brought up in an atmosphere of Protestant individualism that guaranteed to the boy an almost unheard of amount of freedom; he inherited from his burgher parents a sense of ambition and a healthy longing for the material benefits of commercial endeavour.  At the same time, these instincts were subordinated to a precocious devotion to art which began to flower almost at once, watered by some of the leading lights and most profound influences of the era.

Having apprenticed for three years, Rembrandt then went on to work with the artist Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam.  They say that genius begins with emulation, and many of Rembrandt’s earliest works were attempts to mimic the style of Lastman, particularly his teacher’s ability to imbue his paintings with a sense of movement, heightened conflict and dramatic life.  Like Lastman, Rembrandt’s early period tends to focus on biblical, mythological or historical scenes, and one of his earliest known works, The Stoning of St Stephen (1625), is an effort on Rembrandt’s part to capture the dramatic credentials of his mentor. Perhaps the painting is not as technically accomplished as the work Rembrandt is drawing from, but already it exhibits certain innovative and superior qualities – as well as a sophisticated familiarity with aesthetic traditions and the ability to blend them seamlessly.  The shadowy turrets of a cobbled castle on a hill in the distance are classically Renaissance and deeply atmospheric but in the forefront the dramatic conflict between the martyr and those who are stoning him is emphasised by the type of chiaroscuro redolent of someone like Caravaggio; the stark dialogue between shadow and light. On one side there is a single executioner wreathed in shadow, flanked by an ominous horse-bound figure – both of whom loom over the kneeling figure of the Christian saint.  But the martyr himself is bathed in light – his face turned upwards to the heavens, his expression frozen in a lucent, rapturous glow at the very moment when the curtain is about to fall.

The ease by which the artist synthesises such motifs is also complemented by the strikingly original depiction of those in the light who are gathered round.  The faces of the men at the centre of the work lack the semblance of holy tranquillity or divine, muted suffering which so often categorized the religious figures of the Renaissance.  Rather, many look a little shop-worn and wrinkled; the unruly streaks of dirty blonde hair and full bulbous noses, the somewhat more stolid and stocky frames – all speak to the physical characteristics of the Dutch market people, the petty traders and merchants who flocked into Amsterdam’s large open squares.

There is a kind of plebeian exuberance that emanates from the people in the light – as opposed to those in the shadows who have the swarthy, elegant features, the draped robes and sleek flowing beards of Middle Eastern kings.  It is an unusual and somewhat incongruous painting, for the people who are most alive, who are most contemporary – those bulbous Dutch burghers – are also the ones rallying around with their own stones, in a kind of frenzied desperation, hungry to hasten the drama toward the moment of murder.  And from the centre of the pack, a smaller face looks out – not at the prostrate saint, nor at the gathered assassins – but out toward us, the audience ourselves – his forehead wrinkled, his face lined in a momentary frown of uneasy surprise as he catches our eye – he is within the mob, and yet he is not quite part of it, for the lines of his expression denote a profound ambiguity as events spin onward with a whirlwind- like inevitability.  The figure thus captured is, of course, the young Rembrandt himself.

The act of insinuating himself into the painting marks Rembrandt’s first self-portrait, and although these weren’t unknown in the Italian Renaissance – think Titian’s Portrait of a Man for example – nevertheless, the genre was incentivized by the Reformation.   It very much expressed the Protestant individualism which Rembrandt was in the sway of, and which had been adumbrated by his German predecessor Albrecht Durer who himself was master of the self-portrait.  In the later part of the 1620s Rembrandt begins a close collaboration with the artist Jan Lievens, which is important for Lievens too was an exponent of portraiture and the self-portrait.  In his company, Rembrandt begins to shift focus somewhat.  Like Rembrandt, Lievens fell under the influence of the Caravaggisti, utiliszing the stark interplay between light and dark, being and nothingness.

At the same time, the portrait becomes the more predominant genre; hence the drama is increasingly displaced from the outer exhibition of physical movement evinced during some biblical or historical conflict – to the inner emotion that is exhibited by a single subject in repose. It seems that Lievens was more technically innovative at this stage than Rembrandt, but the latter was already organically more expressive, already demonstrating that sublime facility for inner emotion which was to become the mainstay of some of his greatest works.

The shift away from the more classical model of the Renaissance or the Baroque can’t simply be understood by these personal and professional relationships in isolation, but was very much the product of the new epoch. The rise of a class of new men – the moneyed bourgeoisie – whose exuberant political freedoms were built on the merchant’s increasing control over peasant production in the countryside and this had facilitated an upswing in industrial production in the burgeoning cities, which – in turn – would come to power a whole empire. These early entrepreneurs, these “self-made” men, wanted to memorialise their stratospheric successes, not in terms of the portraits of old – aristocrats garbed in heroic uniforms or finery, mounted on great steeds or stood before magnificent castles – but in terms of more personal, particular characteristics – their inward, idiosyncratic qualities rather than their outward titles.

At times, of course, they wanted to be depicted in their finery in order to display their commercial success, though this was often downplayed in the favour of the dour, darkened elegance of a Calvinist aesthetic.  But more than anything they wanted to be individualised according to the heightened sense of self which had emerged out of the Reformation and was part and parcel of a developing capitalism, the feeling that it was not so much one’s breeding, but one’s individuality, that became the sacred principle on which enlightenment and economic advance was premised.  Rembrandt – developing in this milieu of creative freedom and economic expectation, feeling his own burgeoning individuality stir in the midst of all the vibrant activity, colour and change of Amsterdam itself – was particularly attuned to this new aesthetic sensibility, and this is a period in which he becomes swiftly renowned for his portraits of the great and the good of Dutch society.  These are portraits which above all reflect the optimism and inner certainty of a class which holds in its hands the future as palpably as the merchant grips the log book that outline his transactions and profits. To put it in the modern refrain, the future was bright, and it was most definitely orange.

In the 1630s Rembrandt paints many of these portraits, earning large sums of money and a great deal of renown.  He makes powerful connections and is commissioned by Constantin Huyghens, the secretary to the Stadtholder – Prince Frederick Henry of Orange.  It is in this time of opulent success that Rembrandt marries into high society – he weds Saskia van Uylenborgh, daughter of a wealthy burgomaster.  Saskia’s presence provided a powerful impulse to Rembrandt’s art, for he used her as a model in a number of his religious and mythological paintings of the period. In the picture The Prodigal Son in the Brothel Rembrandt not only embodies his passion for Saskia, but also blends it with the feeling, optimism and lavishness of the epoch more broadly.  The surroundings of the scene are salubrious; a table topped with the finest food, specifically a rare, exotic bird – shipped in from the Dutch East Indies, perhaps?  The fabric of the cloth which covers the table is equally lavish, embossed with a deep-hued, tortoise shell mosaic of dark, textured green.  In the far right corner, a voluptuous, velveteen curtain flows downward, billowing in the mahogany gloom. In the centre is sat Rembrandt himself.  A sword is holstered to his side, the swirling gold whorls of its handle glittering in shadow, his shirt a plume of blood orange which flows across his outstretched arm, an arm that curls around the full curvaceous figure of Saskia who is perched provocatively on his lap.  In the other arm, Rembrandt holds aloft a ridiculously long flute of champagne, and his eyes are unfocussed, wavering with drunken glee.

In one way the picture is cheeky, almost vulgar. It is a very pronounced celebration of wealth and illuminates the psyche of the young artist himself by its array of rich flowing  colour, and the meticulous attention to the textures of the objects of wealth which adorn the room. In some ways, the object par excellence is Saskia herself.  The whole painting exudes the gaudy triumphalism of the nouveau riche – the young man, the miller’s son, is announcing to the world that he has made it; through his creative endeavours, he has raised himself up and won his place in the elite – he has the clothes, he has the money, and now he has the girl!  And yet, just as with The Stoning of St Stephen, an element of ambiguity extrudes itself into the scene.  While Saskia is to be displayed alongside the wealth of other objects, her eyes contain in their gaze a type of cool independence; a withering almost ironic awareness, an unspoken understanding she shares with the audience about the slightly ridiculous nature of her drunken husband.  Her lips contain the beginnings of a wry smile.

Rembrandt, on the other hand, appears blithely unaware, his whole expression raised in that glow of bleary, drunken self-satisfaction.  This contrast: the delicious mystery of Saskia’s unborn smile, the coolness in her eyes – with the slightly ridiculous figure of Rembrandt himself, his drunken giggle and the theatrical, tumescent sword sticking out from his side – such a contrast allows a sense of ambiguity and distance to be smuggled into the scene.  Yes, it is certainly a celebration of wealth and commercial success, but at the same time there is the unstated acknowledgement that these things are perhaps a little more frivolous, a little more transitory, than the artist – who is swept up in the moment of his greatest triumph – is ever able to acknowledge.

Perhaps the most famous and iconic picture from Rembrandt’s youthful period is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.  If The Prodigal Son in the Brothel commemorates the purchasing power of an emancipated bourgeoisie, and contains an element of giddy triumphalism that verges on the vulgar – The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp provides us not so much with a paean to bourgeois commerce, but rather bourgeois science.  Representing Rembrandt’s first major commission in Amsterdam, this oil painting depicts the dissection of the body of an executed criminal being carried out by one Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who has opened up the left arm of the cadaver and is highlighting the tendons which he is holding between the blades of a pair of surgical scissors.  Gathered round are various doctors, who are leaning in to better hear the discourse Dr. Tulp is delivering.  To the right a large, open book has been propped up.  At first glance, there is no ambiguity in this painting.  It is quite simply a celebration of enlightenment, of a science which has been freed from the fetters of the Inquisition and medieval Catholicism.  It is the quintessential depiction of a humanism that, quite literally, places the inner workings of the individual at the centre of its universe.  As such it is almost universally celebrated as a picture which positively heralds an age of secularism and science.

And yet.  Look again.  There is another, deeper layer.  When one looks at the doctors who are gathered around, one notices something about their postures.  Several seem to be craning forward, their necks unnaturally elongated, their heads garishly protruding out from their bodies. There is something distinctly birdlike in the way they hover around the corpse.  And the body itself.   So unceremoniously denuded of its protection and privacy, the skin of that bare arm clinically peeled away, the obscene blushing red and yellowing tissue exposed so rudely to the hungry gazes of those leaning in.  In fact, when one looks at this painting, one struggles to avoid the quite sinister impression – the scientists are not men at all for they have the very distinct aspect of vultures.

There is a further detail which renders the painting even more macabre.  The faces of those doctors who are leaning in as the lesson commences are of a very similar type. The majority of them have long, beaky noses, they all have beards, and the colouring of their hair tends toward a greying ginger.  Just like many of Rembrandt’s other paintings, these people are recognisably the Dutch people of the day – indeed, the faces are of actual doctors who paid significant sums to be included in the picture.  But what is most striking is the face of the corpse.  True, the faces of the men observing are bathed in light, and tinged with pink, while the face of the corpse is wreathed in pale grey shadow; it is clear that the man on the table is a lifeless lumpen mass, an inanimate object, whereas the people gathered around are full of life, their eyes shining with an ambitious hunger for knowledge.  .

And yet. Look again.  The face of the man on the table is a dead ringer for the faces of the living men.  It has the same pronounced nose.  It has the same style of beard.  One imagines it was of the same age when it slipped into its eternal sleep. ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ observes Martin Luther beautifully, mordantly – in the midst of life, we are in death.  The face of the man on the table represents the inexorable, unalterable destiny each and every man in that room is hurtling toward, and yet they seem blithely unaware of their trajectory.  None of them are looking into the dead man’s face.  They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers.  They see him thus even as the shadows in the room – the long charcoal hues of darkness – creep ever closer, gradually encroaching on the small periphery of light which encircles their faces.

A common account of Rembrandt runs something like this: technically precocious, deeply imaginative and, and at the height of his powers – the artist was to experience a series of tragedies, at which point his work turned inward, became increasingly darker and desolate, meditative and brooding.  However it is also true that present even in some of these significant early works is already a strong element of ambiguity and darkness, perversity almost.  The doctors in the anatomy lesson are important men, and the painting Rembrandt’s first major commission; they were men of the class to which Rembrandt aspired, he probably regarded them with genuine admiration, and yet there is something in the unconscious of his aesthetic which drives him toward the sense that there is something creepy, almost grotesque in the whole arrangement – that even in its moment of most resplendent triumph, its scientific mastery over the world, the Dutch bourgeoisie already contains in itself the germ of negation, of decay, of decadence and death.   ‘All that comes into being is worthy of perishing,’ says Goethe.  That the great artist is particularly attuned to this fact; that he or she detects in the epoch the seeds of its own decay is noteworthy but not, perhaps, unsurprising.

One is reminded of Aeschylus’ play The Persians.  The great tragedian wrote his play at the start of the classical age of the Athenian polis.   Ostensibly the play is about the history and decline of the Persian Empire, the most powerful of its period, and how its hubris caused it to overstretch itself by attacking Ancient Greece, suffering a defeat which culminated in the decimation of its navy at the battle of Salamis.  But although it does tell the tale of the once mighty Persian Empire, you can’t help but feel that Aeschylus is really addressing what he sees around him, the Athenian polis of his own day which had broken away from the imperial clasp, and was surging ahead in the process of forging its own empire.

It is as though even in the moment of Athens’ greatest victory the playwright detects the shadow of its own historical decline; the play acts as a warning, a bleak lament on the interminable power of history which has in its capacity the ability to reduce even the most glittering, resplendent and mighty of empires to little more than a husk sinking in the sands of time.  As another poet, more than two millennia later, would lament – ‘on the pedestal these words appear: ‘“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”…Round the decay, of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.’

It is this type of sensibility that makes Rembrandt such a great figure. For sure, Rembrandt looked around him and like a loyal child of the bourgeois epoch, a scion of the new commercial class, he was dazzled by the economic prowess and military success of the young republic as it boldly and rapidly stormed the furthest reaches of the world.  The young Rembrandt hungered after the economic rewards and the social status that would come from becoming a card-carrying member of the United Provinces elite.  At the same time though, that restless aesthetic awareness which is somehow irrepressible, and which causes one to be alive to the processes and contradictions which are at work, invisibly but inevitably, beneath the surface of the social world – in Rembrandt, this almost unconscious instinct was highly pronounced and would never relinquish its grip on his art, even in the face of his ambition and the need for validation from the most powerful layers. The engine of empire was an awesome, powerful machine.  Alongside the never-ending circulation of capital and commodities it generated from the far corners of Asia to the New World, alongside the modern capitalistic model of fusing domestic economic interest and shareholders with the imperial project abroad in the form of the first joint stock companies – the Dutch paradigm also provided an impetus to slavery, and the destruction of entire communities through the wholesale violence required to extract surplus, coerce labour and protect the burgeoning imperial monopoly.  The level of exploitation directed against children climbed, including the increased use of them as slaves in an impersonalised slave system which opened up in the Banda Islands in the Far East whereby a single corporation, the Dutch East India Company, or VOC replaced the private individual in the role of slave owner.

In certain areas, then, a slave owning system was increasingly being refashioned according to the prerogatives of international capital as it preyed on the dispossessed, while at the same time on the domestic front, in the United Provinces themselves, a project of ongoing social engineering was taking place which was almost as brutal.  A process of primitive accumulation whereby peasants had increasingly been expropriated from the land and their own means of production thus forming the raw human material to be syphoned into the cities and recast according to the structures of wage labour – was complemented by the thousands of people who had been made destitute by the decades of war with the Habsburgs.  In the aftermath of such vast social upheaval a large class of beggars developed on the periphery of the expanding cities, alongside the workers whose narrow, cramped hovels were expanding like barracks and swelling the slums. Such groups were subject to the ruthless, often murderous measures of social discipline – flogging, branding, mutilation, a variety of forms of execution – that burgeoning Dutch capitalism required in order to maintain it’s strict, orderly Protestant work ethic and ensure capital expansion remained untrammelled.

Slavery, repression, persecution of the poverty-stricken and the dispossessed – these were the dark compromises the revolutionary bourgeoisie wrought in order to inaugurate its epoch; in the very moment it was raising the individual up and proclaiming him sacred in terms of a whole host of new political and economic freedoms, it was at the same time nailing his real-world counterpart to the cross – in his guise as slave, pauper or proto-proletarian.  Rembrandt was a revolutionary painter in this way.  For he channelled this dualism into an art that attains a new depth of individuality and interiority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings.

His delicate sketches of beggars, for example, are like nothing quite seen before. His Ragged Peasant With His Hands Behind His Back of 1632 is a beautifully etched drawing of a destitute peasant whose flinty face has all the wisdom and experience of parched stone, while his black sickle-like eyes seem to gaze into the forever.  It is amazing that someone can carry such stoicism with just a few delicately strewn dark lines – and it is unlike its forerunners in this tradition for it does not depict the homeless as grotesque or alien, but involves a profound identification with the subject that leaves in its wake only a deep and gentle pathos.  Such identification was exhibited most directly in the 1630 etching Beggar Seated on a Bank.  Here we see a young man in tattered rags, sat on the edge of a bank, looking out at the world with a gaze of baffled anger, as though he can’t quite comprehend the series of steps in his life which have led him to this.  It is an image both of suffering and humanity. And the face of the young man, the face of the beggar, is none other than Rembrandt’s himself.

In his painting Two Negroes Rembrandt provides a subversive critique of the slave trade by the simple gesture of investing his two black subjects with humanity.  William Bosman, a slaver in the service of the Dutch West India Company wrote of the blacks he sold that they were ‘all without exception, Crafty, Villainous, and Fraudulent.’[1] The virulent racism here works in tandem with mercantile capital and the logic of the commodity form in its aspect as exchange value: the human being is reduced to a generic object, one of many, to be shipped out in order to realise its value on the world market. The particularity, the richness and diversity of the individual personality is dissolved into the uniform and abstract aspect of a single commodity – a body that has the capacity to work.    The racist line – ‘they all look the same’ – dovetails perfectly with the economic logic inherent to this.   Rembrandt shatters it irrevocably by illuminating the individuality and richness of the human personality that underpins the slave as commodity.

It is no coincidence that his painting features two black subjects, for he is purposely differentiating them, revealing them as unique and contrasting individuals. The man on the right looks slumped and exhausted, his eyes are wreathed in shadow, and his downturned face is softened by a thoughtful melancholy.  He rests his head on his companion’s shoulder for solace.  The other man, however, has an upturned gaze, his full eyes are tinted with a hint of green and gold, and a ribbon of light has fallen across them, as he looks into the middle distance with an expression of curiosity and even wonder. The painting is intimate, touching, and the mood of these men, and the friendship which has allowed them to endure, is made redolent by Rembrandt by the warm, rich, gentle orange and brown hues of the backdrop.  One feels both pity for the men and a delight in their humanity and affection; the painting provides the most delicate and touching rejoinder to the unnatural warping of human relations which the conditions of servitude and slavery provoke.

Despite the fact, then, that Rembrandt was himself a particle of the Dutch bourgeoisie, despite the fact he introduced a more capitalistic model into his own working practises[2] – nevertheless Rembrandt was unable to turn a blind eye to the dark underbelly of Dutch capitalism and the inhumanity of much of its practise, for his aesthetic intuition was simply too relentless, too deep roaming.  Joachim von Sandrart, a contemporary of the Dutch master, was compelled to observe that Rembrandt ‘did not at all know how to keep his station, and always associated with the lower orders.’[3] It was his attunement to pathos; the pathos of ‘the lower orders’ – of the people who had been unvoiced by Dutch capitalism, who had been dispossessed, exploited and broken – which gave light to the inner life of the figures and faces he depicted in a fundamentally new way.  Even in his religious art, this pathos, this inner life, is revealed in a way that demarks the works from anything which came before.

Consider, for instance, his rendering of the abduction of Ganymede.  This scene from ancient Greek mythology had featured in many a Renaissance painting, the effort of the late-Renaissance master Domenico Cresti might be considered typical. Here Zeus, in the guise of an eagle, abducts a beautiful youth (Ganymede) whom he intends to ravish. Cresti depicts the young man, being borne aloft on the eagle’s back, his face set in an expression of helpless rapture; his glorious pink cloak billowing up against the ethereal blue of the sky, revealing his youthful, perfectly sculptured naked body, his legs ever so slightly parted.  That there is a strong element of homoeroticism to the picture seems undeniable; it is a study in mysterious, inevitable, uplifting desire.

Now the Rembrandt version.  Here nearly all the light has been drained from the sky, sucked away by an amorphous, churning black mass of cloud.  The landscape below is drowned in shadow. Ganymede is no longer the serene, resigned youth of the Renaissance depiction but rather a blubbery, overlarge, awkward child.  The child’s face is screwed up in a look of horror and abject mortification, his puckered, open mouth is a gaping black wound seared into his face. His clothes have been wrenched up violently, his belly, bottom and legs have been pressed downward by the force of gravity in a white wobbling mass of vulnerable, naked flesh.  The eagle has its beak deeply embedded in the feeble figure.  And the child is pissing himself in terror.  This is not ravishment. It is rape.  Power can be uplifting, it can be all encompassing, it can be glorious, it can be divine, says the Renaissance.  Indeed, replies Rembrandt, without missing a beat, but it can also be sordid, dehumanising and devastating.  The artist’s sympathies in this picture are, once again, so unequivocally in sync with the rhythm and inner lives of the oppressed.

This is important because we have to understand that even in his early work – and his Ganymede and the beggar sketches come from this period – even here one is aware that beyond his celebrations of the new epoch Rembrandt is as well the foremost chronicler of its darkness; the antinomy of the bourgeois revolution – its dual guise of liberation and oppression – was an antinomy which had by history been grafted onto the aesthetic psyche of the artist himself as he fought to come to terms with the world around him.  When art historians describe the early Rembrandt as a cheerful, vibrant virtuoso whose optimistic art was blessed with success, and it was only when he fell on hard times, that his paintings would slip into sadness and interiority – would begin to plumb the dark night of the soul – such an explanation is facile because it severs the individual from the broader historical context.   Any number of artists encounter tragedies in their lives but few end up painting like the late Rembrandt. There is a difference between the early Rembrandt and the later works, it is true his art becomes darker and more introverted in its twilight phase, but this was only ever the accentuation of a tendency which was already present in the work in the first place; the aesthetic awareness of the contradictions of liberation and suffering that were latent in the historical dynamic of bourgeois progress itself.

Indeed, having been raised up by the new epoch, it would then go on to take everything from him.    In the later part of the 1630s, two of the couple’s babies passed away. In 1640 another child, Cornelia, died after only having lived a month. In 1642 Saskia died, probably from tuberculosis. Only Titus, the fourth child, would survive into adulthood.  These relentless individual tragedies have to be set against the broader pattern of the epoch; the rapacious, dynamic expanding economy which was the fulcrum for a global empire – was also inherently volatile and unstable, subject to blind market forces and compulsions, in sway to the kind of economic contradictions that opened up between the intensity of labour exploitation and the possibilities of mass consumption. Indeed, such contradictions reached a zenith when, in 1636-37, the Dutch economy imploded having developed the first economic ‘bubble’ in history, the first authentic capitalist crisis which was centred around the commodity of tulip bulbs and saw prices artificially inflated in a feeding frenzy of speculation before the market suddenly collapsed.

Many wealthy investors lost their fortunes, along with a host of smaller entities like cobblers, carpenters, brick layers and woodcutters who had staked their life savings on the capitalist dream. Fellow painters such as Jan van Goven were ruined, and Jeffery Cotterall, in his book on the history of Amsterdam, argues ‘it was remarkable that Rembrandt was not involved.’[4]  And yet, Rembrandt was not to remain untouched by the intemperate moods and cycles of the Dutch economy.  Alongside the series of devastating deaths of family members, his economic situation became ever more precarious.  The commissions began to dry up.  His art became less fashionable. He was compelled to declare bankruptcy in 1656 and eventually sell his luxury house before settling in more modest dwellings.  He had to sell almost everything he owned.  He lived long enough to outlive his partner, Hendrickje Stoffels, who had once been his maid.  She died in 1663.  He lived just long enough to outlive his son Titus who died in 1668.  Rembrandt himself died a year later.  He was buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave.  The late period of his art is usually dated from around 1651 to the time of his death, though, once again, it is to a somewhat earlier picture we turn to now.

The Slaughtered Ox is from 1643, and just as the title suggests, the painting displays the cadaver of an ox, one which has been hung from a solid, wooden, scaffold-like contraption in a cellar. Toward the left-hand corner at the bottom, there is a woman kneeling over, working in the background.  But she is hardly visible in a gentle gloom which muffles and softens the definition of the cellar – its shapes and the shadows, the murky impression of a wall at the back, the muted outline of the slabs of the floor.  To the centre of the painting is the carcass of the ox which has been flayed, gutted and hung. The paradox lies in the fact that while it is the ox which is well and truly lifeless, its full flowing, moist flesh, its glistening sinews, its swirling white pockets of fat – seem to shine in the gloom, radiating a ghostly orange luminesce that acts as an irresistible beacon to the eye.  Even though this is a picture of flayed flesh and dead animal matter, the carcass seems to glow with a spectral, inviolable life.  On the other hand, it is the woman at the back – who is alive, who is in motion, who is both living and breathing – it is she who seems most distant, most impenetrable.

Again this is (quite literally) a painting about interiority, and again it is revolutionary in the true Rembrandt sense.  It was painted at the time of some of his most devastating personal bereavements, and certainly the sense of something that has been so viscerally dismembered provides us with the awareness that existence itself is the supreme, most artful, most relentless butcherer of all.  But to this ontological viscerality, there is added a classically Rembrandt-esque sense of pathos.   The woman on her knees at the edge of the scene, the human being working away in the background, going about her day-to-day routine, seems impervious, implacable, unaffected in her outer semblance – and yet, the ox provides the observer with the more profound truth; for are we not all, on the inside, in a state of torn, flayed, conflicted helplessness which comes from love and the inevitability of loss?

In the picture the ox has been raised up, its top two limbs stretched out horizontally across a wooden bar, and one is unable to escape the sense that what is really taking place here is something more than the perfunctionary slaughter of an animal, that one is being made witness to some kind of…crucifixion.  . And perhaps that is the artist’s ultimate point.  Perhaps, through the very unlikely medium of a dead piece of meat, Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate.

Perhaps, along with The Night Watch, Rembrandt is most well-known for the self-portraits he did in his later years.  This was a time in which he would lose virtually everything: his partners, all his children, his fortune and his funding, and much of the acclaim and respect in which he was once held.  The summer of his life had trailed off into a melancholy autumn before at last slipping into the bleakest of winters.  The self-portraits from this period are quite remarkable, perhaps because they are enshrined by that wintery sense of loneliness, of isolation – and for this reason, their depth, their interiority, is all the more pronounced, even by the standards of the master.

One of the most poignant examples from the period is Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul of 1661 which was painted the year after he was compelled to sell his house and his etching press and the Amsterdam Painters’ Guild had successfully fought to make it illegal for him to continue trading as a painter in his own name.  The painting is a self-portrait but at the same time Rembrandt is reimagining himself in the guise of the saint. To what end?  A recent cleaning of the painting has revealed the faint image of wall that was hidden behind the layers of accumulated dirt and varnish and which indicates that in this scene the saint has been imprisoned.[5]  Along with the sword handle which is protruding from the inside of one jacket lapel, this suggests that the painter’s theme is one of martyrdom.

And yet. The painting, and in particular the face, is neither dramatic nor grandiose.  The painting lacks entirely the overt sense of melodrama which is so often synonymous with depictions of religious suffering.  In fact, the posture of the saint/Rembrandt is in repose, an open book rested casually on the lap.  Rembrandt looks at us as though he has just sensed our presence, he has just turned his face up, interrupting his reading.  At first glance the face itself is quite ordinary, the skin a complex of dappled yellow, pink and brown, the forehead fissured with wrinkles, the cheeks flabby and jowly, the flesh beginning to drip and droop downward like candle wax.

It is a muted study in old age and entropy, the rich wearying flesh is illuminated by a single beam which falls from the top corner. Time’s remorseless, unblinking light revealing every crevice, every cranny, of a face which has been etched by experience.  Beyond this light a blackness abides that is sleek and dark and eternal.   Rembrandt is on the very edge of this blackness.  The artist would perish before the end of the decade and this picture is a prelude to the night which is about to fall, and yet the rich dark of those full eyes is both melancholy and serene, and his eyebrows are raised almost quizzically. It is the expression of one who has lived and is aware that his existence has entered its final freefall – and yet at the same time that face is still curious, still so capable of wonder.  It is achingly intimate and yet it is also fundamentally ordinary, speaking to the gentle, everyday defiance of the human condition set against the ravages of time.

In what was his last major commission and also his last secular historical depiction, Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis was also (originally) the largest canvass the painter had ever prepared.   It was commissioned by the Amsterdam city council for the town hall, so it was a prestigious windfall which arrived at a time when Rembrandt’s career and financial situation were in the most desperate straits.  Rembrandt was commissioned to depict an episode from the Batavian rebellion which saw a small Germanic tribe (the Batavi) mount a heroic revolt against the Roman Empire in 69 AD, temporarily driving Roman garrisons from a territory centred around the Rhine.  The rebellion was important in the type of history and mythology that came to inform the ideology of Dutch nationalism unleashed by the Dutch Revolt – for the Dutch bourgeoisie saw in the figure of Gaius Julius Civilis – the leader of the rebellion – a heroic precursor to their own struggles against the Spanish Hapsburgs. For this reason, Rembrandt would have been under considerable pressure to strike a triumphalist tone which presented the centuries-dead leader and his co-conspirators in the more modern guise of intrepid revolutionaries seeking through their struggles to raise the possibilities of a new world.  But one look at the painting shows that Rembrandt has achieved almost anything but this.

The painting, which has been cut down from its original size, is still of massive dimensions – metres high, metres wide – and it draws the eye in the way of flickering flames in deep, dark night.  The scene depicts the conspirators sat around a vast table, they are reaching out toward the centre with their swords, touching the blades, thereby consummating an oath.  The periphery of the scene is hewn with rich, dark, reddish-browns, and as the movement flows toward the centre, the figures of the conspirators are illuminated by a ribbon of shimmering golden-white light.  The figure of Claudius Civilis dominates the scene, his gossamer robes glitter pale gold, his thick, broad sword is held up, a massive multi-layered crown is perched on his head. Finally, he is looking out at the viewer through one implacable, fateful eye, for the other is missing – and in its place merely a puckered black socket webbed with skin.   Many of the figures gathered round the table have features that have been rendered ethereal and translucent by the ghostly light such that the darker, muddier, reddish tones of the background can be glimpsed through the thin, vague fabric of their bodies. They appear as phantoms rather than men.

The Dutch burgomasters must have been astounded and outraged by this painting; the domineering figure in the centre is donned in a very un-republican like crown. But more than this, the image has a ghastly, decadent quality; it is another ‘Ozymandias’, another warning, another revelation, another haunting lament on the inevitability of historical decline; a beautiful, grotesque dirge.  In the moment when every practical instinct should have compelled Rembrandt to crack on with a more commercial endeavour that would have appealed to the sensibilities of his wealthy and connected patrons, in the very moment when he should have laboured to create a piece that might have hauled him out of the destitution and hopelessness with which he was faced, the artist does anything but.  Instead he produces a work of art which seems to crackle with the ghostly fire of the past, with historical ominousness and historical power. The painting is, of course, rejected.

Barely a year after The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis was finished, Rembrandt lost his partner Hendrickje Stoffels.  Rembrandt had throughout both a complex and tragic relationship with the women in his life which was at times both tender and unsavoury.  His studies of his first wife Saskia van Uylenborgh are almost always romantic and delicate, sometimes playful and mischievous, sometimes filled with longing and regret.  They run the gamut of any romantic relationship; that first period of exhilarated intoxication which is exhibited in The Prodigal Son in the Brothel right through to the time of Saskia’s final illness where his depictions of her seem to fade and grow faint, like the life of his subject itself – a beloved partner – now too frail to get out of bed, blinking out at the world from under the covers, immortalised in a series of delicate pencil sketchings. But the relationship which followed with Geertje Dircx had altogether darker undertones.  She had been nurse to his son Titus before she and Rembrandt had become romantically involved, only the relationship soured and she sued the artist for ‘breach of promise’ – a euphemism for a seduction carried out under a promise of marriage which is subsequently not kept.  In a response which can really only be read as vindictive, cruel and oppressive, Rembrandt took measures to see that Dircx was committed to an asylum or poorhouse.

It is difficult to reconcile such behaviour with the various paintings Rembrandt does of women throughout his lifetime, because many of these are so finally attuned to female pathos, suffering and oppression; they are so deeply empathetic.  It is difficult to reconcile this with Rembrandt’s behaviour toward Dircx but not impossible, perhaps.  Christopher Hitchens once wrote of George Orwell that what made the latter such a powerful and effective anti-imperialist was that as someone who had served British imperialism in Burma he had carried out its repressions, and its spirit had come to pervade some of his most inner and unconscious sensibilities.  Any critique Orwell developed of imperialism, therefore, had to be particularly thorough-going for it needed to operate not only on an intellectual level but in terms of a more inward protean reformation: he had to kill the imperialist inside him – ‘he had to suppress his distrust and dislike for the poor, his revulsion from the ‘coloured’ masses who teemed throughout the empire.’[6]

I suspect something similar was true of Rembrandt.  He had been a purveyor of masculine power and masculine oppression, but at the same time that immanent, inward experience of how such power was made manifest, how such exploitative instincts were carried – provided a deeper and more authentic dimension to the type of female suffering he was seeking to depict.  He understood the dilemma and the pathos which was inherent in the victim’s situation, not only for his deep sense of aesthetic identification with the victim herself, but also because he felt something – immanently, organically – of the nature of the power that called such oppression into being and perhaps even craved it. It was a power by which he had profited in his life.

So, in his picture Woman Bathing in a Stream, there is a dualism – a dualism that once more fluctuates between freedom and oppression and which pervades the spirit of the picture itself.   This scene was painted in 1654 and shows a woman, modelled on Hendrickje Stoffels, wading through a still pool of sleek, dark varnished water while raising her simple white chemise so that the fabric of the dress does not get wet. There is an element of eroticism to the painting; as she raises her dress, the dark draws into the exposed space between her legs, softening it in shadow, but this is offset by the expression on her face which is oblivious and dreamy, and her lips are pursed in the vaguest ghost of smile.  She is not there to entice. Rather it is a remarkable study in intimacy; a person who, in their solitude, is allowing the unassuming flow of innermost feeling to pass across them gently, is taking an unconscious pleasure in the feel and the texture of the water, is perhaps thinking fondly of a memory or the evening to come.

And yet at the same time, this sense of unassuming lightness and freedom is countermanded by the fact that the young woman is not alone, for we, the viewers, are watching her – are privy not just to the near nudity of her body, but also the nakedness of her inner disposition and the innocence of her obliviousness.   We are pressed into the role of the invisible, voyeuristic presence which is lurking just beyond her, in the undergrowth, in the darkness. There is a certain sinisterism at work, a sense of exploitation that works in tandem with the fact that, in this moment, the young woman is at her most relaxed, most free.  The regal green, the plush ruby red, of the cloak which she has left on the side of the bank, suggests that this is not a modern figure but rather a biblical creation.  Several critics have argued – persuasively in my view – that it is very likely a depiction of the biblical scene Susanna and the Elders – a scene Rembrandt had visited before.  But what is different in this scene, in the 1654 version, is that Rembrandt does not depict the elders lurking in the bushes – he does not depict them in the painting at all; more radically, and more disturbingly – the viewer themselves becomes the elders, the interlopers, the oppressive presence which is cosseted in the shadows.

In that same year Rembrandt also painted Bathsheba – another work which is attuned to the nature of female suffering and male oppression. It depicts Bathsheba receiving the note which summons her to King David’s chambers – the king had sent her husband to war in order that he might claim her for himself. She is naked, and beautiful yes, but again not a Renaissance nude sculptured into an idealised object of sexual perfection.  Instead her belly is slightly saggy, the shape of her arm slightly uneven. Rembrandt depicts these ordinary imperfections with a tenderness that is matched only by the pathos in Bathsheba’s face – an expression of almost ethereal melancholy and resignation.  As John Berger comments: ‘Her husband is away at the wars. (How many millions of times has it happened?) Her servant, kneeling, is drying her feet. She has no choice but to go to the king…A fatality has already begun, and at the center of this fatality is Bathsheba’s desirability as a wife.’[7]

The final Rembrandt I want to turn to is a painting which was done in 1666, three years before the artist’s death.  It is of a young noble woman.  Her story is again a sad one.  She was born in a small town by a river in the sixth century BC, and the people there lived in the shadow of a powerful empire.  She was raped by the son of the king and – unable to live with the trauma and the stigma of the attack – she took her own life.  The incident became one of those moments in history where a single act of injustice becomes the focal point of a broader set of grievances, providing a spark for a profound and sweeping historical change.  The town was, of course, Rome, who rebelled against their Etruscan overlords and took the first step on their own imperial journey by establishing the republic in 509BC.

The noblewoman was Lucretia.  Rembrandt’s painting of her is perhaps one of the most powerful paintings that has ever been created. More than that, it is the work in which all the concerns which have fissured through Rembrandt’s corpus throughout – the interiority of the individual, the nature of oppression, the hidden but inevitable presence of history, the subjugation of women – in this piece all these themes achieve an aesthetic flashpoint which fuses them in a moment of rapturous, otherworldly synthesis and deathly calm.  Again the contrast with Renaissance depictions of the same subject should be noted.  These tended to feature a bare breasted, voluptuous woman, sometimes having her clothes torn away during the rape, sometimes slipping a blade into her chest in the aftermath.  Her face is often frightened or sad but strangely abstract, the eyes muted and numb, turned toward the heavens in a static and idealised gesture of suffering.

The Rembrandt painting is an altogether different animal.  There is something dusky, shadowy, crepuscular and, and almost moth-like about it. Lucretia is in a very dark room, her bed chamber, and she is dressed in a tawny brown and pale green gown under which is a nightie whose fine, diaphanous white silk flows down over her androgynous, childlike body.  Whereas previous depictions often depicted the violent motion of the thrusted knife, Rembrandt has lingered on a stiller, more serene moment.  The knife is held down by her side almost loosely.  But a single trickle of blood which is coming though that fine white silk from her chest indicates that the fatal action has already been performed. You almost don’t realise it at first.  With her other hand Lucretia is pulling on the chord which will summon the members of her family to her chamber before she slips away.  This terrible intimacy, these private final moments by which her life is seen to ebb away, is compounded by Lucretia’s expression which is filled with the most haunting pathos. It was not unusual for artists to depict the act of crying, tears streaming down cheeks and so on, but what Rembrandt does is show those full, dark pools of her eyes watering with unshed tears.  Her face is pallid, sculptured by the most serene sadness, as she gazes into the dark; her lips are slightly pursed, and her eyes are kind and wise and soft and measured but infinitely sad.  It is the picture of someone saying goodbye to the world without uttering a word.

When one looks at this painting, one is aware of the historical context.  In the cosseted, intimate darkness of Lucretia’s bed chamber, you can see the forms and outline of the republic beginning to take shape, you can register its youthful expansion across Italy as it clashed with the Etruscans and the Gauls, and later the great wars with Carthage.  In the far distance you can make out the ascendency of Caesar and Octavian and the culmination of the greatest empire the world had ever known; one which stretched from the wintery wilderness of England’s northern-most borders to the hot baking deserts of North Africa; from the silver mines of Spain to the bustling market squares of Constantinople at the gateway to the East.   All of this is pre-empted by what is taking place in that room in those final moments, a fatality which sets into motion the trajectory of a whole epoch, but in the very moment when you can glimpse the palaces, basilicas, amphitheatres and viaducts that are to be raised up across a continent and whose glories would be the mark of the imperium – in the very moment you can see these things in the future’s distant outline, all at once they begin to fade and dim, disappearing in the darkness once more, and you are left with a young woman alone, gazing out with the sweetest sadness, dying in the gloom.

The painting provides what is the most supreme and exquisite motif of the artist’s corpus more generally; that is, the tragic dissonance between the inner life of the individual and the interminable, fateful shape of the broader historical process.  Lucretia by her act has unleashed a startlingly new historical progression but it is one which is premised on the snuffing out of an individual life, and all of its passions, all of its glories, are ones she will never know.  That fateful separation which opens up between the individual and the epoch is one which had been grafted onto Rembrandt’s spiritual psyche by virtue of the tragic course of his own life; in its early stages, he was raised up by the historical moment as one of its most precocious sons, and yet as history swept forward the artist found himself floundering in its wake as he lost fame, fortune and family, until as an old man, he too was left in a room alone, alone in the darkness, his mind lit by the soft glow of his memories.


[1] Bosman, William, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea. 1704 Ed. John Ralph Willis. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967

[2] Rembrandt developed the technique of copperplate etching in order to secure a more productive output, and he was also a prolific hoarder of a variety of aesthetic commodities over the years with an eye to their future value.

[3] Cited in Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt (London 1978) p.43

[4] Jeffery Cotteral cited in Sam Marcy, Anatomy of the Economic Crisis, ‘Tulip mania and today’s speculation’. Workers Liberty, 1982:

[5] See Mary Elizabeth Podles, ‘Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul’, Touchstone: A Journal of Christianity November/December 2013

[6] Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory (London: Allen Lane, 2002) p.8

[7] John Berger, ‘Rembrant’ Public Books 15 October 2015:

This is an extract from the book Angles and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives (Zero Books)

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony