New York Review of Books
November 7, 2014
“Rembrandt: The Late Works,” an exhibition now on view at London’s National Gallery, will linger long in the mind of anyone who has the pleasure to see it. Bringing together approximately ninety paintings, prints, and drawings Rembrandt made at the end of his life, it reveals a great artist working with unprecedented technical command and emotional power, even as the world closes in around him.
In the fifteen years before his death in 1669, Rembrandt suffered one terrible reversal after another. In 1654, his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels was condemned as a whore for her relationship with Rembrandt, and this led some important clients to ostracize him. Ever a spendthrift, he went bankrupt two years later and was forced to auction off his house, art collection, and printing press. Despite such desperate steps, he plunged still further into poverty, becoming so destitute he even had to sell the grave of his first wife, Saskia. Worse still, Hendrickje died of the plague in 1663, and Rembrandt’s beloved son Titus died in 1668, leaving him all but alone.
His prestige as an artist also fell in these years. The dark lighting and rough brushwork of his pictures were deemed unfashionable by many. While still able to attract the occasional attention of major patrons—the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici visited his studio in 1667—he was now often passed over for major commissions, which frequently went to his former pupils instead.
Yet this time of anxiety, debt, grief, and solitude was the most productive of his career. Despite the decline in his reputation, he made more pictures than ever before, and he painted with increased abandon and inventiveness. It was in these final decades that he created what are now considered many of his greatest paintings, including some of the most renowned images in the history of European art.