Baroque and Rococo





The Mystery of the Revealed Form



 Baroque and Rococo Art Map
     Rembrandt van Rijn
     Rembrandt - a never-ending experience  
     Rembrandt the thinker: The structural conception of Rembrandt's early pictures  
     The encounter between observer and subject  
     From interpretation to observation: The Night Watch  
     Observation as comprehension: The Staalmeesters  
     The search for life in the picture: Susanna and the Elders  
     The search for life in the picture: The Return of the Prodigal Son  
     The mystery of the revealed form: The Jewish Bride  
     Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn -1606-1669: Chronology  
     Rembrandt - DRAWINGS  



Rembrandt the thinker:

The structural conception of Rembrandt's

early pictures



The Good Samaritan

Goethe gave his brief description of an etching, The Good Samaritan, the title "Rembrandt the thinker", thereby characterizing with a word Rembrandt's early period of creativity. After only a year's apprenticeship with van Swanen-burgh, the painter, and half a year's study with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, the 19-year-old Rembrandt set up on his own in Leiden, his birthplace, in a studio which he shared with Jan Lievens, his friend and colleague, who was a year younger. The reputation of the unconventional young artists spread rapidly. They were honoured with a visit from, among others, Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of the governor, Prince Frederik Hendrik, who was later to become an important patron for Rembrandt. Co-operation with Hendrik Uylenburgh, the Amsterdam art dealer, developed. Commissions from this direction multiplied, and by 1630 Rembrandt was working predominantly in the up-and-coming city. In 1633, the year of the previously mentioned etching, he became engaged to Saskia van Uylenburgh, the art dealer's niece.
Rembrandt almost casually added a few more figures to the scene illustrated in The Good Samaritan, despite their being unmentioned in the Gospel account. The crucial element in Goethe's observation consists in the fact that he sees not only the principal characters but also these minor figures as all bound up in a closely woven plot structure, one from which the depicted event can be completely reconstructed as a contemporary situation. Goethe demonstrates in his description how a dramatic plot structure is created in the static pictorial scene through the constellation of the figures, their attitudes and expressions, and acknowledges the structural conception of this artist's pictures in "Rembrandt the thinker". Questions of structural conception within his pictures were to accompany Rembrandt's work to the end; in his early creative period, however, his attention was devoted exclusively to them.

The Martyrdom of St.Stephen


The Martyrdom of St.Stephen is Rembrandt's earliest extant painting. The victim of the stoning is hemmed in by many figures making vigorous, extended movements. As if the close-packed nature of the crowd were not enough, the artist has squeezed the faces of background figures into every small space left by the foreground figures. Various forms, likewise present at the spectacle, are portrayed close to the central group. The whole picture is characterized by the turbulence of a scene filled with many figures, along with the dramatic expression of tumult, violence and pain. Although this is only his first picture, the young painter is already presenting himself in a profession which was considered at that time to be the hardest and was correspondingly highly regarded. It was a question here of whether the artist was capable of mastering not only every possibility of spatial depiction — landscape and architecture — but also, equally, animal and human anatomy in every conceivable posture, wever, the "history painter" was judged primarily according to the degree of success with which he used facial expression and gesture to characterize the particular emotional mien of the figures as stipulated by the event in question -what was called at the time the "passions".
It is in accordance with this that a further work from the early period, Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple, is restricted to the passions of the figures, to the expression of anger, terror, pain and avarice. These qualities of expression are emphasized in an extremely clear manner, as a result of which some of the expressions have taken on a grimace-like appearance.


Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple


The same extreme effect may be observed of the passions in the scene entitled The Ass of Balaam Balking before the Angel. The painting is concerned with the Old Testament account (Numbers 22) in which the prophet Balaam is instructed by Balak, King of the Moabites, to curse the Israelites. While on his way to the King, Balaam's path is blocked by the angel of the Lord, who is noticed by the prophet's donkey, but not by the man. When Balaam attempts to drive on his donkey with blows, the hesitating beast is given the gift of speech. The Lord opens Balaam's eyes, and he perceives the angel. Instead of cursing the chosen people, he blesses them and announces future victories for them.

The Ass of Balaam Balking before the Angel
Oil on panel, 63 x 46,5 cm
Musee Cognacq-Jay, Paris


Rembrandt took over the scenery to a considerable extent from a picture by Pieter Lastman. However, the gestures in his own painting are much more forceful: the hand holding the stick is raised to a more threatening position, the donkey has pulled her head further back, and her jaws are open wider. The angel with the uplifted sword has been moved right up to the raging prophet, as are Balaam's companions, who are observing the scene. The movements of the figures cover the entire picture. The violent gesture of the raised arm and the features of the prophet, contorted with the strain, remove all doubt with regard to whether a blow will in fact be struck and where it will land. In the same way, the angel's gesture communicates the fact that his sword, once set in motion, is capable of parrying Balaam's stick and thereby protecting the donkey from the unjust blow. Lastman's picture portrays the point in the scene where the animal speaks, thus depicting the actual occurrence of the miracle. Rembrandt intensifies the situation further by characterizing this point in time as the moment in which the highest possible unfolding of movement takes place.

A general survey of the scenic creations from the Leiden years and the initial Amsterdam period produces the realization that almost all of Rembrandt's portrayals of events are conceived at the climax of their external action. This can be seen in the "histories" both from mythology, such as The Abduction of Proserpine, and from the Bible, such as Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee. This principle is pushed to the extreme in the scenes The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God and The Blinding of Samson. The intention of the artist in depicting the climax of external action can only be to achieve the utmost vividness in the presentation of the event; the observer is to become an eye-witness, and thereby directly experience the event for himself. In doing this, Rembrandt does not shy away from drastic motifs. In The Sacrifice of Isaac, the angel has seized Abraham's arm, which was already raised to kill his son. The old man is turning round in the utmost grief and terror; his hand has opened and the knife, intended for the exposed neck of his son, is falling to the ground. In The Blinding of Samson, we are shown with agonizing meticulousness the manner in which a Philistine driving a dagger into the hero's eye causes the blood to spurt forth.

The Abduction of Proserpine

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee

The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God

Oil on canvas, 193 x 133 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Abraham and Isaac

We are concerned in both of these cases with a violation of the static nature of the picture. An examination of the way in which knife and blood are depicted reveals that they can only be in free fall: the position of the knife makes no sense unless we understand it as in motion. The form taken by this motif of free fall compels the observer to imagine movement taking place. Yet a more protracted examination of the picture renders the actual motionlessness of the knife and of the drops of blood grotesque. They contradict the real course of events. And it is clear that this contradiction will become all the more striking, the longer the picture is studied. The drastic means through which Rembrandt wishes to render what is portrayed in the picture so emphatically comprehensible as motion, happening, action, simultaneously reveals the fact that the picture can merely help the observer to imagine the intended course of events in his mind's eye; it cannot enable him to actually see them in the reality of the picture.
A limitation of the picture is indicated here, one which can be regarded as self-evident. Since the painted picture is naturally without movement, it would seem that the course of events depicted therein would necessarily belong to a different reality than that of the picture itself. This is one of the arguments put forward for regarding the pictorial world as merely appearance and distancing it from the reality of an event involving movement. By intensifying his scenes as far as the climax of the external action, the young Rembrandt is pushing at the limits of pictorial art. However, those scenes of his which are full of wild movement argue that he refuses to recognize these limits, that he will break through them - by force, if need be. It is instructive to see the painter beginning in his early work at precisely the point where the possibilities offered by painting end. He was nonetheless to hold for all of his creative life to the principle of depicting events and processes, always presenting them at their climax. This indicates one of the fundamental artistic problems with which he was to struggle unceasingly. It is important to stress the fundamental nature of this problem, since we will observe in the following how Rembrandt was ultimately to resolve the apparently inevitable contradiction between the motionlessness of a picture and the temporal nature of a dramatic event - with every consequence both for the prior understanding characterized here of pictorial reality and for observation itself.
The works cited above already demonstrate the first important signs in this direction. The structural conception of these scenes does not limit the observer solely to the here-and-now of a rapidly passing event. Other measures are added to that previously mentioned of extreme climax: allusions are made to what has gone before and what will follow.





The Blinding of Samson
, 1636

God's champion defeated in the war of the sexes


The Blinding of Samson
Oil on canvas, 236 x 302 cm
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt


Samson was famous for his inordinate strength; only the help of a woman enabled his enemies to take him prisoner. His story is told in the Old Testament Book of Judges. Samson, too, was a judge, a leader among the people of Israel.
At that time, the enemies and oppressors of the Jews were the Philistines. Before his birth, an angel of the Lord had appeared to Samson's parents to tell them what God intended with their son: "For the child shall be a Nazerite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." They were also instructed never to cut his hair.
As ill-luck had it, Samson grew up and fell in love with a Philistine girl, asking her to become his wife. The Old Testament explains that his unruly behaviour was directed by God: seeking an opportunity to incite animosity between the people of Israel and their Philistine oppressors, God had influenced Samson's feelings. Samson provoked a quarrel by telling a riddle, promising 30 changes of garment to the bride's 30 companions if they could solve it. Her companions then forced the young woman to entice the solution from Samson. Samson kept his secret until she used her strongest weapon: "thou ... lovest me not."
On discovering that he had been de-cieved, the "Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle."
The Bible mentions three women in Samson's life. The first was his wife, or fiancee, whom his father-in-law refused him after the slaughter in Ashkelon, giving her to his companion instead. The second was a "harlot" in Gaza. Getting wind of Samson's visit to her, the Philistines decided to lie in wait for him at the gate of the city and kill him in the morning. But Samson arose at midnight and, tearing out the doors and the two posts of the city gate, he set them down - to the disgrace of his enemies - on top of a hill.
Only the third woman is given a name: Delilah. Samson loved her, but the lords of the Philistines bribed her. Her task was to find out the secret of Samson's great strength. In return "we will give thee every one of us eleven hundred pieces of silver." Three times her lover gave her the wrong information, until she too began to express her doubts over Samson's love. The big man's resistance was finally broken: "If I be shaven", he confided in her, "then my strength will go from me." So "she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head ... and the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes."
The Book of Judges does not explain why God allowed the defeat of his "Nazerite". Commentators have pointed out that Samson had ceased to obey the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, the tables were eventually turned when Samson, blind and bound, was brought forth and subjected to ridicule at a Philistine festival. In the meantime, his hair had grown, and, praying to the Lord to give him back his old strength, he braced himself against two pillars, toppling them and bringing the whole house down on top of himself and thousands of Israel's enemies.


Samson conforms to the Calvinist outlook

The Blinding of Samson (detail)


Rembrandt painted five scenes from Samson's life, all of which, for different reasons, have ended up in German museums. The pious couple receiving God's message from his angel and Samson telling his riddle at the wedding feast can be admired at the Dresdner Gemaldegalerie. In a painting executed in 1635, now at Ber-lin-Dahlem, Samson shakes his fist at his father-in-law, who refuses to let him marry his daughter. Also in Dahlem, Samson Betrayed by Delilah (1628) shows the hero asleep with his head on Delilah's lap. Finally, The Blinding of Samson (1636), measuring 205 x 272cm, belongs to the Sta-del Museum in Frankfurt.
All Rembrandt's pictures of Samson were painted between 1628 and 1641. For more than a decade, the artist was preoccupied with the strange figure of a muscle-man, one of God's "chosen" who stood out from the rest of his people mainly because of his great strength and boorish insolence. The Bible makes no mention of intelligence, or spiritual qualities.
The decade in question was in the first half of Rembrandt's life (1606-1669), so that the young artist may simply have been fascinated by Samson's superhuman feats of strength and defiance of convention. Hercules, on the other hand, no less popular a superman, would not have been a suitable hero: Rembrandt's upbringing had been Calvinist, and Calvin's doctrine was a powerful influence on religious sentiment in the new state of the Netherlands, so that not only were dancing, music and luxury proscribed and the Catholic Church fought at every turn, but also reference to heathen antiquity was considered improper. Dr Tulp, a figure painted by Rembrandt, had publicly raised his voice against the exhibition of antique gods at festive processions. Hercules was popular, but unacceptable.
However, the artist's relative youth can hardly be deemed sufficient explanation for his choice of subject matter. It was the fact that the story of Samson complied with the Calvinist view of the world that tipped the balance in his favour. Yahweh, the God of the Jews, was the real leader and ruler of Samson's people. It was Yahweh who took away Samson's strength, and who also gave it back to him. Calvin's view of the world was very similar to that expressed in the Old Testament: God, the ruler, made his will known through the Bible, determining all morality and politics. Whoever did not obey was, like Samson, cruelly punished. Unlike Luther, the French Reformer did not conceive of God as a God of love and mercy, but as a hard-hearted overlord. Calvin propagated intolerance towards those who broke his strict moral code, or disobeyed church rules. Offenders were condemned to death or forced into exile. Over 50 death sentences can be traced back to Calvin's instigation.
There is another sense in which the figure of Samson complies with the Calvinist outlook: predestination was a tenet of the Reformer's doctrine, and Samson was "a Nazente unto God from the womb". For even before his birth, an angel had told Samson's parents what his task and status were to be. The "Book of Judges" tells the full story. If the notion of predestination is applied generally, rather than to God's chosen few, then even Delilah was not only a money-grabbing traitress, but an instrument of the Lord.


The pleasures of terror and cruelty


The Blinding of Samson (detail)


The helmets which Rembrandt sets on his Philistines' heads were rarely used in armed conflict by 1636. In fact, they resemble so-called Burgundian "pot-helmets", worn a century earlier. The same type of helmet turns up in several other "works by Rembrandt, from which we may tentatively infer that it either belonged to the artist's collection of costume props, or was perhaps worn decoratively by members of militia companies on representative occasions. Realistic representation was not necessarily the aim of "history painting" in Rembrandt's time. Old Testament figures, for example, were often portrayed clothed in contemporary Turkish dress.
Like Samson's people, the Netherlander were fighting a national liberation struggle against a powerful enemy. The country had fallen to Spain by inheritance, and Philip II had sent the Duke of Alba from Madrid to bind the Netherlandish provinces more closely to his empire. Alba's rule was dra-conian and vicious, provoking open resistance to his authority. It was not until 1648, however, that the Dutch northern provinces were granted independence, so that Rembrandt's Blinding, executed in 1636, was painted against a background of war. The fighting itself made little impact on Amsterdam, where the artist lived, for the warring parties had filled their ranks with mercenaries, and the battles were fought elsewhere. Nonetheless, the mercenaries were forced to feed themselves from what they could find in the countryside. The devastation by marauding armies experienced by the neighbouring German lands during the Thiry Years' War had demonstrated what lay in store for the Netherlandish civilian population. As if all this were not enough, reports of torture carried out by the Spanish authorities struck fear into the hearts and minds of the people.
At the time, atrocities of the kind shown in Rembrandt's painting were a good deal more widespread than is the case in central Europe today. They were more frequently painted, too, especially in Rome, Naples and Spain. Many of these works showed martyrs stretched on the rack or the wheel, or being stoned, beaten or stabbed to death. The illustration of martyrdom was part of Counter-Reformation propaganda: its function was to glorify the saints, and prepare priests for possible death. This, at least, was the official line.
However, besides church propaganda and the very real atrocities of the age, there seems also to have been a genuine need during the Baroque for depictions of Man's cruelty to Man; it is a need that is difficult to explain. Perhaps it was a reaction against even more frequently painted scenes showing ecstatic hermits, or abbesses triumphing over earthly temptation: a repudiation, in other words, of images of the human that were all too ethereal.
In none of Rembrandt's other paintings is physical pain depicted quite as realistically. He has chosen to show the precise moment at which the dagger enters Samson's eye. Pain not only distorts the face, it contorts the entire body from top to toe. Rembrandt has painted Samson's head in the foreground, placing the act of mutilation directly in front of the spectator's eyes. An 18th-century owner of the painting evidently found its directness too hard to bear: he had the painting enlarged, creating distance between the spectator and the act by giving the scene more space. In the Stadel, a frame covers the added parts, allowing one to view the work in the original format.
Delilah's betrayal of Samson, or triumph over him, was a common enough subject in 16th and 17th century painting, but these works usually showed Samson taken captive, rather than his blinding anci bloodv torture. Rubens, for example, thirty years Rembrandt's senior, used the theme of Samson and Delilah as an excuse for two wonderful figures leaning dramatically into the foreground; though a soldier in the background is seen raising a knife, there is no sign of impending horror on Delilah's face. Rubens evidently preferred to give her an amused, slightly thrilled smile, as if she were merely anticipating the outcome of some foolish prank.


Cunning triumphs over physical strength

The Blinding of Samson (detail)


Rubens' figure could be construed as an illustration of the "wiles of woman", and it is certainly true that the phrase - which might sound feeble by today's standards - has been used often enough in connection with Delilah's deed. If the story of Samson and Delilah has retained any relevance, however, then not as an illustration of cunning, but as a narrative of the struggle between the sexes, of revenge taken by the physically weaker sex on a symbol of male potency; conversely, its narrative force may lie in the portrayal of the primordial male fear of vulnerability and loss of potency during coitus.
Holofernes' decapitation at the hands of Judith is a treatment of the same theme; he too had taken her to his bed. The Jewess Jael, too, kills the sleeping Canaanite general Sisera by driving a nail through his head. All three stories of women's victory over their sexual partners were from the Old Testament, and all three were painted again and again during the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are several indications of the significance attached by Rembrandt to the conflict between the sexes. Delilah is shown towering over Samson's supine body. The dark blade of the soldier in the foreground obscures the intersection of the diagonals which structure the composition, the precise location of Samson's invisible genitalia. More importantly, however, the Book of Judges says that Delilah "called for a man", causing him to "shave off the seven locks" that were the source of the sleeping man's strength. Rembrandt, however, has her do the deed herself, showing her with the scissors and hair still in her hand. Rubens, too, placed the scissors in Delilah's hand. It was common for artists to depart from the letter of a Biblical story to emphasize their own concerns.
Oddly enough, books about Rembrandt tend to ignore this great painting, or to speak disparagingly of it. Yet even in terms of scale, it was the largest of Rembranch's works to date. Apparently, however, this in itself is enough to denounce the artist: Rembrandt is accused of conforming to the platitudes of comtempor-ary taste, paying lip-service to Baroque notions of grandeur, instead of following his own route into the depths of the human soul, beyond all crude realism or superficial drama. It is no accident that the work on which discussion of Rembrandt's treatment of the Samson theme tends to concentrate is the picture of the angel announcing his message to Samson's parents, who are shown kneeling beside each other, absorbed in prayer.
But the Blinding also reveals the inward state of the participant figures. This applies not only to Samson, but to the soldiers in the foreground and Delilah as well. The faces and gestures of the latter betray contradictory emotions: fear and aggression in the soldier, triumph, horror and inward reserve in the turned face of Delilah. To Rembrandt, however, Delilah's gaping eyes had a separate meaning.


The eyes - fount of fascination and taboo



Oil on wood, 23,5 x 17 cm
Staatliche Museen, Kassel


One of the rules of "history painting" demanded the artist's empathy with the figures he painted. Samson, a colossus in revolt, could thus be seen as Rembrandt himself, turning blind and forfeiting his creative powers.
There can be little doubt that Rembrandt feared the loss of his eyesight. Though there is no documentary evidence to prove this, a sketch Rembrandt made of his father suggests the latter went blind towards the end of his life. The artist must therefore have witnessed his gradual loss of sight. Even if he had not seen members of his own family blind, he would have seen blind people wherever he went, for eye disease was common and medical treatment ineffective. The blind appear in many of Rembrandt's paintings: an aged Homer, Jacob blessing his grandsons, blind violinists, blind beggars, the blind hoping to be healed by Jesus. His most frequent use of the motif centres on the theme of Tobias and his blind father. There are some 50 sketches, etchings and paintings of Tobias, most of which, though not all, include Tobias' father. According to the Bible story Tobias healed his father's blindness by smearing the bile of a fish on his eyes. In so doing, he followed the advice of the archangel Raphael: in other words, divine inspiration. However, Rembrandt shows Tobias standing behind his father with an instrument in his hand: medical scientists have suggested this may be an operation to remove grey cataract. The painting, showing Tobias giving his father back his eyesight, was executed in 1636, the same year as The Blinding of Samson.
But Rembrandt's preoccupation with eyes and eyesight was not limited to that year alone. He was altogether fascinated by this bodily organ and its function. At the same time, he treated it with the caution normally reserved for subjects that are taboo. His portrait of his mother as the prophetess Hannah shows her with eyes closed, and with the folds and tiny wrinkles of her eyelids and aged facial skin rendered in minute detail; and it is as if skin had grown over her eyes. In another work Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac, lays his left hand across his son's face, covering his victims's gaze. Or in Rembrandt's astonishing Self-portrait of 1628, the artist's eyes, drowned in deep shadow, are practically invisible.
Considering Rembrandt's preoccupation with his ability to see, it is understandable that, unlike Rubens, he decided to paint Samson blinded rather than Samson taken captive. To Rembrandt, a painting of Samson not only meant the Old Testament, Calvinism, or the struggle between the sexes, for the theme gave him the opportunity to paint a picture about sight: Deli-la's gaping eyes see Samson's dead eyes, while the blinding brightness of the sky outside - and where else has Rembrandt painted a blue so bright! - is swallowed by the almost impenetrable darkness of the interior.
The first to paint such stark contrasts of light and darkness had been Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610), a manner imported to more northerly latitudes by Netherlandish artists. The technique heightened dramatic tension, and accentuated important details. In Rembrandt's work it appears also to have symbolized the act of looking itself, the power and impotence of the human eye. Rembrandt's self-portrait shows that the most important elements of a painting are not necessarily to be found in its brighter sections. The artist's forehead, eyes and mouth, features which generally help us recognize a person, are engulfed in darkness. However intent the spectator's gaze, its object will thus remain obscure. By contrast, relatively uncharacteristic features, such as the neck, ear and cheek, are well lit. The subject of the painting was not Rembrandt's face, but the act of looking. Its theme - like that of The Blinding - is the eye itself.

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen



The Blinding of Samson reveals other warriors in addition to the one who is boring his dagger into Samson's eye. One of them lies under Samson, holding him fast; another is fettering Samson's raised fist with a chain; a third, with sword raised, is approaching from the rear to the right, mouth and eyes opened wide; a fourth is holding his lance pointed at Samson, poised to stab should the latter still possess the strength to resist despite the loss of his hair. Looking back at Samson, Delilah is fleeing behind the man with the lance, holding in her hands the scissors and the shock of hair which she has previously cut off.
Each figure contributes in its own way to the overall action at the moment of the blinding. While it is true that Delilah is represented running away from the scene, the fact that the treacherous mistress has cropped the hair of the sleeping Samson beforehand is no longer left merely to the reconstruction rendered by the observer's imagination: scissors and shock of hair are displayed in the picture. This is made still more intelligible by the collective actions of the warriors. We see one of them entering in a timorous manner; a second, who has wrestled Samson to the ground; a third, shackling him; a fourth, striking home. In order to be able to blind Samson, it was necessary for the warriors to force an entry following the robbery of his hair, wrestle the weakened man to the floor, fetter him and gouge out his eyes. Every one of the stages in this process is distributed among the individual figures. The figures reveal various stages in the course of events. They do not indicate individually what is happening at the precise moment when the blood spurts forth; rather, this form of temporal role-distribution is used to illustrate the phases of the chain of events in the picture itself. Rembrandt had already structured the motif of a step-by-step approach in 1629 in an initial version of the Samson topic (Samson Betrayed by Delilah).


Samson Betrayed by Delilah


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