A couple stand in front of us. They are totally oblivious of the crowd of viewers standing in front of them. The young woman’s gaze is turned away from us, she seems lost in thought while her companion tenderly leans in towards her, his hand is placed just under her breast with her hand placed gently over the top of his.
This is the most tender and moving of paintings, and for me is the highlight of this stunning and inspiring exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works.
Painted about 1665 Rembrandt’s Portrait of a couple as Isaac and Rebecca known also as The Jewish Bride is a remarkable painting demonstrating a radical and expressive paint-handling, it is as if every lesson in paint application is here on this canvas.
Upon seeing The Jewish Bride in the autumn of 1885 during a visit to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vincent Van Gogh was quite unable to tear himself away from the painting, saying “Do you know that I would give ten years of my life if I could sit here before this picture a fortnight, with nothing but a crust of dry bread for food.” (The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, ed Roskill, p.62 London 1983). I know how he felt, I feel that I could look upon this painting for a very long time.
Each time I visit the exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works I stand in awe in front of this incredibly beautiful work. The eye is drawn directly to the play of hands, the emotional core of this painting. A broadly applied patch of colour placed over the base of the thumb is positioned almost centrally within the composition. From the hands the eye moves upward to the two portraits, first the woman and then to the man.
Rembrandt’s stunning and dramatic use of chiaroscuro accentuates the faces and each seems to be lit with an internal light source.
From the faces, the eye is lead down the arm and we see the exquisite painting of the man’s sleeve. When first exhibited, painters were said to have traveled across Europe to admire this remarkable paint-handling. Placed against the dark ground of burnt umber, the colours of the garments and flesh sing out.
From a distance the yellows and golds of the man’s sleeve glisten. The thick impasto application of paint catches the light making the fabric appear to be encrusted with jewels. When standing close to the surface of the painting it is possible to see many types of paint application, as thick impasto oil has been dragged, blobbed and daubed on using a variety of marks.
The vermillion of Rebecca’s dress glows against the paintings dark background and the dark grey walls of the National Gallery. Close to, the paint has been swept over the surface with broad strokes. In order to bulk-up the paint further, Rembrandt is said to have added egg shell and flour amongst many other things. The garments in places appear to be three-dimensional as paint has been troweled on with a palette knife in the most built-up areas. Blocks of paint follow the direction and contour of the fabric and arm describing the folds of material and the volume of the sleeve. Rebecca’s sleeve is realised in the same way. On the under part of each of the couple’s sleeve and cuff there is a beautiful, soft vermillion which is being reflected from the saturated colour of the dress, with flecks of pure colour being placed over the fabric.
The paint has been more softly applied on each face, the paint surface isn’t as thick but still appears quite painterly with individual strokes being visible. The warmth of the young woman’s cheeks both echoes and is enhanced by the colour of her dress, the fingers of her lower hand and the back of her top wrist also reflects the vermillion glow.
Individual strokes and blobs of colour used to describe jewellery are quite separate when viewed up close, but when pulling back from the painting they create the most exquisite pearls and glints of light on jewels and gold.
What draws me back each time is the wonderful expression of the hands. The painting of the two hands, one placed on top of the other is quite remarkable. From a distance, their drawing, modelling and form appear to be rendered with great attention to detail. Standing as close to the painting as I can, the hands appear to be so simply done, very little information with broad strokes of colour patched-in with very little drawing. One patch of colour describes the woman’s forefinger and the paint surface on the back of the man’s hand appears to have been partly scraped down.
The intimacy between the couple, he inches towards her with both arms surrounding her in a gentle embrace is the most sensitive and poignant depictions of love. Rembrandt has captured such a softness and gentleness with each brushstroke to describe the expression of the couples faces and also through the gesture of their hands.
In his biography Rembrandt Christopher White writes of the portrait as being “one of the greatest expressions of the tender fusion of spiritual and physical love in the history of painting.” (Rembrandt, p.202 London 1984)