REMBRANDT AND HIS WORKS.
The early pictures, in all ages, either merely indicate the character of bas-reliefs or single statues,—a cold continuity of outline, and an absence of foreshortening. The first move in advance, and that which constitutes their pictorial character, in contradistinction to sculpture, is an assemblage of figures, repeating the various forms contained in the principal ones, and thus rendering them less harsh by extension and doubling of the various shapes, as we often perceive in a first sketch of a work, where the eye of the spectator chooses, out of the multiplicity of outlines, those forms most agreeable to his taste. The next step to improvement, and giving the work a more natural appearance, is the influence of shadow, so as to make the outlines of the prominent more distinct, and those in the background less harsh and cutting, and consequently more retiring. The application of shadow, however, not only renders works of art more natural, by giving the appearance of advancing and retiring to objects represented upon a flat surface—thus keeping them in their several situations, according to the laws of aërial perspective—but enables the artist to draw attention to the principal points of the story, and likewise to preserve the whole in agreeable form, by losing and pronouncing individual parts. Coreggio was the first who carried out this principle to any great extent; but it was reserved for Rembrandt, by his boldness and genius, to put a limit to its further application. Breadth, the constituent character of this mode of treatment, cannot be extended; indeed, it is said that Rembrandt himself extended it too far; for, absorbing seven-eighths in obscurity and softness, though it renders the remaining portion more brilliant, yet costs too much. This principle, however, contains the greatest poetry of the art, in contradistinction to the severe outline and harsh colouring of the great historical style.
To arrive at a true knowledge of the inventions and compositions of Rembrandt, it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine those of Albert Durer, the Leonardo da Vinci of Germany. The inventions of this extraordinary man are replete with the finest feelings of art, notwithstanding the Gothic dryness and fantastic forms of his figures. The folds of his draperies are more like creased pieces of paper than cloth, and his representation of the naked is either bloated and coarse, or dry and meagre. His backgrounds have all the extravagant characteristics of a German romance, and are totally destitute of aërial perspective; yet, with the exception of the character of the people and scenery of Nuremburg, he is not more extravagant in his forms than the founder of the Florentine school, and had he been educated in Italy, he in all probability would have rivalled Raffaelle in the purity of his design. In his journal, which he kept when he travelled into the Netherlands, he mentions some prints he sent to Rome, in exchange for those he expected in return, and it is mentioned that Raffaelle admired his works highly. The multitude of his engravings, both on copper and wood, which were spread over Germany, influenced, in a great degree, the style of composition of those artists who came after him, and accordingly we see many points of coincidence in the compositions of Rembrandt. A century, however, had opened up a greater insight into the mysteries of painting than either Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Durer ever thought of; one alone,—viz. aërial perspective, seems to mark the line between the ancient and modern school; for though Durer invented several instruments for perfecting lineal perspective, his works exhibit no attempt at giving the indistinctness of distant objects. To Rubens, Germany and Holland were indebted for this essential part of the art, so necessary to a true representation of Nature. This great genius, in his contemplation of the works of Titian and others, both at Venice and in Madrid, soon emancipated the art of his country from the Gothic hardness of Lucas Cranach, Van Eyck, and Albert Durer; but notwithstanding his taste and knowledge of what constituted the higher qualities of the Italian school, the irregular combinations and multitudinous assemblage of figures found in the early German compositions remained with him to the last. His works are like a melodrama, filled with actors who have no settled action or expression allotted them, while in the works of Raffaelle, and other great composers, the persons introduced are limited to the smallest number necessary to explain the story. This condensing of the interest, if I may use the expression, was borrowed originally from the Greeks, of whose sculptures the Romans availed themselves to a great degree. On the other hand, this looseness of arrangement, and what may be termed ornamental, not only spread through Germany, but infected the schools of Venice; witness the works of Tintoret and Paul Veronese, in which the expression of the countenance absolutely goes for nothing, and the whole arrangement is drawn out in a picturesque point of view, merely to amuse and gratify the eye of the spectator.
Now, with all these infectious examples before him, Rembrandt has done much to concentrate the action, and reduce the number drawn out on the canvas to the mere personages who figure in the history. Witness his "Salutation of the Virgin," in the Marquis of Westminster’s collection, which is evidently engendered from the idea contained in the design of Albert Durer. His strict application to nature, while it enabled him to destroy the unmeaning combinations of his predecessors, led him into many errors, by the simple fact of drawing from the people in his presence. But are not others chargeable with some incongruities? Are the Madonnas of Murillo anything but a transcript of the women of Andalusia? The women of Venice figure in the historical compositions of Titian and Paul Veronese, and the Fornarina of Raffaelle is present in his most sacred subjects; those, therefore, who accuse Rembrandt of vulgarity of form, might with equal justice draw an invidious comparison between classic Italian and high Dutch. In many of his compositions he has embodied the highest feeling and sentiment, and in his study of natural simplicity approaches Raffaelle nearer than any of the Flemish or Dutch painters. Of course, as a colourist and master of light and shade, he is all powerful; but I allude, at present, to the mere conception and embodying of his subjects on this head.
Fuseli says,—"Rembrandt was, in my opinion, a genius of the first class in whatever relates not to form. In spite of the most portentous deformity, and without considering the spell of his chiaro-scuro, such were his powers of nature, such the grandeur, pathos, or simplicity of his composition, from the most elevated or extensive arrangement to the meanest and most homely, that the best cultivated eye, the purest sensibility, and the most refined taste, dwell on them equally enthralled. Shakspere alone excepted, no one combined with so much transcendent excellence so many, in all other men unpardonable, faults,—and reconciled us to them. He possessed the full empire of light and shade, and of all the tints that float between them; he tinged his pencil with equal success in the cool of dawn, in the noon-day ray, in the livid flash, in evanescent twilight, and rendered darkness visible. Though made to bend a steadfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature, yet he knew how to follow her into her calmest abodes, gave interest to insipidity and baldness, and plucked a flower in every desert. None ever, like Rembrandt, knew how to improve an accident into a beauty, or give importance to a trifle. If ever he had a master, he had no followers; Holland was not made to comprehend his power."
And in another lecture, speaking of the advantage of a low horizon, he says:—"What gives sublimity to Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo more than this principle? a composition which, though complete, hides in its grandeur the limits of its scenery. Its form is a pyramid, whose top is lost in the sky, as its base in tumultuous murky waves. From the fluctuating crowds who inundate the base of the tribunal, we rise to Pilate, surrounded and perplexed by the varied ferocity of the sanguinary synod to whose remorseless gripe he surrenders his wand, and from him we ascend to the sublime resignation of innocence in Christ, and, regardless of the roar, securely repose on his countenance. Such is the grandeur of a conception, which in its blaze absorbs the abominable detail of materials too vulgar to be mentioned. Had the materials been equal to the conception and composition, the Ecce Homo of Rembrandt, even unsupported by the magic of its light and shade, or his spell of colours, would have been an assemblage of superhuman powers."
Reynolds, in his Eighth Discourse, speaking of the annoyance the mind feels at the display of too much variety and contrast, proceeds to say:—"To apply these general observations, which belong equally to all arts, to ours in particular. In a composition, where the objects are scattered and divided into many equal parts, the eye is perplexed and fatigued, from not knowing where to find the principal action, or which is the principal figure; for where all are making equal pretensions to notice, all are in equal danger of neglect. The expression which is used very often on these occasions is, the piece wants repose—a word which perfectly expresses a relief of the mind from that state of hurry and anxiety which it suffers when looking at a work of this character. On the other hand, absolute unity, that is, a large work consisting of one group or mass of light only, would be as defective as an heroic poem without episode, or any collateral incidents to recreate the mind with that variety which it requires. An instance occurs to me of two painters (Rembrandt and Poussin) of characters totally opposite to each other in every respect, but in nothing more than in their mode of composition and management of light and shadow. Rembrandt’s manner is absolute unity; he often has but one group, and exhibits little more than one spot of light in the midst of a large quantity of shadow: if he has a second mass that second bears no proportion to the principal. Poussin, on the contrary, has scarcely any principle mass of light at all, and his figures are often too much dispersed, without sufficient attention to place them in groups. The conduct of these two painters is entirely the reverse of what might be expected from their general style and character, the works of Poussin being as much distinguished for simplicity as those of Rembrandt for combination. Even this conduct of Poussin might proceed from too great affection to simplicity of another kind, too great a desire to avoid the ostentation of art with regard to light and shadow, on which Rembrandt so much wished to draw the attention; however, each of them ran into contrary extremes, and it is difficult to determine which is the most reprehensible, both being equally distant from the demands of nature and the purposes of art."
This unity is observable in the composition of Rembrandt; even where a multiplicity of figures are employed, they are so grouped that the masses of light and shade are interrupted as little as possible; and it is only in his earlier works, such as those now in the Munich Gallery, where this isolated light is carried to extravagance. In many of his later pictures, we have not only subordinate groups, but a repetition of the principal lights; also a greater breadth of half-tint. "Composition," says Reynolds, "which is the principal part of the invention of a painter, is by far the greatest difficulty he has to encounter. Every man that can paint at all, can execute individual parts; but to keep these parts in due subordination as relative to a whole, requires a comprehensive view of the art, that more strongly implies genius than perhaps any other quality whatever." Now Rembrandt possessed this power in an eminent degree. At the revival of painting in Italy, the compositions consisted entirely of subjects taken from Sacred Writ—subjects that imposed a purity of thought and a primitive simplicity upon the artists; these qualities were, however, in a great measure lost in passing through the Venetian and German schools, where either the love for pictorial effect or the introduction of catholic ceremonies took precedence of every other arrangement. The prolific genius of Rubens spread this infectious mode of treatment through Flanders and Holland, till at length, in the hands of the painters of smoking and drinking scenes, historical subjects, even of a sacred character, became quite ridiculous. Yet, with all these examples of bad and vulgar taste around him, we find many compositions of Rembrandt less degraded by mean representation than many of the best of the works of the Venetian and Flemish painters. Take, for example, his design of Christ and his Disciples at Emmaus, the principal figure in which is certainly more refined than the Christ either in the pictures of Titian or Rubens of the same subject; in fact, the idea of it is taken from the Last Supper, by Raffaelle, (the Mark Antonio print of which he must have had.) Raffaelle is indebted for the figure to Leonardo da Vinci; and if we were to trace back, I have no doubt we should find that the Milanese borrowed it from an earlier master; indeed, we perceive in the progress of painting much of the primitive simplicity and uniformity preserved in the best works of the Italian school. It was only when composition passed through the prolific minds of such artists as Paul Veronese, Tintoret, and Rubens, that it was made subservient to the bustle, animation, and picturesque effect of their works. When we find, therefore, any remains revived in the pictures of Rembrandt, who was surrounded by compositions of a vulgar and low cast, we can only ascribe it to the taste and genius of this great painter. In the design just mentioned, the idea of the Disciples, as if struck with astonishment and awe at the bursting forth of the divinity of Christ, is admirably conceived. As the heads are taken from the people of his country, they of necessity partake of the character of the people. This cannot be justified, though it is excusable. Reynolds, on this head, speaking of the ennobling of the characters in an historical picture, says, "How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the Cartoons of Raffaelle. In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving. Yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular we are told by himself that his bodily presence was mean. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art History Painting: it ought to be called Poetical, as in reality it is." He further adds, "The painter has no other means of giving an idea of the mind but by that external appearance which grandeur of thought does generally, though not always, impress on the countenance, and by that correspondence of figure to sentiment and situation which all men wish, but cannot command." As I cannot defend the mean appearance of the disciples, neither shall I exculpate our great artist from blame in introducing a dog into so grand a subject; we can only excuse him on the plea of following the practice of his predecessors. Titian, in his celebrated picture, has not only introduced a dog, but a cat also, which is quarrelling with the former for a bone under the table. To this love for the introduction of animals into their compositions, for the sake of picturesque variety, many of the greatest painters must plead guilty; and though the incongruity has been pointed out over and over again by the writers on art, it is still clung to as means of contrast with the human figure. In one of the sketches by the late Sir D. Wilkie for his picture of "Finding the Body of Tippoo Saib," he had introduced two dogs, and only obliterated them when informed that dogs were considered unclean by the people of the east, and therefore it was an impossibility for them to be in the palace of Seringapatam. While I am upon this subject, it may not be amiss to refer to one of the authorities who censures this practice. Fresnoy says, in his poem on the "Art of Painting,"
"Nec quod inane, nihil facit ad rem sive videtur
Improprium miniméque urgens potiora tenebit
"Nor paint conspicuous on the foremost plain,
Whate’er is false, impertinent, or vain."
On this rule, Reynolds remarks—"This precept, so obvious to common sense, appears superfluous till we recollect that some of the greatest painters have been guilty of a breach of it; for—not to mention Paul Veronese or Rubens, whose principles as ornamental painters would allow great latitude in introducing animals, or whatever they might think necessary to contrast or make the composition more picturesque—we can no longer wonder why the poet has thought it worth setting a guard against this impropriety, when we find that such men as Raffaelle and the Caracci, in their greatest and most serious works, have introduced on the foreground mean and frivolous circumstances. Such improprieties, to do justice to the more modern painters, are seldom found in their works. The only excuse that can be made for those great artists, is their living in an age when it was the custom to mix the ludicrous with the serious, and when poetry as well as painting gave in to this fashion."
Many of the compositions of Rembrandt indicate not only a refined taste, but the greatest sensibility and feeling. For example, the small etchings of the "Burial of Christ," and the "Return from Jerusalem;" these, from their slightness, may lay me under the same category as the old Greek, who, having a house to sell, carried in his pocket one of the bricks as a sample; yet, being his own indications, I have given them. It is worth while to compare the "Entombment" with the same subject by Raffaelle, in the Crozat Collection. The whole arrangement is treated in the finest taste of the Italian school. The other design has been always a favourite with the admirers of Rembrandt. The feeling character of the youthful Saviour is admirably portrayed. Holding his mother’s hand, he is cheering her on her tiring journey, looking in her face with an expression of affection and solace; while she is represented with downcast eyes, fatigued and "pondering in her mind" the import of the words he had addressed to her, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?" And even here we can almost excuse the introduction of the little dog, who, running before the group, is looking back, giving a bark of joy at their having found the object of their solicitude. The background is conceived in the finest spirit of Titian.
These are the touches of nature that, like the expressions of our own immortal Shakspere, however slight, and though dressed in modern garb or familiar language, reach the innermost sensibilities of the human heart.
The character and costume of the people, as well as the scenery of those subjects taken from Holy Writ, have been a matter of investigation both by artists and writers upon art; for although the events related in the New Testament are not of so ancient a date as those of the heathen writers, yet the mind seems to require that the style should be neither classic nor too strictly local. Hence, though the costume represented in the Venetian pictures is no doubt nearer the truth than that made use of by Raffaelle and other Italians, it fails to carry us back to ancient and primitive simplicity. The early pictures delineating Christian subjects are modelled upon Greek forms and dresses, and having been made the foundation of those works afterwards produced by the great restorers of painting, have gained a hold upon our ideas, which, if not impossible, is yet difficult to throw off. As the late Sir David Wilkie travelled into the East with the express purpose of painting the subjects mentioned in Scripture in more strict accordance with the people and their habits, it may be of advantage to give the student his opinions. In his Journal, he says—"After seeing with great attention the city of Jerusalem and the district of Syria that extends from Jaffa to the river Jordan, I am satisfied it still presents a new field for the genius of Scripture painting to work upon. It is true the great Italian painters have created an art, the highest of its kind, peculiar to the subjects of sacred history; and in some of their examples, whether from facility of inquiry or from imagination, have come very near all the view of Syria could supply. The Venetians, (perhaps from their intercourse with Cyprus and the Levant,) Titian, Paul Veronese, and Sebastian del Piombo, have in their pictures given the nearest appearance to a Syrian people. Michael Angelo, too, from his generalizing style, has brought some of his prophets and sybils to resemble the old Jews about the streets of the Holy City; but in general, though the aspect of Nature will sometimes recall the finest ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaelle, yet these masters still want much that could be supplied here, and have a great deal of matters quite contrary to what the country could furnish. These contrarieties, indeed, are so great, that in discussions with the learned here, I find a disposition to that kind of change that would soon set aside the whole system of Italian and European art; but as these changes go too much upon the supposition that the manners of Scripture are precisely represented by the present race in Syria, it is too sweeping to be borne out by what we actually know. At the same time, there are so many objects in this country so perfectly described, so incapable of change, and that give such an air of truth to the local allusions of Sacred Writ, that one can scarcely imagine that these, had they been known to the painters of Italy, would not have added to the impressive power of their works. Without trying to take from the grand impression produced by the reading of the Sacred Writings, it may be said that from its nature many things must be confined to narrative, to description, to precept—and these are no doubt so strong as to supply to a pious mind everything that can be desired; but if these are to be represented, as certainly they have been, by those of an art who have not seen Syria, it is clear some other country, Italy, Spain, or Flanders, will be drawn upon to supply this, and the reader of Scripture and the admirer of art will be alike deluded by the representation of a strange country in the place of that so selected and so identified as the Land of Promise—so well known and so graphically described from the first to the last of the inspired writers."
These remarks are certainly applicable, but only in a degree. What is quoted from Reynolds, in a former part, shows that a licence is indispensable; and yet, without destroying the apparent truth of the subject, many things are now established that, without their being facts, have taken such hold of our ideas that they cannot with safety be departed from. I may instance the countenances of our Saviour and the Virgin, as given by Raffaelle and Coreggio—we recognise them as if they had been painted from the persons themselves; I may also add the heads of the Apostles. With regard to the scenery, many circumstances may certainly be taken advantage of, always guarding against a topographical appearance that, by its locality, may prevent the work leading the spectator back into distant periods of time. Before quitting this part of the subject, which refers to Rembrandt’s powers of composition, I may notice one or two of his designs, which stamp him as a great genius in this department of the art—viz., his "Christ Healing the Sick," "Haman and Mordecai," the "Ecce Homo," "Christ Preaching," and the "Death of the Virgin."
From the position we are now placed in, surrounded by the accumulated talent of many centuries, it is easy to take a retrospective view of the progress of art; and it is only by so doing that we can arrive at a just estimate of the great artists who advanced it beyond the age in which they lived, and this seems mainly to have been achieved by a close observance of nature. As in philosophy the genius of Bacon, by investigating the phenomena of visible objects, put to flight and dissipated the learned dogmas of the school of Aristotle, so in sculpture the purity and simplicity of the forms of Phidias established a line of demarcation between his own works and those of the formal, symmetrical, and dry sculpture of his predecessors. Sculpture, till then, lay fettered and bound up in the severity of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Likewise we perceive the genius of Michael Angelo and Raffaelle setting aside the stiffness and profile character existing in the works of Signorelli and Masaccio. In Venice, Titian emancipated the arts from the grasp of Giovanni Bellini. In Germany, Rubens must be considered the great translator of art out of a dead language into a living one, to use a metaphor, and into one that, like music, is universal. Previous to Rembrandt, the pupils of Rubens had thrown off every affinity not only to Gothic stiffness, but even to that degree of regularity of composition which all classes of historical subjects require. Independent of Rubens and his pupils, we find Rembrandt was aware of the great advances made in natural representations of objects by Adrian Brauwer, (several of whose works, by the catalogue given of his effects, were in his possession;) therefore, as far as transparency and richness, with a truthfulness of tint, are concerned, Brauwer had set an example. But in the works of Rembrandt we perceive a peculiarity entirely his own—that of enveloping parts in beautiful obscurity, and the light again emerging from the shadow, like the softness of moonlight partially seen through demi-transparent clouds, and leaving large masses of undefined objects in darkness. This principle he applied to compositions of even a complicated character, and their bustle and noise were swallowed up in the stillness of shadow. If breadth constitutes grandeur, Rembrandt’s works are exemplifications of mysterious sublimity to the fullest extent. This "darkness visible," as Milton expresses it, belongs to the great founder of the school of Holland, and to him alone. Flinck, Dietricy, De Guelder, and others his pupils, give no idea of it; their works are warm, but they are without redeeming cool tints; they are yellow without pearly tones; and in place of leading the eye of the spectator into the depths of aërial perspective, the whole work appears on the surface of the panel. There are none of those shadows "hanging in mid air," which constitute so captivating a charm in the great magician of chiaro-scuro; not only are objects of solidity surrounded by softening obscurity, but the contiguous atmosphere gives indications of the influence of the light and shade. To these principles the art is indebted for breadth and fulness of effect, which constitute the distinct characteristics between the early state and its maturity—and to Rembrandt we owe the perfection of this fascinating quality.
We must, nevertheless, always look back with wonder at what was achieved by Coreggio. Even when painting flourished under the guidance of Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione, Reynolds, speaking of this quality in contradistinction to that of relief, says, "This favourite quality of giving objects relief, and which De Piles and all the critics have considered as a requisite of the greatest importance, was not one of those objects which much engaged the attention of Titian. Painters of an inferior rank have far exceeded him in producing this effect. This was a great object of attention when art was in its infant state, as it is at present with the vulgar and ignorant, who feel the highest satisfaction in seeing a figure which, as they say, looks as if they could walk round it. But however low I might rate this pleasure of deception, I should not oppose it, did it not oppose itself to a quality of a much higher kind, by counteracting entirely that fulness of manner which is so difficult to express in words, but which is found in perfection in the best works of Coreggio, and, we may add, of Rembrandt. This effect is produced by melting and losing the shadows in a ground still darker than those shadows; whereas that relief is produced by opposing and separating the ground from the figure, either by light, or shadow, or colour. This conduct of inlaying, as it may be called, figures on their ground, in order to produce relief, was the practice of the old painters, such as Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino, and Albert Durer, and to these we may add the first manner of Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, and even Coreggio; but these three were among the first who began to correct themselves in dryness of style, by no longer considering relief as a principal object. As those two qualities, relief and fulness of effect, can hardly exist together, it is not very difficult to determine to which we ought to give the preference. An artist is obliged for ever to hold a balance in his hand, by which he must determine the value of different qualities, that when some fault must be committed, he may choose the least. Those painters who have best understood the art of producing a good effect have adopted one principle that seems perfectly conformable to reason—that a part may be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Thus, whether the masses consist of light or shadow, it is necessary that they should be compact and of a pleasing shape; to this end, some parts may be made darker and some lighter, and reflections stronger than nature would warrant. Paul Veronese took great liberties of this kind. It is said, that being once asked why certain figures were painted in shade, as no cause was seen in the picture itself, he turned off the inquiry by answering, ‘Una nuevola che passa,’—a cloud is passing, which has overshadowed them."
Before entering more minutely into an investigation of the principles of Rembrandt with regard to chiaro-scuro, I must again revert to those of Coreggio. Opie, speaking of the method of this great artist, says, "To describe his practice will be in a great degree to repeat my observations on chiaro-scuro in its enlarged sense. By classing his colours, and judiciously dividing them into few and large masses of bright and obscure, gently rounding off his light, and passing, by almost imperceptible degrees, through pellucid demi-tints and warm reflections into broad, deep, and transparent shade, he artfully connected the finest extremes of light and shadow, harmonized the most intense opposition of colours, and combined the greatest possible effect with the sweetest and softest repose imaginable." Further on, he remarks—"The turn of his thoughts, also, in regard to particular subjects, was often in the highest degree poetical and uncommon, of which it will be sufficient to give as an instance his celebrated Notte, or painting of the ‘Nativity of Christ,’ in which his making all the light of the picture emanate from the child, striking upwards on the beautiful face of the mother, and in all directions on the surrounding objects, may challenge comparison with any invention in the whole circle of art, both for the splendour and sweetness of effect, which nothing can exceed, and for its happy appropriation to the person of Him who was born to dispel the clouds of ignorance, and diffuse the light of truth over a darkened world!" Now, this work Rembrandt must have seen, or at least a copy from it, as his treatment of the same subject, in the National Gallery, indicates; but the poetry is lost, for it would be impossible to imitate it without a direct plagiarism. It may, however, have given a turn to his thoughts, in representing many of his subjects under the influence of night in place of day, such as his "Taking down from the Cross," by torch light; his "Flight into Egypt," with the lantern; the "Burial of Christ," &c. While other men were painting daylight, he turned the day into night, which is one of the paths that sublimity travels through. The general idea most people have of Rembrandt is, that he is one of the dark masters: but his shadows are not black, they are filled with transparency. The backgrounds to his portraits are less dark than many of either Titian or Tintoret. His landscapes are not black, they are the soft emanations of twilight; and when he leads you through the shadows of night, you see the path, even in the deepest obscurity. As colour forms a constituent part of chiaro-scuro, I must, in this division, confine myself more particularly to black and white, both in giving examples from his etchings, and explaining the various changes he made upon them in order to heighten the effect. The etching I have here given is the "Nativity," in the darkest state; in the British Museum there are no less than seven varieties, and the first state is the lightest. But in order to render his mode of proceeding more intelligible, I shall explain the progress of his working. His first etchings are often bit in with the aquafortis, when the shadows have but few ways crossed with the etching point: these are often strongly bit in, that, when covered over with finer lines, the first may shine through, and give transparency. In the next process he seems to have taken off the etching ground, and laid over the plate a transparent ground, (that is to say, one not darkened by the smoke of a candle;) upon this he worked up his effect by a multiplicity of fresh lines, often altering his forms, and adding new objects, as the idea seemed to rise in his mind. After which, when the plate was again subjected to the operation of the acid, the etching ground was removed, and the whole worked up with the greatest delicacy and softness by means of the dry needle, to the scratches of which the aquafortis is never applied. This process it is that gives what is termed the burr, and renders the etchings of Rembrandt different from all others. Now this burr is produced, not by the ink going into the lines, but by the printer being obstructed in wiping it off by the raised edge which the dry point has forced up; for when these lines run through deep shadows, we often see that they print white, from the ink being wiped off the top of the ridge.
This is the foundation of what is called mezzotint engraving, which I shall notice in another place. By keeping these remarks in mind, we shall easily perceive how it is that so many variations occur in impressions from his plates, depending entirely on the direction in which the printer wiped off the ink—whether across the ridges, or in the same direction as the lines. Varieties have also arisen from these ridges wearing away by the friction of the hand; and as Rembrandt’s copper plates, judging from those I have examined, were soft, they soon wore down. We also find this dark effect given in many of his varieties by merely leaving the surface partially wiped, and touching out the high lights with his finger, or a piece of leather. These impressions must have been taken by himself, or, at least, under his superintendence. Several of his plates are worked on with the graver, such as his "Taking down from the Cross;" but that evidently is by the hand of an engraver. We see the same in several of the etchings of Vandyke, but their value decreases as the finishing extends.
While we are upon the subject of his etchings, it will, perhaps, be of use to confine the conduct of his chiaro-scuro to his etchings alone, as his treatment is very different to what he adopted when he had colour to deal with; and in this respect he must have been influenced by the example of Rubens and Vandyke, proofs of all the engravings after whose pictures we perceive he had in his possession. In order that we may more clearly understand the reason of many of his etchings remaining unfinished in parts, while other portions are worked up with the greatest care, I shall give an extract from the Journal of Sir Joshua Reynolds, when in Flanders. In describing a picture in the Church of the Recollets, at Antwerp, he says:—"Over the altar of the choir is the famous ‘Crucifixion of Christ between two Thieves,’ by Rubens. To give animation to this subject, he has chosen the point of time when an executioner is piercing the side of Christ, whilst another, with a bar of iron, is breaking the limbs of one of the malefactors, who, in his convulsive agony, which his body admirably expresses, has torn one of his feet from the tree to which it was nailed. The expression in the action of this figure is wonderful. The attitude of the other is more composed, and he looks at the dying Christ with a countenance perfectly expressive of his penitence. This figure is likewise admirable. The Virgin, St. John, and Mary the wife of Cleophas, are standing by, with great expression of grief and resignation; whilst the Magdalen, who is at the feet of Christ, and may be supposed to have been kissing his feet, looks at the horseman with the spear with a countenance of great horror. As the expression carries with it no grimace or contortion of the features, the beauty is not destroyed. This is by far the most beautiful profile I ever saw of Rubens, or, I think, of any other painter. The excellence of its colouring is beyond expression. To say that she may be supposed to have been kissing Christ’s feet, may be thought too refined a criticism; but Rubens certainly intended to convey that idea, as appears by the disposition of her hands, for they are stretched out towards the executioner, and one of them is before and one behind the cross, which gives an idea of their having been round it. And it must be remembered that she is generally represented as kissing the feet of Christ: it is her place and employment in those subjects. The good Centurion ought not to be forgotten—who is leaning forward, one hand on the other, resting on the mane of his horse, while he looks at Christ with great earnestness. The genius of Rubens nowhere appears to more advantage than here; it is the most carefully finished picture of all his works. The whole is conducted with the most consummate art. The composition is bold and uncommon, with circumstances which no other painter had ever before thought of—such as the breaking of the limbs, and the expression of the Magdalen; to which we may add the disposition of the three crosses, which are placed perspectively, in a very picturesque manner—the nearest bears the thief whose limbs they are breaking; the next the Christ, whose figure is straighter than ordinary, as a contrast to the others; and the furthermost the penitent thief. This produces a most interesting effect, but it is what few but such a daring genius as Rubens would have attempted. It is here, and in such compositions, that we properly see Rubens, and not in little pictures of Madonnas and Bambinos. It appears that Rubens made some changes in this picture after Bolswert had engraved it. The horseman who is in the act of piercing the side of Christ holds the spear, according to the print, in a very tame manner, with the back of the hand over the spear, grasping it with only three fingers, the forefinger lying straight over the spear; whereas, in the picture, the back of the hand comes under the spear, and he grasps it with his whole force. The other defect, which is remedied in the picture, is the action of the executioner who breaks the legs of the criminal: in the print, both of his hands are over the bar of iron, which makes a false action; in the picture, the whole disposition is altered to the natural manner in which every person holds a weapon which requires both hands—the right is placed over, and the left under it. This print was undoubtedly done under the inspection of Rubens himself. It may be worth observing, that the keeping of the masses of light in the print differs much from the picture; this change is not from inattention, but design; a different conduct is required in a composition with colours from what ought to be followed when it is in black and white only. We have here the authority of this great master of light and shadow, that a print requires more and larger masses of light than a picture. In this picture, the principal and the strongest light is the body of Christ, which is of a remarkably clear and bright colour. This is strongly opposed by the very brown complexion of the thieves, (perhaps the opposition here is too violent,) who make no great effect as to light; the Virgin’s outer drapery is dark blue, and the inner a dark purple, and St. John is in dark strong red. No part of these two figures is light in the picture but the head and hands of the Virgin, but in the print, they make the principal mass of light of the whole composition. The engraver has certainly produced a fine effect, and I suspect it is as certain that if this change had not been made, it would have appeared a black and heavy print. When Rubens thought it necessary, in the print, to make a mass of light of the drapery of the Virgin and St. John, it was likewise necessary that it should be of a beautiful shape, and be kept compact; it therefore became necessary to darken the whole figure of the Magdalen, which in the picture is at least as light as the body of Christ; her head, linen, arms, hair, and the feet of Christ, make a mass as light as the body of Christ. It appears, therefore, that some parts are to be darkened, as well as other parts made lighter. This, consequently, is a science which an engraver ought well to understand before he can presume to venture on any alteration from the picture he means to represent. The same thing may be remarked in many other prints by those engravers who were employed by Rubens and Vandyke; they always gave more light than they were warranted by the picture—a circumstance which may merit the attention of engravers."
As most of these engravings were made from studies in black and white, perhaps reduced from the picture by the engraver, but certainly touched on afterwards by the painters themselves, they form a school for the study of light and shade when deprived of colour. In the etchings of Rembrandt, therefore, we ought to bear in mind that splendour of effect was what he aimed at, and the means adopted by Rubens and Vandyke were carried still further by the fearless master of chiaro-scuro. Now that the eye has been accustomed to engravings where the local colour is rendered, when we look over a folio of the works of Bolswert, Soutman, Pontius, and others of the Flemish engravers, they appear, notwithstanding their overpowering depth and brilliancy, unfinished, from the lights of the several coloured draperies and the flesh tones being left white. They also occasionally look spotty in effect, from the extreme strength of the shadows and black draperies. In Rembrandt’s works these defects are avoided, by finishing his darks with the greatest care and softness, while the figures in the light masses are often left in mere outline: the lights are also reduced in size as they enter the shade; while the darks in the light portions of his prints are circumscribed to a mere point, for the purpose of giving a balance and solidity. The shadows of the several objects likewise assume a greater delicacy as they enter into the masses of light. In these respects, the Hundred Guilder print is a striking example.
As we are now considering light and shade when unaccompanied by colour, I may notice that those portions where the dark and light masses come in contact are the places where both the rounding of the objects by making out the forms, and also the patching down the half-tint with visible lines, may be followed out with the greatest success, as it prevents the work being heavy in effect, and also assists the passage of the light into the shadow. The quality of the lights and darks is flatness. The Flemish engravers seem to have been very particular in the method of producing their shadow, both with regard to the direction of the lines, and also their repetition; their object seems to have been intenseness of dark with transparency of execution. In a conversation with Sir Thomas Lawrence upon the subject of shadows, his ideas were that they ought to be as still as possible, and that all the little sparkling produced by the crossing of the lines ought to be extinguished, or softened down. In painting, his notions were that they ought to be kept cool. Without presuming to differ with so excellent an artist, it is but proper to mention that all the best engravers, from the time of Bolswert to our own, are of a contrary opinion; and our best colourists, from Coreggio to Rembrandt, and from Rembrandt to Wilkie, were diametrically opposite in their practice. As far as engraving is concerned, it is but fair to notice that Lawrence had Rembrandt on his side, of whose works he was a great admirer.
I may appear to have dwelt too long upon this subject of engraving, but as the etchings of Rembrandt form so large a portion of his popularity, we cannot enter too minutely into the various sources of their excellence. I shall now proceed to describe the etching of "Doctor Faustus," a copy of which I have given. Some think that it represents Fust, the partner of Guttenburg, who, by his publication of Bibles in Paris, was looked upon by the people as a dealer in the black art. The papers hung up by the side of the window look like the sheets of his letter-press, and the diagram that attracts his attention, and rouses him from his desk, indicates by words and symbols a connexion with Holy Writ. But the general opinion is, that it is Dr. John Faustus, a German physician, in his study. This Dr. Faustus was supposed to have dealings with familiar spirits, one of which has raised this cabalistic vision, that enters the window with overwhelming splendour, like the bursting of a shell, communicating its radiance to the head and breast of the figure, and, descending by his variegated garment, is extended in a spread of light over the whole lower part of the composition. The light of the window being surrounded by a mass of dark, receives intense importance, and is carried as far as the art can go. It is also, I may observe, rendered less harsh and cutting by its shining through the papers at the side, and by the interruption of the rays of the diagram. The light passing behind the figure, and partially thrown upon a skull, gives an awe-striking appearance to the whole; while the flat breadth of light below is left intentionally with the objects in mere outline. This etching seems never to have been touched on from the first impressions to the last—the first state is dark with excess of burr; the last is merely the burr worn off.
Before quitting this subject, I wish to make a few remarks. It has been said by some of Rembrandt’s biographers, that he made alterations in his prints for the sake of enhancing their value; but we know by experience that every alteration he made, however it might be for the better, struck off a certain portion of its money value. I believe his desire to better the effect was the only incitement. Many were improved by his working upon them after the first proofs, and many were deteriorated in effect; but every additional line at the least struck off a guilder. I have mentioned that in this etching the brilliancy of the light in the window is enhanced by its being surrounded by a mass of dark; but the same advantage would have accrued from its extension by a mass of half light, as it would then have had a greater breadth of soft light. This subject was a great favourite with the late Sir David Wilkie, and he introduced this window in his picture of "The School;" but this being a light composition, he treated it in the way I have mentioned above. It was a common practice with Wilkie to adopt some part of a celebrated work as a point to work from, and carry out his design upon this suggestion. The spectator, by this means, was drawn into a predisposition of its excellence, without knowing whence it had arisen. Thus, in his "John Knox Preaching," there are many points of similarity with the "St. Paul Preaching," by Raffaelle. I may also mention here what we often perceive in the works of Rembrandt—in place of having the light hemmed in by a dark boundary, it is spread out into a mass of half-light; and the same treatment is adopted with regard to his extreme darks, they communicate their properties to the surrounding ground. These qualities are the foundation of breadth and softness of effect.
These observations may appear iterations of what has been mentioned before—but truths get strengthened by being placed in new positions. In dividing a work of this kind into portions, it is difficult to give a preference to any department, especially with such an artist as Rembrandt, who was equally celebrated in all—and I have only given a priority to historical subjects as they hold a higher rank than portraiture. But his portraits are those productions of his pencil which are most peculiar to himself.
PORTRAIT OF THE BURGOMASTER SIX.
This is the most finished and perfect of all the etchings of Rembrandt; and as it was done expressly for his friend and patron, we can easily imagine that the painter exerted himself to the utmost, so as to render it worthy of the subject. I have been at some trouble to get an account of the family of Jan Six, but have gleaned little from those books connected with the history of Holland. During the war with England, in the reign of Charles the Second, he was Secretary of State to the City of Amsterdam, and his family was afterwards connected with some of their most celebrated men. But what has rendered his name more famous than intermarrying with the families of Van Tromp or De Ruyter, is his patronage of Rembrandt—in the same way that Lord Southampton’s name is ennobled by his patronage of Shakspere. We know he was devoted to literature as well as the fine arts, having left a tragedy on the story of Medea, a copy of which is mentioned in the catalogue of Rembrandt’s effects, and an etching by the artist was prefixed to the work—viz., the "Marriage of Jason and Creusa;" the rare states of this print are before the quotation of the Dutch verses underneath—also the statue of Juno is without the diadem, which was afterwards added. I have mentioned that this portrait was a private plate; in fact, the copper is still in the possession of the family. In a sale which took place in , for a division of the property among the various branches, fourteen impressions were sold, but brought comparatively small prices, from the number to be contended for. Two proofs, however, on India paper are still in the portfolio of his descendants, which in five years will, it is said, be brought to the hammer, as by that time the parties will be of age. These proofs will in all probability realize two hundred guineas each. The ease and natural attitude of the figure in this work are admirable: the intensity of the light, with the delicacy and truth of the reflected lights, are rendered with the strong stamp of genius; the diffusion of the light also, by means of the papers on the chair, and the few sparkling touches in the shadow, completely take this etching out of the catalogue of common portraiture. The only work I can at present think of that can be brought into competition with it, is the full-length portrait of Charles the First, by Vandyke, in the Queen’s Collection, and which is rendered so familiar by Strange’s admirable engraving.
In entering into an examination of the execution of this print, it is evident the whole effect is produced by means of the dry point, which must have been a work of great labour. The best impressions are on India paper; and I perceive, by referring to Gersaint’s catalogue, that at the sale of the Burgomaster’s property, they only brought about eighteen florins. The next portrait amongst his etchings that at all approaches to the Burgomaster, is that of "Old Haring," which has always struck me as one of the foundations for the style of Sir Joshua Reynolds in portraiture. A fine impression of this work, on India paper, is more like Sir Joshua than many prints after his own pictures; and with all the high veneration I have for Reynolds, I cannot omit noticing how very ambiguously he frequently speaks of this great genius. We know his master, Hudson, had an excellent collection of Rembrandt’s works, and therefore he must have been early imbued with their merits and peculiarities. This, however, we shall have a better opportunity of noticing when we come to the treatment of colour. The next etching in excellence I should mention is the "Portrait of John Lutma, the Goldsmith," with the light background; this was afterwards softened down by the introduction of a window. And here I must observe, that though he often had light backgrounds to his prints, yet in his finished pictures they were generally the reverse. The etching of "Ephraim Bonus, the Jewish Physician," is also one of his most effective works; the introduction of the balustrade, on which he leans descending the staircase, removes it from the ordinary level of mere portraiture. On the hand that rests upon the balustrade, is a ring, which in the very rare impressions, from its being done with the dry point, prints dark from the burr. These are invaluable, as in that state the whole work has the fulness and richness of a picture. A very large sum was given for the impression of the print in this state—now in the British Museum—in fact, one hundred and sixty pounds; though at the Verstolke sale, where this print was purchased, the commission given amounted to two hundred and fifty pounds: but when we consider that the collection in the British Museum is now the finest in existence, no extra price should be spared to complete the collection, especially as these works are foundations for the sure improvement of the fine arts in the country. The crown jewels are exhibited as a necessary appendage to the rank of the nation—but there the value stops; now the works of art in this country are not only valuable, but intrinsically beneficial. We know that Charles the Second pawned the crown pearls to the Dutch for a few thousands; but our collection of Rembrandts would realize in Holland at least ten thousand pounds. This, of course, is a digression, and is merely mentioned here to show how absurd the hue and cry is, that the country is wasting money in purchasing a few specimens of fine art. The "Portrait of Utenbogardus" is also excellent; and I may here notice the large book, which Rembrandt was so fond of introducing, as a means of a breadth of light and employment for his portraits. Now, to these circumstances we are indebted for some of the finest works of both Reynolds and Lawrence: amongst many, I might mention the large ledger in Lawrence’s "Portraits of the Baring Family," and Sir Joshua’s picture of the "Dilettante Society," and others. No doubt we find these means of making up a picture both in Raffaelle and Titian; but it is rendered more applicable to our own purposes when it is brought nearer to our own times, especially when translated by so great a genius as Rembrandt. The next fine work amongst his etchings is the "Portrait of Cornelius Silvius," the head of which, being delicately finished with the dry needle, is seldom seen very fine. This also has a book, and the hand extended beyond the frame of the oval opening, upon which it casts its shadow. This practice of representing objects nearer the eye than the frame is certainly to be observed in some of the prints after Rubens and others, and has descended to several common prints in our own time, but ought not to be adopted, as bordering too much upon that art which may be designated as a sort of ad captandum vulgus display. As we shall speak more particularly of Rembrandt’s portraits when colour is investigated, these works are merely mentioned as excellent specimens of composition and chiaro-scuro. I must not omit, however, to notice here the great Coppenol, the writing-master to the city of Amsterdam: he holds a pen and a sheet of paper in his hand, and is looking at the spectator with a look of intelligent observation. The head and figure of this work were perfected, in the first instance, before the background was put in, and in this state is exceedingly rare—the one in the British Museum is valued at five hundred guineas, and was left, amongst other rare works in his collection, by the Rev. Mr. Cracherode, to the public. And here we ought to bear in mind, when individuals contribute so largely by their bequests to the country, it is our bounden duty to carry out their views by perfecting the various collections as opportunities offer in the course of time, which to them was impossible. In one of the impressions in the Museum, in a finished state, is written, in a large ornamental hand, a commendation by Coppenol himself, wherein he says he does so to unite his name with that of the great artist, Rembrandt Van Ryn, as by that means he knows he shall secure immortality to himself. The portrait, however, that is the most powerful, as well as the most rare, is Van Tolling the Advocate. The effect, both from the reflected light on the face, and the fearless masses of burr, is more like a picture than a print, and renders every other etching comparatively tame. From the chemical bottles at the side, and from the character of the gown in which he is dressed, I am of opinion that he was a physician. The excellence of this work, added to its rarity, has at all times produced large prices. There are two states of this print—the first with an irregular beard, the second with the beard cut square, also some additional work on the drapery, &c.; but, what is worthy of remark is, in both states it is exceedingly scarce; in fact, there are but seven impressions known—viz., two in the British Museum, one in Mr. Holford’s collection, one in Mr. Hawkins’, in Amsterdam one, in Paris one, and one in the collection of Mr. Rudge. I ought here to notice that the Van Tolling is one of the prints bequeathed to the nation by the Rev. Mr. Cracherode, and that at the sale of the Hon. Pole Carew’s prints, in , this valuable etching was purchased for the late Baron Verstolke, for two hundred and twenty pounds.
I shall now enter upon an investigation of the Landscapes of Rembrandt, which, equally with his portraits, are quite peculiar to himself, but differing from all others not from any eccentricity of manner, but from their giving the real essence and character of the scene, when denuded of any trifling and extraneous matters. Whatever Rembrandt touched was impressed with the peculiar characteristics of his genius; hence it is that the smallest stroke in his etchings is pregnant with truth. Though painting belongs exclusively to no country, but represents the natural appearance of each, still it is reserved for genius alone to be able to perceive and place on canvas the essence, as it were, or great leading features of the subject. I am now more particularly speaking of landscape scenery. In all countries and climates there are peculiarities of effect, which, however interesting to the traveller, or a source of investigation to the philosopher or man of science, yet are necessarily excluded from the recording pencil of the artist; his appeal is to mankind at large, not to the isolated few who observe but one side of the subject. The true artist looks upon nature as the chameleon, capable of giving out any variety, and yet all equally true; hence it is that the skies, for example, of Claude, Salvator Rosa, and Gaspar Poussin are universally subordinate to the general effect of the picture. These men, living in Italy, were quite aware of the various prismatic effects observable in sunset, but were also convinced of the necessity of making the sky subservient, at least conducive to, the breadth and harmony of the picture. It may be said that Titian and Tintoret embodied the deep and intense blues of the Venetian atmosphere, but we may remark that their skies are always held in check by the deep reds and browns of the draperies of their figures. Let us now, however, turn our remarks more immediately to Rembrandt, and the scenery and effects observable in Holland. Any one conversant with the pictures of the Dutch school must have observed peculiar features in the skies of Backhuysen, Cuyp, and Rembrandt, arising entirely from the localities of the scenes of their several pictures. My young friend, E. W. Cooke, long a resident in Holland, and a keen and observing artist, remarked that the skies in the pictures of Backhuysen, though dark and inky, were precisely what we see now—the deep Zuyder Sea swallowing up any refraction of light which would otherwise have illuminated the clouds; while the skies of Cuyp, receiving the coruscations arising from the meeting of the two rivers, the Meuse and the Waal, the scenes of most of his pictures, exhibit that luminous reflection and unsteady appearance peculiar to his works. I mention these matters, not to prove that these great observers of nature followed implicitly what was presented to their observation, but to show that when even copying the peculiar character of natural phenomena, it was done with a strict reference to the harmony of their works, and made subservient to one great broad principle. In a flat country like Holland, especially where a low horizontal line is chosen, we perceive a peculiar feature takes precedence of everything else—that is, the quick diminution of those lines which run to the point of sight, whilst the lines running parallel with the base line of the picture retain their length in a greater degree; hence the accumulation of these lines, such as the division of fields, &c., gradually shade down the distant parts of the landscape, while the foreshortened lines assume the appearance of so many spots, or dark touches. In Rembrandt we perceive this character faithfully rendered, and also, assisted by his judicious management, the lines, such as the banks of canals or roads, as they reach the foreground, are strongly pronounced, by either bringing them in contact with strong light, or giving them breadth and force by enriching them with broken ground, reeds, or dark herbage. The objects that stand up, such as trees, &c., are enlarged and darkened as they approach the eye; thus not only enabling them to keep their situation, but also to assist the perspective effect in the highest degree. His small landscape etchings illustrate these remarks, and are full of the touches of truth and nature; and where objects are wanting to give variety and interest, he introduces masses of shadow, or dark clumps of trees, leaving other parts in mere outline. The love of his art caused him to be always provided with the materials for drawing and etching, so that we have these transcripts of nature fresh from the fountain head. We know this from an anecdote mentioned by Daulby. In describing the etching of "Six’s Bridge," in his catalogue, he says, "This plate was produced by an incident which deserves to be related. Rembrandt lived in great intimacy with the Burgomaster Six, and was frequently at his country seat. One day, when they were there together, the servant came to acquaint them that dinner was ready, but as they were sitting down to table, they perceived that mustard was wanting. The Burgomaster immediately ordered his servant to go into the village to buy some. Rembrandt, who knew the sluggishness of the Dutch servants, and when they answer austons (a-coming) they are half an hour before they appear, offered the Burgomaster a wager that he would etch a plate before his man returned with the mustard. Six accepted the wager, and Rembrandt, who had always plates at hand ready varnished, immediately took one up, and etched upon it the landscape which appeared from the window of the parlour in which they were sitting. The plate was finished before the servant returned, and Rembrandt won his wager. The etching is slight, but it is a wonderful performance, considering the circumstance that produced it." It is not wonderful on account of the rapidity with which it was done, but the genius and science that pervade every touch, not only in the general arrangement, but in the judicious management of the smallest darks; they are all in the most effective situations. When the plate was bit in, the name was left out; it was afterwards added with the dry point; also a little shading was given to the hat of one of the figures on the bridge, which in the rare state is white. I may notice here that it was also Rembrandt’s practice to sketch with the dry point alone, as several of his landscapes show; this has a very rich and full effect. His most finished and striking landscape is perhaps the etching of the "Three Trees." What I have said respecting his giving force to those parts nearest the eye, may be seen in the strong dark under the platform of the mill—which etching I have given, as it has always been considered the mill in which he was born; but I believe it is merely a mill of a picturesque character, which he consequently etched. In the rare impressions, the sky is much stained on the plate towards the house and mill, and I believe intentionally so, as it enables the subject to melt more softly into the background, by the outline being less harsh; at least, I found in my copy, when the person employed to clean the margin of the plate cleaned the stains in the sky also, that I had to restore them. As it will be necessary to go over the ground again with regard to Rembrandt’s landscapes, when we enter upon an investigation of his principles of colour, I shall now commence upon that department, fully conscious how high he stands as an artist in that difficult branch of the art, at the same time aware how feeble words must be to express adequately the deep-toned richness of Rembrandt’s colouring.
Perhaps, if we can comprehend a species of coloured chiaro-scuro, or the addition of colour to the broad and soft principles of light and shade, we shall be able to form a clear perception of the effects of Rembrandt’s colouring. Indistinctness of tint, such as colours assume under the influence of twilight, is a strong characteristic of his manner—the shadows never so dark that a black or blue cannot tell firmly in the midst of them; with the total absence of all harshness, from the outlines of objects melting into their adjacent grounds, or assuming an importance after emerging from a mass of indefinite corresponding hues. As he has a mass of shadow with a mass of light, so he has an accumulation of warm colours in opposition to a congregation of cold—every combination introduced conducing to the great principles of breadth. When such is the plan upon which a work is laid down, we can easily perceive how powerfully the smallest touch of positive colour will tell—as in the midst of stillness a pin falling to the ground will be heard. Cuyp has this quality in a high degree, only on another scale—a uniformity of unbroken tone, and in masses of half-tint only, like a few sparkles of light touches, dealt out with the most parsimonious pencil, producing a glitter like so many diamonds. This it is that prevents a work from being heavy, for by their fewness they require not the aid of black grounds to give them consequence, and by their being touched upon colours of the same quality, they avoid the appearance of harshness; in fact, the principles of these two great artists were the same; only from the general tone of Cuyp’s pictures being light, his strong darks tell with great power, and Rembrandt’s half tints being of a low tone, his high lights become more forcible. I may here mention not only the breadth of Rembrandt’s shadows, but their peculiar transparency and clearness, loose in the handling, and filled with air and space, whereas his lights are solid and firm—possessing not only the characteristics of nature in distinctiveness, but also in variety; and though we see always, on a general principle, light upon light and dark on a dark ground, yet we perceive inroads made upon each by their several antagonists; hot and cold colours darting into each other’s provinces. This practice is also conducive to breadth, for tints of different hues may be interspersed both in the darks and lights, provided they are of equal strength with those adjoining them. We may observe in Rembrandt—that those colours introduced into the shadows are more under the influence of indistinctness, while those in the light are brighter; this is quite a deviation from the Roman school, where the colours are pronounced so harshly as to set the influence of chiaro-scuro at defiance.
Barry, in his sixth lecture, speaking of colours, says—"The happy effects of those sure and infallible principles of light and colour which Rubens had so successfully disseminated in the Netherlands, were soon found in every department of art. Landscapes, portraits, drolls, and even the dullest and most uninteresting objects of still life, possess irresistible charms and fascination from the magic of those principles. Rembrandt, who, it is said, was never at Venice, might, notwithstanding, have seen, without going out of his country, many pictures of the Venetian school. Besides, he was about thirty years younger than Rubens, whose works were a general object of study when Rembrandt was forming himself. But, however it be, there is no doubt, for the colouring and chiaro-scuro, Rembrandt is one of the most able artists that ever lived. Nothing can exceed the beauty, freshness, and vigour of his tints. They have the same truth, high relish, and sapidity as those of Titian. Indeed, they have the closest resemblance to the hues of Titian when he had Giorgione most in view. There is identically the same attention to the relievo and force obtained by his strong shadows and low deep tones; and his chiaro-scuro, though sometimes too artificial, is yet often (particularly in contrasted subjects) productive of the most fascinating effects. In the tones of Rembrandt, though we recognise the same richness and depth as in Giorgione and Titian, yet there is a suppleness and lifelike character in his flesh unlike either, both from his manner of handling, and also his hot and cold tints being less blended."
The late Sir David Wilkie, in one of his letters, speaking of the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence, says—"I do not wonder at the impression made among you in Rome by the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence; here, it engrossed for a time every other pursuit. One of the last remarks he made to me indicated his extreme admiration of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, he thought, had, with Rembrandt, carried the imitation of nature, in regard to colours, further than any of the old masters." In many of the higher qualities of colour and chiaro-scuro, Reynolds comes nearer to Rembrandt than any other artist who has succeeded him.
Reynolds, in his lectures, speaking of Gainsborough, observes—"We must not forget, whilst we are on this subject, to make some remarks on his custom of painting by night, which confirms what I have already mentioned—his great affection to his art, since he could not amuse himself in the evening by any other means so agreeable to himself. I am, indeed, much inclined to believe that it is a practice very advantageous and improving to an artist, for by this means he will acquire a new and higher perception of what is great and beautiful in nature. By candlelight, not only objects appear more beautiful, but from their being in a greater breadth of light and shadow, as well as having a greater breadth and uniformity of colour, nature appears in a higher style, and even the flesh seems to take a higher and richer tone of colour. Judgment is to direct us in the use to be made of this method of study; but the method itself is, I am very sure, advantageous. I have often imagined that the two great colourists, Titian and Coreggio, though I do not know that they painted by night, formed their high ideas of colouring from the effects of objects by this artificial light. But I am more assured that whoever attentively studies the first and best manner of Guercino will be convinced that he either painted by this light, or formed his manner on this conception."
How far Coreggio may have formed his principles upon the effects of lamplight it is impossible to decide, seeing that, though his shadows have great breadth, yet his lights have more of a phosphorescent character, tinged, as it were, with the coolness of moonlight; but Titian has all the glow of this property, or, as Reynolds remarks, "as if he painted with the sun shining into the room." The Italian pictures of Vandyke have much of this phosphorescent character—whereas many of those he painted in England have more of a daylight appearance. With regard to Rembrandt, he seems to have regulated the entire scheme both of his chiaro-scuro and colour, on this foundation: his many paintings, drawings, and etchings of candlelight subjects, show how much his taste led to this class of art; and his daylight pictures, from the warmth of colour and breadth of shadow, proclaim the source from which he derived the cause of their brilliancy and force. From the light being tinged with yellow, the half-tone partakes of the same warmth, which gives a greenish tint even to his grey tones. This conduct conveys an emanation of the principal light passing over the more delicate shadows. In his daylight subjects it is not so; the light being often comparatively cool, is allowed to extend its influence to the secondary lights, and then, as it subsides into the shadow, is led in by the dark being lighted up by touches of red and brown; thus the light touches in the dark are warm, though the high light and secondary are cool. In Coreggio we often find the shadows more hot than even in Rembrandt, from his principal light and secondary being more cool. Rembrandt never allows his lights, even though comparatively cool, to pass into the shadow without a few touches of warm colour; this was the practice of Rubens, to enrich, as it were, "the debateable land." When this principle of painting candlelight subjects fell into the hands of his pupils, the harmony and colouring of the whole were lost or changed. For example, Hoogstraten, his pupil, instructed Schalcken, as did also Gerard Dow; but the candlelight pieces of Schalcken are hot and foxy, without any redeeming grey tones. When he painted by candlelight, he placed his sitter in a dark room, with a light, while he painted in another apartment, having a hole cut through the door to communicate with his sitter; the consequence was, the effect gave exactly what we see in such cases—a red, dull treatment of colour. We know these facts by an anecdote told of William the Third. When Schalcken was over in England, the King wished to sit to him for his portrait, and hearing of his celebrity in candlelight pieces, wished it painted under that effect. The painter placed a light in his Majesty’s hand, and retired into the outer room; the candle guttering, kept dropping on the King’s hand, but being unwilling to disturb the artist, the King held on, while the painter, intent on his work, proceeded without noticing it. Many of our English artists paint by gaslight; but the tones of the flesh are not benefited, gas shedding a white cool light compared with lamplight.
The practice of painting by candlelight originated neither with Rembrandt nor Gainsborough; in fact, we find that all academies, from the time of Bacio Bandinelli to our own, were always opened at night, both for the purposes of drawing and painting. But these effects generally remain where they originated, and are seldom taken advantage of without the walls, the figure alone being considered, without reference to the background. Tintoret was one of the first to apply the principles to his practice. Fuseli, speaking of chiaro-scuro, says—"The nocturnal studies of Tintoret, from models and artificial groups, have been celebrated; those prepared in wax or clay he arranged, raised, suspended, to produce masses, foreshortening, and effect. It was thence he acquired that decision of chiaro-scuro, unknown to more expanded daylight, by which he divided his bodies, and those wings of obscurity and light by which he separated the groups of his composition; though the mellowness of his eye nearly always instructed him to connect the two extremes by something that partook of both, as the extremes themselves by the reflexes with the background or the scenery. The general rapidity of his process, by which he baffled his competitors, and often overwhelmed himself, did not, indeed, always permit him to attend deliberately to this principle, and often hurried him into an abuse of practice which in the lights turned breadth into mannered or insipid flatness; and in the shadows into a total extinction of parts. Of all this he has in the schools of San Rollo and Marco given the most unquestionable instances—’The Resurrection of Christ,’ and ‘The Massacre of the Innocents,’ comprehend every charm by which chiaro-scuro fascinates its votaries. In the vision, dewy dawn melts into deep but pellucid shade, itself sent or reflected by celestial splendour and angelic hues; whilst in the infant massacre of Bethlehem, alternate sheets of stormy light and agitated gloom dash horror on the astonished eye."
Rembrandt, like Tintoret, never destroyed the effective character of his chiaro-scuro by the addition of his colour, but made it a main contributor to the general character of the subject; hence that undisturbed and engulphing breadth which pervades his works. Fuseli, in the same lecture, defends the Venetian school from being considered as the "ornamental school." After selecting several of the pictures of Titian, as proofs of his grand and solemn specimens of colour, he thus proceeds—"But perhaps it is not to Titian, but to Tintoret and Paul Cagliari, that the debaucheries of colour, and blind submission to fascinating tints, the rage of scattering flowers to no purpose, are ascribed. Let us select from Tintoret’s most extensive work in the Scuola of San Rocco, the most extensive composition, and his acknowledged masterpiece—’The Crucifixion,’ and compare its tone with that of Rubens and Rembrandt of the same subject. What impression feels he who for the first time casts a glance over the immense scenery of that work? a whole whose numberless parts are connected by a lowering, mournful, minacious tone. A general fearful silence hushes all around the central figure of the Saviour suspended on the cross, his fainting mother, and a group of male and female mourners at its foot—a group of colours that less imitate than rival nature, and tinged by grief itself; a scale of tones for which even Titian offers me no parallel—yet all equally overcast by the lurid tone that stains the whole, and like a meteor hangs in the sickly air. Whatever inequality or dereliction of feeling, whatever improprieties of commonplace, of local and antique costume, the master’s rapidity admitted to fill his space, and they are great, all vanish in the power which compresses them into a single point, and we do not detect them till we recover from our terror."
The picture of Rubens which we oppose to Tintoret was painted for the Church of St. Walburgha, at Antwerp, after his return from Italy, and has been minutely described and as exquisitely criticised by Reynolds: "Christ," he says, "is nailed to the cross, with a number of figures exerting themselves to raise it. The invention of throwing the cross obliquely from one corner of the picture to the other, is finely conceived, something in the manner of Tintoret." So far Reynolds. "In Tintoret," says Fuseli, "it is the cross of one of the criminals they attempt to raise, who casts his eye on Christ, already raised. The body of Christ is the grandest, in my opinion, that Rubens ever painted; it seems to be imitated from the Torso of Apollonius, and that of the Laocoon. How far it be characteristic of Christ, or correspondent with the situation, I shall not here inquire; my object is the ruling tone of the whole—and of this the criticism quoted says not a word, though much of local colour, and grey and ochry balance. Would so great a master of tone as Reynolds have forgot this master-key if he had found it in the picture? The fact is, the picture has no other than the painter’s usual tone. Rubens came to his work with gay, technic exultation, and by the magic of his pencil changed the horrors of Golgotha to an enchanted garden and clusters of flowers. Rembrandt, though on a smaller scale of size and composition, concentrated the tremendous moment in one flash of pallid light. It breaks on the body of Christ, shivers down his limbs, and vanishes on the armour of a crucifix—the rest is gloom."
This is given with all the eloquence Fuseli was so well able to utter; but it displays, also, a severe castigation on those who would class Tintoret and Paul Veronese in the catalogue of ornamental painters. The observations which seem to have kindled his wrath are to be found in Sir Joshua’s fourth lecture, in which he says—"Tintoret, Paul Veronese, and others of the Venetian school, seem to have painted with no other purpose than to be admired for their skill and experience in the mechanism of painting, and to make a parade of that art which, as I before observed, the higher style requires its followers to conceal." But, to understand the matter, the whole lecture must be read. With regard to the two pictures Fuseli brings into comparison with the Venetian, both are described in Reynolds’ Tour to Flanders and Holland. Sir Joshua certainly criticizes the Rubens correctly with regard to colouring; but sentiment it has none. The Rembrandt is now in the Munich Gallery, and though one of his early pictures, it is very grand and striking. Of it Reynolds remarks—"There are likewise in this room eight Rembrandts, the chief merit of which consists in his peculiarity of manner—of admitting but little light, and giving to that little a wonderful brilliancy. The colouring of Christ in the elevation of the cross cannot be exceeded—it is exactly the tint of Vandyke’s ‘Susanna,’ in the other room; but whether the ground of this picture has been repainted, or the white horse, which was certainly intended to make the mass of light broader, has lost its brightness, at present the Christ makes a disagreeable mass of light."
In bringing the opinions of these two great artists in contact, the truth is elicited, that the tone of colour has much to do in conveying the sentiment and pathos of the picture, and Rembrandt possessed this quality in a very high degree. In the infancy of the arts, when practised by rude nations, we find harsh and bright colours predominate in a very strong scale—in fact, the brighter the more effective on the uneducated eye; and it is only when the arts advance towards perfection that a subdued tone of colour is demanded as most compatible with refinement. Colour, both as an imitative quality, and also as an adjunct towards assisting the character of his subject, seems always to have been uppermost in Rembrandt’s mind. His drawing, it is true, is open to censure, but his colour will stand the most searching investigation, and will always appear more transcendent the more it is examined. Reynolds, in his Journey through Holland, mentions a picture by Rembrandt, in the collection of the Prince of Orange—"a study of a Susanna, for the picture by Rembrandt which is in my possession: it is nearly the same action, except that she is here sitting. This is the third study I have seen for this figure—I have one myself, and the third was in the possession of the late Mr. Blackwood. In the drawing which he made for this picture, which I have, she is likewise sitting; in the picture, she is on her legs, but leaning forward. It appears extraordinary that Rembrandt should have taken so much pains, and have made at last so very ugly and ill-favoured a figure; but his attention was principally directed to the colouring and effect, in which it must be acknowledged he has attained the highest degree of excellence." The small picture in the National Gallery is a study of the same figure. Colour was the ruling principle with Rembrandt, the Alpha and Omega, in the same way that Richard Wilson designated the three qualifications for landscape painting, as contained in one—viz., breadth. The tones of colour with which Rembrandt clothed his subjects are always in the highest degree appropriate and conducive to the sentiment, whether within the "solemn temples," or the personification of some great supernatural event. As most of his historical subjects are from Sacred Writ, he never loses sight of those qualities which take them out of the page of every-day occurrences. I shall mention two, though one is sufficient for a master-key to them all. In the picture of "The Adoration of the Magi and Kings," in the Queen’s Collection, the solemnity is carried to the utmost extent, like the mysterious leaf of a sybil’s book; the only light shed over the scene seems to descend from the lurid rays of the star that stood over the place of the nativity, and guided them to the spot. To acquire the greatest breadth, he has placed the Virgin and child in the corner of the picture, and low down at the base, with the same feeling that impelled Shakspere, in his Constance, to utter, "Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it." The presentation of incense and precious perfumes, of diadems and jewels, by crowned heads and venerable magi, not only removes the attendants to the background, but even Joseph is represented as wrapt in thought, and viewing from the shade the solemnity of the scene. The whole colouring of this work is in accordance with this feeling—subdued, except in the smallest portions of each hue, and these shine out like sparkling of jewels in a dark recess.
The other work I would particularize is, "The Salutation of the Virgin," in the collection of the Marquis of Westminster. This picture, though of small dimensions, yet exemplifies the peculiarity of Rembrandt’s mode of treatment. Being less decided in the chiaro-scuro and tone of colour than the Wise Men’s Offering, it is more difficult to describe; this also arises from the exquisite weaving in of the hot and cold colours. Having had it under my eye for a couple of months, I can easily recall it on the least effort of the memory; but to bring it before the spectator who has not seen it, and by no other art than the medium of words, is as difficult as it would be to bring an harmonious arrangement of music by a different means—one must be seen and the other heard to render an explanation evident, which even then can only be understood by connoisseurs in painting and music. I must therefore avail myself of technicalities, which may seem out of place, where we are investigating the general hue of the picture. It is divided into hot and cold colours, which are brought in contact in the centre—Elizabeth being clothed in red and yellow, the Virgin in blue, white, and cool grey. The hot colour is carried across by the red sleeve of Elizabeth, and part of her yellow shawl, and descends to the petticoat of a Negress who is removing the grey mantle from the Virgin, and is further extended by a few warm-coloured stones and touches in the pavement. The cool colour is carried past the warm tone of Zacharias and the porch above him by means of a grey green pillar, a peacock, and a few touches of cool colour on a bush at one corner of the warm side of the picture. The general tone of the work is of a low, deep hue, so that even the cool tints are not cold or raw, but a deep-toned brightness pervades the whole. Through the dark grey sky, that seems to descend to overshadow the group, a gleam of light darts upon the scene, as a connecting link between heaven and earth, and giving force and truth to the expression of Elizabeth, when she pronounces the words, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." The light that shoots through the gloom has roused a pea-hen and chicks, who shake off their sleep as if it was the dawn of day.
This is a very imperfect description, but will, nevertheless, serve to show the fine feeling and deep intent of the genius of Rembrandt. To extend this investigation further would be perhaps superfluous, did we not know that, even in our own time, doubts are entertained of the proper introduction of pictorial arrangements of chiaro-scuro and colour; but the grand style, like all other modes of portraying a work, must be made subservient to affecting the feelings of the spectator. I shall only bring two pictures in contrast to elucidate this principle still further—"The Burning of the Books at Ephesus," by Sebastian Bourdon; and "The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence," by Titian. As Bourdon has been considered the French Raffaelle, it is but fair that he should be taken as a follower of that school, devoted to composition and correct drawing, to the absence of all inferior qualities; the consequence is, he has represented the scene in mid-day, where the flames are red without extending their influence to surrounding objects; consequently, they are not luminous, nor conveying the idea of destruction. Titian, on the contrary, has chosen the darkness of night to represent the horrors of the martyrdom—the red burning light of the living coal conveys a tenfold force to the torments of the saint, and the very reality of the colour gives a corresponding truth to the scene, which takes it completely out of the regions of apocrypha, and stamps it with the character of Holy Writ. The descent of the cool light from heaven upon the scorching body of St. Lawrence is like a rush of water to counteract his sufferings, and give him a confidence in his future reward, which the spectator fully enters into. These are the triumphs that appropriate chiaro-scuro and colour achieve for their introduction into historical works.
That we may more clearly perceive the rank which Rembrandt holds as a colourist, I shall endeavour to investigate the peculiar qualities that characterise the several manners of Titian, Rembrandt, and Reynolds—the one living before, the other after our artist, and of course confining the investigation to portraiture alone. I have selected Titian in preference to Vandyke, not that I consider him, in this branch, superior; on the contrary, I agree with Sir Joshua, in mentioning Vandyke as the greatest portrait painter that ever existed, all things considered—but I wish to confine myself exclusively to colour, and in this branch it is evident that these three great artists are more similar in their works than any other painters; but Titian, by the concurrent testimony of his contemporaries and all succeeding judges upon the subject, is the highest authority on the great leading principles of colour. Besides, his works are in many instances uninjured by the rough usage of uneducated men. With regard to the works of Rembrandt, which are in comparison as of yesterday, many of them remain in the same frames and on the same walls on which they were first hung. The works of Reynolds, though of a more recent date, have suffered more, not from the ruthless hand of the picture-cleaner, but from his making use of more perishable materials. Still, from the variety of his vehicles, changed from an anxiety to get a nearer approach to the look and appearance of nature, many of his pictures are sufficiently perfect to build an investigation upon. Previous to the appearance of Giorgione and Titian, this branch of the art differed but little from the treatment the several heads received in historical pictures generally; only with this exception, that when introduced as the component parts of a work where a story had to be told, they were imbued with action and expression; but when treated as simple portraiture, the higher qualities were left out, and a quiet map of the face, to use a familiar expression, was all that was desired to be transferred to the canvas. Neither did the head receive that superiority over every other subordinate part of the work which science and a long line of celebrated examples seem now so imperatively to demand.
In drawing a comparison between the three great portrait painters, it is necessary, in the first instance, to refer to the several characters of their models, or sitters. The nobility of Venice were, at the time of Titian, men of long descent, dignified, and holding high rank in a city at that time the emporium of the merchandize of the East, and distributors of rich manufactures to the whole of civilized Europe; hence that "senatorial dignity" which characterises his works, and the style and richness of costume so necessary to grandeur, and the historical air in his portraits. His sitters also possessed countenance and figure well calculated to engender and support the noblest character of painting. The sitters of Reynolds, notwithstanding the pomatumed pyramids of the female hair, or the stiff, formal curls of the male, which set every attempt to beautify the features at defiance, either by extension of the forms or harmonizing the several parts of the countenance, (serious obstacles to pictorial beauty,) were still in possession of that bland and fascinating look which distinguishes people of high breeding. In contrast with these we have to array the models of Rembrandt’s painting-room—fat burgomasters, florid in complexion and common in feature; Jews and attornies; shipbuilders, and hard harsh-featured master mechanics. Independent of the models themselves, there is a congenial feeling created in the artist who associates with and has to represent them; we imperceptibly imbibe the manners of those we are in contact with, either advantageously or injuriously. From these few remarks we may perceive that the dignified attitude, the broad general tone of the countenance, though deep, yet rendered bright and luminous by the jetty blackness of the hair and beard, were all conducive to the creation of the style of Titian—a style that swallows up the varieties of minute tints in a general breadth. So in Reynolds, the absence of everything strong in expression or harsh in colour gave a refinement to the heads of his men, and a beauty to the faces of his females; and to this treatment all his sitters were subjected—so that even those heads, however deficient in the originals, came off his easel ladies and gentlemen. A subdued delicacy of expression and colour removes them from the common look of familiar life. Now, on the contrary, the very character and colour of Rembrandt’s heads are pronounced with the strong stamp of flesh and blood—an exact representation of nature in an unsophisticated state. His handling, his manner of leaving the various tints, and the marking of minute parts, all conspire to give his works that appearance of truth unfettered with the attempt to elevate the general character at the expense of individuality.
The peculiarity of Titian’s portraits, independent of the high character and simple and dignified attitude of the figure, is a careful and distinct modelling of the features, with the half-shadows, though not dark, yet never slurred over—which in other hands would produce heaviness; but Titian counteracts this by the intense darkness of his dresses and backgrounds, so that the features, often modelled with the firmness of sculpture, are rendered comparatively gentle by the treatment of the other parts of the picture. The portraits of Sir Joshua have this peculiarity, that however loaded and enriched in every part of the work, the head is kept smooth, and often thinly painted. The whole-length of "The Marquis of Granby," and "The Portrait of Mrs. Siddons," two of his finest pictures, are examples of this mode of treating the head. This has given rise to an anecdote, that Mrs. Siddons, looking at the picture when unfinished, begged Sir Joshua not to touch the head any more—and having promised her, he refrained, notwithstanding the richness and depth of the fearless glazings would seem to demand a corresponding force in the head. The truth is, that Reynolds seems always to have depended upon the small dark shadows to give solidity to his heads, without clogging them with colour or dark half-tints. The importance of thus refining upon the head may be perceived in the portrait of himself, painted con amore, and presented to the Dilettante Society, of which he was a member. The features, and, indeed, the whole head, depend upon the extreme darks; the judicious arrangement of these shadows not only gives a pictorial dignity to the work, from the stamp of science, but also, where the features in nature are either blunt or mean in themselves, draws off the attention of the spectator to higher qualities. Shadows are never mean, but are the stamps of truth rendered beautiful by taste and feeling. Independent of the advantage of dark touches giving delicacy to the features that produce them, there is a motion and life given by the vivacity and freedom of the handling, which cannot with safety be taken with the features themselves. This quality seems very early to have been Sir Joshua’s greatest anxiety to acquire. In a remark respecting the pictures of a rival, John Stephen Liotard, whose only merit was a strong likeness, with great neatness of finish, Reynolds says—"The high-finished manner of painting would be chosen if it were possible with it to have that spirit and expression which infallibly fly off when the artist labours; but there are transient beauties which last less than a moment, and must be painted in as little time; besides, in poring long the imagination is fatigued, and loses its vigour. You will find nature in the first manner—but it will be nature stupid, and without action. The portraits of Holbein are of this high-finished manner; and for colouring and similitude what was ever beyond them? But then you see fixed countenances, and all the features seem to remain immoveable."
Northcote observes, "Of mere likeness in portraiture Reynolds thought very little, and used to say that he could instruct any boy that chance might throw in his way to paint a likeness in a portrait in half a year’s time; but to give an impressive and a just expression and character to a picture, or paint it like Velasquez, was another thing. What we are all," he said, "attempting to do with great labour, he does at once."
Barry, speaking of Reynolds as a portrait painter, mentions the wretched state the art was in before his time, and how elevated it became from the manner Sir Joshua treated it. In continuation, he says—"In many of Titian’s portraits the head and hands are mere staring, lightish spots, unconnected with either the drapery or background, which are sometimes too dark, and mere obscure nothings; and in Lely, and even in Vandyke, we sometimes meet with the other extreme of too little solidity, too much flickering and washiness. Sir Joshua’s object appears to have been to obtain the vigour and solidity of the one, with the bustle and spirit of the other, without the excess of either; and in by far the greatest number of his portraits he has admirably succeeded. His portrait of Mrs. Siddons is, both for the ideal and the executive, the finest portrait of the kind perhaps in the world; indeed, it is something more than a portrait, and may serve to give an excellent idea of what an enthusiastic mind is apt to conceive of those pictures of confined history for which Apelles was so celebrated by the ancient writers. But this picture of ‘Mrs. Siddons, or the Tragic Muse,’ was painted not long since, when much of his attention had been turned to history; and it is highly probable that the picture of Lord Heathfield, the glorious defender of Gibraltar, would have been of equal importance, had it been a whole length; but even as it is—only a bust—there is great animation and spirit, happily adapted to the indications of the tremendous scene around him; and to the admirable circumstance of the key of the fortress, firmly grasped in his hand, than which imagination cannot conceive anything more ingenious and heroically characteristic. It is, perhaps, owing to the Academy, and to his situation in it, to the discourses which he biennially made to the pupils upon the great principles of historical art, and the generous ardour of his own mind to realize what he advised, that we are indebted for a few expansive efforts of colouring and chiaro-scuro which would do honour to the first names in the records of art." And speaking of the large historical work he painted for the Empress of Russia, he adds—"Nothing can exceed the brilliancy of light—the force and vigorous effect of his picture of ‘The Infant Hercules strangling the Serpent;’ it possesses all that we look for and are accustomed to admire in the works of Rembrandt, united to beautiful forms and an elevation of mind to which Rembrandt had no pretensions. The prophetical agitation of Tiresias and Juno, enveloped in clouds, hanging over the scene like a black pestilence, can never be too much admired, and are, indeed, truly sublime."
After such commendations, and from so high an authority, we might feel a diffidence in bringing forward the great founder of the Dutch school in competition with such artists as Titian and Reynolds, did we not know that the qualities of the chiaro-scuro and colour of Reynolds are founded on the deep tones of Rembrandt, who, as a colourist, takes his proper place between the two heads of the Venetian and English schools. How far Rembrandt was indebted for his principles of colour to the works of Titian, it is impossible to say; but many of his pictures bear a greater affinity to the last style of this great colourist than to any other painter. We perceive by the catalogue of his effects, that folios containing drawings by Titian, also prints after him, were in his possession. The luminous, rich tones of his flesh are more like Titian than Rubens or Vandyke, whose works he must have been familiar with; and while his backgrounds are less black and inky than those in the portraits of Titian and Tintoret, they are also more broken, both in colour and execution, which prevents heaviness. His handling—which conveys from its dexterity and touch so lifelike an appearance—is not unlike that of Frank Hals, of whom Reynolds speaks so highly:—"In the works of Frank Hals, the portrait painter may observe the composition of a face, the features well put together, as the painters express it, from whence proceeds that strong, marked character of individual nature, which is so remarkable in his portraits, and is not found in an equal degree in any other painter. If he had joined to this most difficult part of the art a patience in finishing what he so correctly planned, he might justly have claimed the place which Vandyke, all things considered, so justly holds, as the first of portrait painters." There is, however, this difference in their works—independent of the flesh of Rembrandt’s being much richer in tone, it is produced by glazing and fresh touches of transparent colour, whereas the tints of Hals seem to have been mixed in the first instance on his palette; hence that undisturbed dexterity of handling which gives so much the appearance of life in his best works. The distinctive characteristics between a portrait painter and a historical painter, is "that the one paints man in general, the other a particular man;" hence, to ennoble the work, it is necessary to make it conform, as much as can be done with safety to the likeness, to the great principles that guide the highest branches of the art—that is, by softening down those features that overstep the boundary of general nature, and assisting those parts that fall short, or are defective. Therefore, when Lawrence painted Mrs. Siddons, the Duke of Wellington, or Lord Brougham, he chose a front view of the face, that their peculiarities might not be too apparent. Now Sir Joshua carried these generalizing principles to so great an extent at times that his sitters did not recognise the striking likeness that some people look for as paramount to all other considerations, which made his pupil, Northcote, remark that there was a class of sitters who would not be content "unless the house-dog barked at it as a sign of recognition." Rembrandt, on the contrary, did not generalize enough; therefore, many portraits were left on his hands, as it is said they were left on Reynolds’s. But see the result, those very pictures from the easel of both painters bring higher prices than the more favoured of their likenesses, from being intrinsically fine works of art. The number of portraits Rembrandt painted of himself is a proof of the little encouragement he received in painting the portraits of others. From Sir Joshua’s hand we have but two or three, while from Rembrandt’s we have nearly fifty. Yet, with all the deficiencies in the art of making up a beautiful face, Rembrandt frequently produced portraits of great feminine beauty: witness "The Lady with the Fan," in the collection of the Marquis of Westminster, and "The Lady," in the Royal Collection. Had he got the same models of female beauty that Titian and Reynolds had, he would, in all probability, have transferred them to the canvas with the same truth and intenseness of feeling that guided his pencil in other matters. Rembrandt’s style was that which would have suited Oliver Cromwell, who, when he sat for his portrait, made it a sine qua non that the painter should leave out neither warts nor wrinkles. The same truth and verisimilitude that regulated his forms, guided his eye with respect to colour. In his earlier pictures, such as "The Ship Builder," in the Royal Collection, there is a greater degree of hardness and solidity of pigment than in his later works, which possess more the suppleness of flesh. This is also to be observed in the later works of Titian, Velasquez, and Reynolds, and in the later works of our Scottish Velasquez—Raeburn. The portraits of Gainsborough possess this in a high degree. What has been said with regard to Rembrandt laying on his colours with the palette-knife, is very much exaggerated. Many of his heads are as smooth as Reynolds’s, and finished with great delicacy and precision; in fact, the versatility of his genius, and the wonderful command over his materials, from indefatigable practice, have given both his pictures and prints that character of having been done in the best style suited to accomplish his object. I have mentioned that Titian keeps his backgrounds often dark, for the purpose of giving a delicacy to his strong shadows in the face; both Vandyke and Rembrandt do this by making the colour of the background amalgamate with the colour of the hair, or dark shades of the head. Rubens, Reynolds, and Lawrence often used a red curtain in contact with their flesh, to produce the same result. The luminous character of the head is certainly better preserved by its giving out rays or similarity of tone to the surrounding background. It has been remarked that the luminous and transparent character of the flesh is enhanced, as in several of Vandyke’s portraits, by bringing it in contact with an earthy, dull tint. Vandyke, indeed, when his ground would not permit him, introduced over the shoulders of his females a scarf of this colour. Rembrandt often plunges from the dark shadows of his head into his ground, and thus gives both a breadth and unity. This practice, where the shadows of the face are produced by the same colour as the contiguous background, is certainly the foundation of simplicity.
I think the money value of Rembrandt’s portraits may be taken as a criterion of their intrinsic worth as works of art; other masters’ decline in producing high prices, Rembrandt’s increase—witness the portrait sold the other day at the Duke of Buckingham’s, at Stowe;—though the half-length of a burgomaster whom few people ever heard of, it realized seven hundred guineas and upwards. No nameless portrait by Reynolds, under the same disadvantages, would produce an equivalent sum. Sir Joshua’s portraits are either branches of our aristocracy, or celebrated public characters. As a knowledge of art advances, works fall naturally into their proper stations. When Reynolds’s sister asked Sir Joshua the reason that we never see any of the portraits by Jervas now, he replied, "Because, my dear, they are all up in the garret." Yet this man drove his chariot and four, and received the praises of Pope in verse. Sir Godfrey Kneller would sometimes receive a sum of money and a couple of portraits by Vandyke as payment; but now, a single portrait of the great founder of the Dutch school would outweigh in true value a large number of Kneller’s collected talent: yet Rembrandt died insolvent, and Sir Godfrey accumulated a large fortune. And such will be the fate of those who paint for posterity, "and look beyond the ignorant present." The true statement of this change, which of necessity takes place, is, that the man of genius paints according to the high impulse that has been given him, as paramount to every other consideration; the other panders to the caprice and ignorance of those who employ him. This it was that made Reynolds’s master, Hudson, exclaim, after Sir Joshua’s return from Italy, "Why, Joshua, you don’t paint so well as you did before you went abroad!" When men of genius and high talent fall upon favourable times, the result is the reverse, and the fine arts are esteemed, and their professors rewarded according to their excellence. The age in which Titian lived was famous for literary men, who had made the republic of Venice known and honoured through the whole of Italy. The praises of Michael Angelo bestowed on the works of the great Venetian, had adorned the name of Titian with a halo of supernatural brightness; so much so, that whilst painting the portrait of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, happening to drop one of his pencils, Charles stooped and picked it up, observing, "that a genius like Titian deserved to be waited on by emperors." Of Reynolds we know that all the beauty and talent of the land flocked to his painting-room, conscious of being handed down to posterity with all the advantages that pictorial science could achieve. The grace of Coreggio was grafted by this great master on the strong stem of Rembrandt’s colouring. In opposition to those advantages, we have to remark that the people with whom Rembrandt came in contact were not only of an inferior character, when measured by the standard of grace and dignity, but the troubles of the times militated in a high degree against that encouragement so necessary to the perfection of the art. In spite of these inauspicious circumstances, the genius of Rembrandt has produced works fraught with the highest principles of colour and pictorial effect, and to his want of encouragement in the department of mere common portraiture, we are indebted for many of the most pictorial and splendid specimens of strong individual character in familiar life.
Of all the works by Rembrandt, perhaps no picture has attracted so much attention and observation as his "Night Watch," now in the Museum of Amsterdam. As its dimensions are thirteen feet by fourteen, it secures attention by its size; its effect, also, is striking in a high degree, though Reynolds, in his "Tour to Holland and Flanders," says it disappointed him, having heard so much respecting it. He remarks that it had more of the appearance of Ferdinand Bol, from a prevalence of a yellow, sickly colour. On the other hand, Wilkie says, "Had it been a subject such as ‘The Christ before Pilate,’ which he has etched, it would have been his finest and grandest work." Though painted in , it possesses all the force and high principles of colour to be found in his later works. Nothing can exceed the firmness and truth of the two figures advancing to the spectator—especially the officer in the light dress—it is modelled with all the force of nature, and the background figures being steeped in the deepest hues of subdued colour, give a strength and richness which nothing can surpass. Of course, there is a want of interest in the story, which is merely an assemblage of the Militia of Amsterdam, on occasion of the expected visit of the Prince of Orange and the daughter of Charles the First, whom he had espoused. The principal pictures by other great masters receive a greater notoriety from the interest of the subject—such as "The Transfiguration," by Raffaelle; "The Peter Martyr," by Titian; "The Miracle of St. Mark," by Tintoret; "The Martyrdom of St. George," by Paul Veronese; and "The St. Jerome," by Coreggio. Nevertheless, "The Night Watch," by Rembrandt, may safely be classed with the choicest productions of the great painters of Italy and Venice. When we consider that his pictures extend to upwards of six hundred and fifty, the reader will appreciate the difficulty I have felt in describing the peculiar merit which has so indelibly stamped most of them with the passport to posterity.
The landscapes by Rembrandt, unhappily few in number, possess the strong mark of truth for which his works are so strikingly fascinating. They are chiefly small, the largest not exceeding three feet. One of his best is in the collection of the Marquis of Lansdowne, representing a mill seen under the influence of an uncertain twilight; the warm light of the western sky sheds its lustre on the sails of the mill, which stands on high ground; but the other portions of the picture are of dark half-tint, except a reflection of the light on the water towards the foreground. It was exhibited in the British Gallery, in , and attracted great attention. Another picture peculiar to the genius of Rembrandt is in the collection of Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart.; it represents a night scene on the skirts of a wood, with a group of figures seated round a fire, the red gleam of which is reflected in a stream that flows along the foreground. A few cattle are partially seen in the obscure portions of the picture, with a peasant passing with a lantern. Other smaller works are in the collections of Sir Robert Peel, Samuel Rogers, Esq., Sir Abraham Hume, and the Marquis of Hertford. His largest picture of this class was formerly in the Louvre, and is now in the public gallery at Hesse-Cassel. In the landscapes of Rembrandt we meet with the same breadth, and hues of a deep tone, without being black or heavy; they are also painted with a full pencil, and rich juicy vehicle. Rembrandt, like Titian, Rubens, and others who were historical painters, seizes upon the great characteristics of nature without entering into the painful fidelity of topographical littleness; the same generalizing principles pervade every variety of subject. Fuseli, speaking of portrait painting as mere likenesses, adds—"To portrait painting thus circumstanced, we subjoin, as the last branch of uninteresting subjects, that kind of landscape which is entirely occupied with the tame delineation of a given spot—an enumeration of hill and dale, clumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages, and houses—what is commonly called views. These, if not assisted by nature, dictated by taste, or chosen for character, may delight the owner of the acres they enclose, the inhabitants of the spot, perhaps the antiquary or the traveller, but to any other eye, they are little more than topography. The landscape of Titian, of Mola, of Salvator, of the Poussins, Claude, Rubens, Elsheimer, Rembrandt, and Wilson, spurns all relation with this kind of map-work. To them nature disclosed her bosom in the varied light of rising, meridian, and setting suns—in twilight, night, and dawn."
DRAWINGS BY REMBRANDT.
In looking over the numerous portfolios of drawings in public and private libraries, we are struck with the accumulated mass of mediocre talent. Many of them are often well composed, and even well drawn, but they are completely destitute of what constitutes true merit—they possess no distinguishing mark whereby we can discern one master from another; they are struck off with wonderful dexterity, as far as the eye or hand is concerned, but the mind is totally wanting; neither do they possess the peculiar features of natural truth, whose lines are filled with variety, sometimes sharp, sometimes round—in parts faint and delicate, and in other places strong and cutting. On the other hand, when the drawings of great painters are examined, the master mind shines forth in every touch, and we recognise the works of Michael Angelo, Raffaelle, Coreggio, and others, at a glance. The drawings of Rembrandt possess this quality in a superlative degree, and the slightest indication seems sufficient to mark the character and leading features of the object represented. His drawings are generally in pen outline, with a wash of bistre, or other warm colour; sometimes he makes use of black and red chalk; they are seldom finished with colours, but have often portions rendered lighter and broader by means of a wash of white. From his great practice in using the point in etching, he not only gives the greatest precision and certainty, but his outline assumes the gentlest delicacy or overpowering boldness. Everything from his hand seems to possess a largeness of form, and the greatest breadth of light and shade that can be given; this it is that gives them the stamp of truth, so that it is difficult to distinguish between those drawn immediately from nature, and such as are emanations from his imagination. On looking into the catalogue of his effects, we perceive large folios of his drawings, which, though at the sale they produced but small sums, are now marked with their true value. I may notice here a small drawing of "The Death of the Virgin," that brought, at the sale of the late Baron Verstolk, one hundred and sixty guineas. One cannot but regret that the excellent collection of the drawings by Rembrandt and other masters, selected by the late Sir Thomas Lawrence, with great taste and at large sums, should have been lost to the country, though offered in his will at comparatively a small price. Nevertheless, we possess several fine specimens in the British Museum Print-room.
THE ETCHINGS OF REMBRANDT.
No painter has gained so much celebrity by his etchings as Rembrandt, both on account of their number and excellence. Claude, Parmegiano, Berghem, Paul Potter, Adrian Ostade, and others, have all been dextrous in using the etching point. Rembrandt’s performances have all the interest and beauty of finished works; his making use of the dry point, which was unknown before his application of it, gives his etchings that richness and softness peculiar to himself, for the process in the hands of others has never since been attended with the same triumphant success. The etchings consist of three hundred and sixty-five plates, accompanied by two hundred and thirty-seven variations. I can only here give their titles and dates: the amateur is referred to the descriptive catalogues of Gersaint, Daulby, Bartsch, Claussin, and Wilson. The catalogue by the latter gentleman is the one adopted by the British Museum; I have, however, numbered them according to the Catalogue Raisonné of Rembrandt’s Works by Smith, who made use of the arrangement of the Chevalier Claussin. I have also marked those that are of the greatest excellence with a star before the number.