During his own life, Rembrandt’s fame, once considerable, sank into obscurity. For a full century later he was virtually forgotten. His was the fate of all artists at odds with their times. How this great visionary came to be the consummate master of the Dutch school, and withal the least Dutch of its masters, re-mains something of an enigma. We find the eulogists differing as widely as the older critics. He is lauded as a precursor of impressionism, as a profound portraitist, as the truest interpreter of Bible story, as the greatest of etchers, even as a masterful colorist. Some have boldly hailed him as the chief of naturalists. Many of these things Rembrandt was-so inclusive was his life-work; all of them he might have been-so versatile and persistent was his genius. Painters, who are likely to be right in such matters, regard him as the inventor of a peculiarly rich and vibrant chiaroscuro, which became a remarkable medium of _expression-hinting at the mystery of personality, and containing, as it were, all the springs of human pathos.
On the technical side Taine said the last word of Rembrandt’s characteristic style-namely, “his figures swim in the air, like a fish in the water”; or, again, “the atmosphere is the principal personage of the picture.” Such statements should be accepted with a difference; they do emphatically point the truth that every late canvas of the master is a battle-field, in which the shadow surges up to the tiny citadel held by the high light, which in turn resists the gloom and struggles outward through the deepest shadows, being always conqueror in the end. Similarly, his figures do not assert themselves brusquely and once for all in fixed contours, but grow out of the darkness as a kind of emanation. The eye never completely ascertains them, but reveals them increasingly, as forms are divined at twilight. Nothing seems set and arranged for the convenience of the onlooker, of whom is required something of the visionary quality of the artist. With considerable technical differences, Whistler and Carriere have sought the same effect of an evasive reality.
It is important to note that the mystery of Rembrandt, his effacement of the line and simplification of the masses, is based on a perfect knowledge of the actual forms. One has only to compare the early “Anatomy Lesson” with the later “Syndics” to perceive that the contrast is not between representing forms and neglecting them, but between two kinds of representation, of which the later is both the more difficult and the more accurate. The clinic of Doctor Tulp is painted with a solidity and relief almost sculptural, suggesting, in fact, the touch of the finger rather than the observation of the eye. Each head is painted as if seen by itself; there is no charm of color; the merit lies in superb academic draftsmanship, in grasp of character, and, negatively, in suppression of the more revolting features of the subject. In such a picture Rembrandt appears as a cautious, laborious talent, a formidable rival to the Van der Heists and other “corporation” painters, but essentially of their sort, after all. In the “Syndics,” painted at the end of his career, there is greater actuality and unity-the glamour and mystery in which these grave committeemen are invested strangely contributing to the sense that these are substantial presences. In short, following the al-most universal course of successful genius, Rembrandt prevailed by means of a conscientious academic tutelage, the minute method of which he finally abandoned in favor of a highly individual and syncopated method of seeing and working. He is successful in putting his own passionate vision of the world upon canvas, because first he has mastered the dry record of the average eye.
In Rembrandt’s etchings-the peddling of which kept him afloat through disastrous years-the real Rembrandt, the Rembrandt of mystery and of the searching, yet fluttering eye, appears much earlier than in the paintings. The etched line indicates the whole character of the pose, the suffusion of the figure with light, the tremor that indicates motion incipient or just arrested. A very little study of the etchings will show how early Rembrandt came to that curiously profound and troubled vision by which we know him best. The fact suggests that his earlier and drier portraits represent, as one might suppose, less his natural predilection than a conscious apprenticeship to the distasteful but indispensable severities of his art.
If criticism of Rembrandt’s finished art has erred seriously, it is in claiming for his use of light and shade and air a ground in realism. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to imagine a more abstract means of _expression. Critics seek rather idly the basis of his golden shadows in the half-light of his home. What such an interior was like we know very accurately from the pictures of De Hooch; but Rembrandt deals in light and shade that never were except in his own imagination. He pays the slightest attention to times of day and to all problems in specific lighting, choosing merely the illumination that best conveys his mood. Thus he has little to do with the modern luminists. His irradiated shadow is a glamour that his brooding spirit imposes upon the world. For this reason he is an unsafe model, as was shown by the artistic shipwreck of most of his scholars and imitators. He invented his half-light only that he might people that golden “darkness visible” with types of human tenderness and pathos.
No one so well as he has realized the universal humanity of the Bible narrative-its direct appeal to the heart. How understandingly he has stripped these scenes of all hieratic associations, of all merely learned or traditional sophistications ! “Christ before the Doctors,” “The Raising of Lazarus,” “Abraham and Isaac,” “The Flight into Egypt”-these are representative of the subjects he has treated in all simplicity. As no other artist, he has grasped the beauty of the homely Protestant conception of the Bible. Rembrandt somehow managed to walk with God’s folk of old in humble and friendly fashion. They were his neighbors and real visitants, and with them he used a frankness in striking contrast to the caprice that made him travesty himself and his bodily sitters in all manner of studio trappings. In short, when we speak of realism in Rembrandt, we mean simply his sincerity of emotion-his peculiar meditative pathos. His portraits, for example, as compared with those of Titian, of Hals, or, better, of Velasquez, are highly unreal and conventional, but it is a convention that expresses admirably the penetrative insight and broad sympathy of the painter-poet of Amsterdam. The realist sets a person in a canvas; Rembrandt fills a canvas with a personality.
No school and no nation may fairly claim Rembrandt. He deliberately forewent the sober excellence of color and solidity of design that make the Dutch school great. With small pride as an inventor of methods, he elaborated a procedure that no one has imitated with safety. Unriddling the mystery of light and shade, he forbore to complete his discovery, utilizing it only so far as it served his limited pictorial message; with a remarkable sense of the value of color, he used it only as a casual grace to enliven his monochrome. At every point one perceives the sacrifice of artistic breadth to profundity. Rembrandt is the most solitary figure in art, for, apparently, no sense of superiority or pride of artistry sustained him; yet this isolated figure brings to human emotions the just and all-embracing sympathy of a little child.
The sun shines upon the just and unjust, and so the illuminated dusk of Rembrandt embraces without discrimination the beautiful and the unbeautiful. It is, in fact, the beauty of the picture, and the form is largely incidental-a mere centre of coruscation. Nothing more clearly marks him off from the classical tradition than his refusal to impute through style a beauty that does not lie in the subject. By what seems a kind of good luck, he has painted a few pictures of a peculiarly living and tremulous grace. One recalls the little “Susannah,” of the Louvre, or, better, the “Finding of Moses,” now in Mr. J. G. Johnson’s collection-a picture that, with greater seriousness, has the romantic elegance of a Watteau. Such rare examples show that Rembrandt was great, not merely in his achievements, but in his renunciations.