Of all masters of light, none puzzles like Rembrandt. That light, that golden, shimmering light — surely there were tricks behind it. No eyes could be so sensitive, no brush so skilled as to create such a living illusion. The speculation began shortly after Rembrandt’s death in 1669 and has continued into the twenty-first century. Rembrandt must have used pure gold in his paint. He must have employed some special binder. His varnishes must have aged, darkening the shadows, enhancing the radiance. His pigments, perhaps…
In the last half-century, scholars have used light to study Rembrandt. The Dutch-based Rembrandt Research Project X-rayed some 250 paintings. The X-rays showed only that Rembrandt worked from back to front, starting in the shadows, painting his luminous figures last. Infrared light, sensitive to heat, detected the charcoal beneath the pigment. Again, nothing suspicious. Gas chromatography analyzed Rembrandt’s pigments, emitting telltale spectra revealing their chemical composition. That special binder Rembrandt must have used? It was linseed oil, sometimes thickened by egg yolk. His paint contained no gold. Samples of his varnishes revealed no unusual darkening agents. Perhaps the trick was in the artists’ eyes.
They stare at us from his many self-portraits. Laughing in his youth, joyous with wife Saskia in his lap, finally becoming aged and remorseful, the eyes reveal little more than an artist being himself. More revealing than Rembrandt’s own eyes are those in his other portraits. Close-ups reveal not just the sparkling pupils all artists pinpoint but subtle beiges beneath eyelids and flecks of moisture in the eye itself. To have seen so acutely, to know light so innately, surely suggests some secret.
The search for a secret to Rembrandt, whose birthday we celebrate on July 15, stems from the shroud he cast over his life. He wrote no artist’s manifesto. His religion remains a subject of debate. He never traveled more than sixty miles from his birthplace and left only a few letters. His techniques, though extensively analyzed, have never been duplicated. Yet his skill was evident at an early age, convincing his father, a miller, to let him leave the University of Leiden for art school in Amsterdam. There one of Rembrandt’s teachers taught him the art, as pioneered by that other master of light — Caravaggio — of chiaroscuro. Rembrandt earliest paintings feature the black backgrounds and floodlit figures of the Caravaggisti. He would gather the rest of his light on his own. Opening a studio back in Leiden, the twenty-year-old painter did portraits and Biblical scenes with no special radiance. Only in 1629, when Rembrandt painted himself in his shadowed studio did his fascination with light emerge.
Over the next decade, fascination grew into obsession. “Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver” (1629) debuts the golden flash on a breastplate that would soon become a trademark. “St. Peter in Prison” (1631) adorns the aged icon in an earthly light that mocks any suggestion of the divine. And numerous portraits, their warm faces lit from one side — in a style now called “Rembrandt lighting” — earned Rembrandt a steady living and a growing reputation. By then, Rembrandt was living in Amsterdam, at the home that still bears his name. In search of secrets, radiance, the glow of Rembrandt’s light, I paid a visit.
Some 200,000 visitors a year come to the Rembrandthuis. The elegant home overlooking a canal houses only one actual Rembrandt yet its rooms seem like living canvases. Soft light suffuses kitchen, parlor, and especially the upstairs studio. Here, before a small crowd, painter Eric Armitage explains the creation of a Rembrandt. He begins by mixing paint, a chemistry lesson artists performed daily before the invention of tube paint in the 1840s. A spoonful of powdered pigment. A soupçon of linseed oil. Stir. Pour the goop onto stone and mash with another stone. Scrape and mash, scrape and mash. Finally, Armitage scoops the paint with a putty knife and wipes it into a pig bladder. One ounce, one day’s worth of one color is ready.
Next came the preparation of canvas — or a wooden panel – which Rembrandt sealed with a chemical base. As the base dried, he would adjust the lighting. Because his studio windows face north, Armitage explains, the sun loops behind the house, barely changing the interior light as the day progresses. To capture the right mood, Rembrandt might have merely closed his shutters, yet Armitage reveals another technique — a swatch of canvas pinned to the ceiling above a corner window. Here models posed beneath the light that Rembrandt could micromanage to perfection. And once that light was set, the eyes went to work. As X-rays have revealed, Rembrandt started with the recesses, spreading brown and ochre pigments up to a quarter-inch thick. Squeezing colors from pig bladders, adding shades and highlights, he strove for a light which, when seen from a distance, glowed like the world when seen from a distance. Rembrandt, one critic wrote was “his own sun-god,” and never was that god more powerful than in the painting housed about a mile — and six canals — from his home.
Here in the celebrated Rijksmuseum, sound, not light, draws me towards Rembrandt’s most famous work. Chatter and hum fill surrounding rooms and echo down the corridor that leads to “The Night Watch.” Hearing the noise, then spotting the painting through the portico that frames it, visitors walk swiftly past other Rembrandts to enter the throng. Standing ten rows deep, tourists murmur and gawk. School groups shuffle their feet as teachers explain, in Dutch, German, or French, why this painting has drawn such a crowd. Fingers point. Heads shake.
Is “The Night Watch” famous just for being famous? The enormous painting of a Dutch militia in shadows and spotlight surely has a “Mona Lisa” celebrity, yet those who wait their turn find more to admire than fame. The gilded finery of one figure, the golden little girl to his side, the myriad faces in varying penumbra, all combine to create a light as natural as the stances of the subjects. Further study leads to surprises. The little girl has the same face as Rembrandt’s beloved Saskia. A dog lurks in the gloaming. And far at the back, peering over shoulders as if at the rear of this same crowd, is Rembrandt himself, in cloth cap. His is the deepest shadow. In the teeming gallery, admirers jostle and shove forward, cameras held high. These photographers could easily download a higher resolution image, but that would not be their Rembrandt, their own piece of him. Standing before “The Night Watch,” the crowd bears witness to mastery. They learn little about Rembrandt, however, other than that for one glorious year, when he was in full command of his talent, he mixed his pigments, focused his sorrowful eyes, and made one perfect portrait of light.
“The Night Watch” was done both at the height of Rembrandt’s career and on its precipice. By 1642, he and Saskia had lost three newborns, and also endured the death of his mother and her sister. Then, within weeks after the “Night Watch” was finished, Saskia died of tuberculosis. Unlike Caravaggio, Rembrandt did not let death darken his paintings. Instead, he turned primarily to drawings and etchings which, though grey at first, evolved to capture the shimmer of trees in sunlight, the spherical glow of a candle, and pyramids of light pouring in windows. By the 1650s, his self-portraits, once so confident and proud, showed a brooding man. Problems with Saskia’s will led to bankruptcy, forcing Rembrandt to paint more. Now his subjects — saints and apostles, his lone surviving son, the elite of Amsterdam — glowed like the embers of his life.
Rembrandt’s final works, far from tragic, feature bright flesh and radiant garments. To pay homage, I leave “The Night Watch” and walk to the nearest alcove where an equally miraculous work hangs almost unnoticed. “The Jewish Bride” depicts a demure woman standing beside her husband who has one hand on her breast. The husband’s sleeve, layered thick with yellows and golds, blazes with all the light of creation. This was the light that stopped Van Gogh in his tracks. After staring at “The Jewish Bride” for an hour, Vincent told a friend, “I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight with only a crust of dry bread for food.”
Three of Rembrandt’s last four paintings were self-portraits. The eyes in each are those of a survivor. Light was Rembrandt’s Holy Grail, one he pursued for more than four decades. The eyes in his final self-portrait, weary yet proud, reveal the human toll of chasing such a chimera. They also suggest that no matter how lovely the radiance of this earth, no matter how boldly a Leonardo, a Caravaggio, even a Rembrandt might make it shine, light remains fleeting, ephemeral. And life itself is the trick.