Passions of the Soul: Rembrandt at the Hunterian

  • 17 September 2012

The Hunterian Art Gallery reopened this September with a major international exhibition centred on Rembrandt's The Entombment. Peter Black, the show's curator, explores the enigma surrounding this intriguing painting.

Rembrandt, sketch for The Entombment Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Rembrandt, sketch for The Entombment

One of the gems of the Hunterian Art Gallery is a small panel of The Entombment by Rembrandt. This remarkably well-preserved sketch is perhaps the most serene representation of the subject, very different from Titian’s painting in the Prado, with its feeling of anxious hurry, or the famous Caravaggio in the Vatican, with its passionate sadness.

Inside a deep cave, Christ’s body is being lowered to the ground by a group of silent figures in preparation for burial. Those immediately around Christ are caught in the light of a single candle held by the powerfully simplified figure of a woman to the left, who is painted in thick impasto.

The contemplative mood of the painting stems from this astonishing effect of candlelight, which radiates throughout the tomb chamber, and catches the clothing of figures on the right who descend into the cave in a solemn procession.

The Passion series

The sketch belongs to that blessed group of Rembrandt works whose authenticity has never been questioned. Nevertheless, the work is puzzling in some ways.

In the early 1630s, in the first phase of his mature work, Rembrandt made a speciality of dramatic scenes on a small scale, which his contemporaries found conveyed human emotions - the phrase often used was the ‘passions of the soul’ - more effectively than larger paintings.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, c 1611 Courtauld Gallery

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, c 1611

The artist’s gift for representing human emotion attracted the attention of Constantijn Huygens, who was secretary to Frederik Hendrik, the Prince of Orange, who commissioned a series of Passion paintings. These are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, including a closely related Entombment painting dated c 1635-9, which has been borrowed for the exhibition.

What he set out to do

What then was its function? The spontaneous and sketchy appearance of the Hunterian Entombment led past scholars to compare it with a series of monochrome oil sketches on paper from the mid-1630s, which Rembrandt made as designs for a projected series of Passion subject etchings.

Another possibility is that the painting was intended for the open market: in contrast to the sketches on paper for etchings, it is painted on an oak panel, and the central figure group is comparatively highly finished.

Rembrandt may never have completed the panel, but another possible explanation for the unusual combination of finished and unfinished elements is that he deliberately left parts of the painting in a sketchy state. This is something he also did with one of his greatest etchings, the so-called Hundred Guilder Print.

That powerful biblical etching is in the exhibition to make this point. Like the Hunterian panel, it has some areas that are carefully modelled while in other places figures are simply sketched in. Neither work is signed, yet both are of such quality that they could only be by the master.

And Rembrandt did have a distinctly unconventional attitude to finish: he is quoted by Arnold Houbraken, an early biographer, as saying that ‘a work is finished when the master has achieved what he set out to do’.

The exhibition

Exhibition

The Hunterian exhibition brings together a dozen paintings and drawings, as well as etchings and books, to illustrate the artistic context for the making of The Entombment. The loans include the great self-portrait of 1632, which Rembrandt perhaps painted to advertise his skills when he moved to Amsterdam.

Two oil sketches from the National Gallery, Ecce Homo and Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross, provide examples of paintings on paper made as designs for etchings, a working method borrowed from Rubens. Indeed Rubens was the most powerful influence on Rembrandt in the 1630s, and the key image behind the Passion series was his Descent from the Cross altarpiece (1612-14) in Antwerp Cathedral.

That great work is represented in the exhibition by Rubens’s magnificent oil sketch, borrowed from the Courtauld Gallery. The image influenced Rembrandt’s own Descent, which was one of the first paintings completed for the Prince of Orange’s Passion series.

A passion for prints

Rembrandt was an extravagant collector of prints and drawings, spending huge sums on examples by famous artists, which he housed in a room adjoining his studio. He was thus able to consult Renaissance examples of biblical and other subjects when planning a new composition.

Rembrandt, sketch after Leonardo's Last Supper, c 1635 British Museum, London

Rembrandt, sketch after Leonardo's Last Supper, c 1635

Among the examples of Italian graphic art to which he responded in his own work are two fine drawings of the Entombment which have an important bearing on the Glasgow panel. Both are copies that Rembrandt seems to have made of precious original drawings at the time of his insolvency sale in order to preserve a record of them; one is copied from a drawing by Polidoro da Caravaggio (Teylers Museum, Haarlem) and the other from a drawing by Mantegna (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

In addition to a section illustrating recent scientific research into The Entombment using techniques including X-radiography and infrared imaging, the exhibition includes Passion subject prints of the 1650s by Rembrandt, among which are two large drypoints - The Three Crosses and Ecce Homo - which are among the greatest of all prints.

These Passion prints include an Entombment, in parts very similar to the Glasgow painting, which may provide a clue to the date of a second campaign of painting that has been detected on the Hunterian panel, making it a work that Rembrandt began in the 1630s and completed around 1654.

Tags: ExhibitionsArt Quarterly