Art in Exile: Young Rembrandt and Old Rembrandt

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In early November 2017, I began a weekly habit of posting art to my social media feeds—FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. I called it Art Wednesday. Every Wednesday, over the course of the day, I posted a series of eight to ten paintings based on an artist or a theme. I named each work and offered a small comment about each piece. The goal then was to post art every Wednesday for a year.

These are unprecedented times. This is the first global pandemic of this magnitude in nearly every living person’s lifetime. I started Art Wednesday to introduce beauty into the media stream. As we’re all practicing self-quarantining and social distancing, I thought this might be a good time to revisit Art Wednesday, but in a slightly different format. Rather than post a series of images once per week, I’m going to convert several Art Wednesday collections into individual blog posts, and I’ll try to post a new one every couple days—not just on Wednesdays—for as long as this thing has us all at home. I’m calling the adapted series Art in Exile, a concept I’m borrowing from Russell Moore’s Reading in Exile series on Instagram. Look him up.

With Art Wednesday, my goal was to spend time with what is good, and share that knowledge with others. In Confessions, Augustine wrote, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself.” Art Wednesday was an exercise in learning to love beauty. It was an exercise in cultivating an inner hunger for beauty, rather than spending our lives living in the world outside ourselves.

It is never too late to learn to love beauty. So without further ado, let’s kick this off by comparing young Rembrandt with old Rembrandt. We grow and mature in unexpected ways. See Rembrandt’s story through his art.

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1667, done around age 61.

The Stoning of Stephen is Rembrandt’s first known work­, done at age 19. His hallmarks are all here–architecture, dramatic use of light and dark, and facial expressions that provide narrative detail.

Rembrandt’s The Stoning of St. Stephen, 1625, done at age 19.

Young Rembrandt quickly found success as a portrait artist. He married young Saskia. They bought a house together. He seemed to have it all. 

Rembrandt’s Saskia van Uylenburgh, The Wife of the Artist, c. 1638, done around age 32.

By age 36, Rembrandt lost his wife and three of his four children. He also lost his moral compass, lived beyond his means, and ended up bankrupt.

Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, c. 1635, done around age 29.

Rembrandt painted for more than 40 years. It’s fascinating to see how he changed as an artist. He painted this at 26. It shows his impressive command of his medium.

Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man (detail), c. 1632, done around age 26.

Rembrandt painted the previous pic at age 26–a masterclass in detail and realism. Twenty eight years later, he did this self-portrait at 54. What’s changed?

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, c. 1659, done around age 54.

Considered Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, done at 23, “Judas Returning Thirty Silver Pieces.” Here, the young master shows his complete command of light, detail, and architecture.

Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces, c. 1629, done around age 23.

Notice the self-portrait detail at 54 here, thirty years later. Young Rembrandt’s talent was seen by how much he could do. Later it was shown by his restraint.

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait (detail), c. 1659, done around age 54.

Consider the following two self-portraits. In this early self-portrait, the 22-year-old stands across the room, regarding the endless possibilities of a blank canvas. He’s just beginning.

Rembrandt’s The Artist in his Studio, c. 1628, done around age 22.

But here , in one of Rembrandt’s last paintings, he shows himself after losing his fortune. Here he doesn’t regard his easel, but us. He’s simultaneously humbled and defiant.

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles, c. 1665-69, done around age 62.

Rembrandt’s own peers called him “The Master.” He painted the Biblical scene of Jesus being presented in the temple twice. This first one when he was twenty-five. The next one was painted the year he died.

Rembrandt’s Jesus Presented in the Temple, c. 1631, done around age 25.

Here is Rembrandt’s other scene of Jesus being presented in the temple. He did this one as an old man, the year he died. See the shift from grandeur to intimacy. As he matured as an artist, Rembrandt did not move from crude to eloquent, but from unfamiliar to intimate. 

Rembrandt’s Simeon in the Temple, c. 1669, done around age 63.

Why are these last paintings so different? Because the artist has grown. The 25 year old Rembrandt did not know the sorrow or struggle he would face. When he imagined the scene of Jesus being presented in the temple, he saw the ornate beauty of the building, the faces of those looking on, the trick with the light. But there is no intimacy in the image.

But the older artist has gone through so much. Bankruptcy. He has buried a wife and children. He has risen to fame and seen it all come crashing down. He doesn’t seem to want to show us the scene when Simeon held Jesus. He seems to want to hold Jesus.

Russ Ramsey
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

2 Responses to “Art in Exile: Young Rembrandt and Old Rembrandt

  • Thank you Russ for this piece on the Master. I am an art ignoramus, but I want to learn, so I will be back for more. My Son in Law is an artist, gifted IMHO. I shared this with him.

  • I’ve recently discovered artuk.org , which has collected and presents images of artworks from museums across Europe. Thought you and those reading this blog series might enjoy.

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