Light fantastic

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Gillian Wolfe looks at Rembrandt's debut and his ability to turn the ordinary into the exceptional

The monumental figure in Rembrandt's painting "Man in Oriental Costume"

(1632) appears to glow almost supernaturally. It perfectly illustrates the genius of Rembrandt's technique. It is immediately arresting and puzzling.

Rembrandt portrays a man in Middle Eastern costume made from gold brocade with a long train and massive bejewelled turban. Yet the wearer is not oriental. He has Nordic blond colouring and grey eyes. The contrast is curious.

Rembrandt's contemporaries were imbued with stern Calvinist ethics. They wore sober costumes with sometimes an odd flash of colour. To them this was no doubt a heady mixture; a Dutchman wrapped in the luxurious wealth of the East, betokening an alternative and exotic lifestyle far from Protestant Holland. Amsterdam, however, was a cultured, elegant, prosperous and cosmopolitan mercantile city enjoying a Golden Age and particularly notable for a level of tolerance unique in Europe. In this world centre of finance, trade and commerce, Rembrandt found plenty of inspiration for exotic types.

In the early 1630s, he painted a group of life-sized oriental portraits for the open market. Despite charging top prices, there were plenty of buyers for these popular collectors' items of unsurpassed artistic quality. The Dutchman is actually a studio model whom Rembrandt used in several of his pictures. Dramatising the humdrum clearly separated Rembrandt from more conventional portrait painters. He thrusts his figures forward to demand our attention. Audacious lighting travels from spotlight brightness through gradations of radiance to dense shade. We can imagine such a painting hung in a grand candle-lit room or huge dark hallway projecting almost palpable power and mystery.

Rembrandt enjoyed the tactile pleasure of fabrics all his life. In his amazingly convincing rendering of texture he seems to recall his delight in luxurious silks, calico, damask and sable. He was a lifetime collector and had an enormous array of hats, helmets, feathers, prints, drawings, cushions, carpets, busts, bronzes, stuffed birds, musical instruments, antique weapons, coral, antlers, sticks, swords, gourds, bottles, baskets, bizarre and picturesque clothes, a canon, a lion skin and a box full of ears and noses cast from life.

Rembrandt painted "Man in Oriental Costume" during his first year in Amsterdam. By any standards, his was an astonishing debut. In the same year he painted the "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp" (a group portrait of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons in the Mauritshuis gallery, The Hague), which attracted sitters in large numbers to his studio and made his name, leading to a prosperous decade. His mature portraits from 1650 to 1670 were masterpieces of psychological analysis.

Why is Rembrandt so special? His very name draws visitors like a magnet. He achieves extraordinary effects with apparent economy of effort, yet his spontaneity disguises brilliant combinations of pose, colour and lighting.

Clutter and detail are avoided; he concentrates his awesome range of technique into summarising the essence of character. He is perhaps most famous for conveying the ravages of age, as illustrated in the series of self-portraits which form an amazing record of his life, from 1629 to 1669.

Before our eyes, a young successful man turns into a person confronting the disillusion of lonely old age. Better than anyone, Rembrandt can reproduce the watery ageing eyelid, the sagging folds of neck, the deeply-etched expression lines, the soft bags under the eyes, the coarse textured oily skin and the wiry grey whiskers. Rembrandt's thick paint, called impasto, gave an almost 3D texture to his pictures. It was said that if you laid a Rembrandt portrait on the ground you could pick it up by the nose. Early conservation techniques sadly ironed out much of that ruggedness.

Eulogies about Rembrandt may sound like exaggerated hero-worship, yet as Ernest Gombrich says in his The Story of Art, "There is no other way of describing the uncanny knowledge Rembrandt had of what the Greeks called 'the workings of the soul'. Like Shakespeare, Rembrandt seemed to be able to get under the skin of a man."

Rembrandt and Co is a London exhibition about dealing in masterpieces in 17th-century Amsterdam. To celebrate Rembrandt's 400th birthday, this exhibition looks at the master from a new and surprising angle, and examines how market forces affected him and his contemporaries. Art dealers Hendrick Uylenburgh and his son Gerrit "managed" several promising artists, the finest of which was Rembrandt. While these dealers had a marvellous eye for talent they were also keen businessmen and were financially far more successful than Rembrandt, who ended his days in debt.

* Rembrandt and Co: Dealing in Masterpieces until September 3 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 Tel: 0208 693 5254


Look: Seeing the Light in Art

By Gillian Wolfe

Frances Lincoln pound;12.99

A children's art book that shows the different ways artists use light

* Moving Pictures

By Anne Hollander (out of print, but available in libraries)

Discusses Rembrandt's influence on films and photographers

* For images and resources about Rembrandt visit

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn


Rembrandt was the son of a miller in Leyden at the time Holland became independent. He married the wealthy Saskia van Uylenburgh and had one child, Titus. They lived beyond their means and when Saskia died Rembrandt lived with Hendrickje Stoffels, who helped him manage his bankruptcy. His 650 paintings, 300 etchings and almost 2,000 drawings can be seen in museums worldwide. He is one of the most famous artists of all time.

Lesson ideas


Maths Introduce the vocabulary of proportion and simple fractions using the figure in the painting as an example. Ask pupils to draw people in half-length, three-quarter and full-length poses. A more complex task would be to sketch a full face and three-quarters of a face, and then in profile or half-face profile.


Show how the identity of someone can easily be changed by dressing them in different ways. How does wearing a grand hat change our reaction to someone? Do we feel the same about someone in jeans? How do we use these ideas for characterisation in plays?


Collect small pieces of rich, fine, silky, soft, shiny, woolly and furry materials in gorgeous colours and interesting patterns. Charity shops are a good source of fabrics. Make a vocabulary list of key adjectives.


On an art gallery visit, ask the pupils to look for the light in paintings. How have different artists used light? Find examples of light creating dramatic situations, mystery and atmospheric weather effects, but also look at how light creates three dimensions, shape and patterns. Look for light as a symbol of holiness, specialness or otherworldliness.

In figure drawing lessons, swathe your model in luxurious robes in contrasting fabrics. Explore texture. Simply change the style of headwear when you want to create a new character.

Pupils could try the Rembrandt technique of using subtle low tones throughout the portrait, but dramatically lighting the face and hands.

Alternatively, try keeping the background around the head and body light and shade darker towards the edges of the picture for a luminous effect.

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