How dark and dreary Rembrandt van Rijn’s world must have been.
Long before electricity, lighting his canvas only by candlelight, the Dutch painter masterfully captured the nuance of human expression in portraits that were mimicked by painters for years after his time.
I walked into the North Carolina Museum of Art completely unfamiliar with Rembrandt and walked out humbled at having had the opportunity to set eyes on these true works of art. The “Rembrandt in America” exhibit, the largest collection of his paintings ever on display in the United States, gives the visitor unique insight into the vision of a truly great artist, who can capture with his brush a subtle play of light flickering on the face of a man half cast in shadow.
His subjects, however sad and solemn, are so life-like and beautifully lit that the paintings almost seem to be of the modern era – a great 21st century photographer’s take on the Middle Ages. Knowing that Rembrandt, in fact, was painting from about the 1620s to the 1660s, before the camera was invented or even conceived of, before the portrait studio was wired for expensive lights, firmly cements his deserved place among artists who have successfully cast reality to canvas.
He intuitively gives us light and shadow, the divine and the mortal, in images that are breathtaking and inspired. He does not shy away from what’s ugly or old or withered. His portraits, like the subjects they portray, are natural and raw.
The exhibit does an excellent job of presenting the progression of his style – from precise and controlled as a young man to the wilder, broader brush strokes he used as he grew older -- as well as the dispute surrounding some of his famous works, which are now being attributed to a handful of his contemporaries and students.
One of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects was himself, whom he renders as ordinary, even plain, grappling with the same struggles as any man, without any suggestion of the social esteem he enjoyed.
To see these images in art history books does not do them justice. They were made to be real, to be felt, to be human. To stand two feet in front of them, regardless of your art IQ, is an experience not to be missed.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 22 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, in Raleigh. While you're there, mosey around Durham native Beverly McIver's colorful examinations of race, identity and family in the museum's North Carolina Gallery, which is free. "Rembrandt in America" costs $18.