Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture

Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture


A great deal is made of the supposition that, if Rembrandt were alive today, he may well have been a film-maker rather than a painter. When this was put to the award-winning cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who helped in laying out and lighting the exhibition, he neatly side-stepped the old chestnut, saying that he hoped he would have still been a painter, as he was so brilliant at it. Film-makers have traditionally looked to Renaissance and Baroque painters for both compositional and lighting effects, particularly chiaroscuro, and tenebrism, and their influences were clearly noticeable in early German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and Metropolis, leading all the way to Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a dull and ponderous film, marred further by Ryan O’Neal’s laughable Irish accent and even worse acting skills, which was filmed using only natural and candlelight. The Daddy of them all was undoubtedly Caravaggio, whose use of light and dark was sublime, particularly in the crafty way he hid or shielded the light-source, whether a candle or lantern. Other painters, like Gerrit van Honthorst, Vermeer, Velázquez, Joseph Wright of Derby and, of course, da Vinci, all had major influences on film-makers and photographers. Cecil B. DeMille is credited with the first use of the term ‘Rembrandt Lighting,’ while shooting the 1915 film, The Warrens of Virginia. He had borrowed some spotlights from the downtown Opera House in Los Angeles and ‘began to make shadows where shadows would appear in nature.’ When his business partner Sam Goldwyn saw the film with only half an actor’s face illuminated, he feared the distributors would pay only half the price for the picture. After DeMille told him it was ‘Rembrandt Lighting’, he replied ‘Rembrandt! For ‘Rembrandt Lighting’ the distributors would pay double!’ Suschitzky said that he used to cringe when he overheard one of the crew saying when lighting a scene ‘Every frame a Rembrandt,’ even though it was probably meant as a compliment.

Dulwich have taking the cinematographic metaphor and milked it to within an inch of its life, to the point of captioning the pictures with faux-film script descriptors establishing the location and time of the scene. For instance: ‘INT – BEDROOM – NIGHT. A dim candle flickers. A WOMAN waits in bed. She hears the sound of someone approaching and draws back the curtain to see who it is.’ There is an additional caption: ‘Rembrandt excelled at using colour to create space and depth. By placing lighter tones next to darker ones, he was able to make specific areas, such as the woman’s arm, appear closer, while the back of the bed recedes. The result is a highly lifelike illusion.’ Talk about stating the bleedin’ obvious. Apart from these annoying little curatorial quirks, this is an excellent exhibition, with loans from Musée du Louvre, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, The Rembrandt House Museum, Germaldegallerie, Berlin, The Royal Collection, The British Museum, The National Galleries of Scotland, Ireland and London, and, of course, two from Dulwich’s own collection. The exhibition itself is divided into four galleries, beginning with a section addressing the artist’s control of light to convey motion and emotion, which includes the almost theatrical Denial of St Peter, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, and The Woman Taken in Adultery. The second gallery is entitled ‘Manipulating Light, and is set in a simplistic mock-up of his workshop, with a window and blind, displaying some masterful drawings.

‘The Meditative Mood’ focuses on religious themes, but also includes three stunning etchings, Student at a Table by Candlelight, Woman with an Arrow and a landscape on the outskirts of Amsterdam of a dilapidated farmhouse with an ominous raincloud threatening. The final section is called ‘Lighting the Figure’ and includes the oils Woman in Bed, Girl at a Window, A Woman Bathing in a Stream, possibly his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels, A Young Man, thought to be his son Titus, and two self-portraits, one a selfie etching of him in a fur cap, and the other, the incomparable Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap, painted in 1642, when he was 36 years old, at the height of his powers and living in his dream house in Breestraat in the middle of Amsterdam. How very different from a later self-portrait that hangs at Kenwood House. At first he appears confrontational and even defiant, with one hand on his hip, while the other holds his palette and brushes, but if one gazes into the dark eyes of Self-Portrait with Two Circles, there is sympathy, sadness bordering on melancholy and a sort of resignation after all the personal tragedies he had suffered: the death of his first wife Saskia, along with three of their children; the death of his last surviving son Titus in 1668, who had married Magdelena van Looonly  the year before and who produced a grand-daughter Titia for him; the Old Master’s young mistress and housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, had already died from the plague five years earlier; his decline into insolvency and the sale of his wonderful town-house. It is 350 years since Rembrandt van Rijn died, but, in all those years, there has yet to be any artist to fill his place, or even come close to it.

Rembrandt’s Light

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Until 2 February 2020

Admission £16

About author