Rembrandt’s Venice Muses Convene on East Side

In the hurly-burly of the current art scene, where for weeks at a time you can troop around the galleries–and even some of the museums–wondering whether some secret committee has arranged to furlough the art of painting for the duration of the postmodern assault, it is at once a shock, a pleasure and a revelation to be vividly reminded that somewhere there still exists a passionate and informed understanding of what is, after all, one of the most miraculous mediums of high art ever conceived. It is for an experience of this sort, in which painting is exalted as the very “stuff of life,” that the exhibition of Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries is a capital event. To miss this show is to miss out on one of the stellar aesthetic experiences of this or any other season in living memory.

That striking phrase about painting as the “stuff of life” appears in David Rosand’s splendid essay, “Titian’s Dutch Disciple,” in the show’s remarkable catalog, which also includes a section of Sir Kenneth Clark’s study, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (1966), as well as a short essay by Frederick Ilchman entitled “A Rediscovered Late Portrait by Titian,” on the latter’s Portrait of Francesco Duodo . It is one of the many virtues of Mr. Rosand’s account of Rembrandt’s debt to Titian, for example, that it is written from the perspective of the painters’ radical handling of their medium. At times, it seems to take us right into the messy environment of Rembrandt’s own studio, if not into his mind.

Thus, in a discussion of “the affinities we feel between the substantial style of Titian’s painting and the Dutch master’s late manner,” we are reminded not only of Rembrandt’s technical prowess–”his deliberate building up of a canvas, slowly, layer upon layer, and his use of his fingers as well as the brush”–but of the expressive significance of this material practice.

“No other of Titian’s great distant disciples, not even Rubens,” writes Mr. Rosand, “so closely approximates the old Venetian’s feeling for paint.” And then, in a key passage that illuminates the essential mystery of the painterly medium, Mr. Rosand writes: “Only Rembrandt seems to share that experience of moving beyond the brush to create new carnal realities with his hands. In the later part of his career, not only was he a master of a rough style in a period of more refined stylistic preferences in the Netherlands, but, as he himself proclaimed so vigorously in his late self-portraits, he was a painter not afraid to get his hands, or his clothing, dirty in the course of painting. Paint, after all, was for such masters as these the stuff of life.” Or, as Mr. Rosand also observes: “Out of his own long experience of oil painting [Rembrandt] too had discovered in the materials of his art the secrets of life. And of death.”

This is a large claim for any artistic medium, and it is the special distinction of Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence that it more than makes good on it, with a breathtaking anthology of 12 marvelous paintings–some very familiar, some completely unknown to most of us–by Rembrandt, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Rembrandt’s beloved Flora (circa 1654), long a great favorite of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is here, along with the artist’s Young Man in a Black Beret (1666), from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and Lamentation (circa 1650), now attributed to the “Studio of Rembrandt,” from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Still another Rembrandt, The Apostle James Major (1661), is on loan from a private collection.

Of the three Titians in the exhibition, one is the Portrait of a Man, So-called Friend of Titian (circa 1550), from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. De Young Memorial Museum; another is the Portrait of Francesco Duodo , the rediscovered late portrait which Frederick Ilchman writes about in the catalog; and the third is a Christ Crowned with Thorns (circa 1560-70), from a private collection. The sole example of Veronese is also a Christ Crowned with Thorns (1582-85), which is itself clearly derived from the Titian.

The four paintings by Tintoretto almost constitute a separate exhibition in themselves. The most spectacular is The Raising of Lazarus (1573), from a private collection–a relatively small painting, less than three feet wide, yet so abundant in painterly invention that it expands to epic proportions in one’s memory of it. Especially in the painting of the heads of the background figures along the upper edge of the canvas, this Lazarus gives us a glimpse of yet another line of pictorial influence that extends from the Venetians–and Tintoretto in particular–to Goya and even Daumier. It is a thrilling painting.

So is the Tintoretto Self-Portrait (1546-48), from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a painting of such extraordinary intensity that the artist’s eyes seem to interrogate us, the viewers, as we attempt to retrace the course of its mysterious execution with our own eyes. Compared to the high dramatic power of the Lazarus and the Self-Portrait , Tintoretto’s Portrait of a Man (1546-48) and a Man of Sorrows (circa 1545), both from private collections, may seem less demanding, but they are great paintings all the same.

That Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence recalls one to the triumphs of the art of painting at this exalted level is certainly sufficient to make it an important exhibition. But this is an exhibition that also sets out to change our thinking about the very nature of “influence” in art–to remind us, as Lawrence Salander writes in the foreword to the show’s catalog, “that even at the highest level of art making in history, artists have looked hard at other artists’ work and taken what they needed to improve.” This is, after all, the way serious artists have always gone about their work, and this is no less true of the great artists and writers who were considered avant-garde in their day.

For isn’t “influence” but another name for the way artists respond to a usable past–in other words, to a tradition? I am reminded, in this regard, of what the French poet Paul Valéry wrote about his most avant-garde predecessors in the French Symbolist tradition: “Mallarmé is an innovator in one way, Rimbaud is another. And the remainder in each is not new, but traditional.” Yet nowadays we talk instead about the “anxiety of influence,” which makes a psychoanalytical muddle of a perfectly legitimate aesthetic practice. And our museums go along with this muddle when they abandon art-historical chronology–which is to say, lines of influence and tradition–in the way they present art to the public.

Well, there are many lessons and implications to be drawn from Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence , and many pleasures to be had, too. It remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Nov. 18.