Intimate Rembrandt Awaits in Boston

About the exhibition called Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher , which Clifford S. Ackley and his colleagues have organized with the Arts Institute of Chicago at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the first thing to be said is: Don’t miss it! This is a marvelous show, the kind of show that many visitors will feel compelled to return to as soon as possible; all are likely to savor its revelations and pleasures for a long time to come. I cannot myself recall any Rembrandt exhibition to equal this one for bringing us into close contact with the artist’s mind and methods. One of the essays in the show’s excellent 343-page catalog, Thomas E. Rassieur’s study of the prints, is called “Looking over Rembrandt’s Shoulder: A Printmaker at Work,” and this neatly defines the kind of intimacy we’re often made to feel as we follow the heroic course of the artist’s creative “journey” in this skillfully selected survey of the principal media in which he worked.

One of the things that elicits the intense feeling of intimacy in this exhibition is, of course, the unusually small, often tiny scale-sometimes no larger than an inch or two in either dimension-of certain etchings. One of them is a Self Portrait in a Cap (1630), on loan from the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, that’s scarcely larger than a postage stamp. Another of similar dimensions is a powerful portrait etching and drypoint of the artist’s mother, An Elderly Woman (1628), from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. These and other miniature masterpieces compel an order of sustained scrutiny that does not permit distraction. Their intricate and varied traceries of minuscule lines, dots, squiggles and hatch-marks concentrate the eye on the subtlest details of depiction, and this state of concentrated attention is soon carried over into our encounters with the larger prints, drawings and paintings, where Rembrandt’s genius for histrionic narrative reminds us of why he has so often been compared to Shakespeare.

Even a diehard formalist like Roger Fry, who rarely missed an opportunity to denounce “literary” interpretations of pictorial art, made an exception in Rembrandt’s case. “When he looked at men and objects,” Fry wrote in “Rembrandt: An Interpretation,” “they revealed to him something that the ordinary man does not see at all-they revealed their inner nature, their ultimate essential character …. He saw them as expressive actors in the drama of life …. Both Rembrandt and Shakespeare have the almost miraculous power of creating and placing before us in all their fullness and solidity, credible living beings … and of doing this with an unparalleled economy of words or pen strokes. Shakespeare gives us what we call a character by a reply of half a line-Rembrandt by three strokes which indicate the turn of a head or the thrust of a hand. Both do this by a kind of creation from within, that is to say, by a method of intuitive sympathy rather than external observation.”

Yet as Clifford Ackley brilliantly demonstrates in “Rembrandt as Actor and Dramatist: Gesture and Body Language in the Biblical Etchings,” one of the essays he’s contributed to the catalog of Rembrandt’s Journey , Rembrandt clearly devoted a good deal of what can only be called rehearsal time to perfecting his command of histrionic expression. Intuitive sympathy was greatly enhanced by systematic role-playing-as was no doubt the case with Shakespeare, who was after all an actor.

“Early on in his career,” writes Mr. Ackley, “Rembrandt, judging from the evidence on his painted and etched self-portraits from around 1628, appears to have used the mirror to practice facial expressions (disgruntlement, outrage, surprise). Hoogstraten [Rembrandt's teacher] in his treatise advised the young artist to use the mirror to study expression, becoming at once both ‘actor and audience.’ Later, Rembrandt set himself and his many pupils the challenge of making drawn variations on Biblical histories, not necessarily as preparatory studies, but rather … in order to arrive at fresh takes on familiar stories. Rembrandt may in a sense be compared to a great actor, theater director, or dramatist who through insight and experience gives new life or a more nuanced dimension to well-known texts or themes.”

Rembrandt’s Journey is divided into two distinctly separate journeys: one devoted to the artist’s wide-ranging variations on Biblical history, the other to his equally wide-ranging personal history as revealed in the self-portraits. The first painting we encounter in the exhibition is the early Self-Portrait (1629), from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Rembrandt was then 23, and already a master of the luminous color that Van Gogh once characterized as “Rembrandt’s gold.” One of the last paintings in the show is the Self-Portrait (1659) from the National Gallery in Washington, when the artist was 30 years older and unconcerned about revealing the ravages of time and experience. And from that 30-year interval, a plethora of self-portrait etchings and drawings gives the viewer an almost step-by-step account of the aging of a master impersonator.

As I say, Rembrandt’s Journey is not to be missed, and it remains on view at the M.F.A. in Boston through Jan. 18, and then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 14 to May 9).