Rembrandt, Birthday Boy, Pulls a Surprise or Two

The curious and often contentious relationship between artists and critics has a long, if not always noble, history. That’s as it should be. Friction between practice and opinion is inevitable. Sometimes it can shed light; often it prompts comedy, intentional and otherwise. The critic has been the target of some deliciously caustic works of art. Hell hath no fury—or insight—like an artist scorned. Just ask Honoré Daumier.

A collection of artworks in which the critic is the main focus (or the butt of the joke) would make a delightful and, one would think, instructive exhibition. And if an enterprising curator or art historian were to put together such a show, a Rembrandt etching called Satire on Art Criticism would merit a prominent place.

Few artists have plumbed the depths of the human animal as sympathetically as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)—but his sympathy had its limits, at least when it came to art critics. In Satire on Art Criticism (1644), the critic is seen on the street looking at a picture and surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. He has donkey ears, and entwined on his arm is a snake—heavy-handed symbols of stupidity and envy.

One of the glories of Rembrandt’s graphic work, particularly the drawings, is his uncanny ability to depict individual character. Pictured sitting on a barrel, pompously brandishing a long pipe, the critic is clearly a blowhard. His foolishness is obvious: The donkey ears unnecessarily underscore what would otherwise have been perfectly apparent.

But Rembrandt liked his comedy broad and bawdy. In the foreground, at the bottom right of Satire on Art Criticism, a man squats and wipes his naked rear end. He meets the eye of the viewer, and his knowing gaze makes plain his thoughts: Critics are full of shit.

Satire on Art Criticism is included in Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints, a Selection in Honor of the Artist’s 400th Birthday, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 58 drawings and prints by Rembrandt and a handful of followers were culled largely from the museum’s permanent collection. A measure of an institution’s greatness is the scope and depth of its treasures—and the extent to which it takes those treasures for granted. A lesser institution would have granted this trove of masterworks major exhibition space; the Met has consigned them to a glorified hallway. And yet Rembrandt and His Circle certainly counts as something of an event: The light-sensitive works on view are only rarely brought out of storage, and many viewers will never have seen them before.

If scatological Rembrandt comes as a surprise, so does journalistic Rembrandt. In two concise pen-and-ink drawings of Elsje Christiaens, the artist turns to contemporary events—startlingly atypical for Rembrandt. Christiaens was a young Danish woman who inadvertently killed her landlady during a brawl; her punishment was to be hanged from a gibbet in a public square. Rembrandt captures the execution in all its awfulness: We look at the dead Elsje from the ground up, suspended from a wooden armature next to an ax, the weapon used in the fatal scuffle. The pathos lies in the mute dignity and compassion he lends to her lifeless body. In that respect, the drawings are no surprise: This is Rembrandt, after all.

He was a truly democratic soul; the whole of humankind was worthy of his nuanced attention. You see this in his religious work, where piety is trumped by everyday life.

In Christ Preaching (ca. 1652), Jesus is seen speaking in an alleyway, his head surrounded by the faintest of haloes. Situated slight off-center, he’s part of the rabble, a motley crowd barely interested in what he has to say. A child draws in the dirt; an old couple huddles against the cold. A woman, standing directly to Christ’s left, listens with half an ear. A house seen through an archway, bathed in bright light, is as much the focus of the composition as Christ himself. The total effect of the etching is ever so slightly blasphemous—and deeply human.

The same holds true for the red-chalk The Last Supper, After Leonardo da Vinci (1633-35). Again, Christ’s primacy is diminished. Rembrandt upsets Leonardo’s famed composition—subtly, but with offhand emphasis—by placing a giant canopy off to Christ’s left. By undercutting the symmetry of the original, Rembrandt brings to the image a dash of eccentricity and drama. (Just what is that canopy doing there anyway?) Clearly the drawing is a “thinking piece,” and the experiment points to Rembrandt’s unpretentious vision and proletarian leanings.

Drawings and prints by followers like Gerbrand van den Eeckhout and Ferdinand Bol show Rembrandt’s influence—but not his mastery—and serve mainly as points of comparison. They never get beyond Rembrandtesque. Of all of the students, Nicolaes Maes fares best of all with Jacob Receiving Joseph’s Blood-Stained Cloak (ca. 1653). Even so, Maes is put to shame by his teacher’s untouchable draftsmanship, by a hand that’s brusque and meticulous without ever getting lost or tight.

In Rembrandt’s Group of Farm Buildings (ca. 1648-52) and Cottage Among Trees (ca. 1650), we thrill to an artist who knows exactly when to let a series of marks crystallize and when to let them expand. In Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1652), a crush of darkness casts a benevolent cloak over the proceedings; a dim light moves, inexorably and with grave purpose, through the composition.

As a 400th-birthday celebration, Rembrandt and His Circle is skimpier than one could have wished. All the same, its glories are true, and never less than telling.

Rembrandt and His Circle: Drawings and Prints, a Selection in Honor of the Artist’s 400th Birthday is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 15.

Rembrandt, Birthday Boy,  Pulls a Surprise or Two