02 Sep, 2009

Rembrandt: our friend from the north

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Rembrandt might have borrowed from Italian painters such as Titian, but what’s brilliant about Dutch art is that it’s homegrown

In this self-portrait, Rembrandt looks back at you over a parapet on which he rests his arm in a nonchalant pose, copied from a portrait of an anonymous young man by Titian. You can compare the two paintings easily because they both hang in London’s National Gallery. It might seem, looking at them both, that Rembrandt owes a lot to Italian art and that Dutch painters in the seventeenth century were deeply beholden to the giants of the Italian Renaissance. Neither of those things is true.

Rembrandt borrowed the occasional pose from Titian, but the essence of his art is so remote from Italy that it’s like an Italian word quoted in a northern language – like saying “cappuccino” in English. Maybe the word is the same but it sounds – and tastes – totally different in London and Milan. When Rembrandt incorporates Italian elements in his painting, they are translated into a speech as primarily northern as the Viking-like faces in his history painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis.

Fifteenth century Flemish painters such as Jan Van Eyck pioneered naturalistic painting in parallel with Italian artists. There was trade between Bruges and Italy – Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery is of an Italian merchant in the north – but most of the artistic influence went from north to south, not the other way. This is because artists like Van Eyck were medieval craftsmen. They made their paintings for traditional religious purposes and for their own communities. They evolved a style that served both faith and everyday life brilliantly well; they didn’t need to pretend they were Italian.

There is a direct line of evolution from Van Eyck’s mesmerising world of small things to the still lifes and interiors of seventeenth century Dutch art – from the Arnolfini Portrait to Vermeer. There’s precious little sign of any debt to Italy in the greatest Flemish and Dutch art right through the sixteenth century. When painters did visit Italy, their debt seems to disappear into a stronger local heritage: it would be a perverse and dry interpretation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder that attributed the power of his paintings to his visit to Italy. They teem with crowded life just like the Flemish art of the fifteenth century.

Only with Rubens does the story change. Rubens did learn from Italy. So did his pupil Van Dyck. Their painting has aristocratic aspirations that could only be satisfied by a comprehensive assimilation of the Italian Renaissance.

Rembrandt looked at Rubens; he looked at Italian works too. But for Rembrandt, the southern light is swallowed in a chiaroscuro that comes from the depths of the North Sea. Dutch and Flemish art magnetises us because it is the art of the every day. Even when he poses as a Titian noble, Rembrandt is just a boy from Leiden. That is his greatness.

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