Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is universally acclaimed as the greatest master painter of the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th-century efflorescence of art in the Netherlands. Thanks to an inventory of his home and studio conducted in July 1656, we know that Rembrandt kept in his bedroom two of his own paintings called Head of Christ. A third painting—identified as a "Head of Christ, from life"—was found in a bin in Rembrandt's studio, awaiting use as a model for a New Testament composition. Today, seven paintings survive (from what was likely eight originally) that fit this description, all painted by Rembrandt and his pupils between 1643 and 1655. Bust-length portraits, they show the same young man familiar from traditional artistic conceptions of Christ, yet each figure also bears a slightly different expression. In posing an ethnographically correct model and using a human face to depict Jesus, Rembrandt overturned the entire history of Christian art, which had previously relied on rigidly copied prototypes for Christ.
This exhibition, the first Rembrandt exhibition in Philadelphia since 1932 and the first ever in the city to include paintings by the Dutch master, reunites the seven paintings of this exceedingly rare and singular series for the first time since 1656. Of these portraits, three are being seen in the United States for the first time. Complemented by more than fifty related paintings, prints, and drawings, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus allows visitors to consider the religious, historic, and artistic significance of these works. Objects of private reflection for Rembrandt, the paintings in this exhibition bear witness to Rembrandt's iconoclasm and his search for a meditative ideal.
In addition to major paintings, many of the selected drawings in this exhibition have been rarely exhibited or lent owing to their light-sensitivity and fragility. Indeed, never before have so many of Rembrandt's finest paintings, etchings, and drawings that depict Jesus Christ and events of his life been assembled for an exhibition.
Rembrandt’s life story is one of genius and struggle. Born the ninth of ten or more children in 1606, his personal life was as marred by tragedy as his artistic life was of triumph. He suffered significant losses, including his beloved wife Saskia Van Uylenburgh, who died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1642. A drawn out affair with Geertje Dircx resulted in a legal battle in 1649-1650 followed by her ultimate committal to an asylum. Of the artist’s five children, three did not survive childhood and his remaining son Titus pre-deceased him by one year. Rembrandt’s 1656 bankruptcy also separated the artist from his own home and his personal art collection.
Biblical Themes and the Heads of Christ
Though his life was often fraught with woe, Rembrandt was long fascinated by biblical themes, and judging from his existing oeuvre, Jesus was his favorite protagonist. He took a distinctive approach to religious narrative, however, and making innovative images of Christ had been a focus of his ambition from early in his career. He often combined different moments from the Bible into a single image, and sometimes distilled a holy figure into a portrait-like representation. This particular, personalized imagery emerges most succinctly in the artist’s powerful depictions of the adult Jesus on his mission, based on Rembrandt’s careful reading of the Gospels.
Following the path of his master, the Amsterdam artist Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt had built an astonishingly broad repertoire of biblical subjects, as well as a formidable reputation as a history painter, the most honored rank in the hierarchy of specializations. In addition to his dramatic, groundbreaking early Supper at Emmaus of about 1629, with Christ shown entirely in silhouette, and his theatrical Raising of Lazarus of about 1630, Rembrandt had also painted a Passion of Christ series (1633–39) for Frederik Hendrik, the stadtholder of the United Provinces. The face of Christ in a key work connected to the development of that series, Christ on the Cross of 1631, already shows Rembrandt seeking to break from tradition. The face, with its coarse features and defiant expression, bears no small resemblance to Rembrandt’s 1630 print Self-Portrait with Open Mouth. A slightly later drawing of the Entombment shows the face of the dead Christ with the kind of graphic realism for which Rembrandt was known.
It is in the sketches of the late 1640s, however, that we really see the most radical shift in Rembrandt's oeuvre. 1648, the year that marked the end of eight decades of war between the Netherlands and Spain (and the latter’s unprecedented recognition of the United Provinces, as the fledgling Dutch Republic was then known), also saw Rembrandt begin a different version of Supper at Emmaus. Around this time a modest but closely related project was also started in his studio: a series of small oil sketches on oak panels of a young man in a white tunic and simple brown cloak, in different poses and expressions and under different lighting conditions. His long hair is parted in the center, and he has a short beard; several panels also include his folded hands. Although the figure lacks other identifying attributes or symbols, it was clear to Rembrandt’s contemporaries that these sketches were intended as depictions of Christ, with attitudes and expressions varying to show aspects of Christ’s character: his humility, his mildness, his vulnerability, and his inner preoccupations. Probably begun as models for Supper at Emmaus, the heads of Christ stand out as the largest such group among his many small oil sketches, suggesting that the project to develop a new model of Jesus "after life" expanded once underway.
This exhibition is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In Philadelphia, the exhibition is made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Montgomery Scott Fund for Exhibitions and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Connelly Foundation, by Carol Elizabeth Ware and the Marian S. Ware 2006 Charitable Lead Annuity Trust, and by generous individuals. Funding for conservation was provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
Lloyd DeWitt, Associate Curator of European Painting before 1900