Laura Cumming @LauraCummingArt Mar 2021
Rembrandt is shocked to see you. He reels backward, mouth open, eyebrows raised in amazement at your startling arrival. You can see the whites of his eyes.This is the one-two action – you appear, he reacts – of this tremendous etching, made in 1630 when
All of itsRembrandt was around 24. It is a portrait of the artist as a young star.
quicksilver whorls and curlicues are put to the service of theatre: the image as incident, as mutual encounter. It takes the convention of eye-to-eye contact and transforms it into vital drama.
But 24 is not precocious, in terms of art history. Raphael and Dürer were virtuosos before the age of 10. Picasso, in his own words, could draw like Raphael as a child. Rembrandt is not regarded as a prodigy. Indeed, it is the very novel aim of this exhibition – the largest ever devoted to the first decade of his career, 1624-34 – to show just how hard Rembrandt had to work to become Rembrandt.
What this show reveals, too, is an exceptional sympathy with old people in one so young Rembrandt is filled with unexpected curiosities and rarely seen masterworks.
It follows the artist from his teenage beginnings in Leiden to the glory days of Amsterdam, with riches and a thriving workshop.
You see him faltering, practicing, correcting, and even junking work en route. There are duff portraits, where the sitters all look the same, and unfulfilled drawings. The curators do not stint on his failures.
It is unusual enough to see some of Rembrandt’s early Bible paintings, over-colored and hyperbolic in their melodrama. But it is odder still to have a museum draw deliberate attention to his faults. In an etching circa 1625,