Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), a master of the Dutch Golden Age, was known for his extraordinary treatment of light and the psychological depth of his portraiture.

The National Gallery is staging a landmark retrospective in his honour and it is a barrage of masterpiece after masterpiece. But breathtaking though this is, it is not what makes The National Gallery’s latest exhibition so captivating. The exhibition is much more than a spotlight on the greatness of Rembrandt’s work, it is a trip into the shadows that stalk his masterpieces. What is offered to the viewer is the tragedy behind the triumph: the broke, widowed, rejected and dejected Rembrandt. The dim first room (“self scrutiny”) feels like a church. The crowds, heaving though they are, soon become still and silent on entering. Sad and distant eyes peer worriedly back from the paintings. Before us: Rembrandt in 1659 (figure 1).


Three years previously he had declared bankruptcy, a year before his beloved art collection fetched almost nothing at auction, and that same year the Amsterdam Painters’ guild enforced a rule that banned him from trading. In the year to come, he was to be forced to sell his home and move. By 1669, Rembrandt’s eyes look resigned (figure 2). Since his last self-portrait he had experienced the humiliation of being out-commissioned by his former students and the grief of living through the death of his son Titus. Seeing the tenderness of the late works against the background of Rembrandt’s personal tragedy made for an utterly compelling view of the artist.


The second room (“experimental technique”), however, offers an alternative, with Rembrandt rising before the viewer looking forebodingly in control (figure 3). In this self portrait, two circles enigmatically shadow him: a calculated show of defiance; where the painter is down but not out. Among other professional fiascoes, Rembrandt had gone out of fashion. His loose brushwork clashed with the tight realism that was then in vogue. Accused of aging self-indulgence, Rembrandt chose to paint himself with these two mysterious circles behind him, referring to a legend that the Italian artist Giotto had such technical command that he could draw a perfect circle free hand. Rembrandt stands before us painted in defiantly loose brushwork, with perfect hand drawn circles behind him. His face almost dares his critics to say he’s lost it.


However, pushing the boundaries of style and technique flew in the face of the establishment, and his desperate situation. Rembrandt could not afford with his debts to defy the established style publicly. Nonetheless, curator Betsy Wieseman has assembled a rich collection of sketches, etchings and prints that give us an insight into how audacious Rembrandt could be. One sketch shows a sleeping female nude drawn with simple spare brushwork. It could easily pass for a Japanese Zen painting. The economy of the lines and the delicacy of the brushwork is truly something to behold. It is a testament to Rembrandt’s bravery that this stalwart of European classicism chose to experiment with a form totally removed from his native context at a time when it could mean destitution.

This boldness was not just a private experiment. When Rembrandt was finally thrown a bone and asked to paint a large work for Amsterdam’s new city hall; the result so outraged his employer that before the year was up, the painting was chucked out. You can see why. The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (figure 4), which could be found in a later room focusing on light, is almost an impressionist work. The ghostlike conspirators huddle around their deformed leader, his missing eye illuminated by the soft, yellow light. It’s an almost sinister (and given the context) most definitely ballsy depiction of a proud Dutch legend.


The impressionistic tendencies are most uncannily expressed in The Jewish Bride (figure 5), which has Rembrandt portraying a young couple mornfully caressing each other. He heaps squares of paint onto the man’s sleeve using a pallet knife. It lends the painting a tactile quality, which transmits the aching sensuality of the scene. But it’s also highly poignant: what the trouble is, we do not know.


It is always in the eyes where we see Rembrandt’s emotional and psychological depth. It’s the eyes that animate The Syndics (figure 6), which were to be found in “observations of everyday life”, one of the last rooms. Here, a business meeting is rendered not only interesting but actually exciting, giving a sense of movement and ambiguity to the figures. The most striking gaze is that of the Apostle St Bartholomew, whom we see staring into some undefined point beyond the canvas with a stern gaze. Yet something gentler and sadder emerges the more you look at him. It’s completely captivating.


Rembrandt painted the world with a passion that drove him to experiment in visionary ways. This was coupled with a sympathy that captured the most intimate moments of the human experience. He endeavored to do this at a time when the world he portrayed was decidedly against him. What emerges from this struggle is not resentment or anger, but a profound sense of humanity and vitality. It captured Bartholomew’s gaze, it touched the hand of the Jewish Bride, and it caressed the lines of the nude’s body. Most of all, it filled Rembrandt’s eyes.