Anne Gardom visits three London exhibitions

Rembrandt’s Women

Rembrandt’s women are not beautiful. He has always been regarded as one of the great European painters, and was recognized as such in his own lifetime, but many of his contemporaries were shocked and scandalized by some of the ways he portrayed women. He often painted them with a reality and perception that was a far cry from the youthful beauties beloved of the influential Italian school of art.

The title of the exhibition at the Royal Academy is at the same time entirely appropriate and somewhat misleading. Misleading in its apparent emphasis on Rembrandt’s turbulent domestic life following the early death of his wife Saskia, and appropriate to describe the wonderful variety of his paintings, drawings and etchings of women gathered together in this exhibition. The pictures and etchings are hung side by side showing their relationship to each other. Some of the etchings are very small and finely-detailed and it is quite difficult to get close enough to see them. They rather lose impact by being hung alongside the pictures and one longs to be able to study them carefully laid out in a display case.

By no means all of the paintings, and certainly not the etchings and sketches, are intended as portraits as such. There are, of course, a number of commissioned portraits and we know who they are, but there are also allegorical paintings, where the sitter cannot readily be identified. Tronies was the name given to paintings and drawings of people where the portraits were designed to explore or emphasize a particular physical or psychological aspect of the sitter and a number of paintings come into this category.

There are, however, different types of woman in his work, and these have long been identified as the women he lived with – his mother Cornelia, his wife Saskia, and his two mistresses Geertje and Hendrickje. As they were part of his life, so also they are part of his paintings. In the early part of the exhibition his mother was the inspiration for some tiny delicate etchings as well as a splendid portrait with a rich black and gold scarf draped round her head. The dignified and somewhat remote old lady is painted with a wrinkled skin and the pinched, toothless mouth of extreme old age. This is a head that frequently appears in other paintings, both on its own or as part of a group (such as Hannah in the Presentation in the Temple) and other works. At the time of his marriage to Saskia and her subsequent pregnancies, he was painting in a way that celebrated the beauty of his young wife – his women are golden-haired and radiant, usually wearing period costumes, with huge flowing sleeves and full gathered skirts. All is painted with brilliant lighting and sunlit colours. His garlanded figures of Flora, Artemesia, Bellona, all have a quality of celebration and joyfulness.

Rembrandt was making many studies of nudes at this time, and they are drawn with clarity and dramatic, sometimes cruel lighting. Many of the women are far from being conventionally beautiful, they are overweight and sagging, the lines of their corsets and garters still visible on their soft bodies. They are meticulously observed and drawn with delicacy and tenderness, so that their very plainness emphasises that vulnerability and humanity. In his small painting of Susanna and the Elders, Rembrandt shows Susanna startled, horrified, trying to cover up her nakedness and retain her slippers. There is nothing provocative or seductive in her pose and she looks out at us – are we the Elders? – a very human and quite ordinary young woman in a state of consternation and alarm.

One of the joys of this exhibition is the large number of drawings, of women and of women and children. Rembrandt captures a relationship or an atmosphere with a few lines, or a sweep of wash – and we identify with it immediately. There are women teaching toddlers to walk, there is a wonderful drawing of a horrified child in its mother’s arms recoiling at the sniffing of an inquisitive dog. Another is a mother struggling to control a furious child, shoes flying, clothes rumpled, in a situation any mother will instantly recognize. A lovely sequence of brush and ink drawings seem to have been done at the time of Saskia’s illness, and possibly her death, showing women in bed, tired, and unwell. There is a drawing known to be of a room in his house with a figure lying in a great shadowed bed with a companion sitting patiently beside her.

In his later paintings the golden-haired women give place to dark-haired young women with a broad forehead: possibly Hendrickje was the model and inspiration for some of these pictures. They have a mysterious, rather voluptuous quality, and are painted in a brilliant, free bravura style. There are also some splendid portraits painted at this time – not all of young women, and these fierce old faces are painted with tenderness and perception and great freedom of style.

Rembrandt’s paintings of women have been a subject of speculation and scholarship for many many years. It has always been recognized that they were an important and revealing part of his huge body of work. Though some of his most well-known paintings are not in this exhibition, many of them are brought together and we can begin to understand the combination of brilliant technique, and tender and ruthless truthfulness that made him a source of inspiration and interest in his own lifetime and ever since.

Royal Academy 22 September – 16 December 2001

The Pisan Altarpiece – Masaccio

The National Gallery has owned the Masaccio Virgin & Child from the Pisa Altarpiece since 1916. It has always been regarded as one of its most precious and significant pictures. Although the tempera panel is very badly damaged it is a profoundly impressive and important painting and was always seen as such both by Masaccio’s contemporaries and by lovers of Italian Renaissance art ever since.

It was painted in 1426 over the astonishingly short period of ten months, for the burial chapel of Guiliano di Colino degli Scarsi, a wealthy Pisan notary, and it is his meticulous accounts that give much of the information we have. It was described by Vasari in 1568, and was probably dismembered around 1590 when the church was being remodelled. Much of it has disappeared completely, but all that is known to exist has been brought together at the National Gallery from all over the world. It is a rare and exciting chance to see all that still exists of what has always been regarded as a masterpiece, and one of the most important works of the Italian Renaissance.

The largest painting is the National Gallery’s own Virgin & Child – the monumental figure of the Virgin, the heavy folds of her blue cloak brilliantly illuminated, holds the Child on her lap. The Child is taking grapes from her hand and putting them into his mouth (a symbol of future sacrifice). The Virgin gazes out over his head, her eyes seeing things we cannot see, abstracted, foreboding, accepting. The picture prefigures the Crucifixion in its symbolism, even to the carving on the base of the Virgin’s throne, taken from the design traditionally used on classical sarcophagi.

Above it is the depiction of the Crucifixion – with the figure of Christ on the Cross. The torso of Christ is foreshortened because it was designed to be seen from below – this gives the slightly strange look when seen at eye-level. He is surrounded by the absorbed and mourning figures of the Virgin St John, and Mary Magdalene, set against a gleaming gold background. St Mary Magdalene raises both arms in a gesture of love and anguish as she kneels at the foot of the cross, her golden hair spread out over the brilliant red of her cloak, oblivious of everything but her grief.

There are two supporting saints on each side of the crucifixion. These are all that remain of the several mentioned by Vasari, and four of the probably six figures which decorated the pilasters on each side. But the predella – the bottom tier of small pictures – is complete. There are three brilliant small paintings, with probably the two side ones being designed, but not painted by Masaccio. The central one, the Adoration of the Magi is monumental despite its small size. Two Magi kneel at the feet of the Virgin and Child, while one is still having his crown removed; the horses stand quietly by on one side, the ox and ass on the other. Astonishing in the centre of the picture are two casual figures looking on – donors?, merchants?, their profiles are so distinctive they must be portraits and the stand in their large black hats, grey cloaks and smart red stockings, like spectators at a play – they don’t appear to be worshipping, just looking.

There is a photographic reconstruction of how the pictures would have been placed in relation to each other in the completed altarpiece, but the pictures themselves are hung at eye-level so that we can appreciate and enjoy them individually.

Included in the exhibition are three works by Donatello. There is no record of Masaccio having worked with Donatello but many painters did spend time in sculpture workshops, so it is quite probable that Masaccio had access to Donatello’s work. There does seem to be an artistic relationship between the two. Two reliefs of the Virgin and child by Donatello are shown, one in stucco and one in marble, and there is an intriguing affinity between them and Massacio’s painting. There is a magnificent low relief marble by Donatello of Christ giving the keys to St Peter, which probably stood on the altar and complemented the episodes of his life shown on the altarpiece. Nothing is actually known but it seem more than likely that they knew and influenced each other’s work.

The pictures on loan have come from Germany, Italy and America (and the Donatellos from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London) for us to see them as nearly as possible as they were meant to be seen. They represent a turning point in the art of the Italian Renaissance and a profound and complex visual exposition of its Christian faith and theology.

National Gallery 12 September – 11 November 2001

Walter Crane 1845–1915

In the floor of the South London Gallery in Peckham is a magnificent panel of marquetry designed by Walter Crane. It is uncovered about every ten years and is well worth seeing. A small exhibition of his life and work was put on at the same time to coincide with the chance to see the panel..

Walter Crane is best known for his elegant illustrations to legends, poetry and children’s books, but he was much more versatile than this. Alongside his book illustrations were shown wallpaper and costume designs and some very beautiful designs for pottery. He worked for Wedgwood, among others. He knew William de Morgan, William Morris, Edward Burne Jones and other artists working at that time, and was influenced by them.

What is less known is that all his life he was an ardent and committed socialist. He was much involved in the setting up of the South London Gallery. He also did many illustrations for the covers of political publications. ‘The Source of Art is in the Life of the People’ are the words that stand in the centre of the floor panel, and probably influenced much of his thinking and his art.

South London Gallery 11–23 September 2001

Anne Gardom is the London Art Critic for New Directions. The Editorial Board would welcome offers from anyone who would like to cover exhibitions in other areas of the country.