It’s a truism these days that there is no single way of thinking about the history of art, no single way of telling the story of what happened or of interpreting the visual evidence that has come down to us. The only constant is the fact that no work of art, no movement, no artist can be considered in isolation. Instead of a progression of clearly defined events or a coherent sequence of self-sufficient, more- or less- inspired individuals, the history of art is seen as a messy assortment of overlapping, sometimes confusingly interconnected phenomena. The closer we look, the more boundaries, both metaphorical and geographical, blur, even when we take into account the force of individual personalities or the powerful, unavoidable, defining characteristics of national style. It’s a tale not of logical cause and effect, but of unexpected cross-fertilizations and chance encounters, of chains of influence and reaction, of improvisation and innovation. Unshakable certainties would be far easier to deal with, but the reward for giving up orderly categories is a subtler, more thought-provoking, and perhaps truer idea of the complicated relationship of artists and works of art over time. It certainly has made for some extremely interesting exhibitions and provocative catalogs.

The Metropolitan Museum’s celebration of its collection of Netherlandish painting two years ago was informed by the assumption of two-way exchanges between Italian and Northern European art, an idea more fully explored in last Fall’s huge, fascinat- ing extravaganza at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which documented the rich and unpredictable responses of the Venetian Renaissance painters to the work of their colleagues in the Netherlands and Germany—and vice versa. The Palazzo Grassi show revealed surprising connections between quattrocento Flemish and Venetian portraits. It tracked the way Albrecht Dürer strove to assimilate what he admired in the work of his Italian counterparts and the ways that the Italians appropriated what they admired in his work. It charted the effect on the painters of La Serenissima of a couple of Hieronymus Bosch landscapes, with their populations of fantastic figures, when they were brought to Venice—where they still remain. And more. “Vice versa,” at the Palazzo Grassi, meant largely the way Titian’s work quickly became a touchstone and a model for painters from all over Northern Europe, not only for his students and assistants in Venice—who included at various times aspiring painters from as far away as the Netherlands—but also for the German artists of the Habsburg court in Augsburg (which Titian himself visited).

“Vice versa” also signals the start of a long-lasting trend.

“Vice versa” also signals the start of a long-lasting trend. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but during the Renaissance, the relationship of Northern and Italian artists could be described as a noisy, polyglot conversation with a great many participants, a tangled interchange stimulated by direct encounters with works of art, by travel, and by the widespread dissemination of prints. Yet before the sixteenth century ended and increasingly as the seventeenth advanced, this complex exchange became a kind of monologue broadcast from the south to the north. Italian art, both ancient and relatively “modern”—from the High Renaissance to the Caracci and Caravaggio—was something any ambitious northern artist had to come to terms with. Peter Paul Rubens spent an extended period in Italy—working for powerful patrons who admired his virtuosity—refining his craft and amassing aesthetic capital that would guarantee his success when he returned to Flanders. His phenomenal native abilities were both conspicuously enhanced and made infinitely more marketable by his first-hand knowledge of the latest thing from Italy. About a generation later, Rubens’s star assistant, Anthony Van Dyck, followed in his mentor’s footsteps, settling for a while in Northern Italy to paint the aristocracy in the hope of carving out an equally stellar international career. Further south, Nicolas Poussin was happily ensconced in Rome, studying Renaissance paintings, ancient Roman sculpture, and the landscape of the Campagna with equal enthusiasm.

In addition to such individual initiatives, the gradual establishment of national academies in Rome brought still other northerners to kneel before the splendors of Italian art: officially anointed young artists who competed furiously to win the chance to study directly the marvels of antiquity and the Renaissance masters. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and well into the nineteenth, artists from all over Europe flocked to Italy, mostly to Rome, some for relatively short, educational visits, others remaining more or less permanently and, like “Vanvitelli” or “Lo Spagnoletto,” entering art history under Italianized versions of their names or Italian nicknames.

Even the great Dutch realist Rembrandt van Rijn, for all his supposed devotion to observing “life as it was,” unembellished and unfiltered, constantly looked to his Italian predecessors, perhaps most notably to Titian, for direction, measuring himself against them for most of his life as a painter, rather in the way that Matisse both learned from and measured himself against Cézanne. Yet unlike his illustrious near-contemporaries, Rembrandt never went to Italy. That he didn’t was a source of regret to his early champion, the humanist poet-statesman, Constantijn Huyghens, a perceptive talent-spotter who wrote enthusiastically about the painter’s abilities between 1629 and 1631, when Rembrandt was in his early twenties—the earliest critical comments on the artist. Huyghens felt that studying the work of the Italian masters would be invaluable to the development of this gifted young painter and he fretted about Rembrandt’s refusal to travel.

Huyghens needn’t have worried. In 1631, at the age of twenty-five, Rembrandt left Leiden (where Huyghens had found him) and moved, if not to Italy, at least to thriving, cosmopolitan Amsterdam. Italian paintings flowed in substantial numbers into this flourishing commercial center at the early part of the seventeenth century, and over the next decade or so the young painter took full advantage of opportunities to see important pictures. For example, a vigorous little sketch of Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (c. 1514–15, now in the Louvre) is vivid proof that Rembrandt studied the painting closely when its Dutch owner sold it in 1639. (It is vivid proof, too, of the way the eager young Dutchman transformed Raphael’s smooth geometry and suave harmony, both quintessentially Italian, into something more earthy, a little less symmetrical and, well, more northern.)

The buyer of the Raphael, Alfonso Lopez, was a prosperous merchant, a converted Portuguese Jew resident in Amsterdam from 1638–41. What is especially interesting is that Lopez also owned two splendid Titians: that paradigm of opulent femininity, the lush, frontal Flora (c. 1520, now in the Uffizi), whose finely pleated shirt slips from her shoulder, and Flora’s male opposite (c. 1512, now in the National Gallery, London), the non-allegorical portrait of an elegant bearded man, once thought to be the poet Ariosto, who stares down the viewer over his luxurious, brocade-clad shoulder. Rembrandt’s little sketch of the Raphael may be the most direct evidence of his connection to Lopez’s collection, but it’s possible to find reverberations of all three of these wonderful Italian pictures within the painter’s work for the rest of his life. Echoes of their poses, their costumes, their ample masses, and their subtle, form-enhancing light inform not only Rembrandt’s portraits, but also his self-portraits, his religious paintings, and his “history” pictures.

Important as these encounters were to the painter, they were not his only confrontations with Italian art.

Important as these encounters were to the painter, they were not his only confrontations with Italian art. Early on, Rembrandt absorbed diluted Italianate values—a kind of watered-down version of the Caravaggesque drama so fashionable in the early seventeenth century—from his teacher, Pieter Lastman. Then, during the years when he was the most successful portrait painter in Amsterdam, Rembrandt collected Italian pictures—along with an incredible miscellany of other things—assembling a carefully chosen group described, in the inventory of his possessions made during his later bankruptcy, as being by Raphael, Giorgione, Palma Vecchio, and Jacopo Bassano, and after Annibale Carracci. Rembrandt treasured, too, portfolios of prints after the Renaissance masters, including what the inventory calls “a very large album with almost all the work of Titian.”

Anyone wishing to eavesdrop on Rembrandt’s conversation with his Venetian forebears can do so this Fall at the small, tightly focused, and impressive exhibition “Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence”1 at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. This wholly unpredictable institution, now more than twenty-five-years old, regularly—and successfully—behaves like an ambitious little museum rather than a commercial gallery, putting together scholarly exhibitions of works by old and modern masters drawn from important public and private collections all over the U.S. and abroad. Their motivation, they say, is to do the shows that the museums aren’t doing. While the relationship of Rembrandt and the Venetians has been thoroughly discussed in the literature, this Fall’s exhibition of oil paintings is apparently the first such to concentrate on this aspect of his development. The centerpiece is Rembrandt’s ravishing Flora (c. 1654), from the Metropolitan, a late homage to Titian’s version of the theme—one of the pictures owned by Alfonso Lopez of Amsterdam. Rembrandt’s Flora shares with her Italian ancestress a golden, blonde tonality, an outstretched right hand, offering a blossom, and the insistently crumpled folds of her fine linen shirt. Yet unlike Titian’s frankly sensual, intimate image, Rembrandt’s version offers no sense of his having captured his model en déshabillé; his Flora is neither pagan goddess nor Venetian courtesan, but rather a charming young Dutch woman rather fancifully gotten up for the occasion in a slightly extravagant but rustic hat.

It would have been spectacular to see the two delectable Floras side by side, but, alas, the Uffizi’s Titian isn’t at Salander-O’Reilly. Still, the point is made by the other pictures in the show. The wonderful amplitude of all of the Rembrandts, their generosity of form, their warm light, and their material (as opposed to thematic) sensuality speaks eloquently of the painter’s debt to Titian and his circle. Despite the uncompromisingly northern traits of their subjects, the Venetian prototypes are palpable in a pair of late canvases, a lively portrait of a full-lipped, curly-haired Young Man in a Black Beret (1666, Nelson-Atkins, Kansas City), and a profile of a lean, ascetic Apostle James Major (1661, private collection), clasping wrinkled hands in prayer. Here, direct comparisons are possible, thanks to the presence of a pair of energetic Tintoretto heads from the 1540s, a male portrait and self-portrait, and two fine half-length male portraits by Titian, the introspective, youngish “Friend of Titian” (c. 1550, De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco) and the bellicose, aging Francesco Duodo (French & Company, New York)—a recently rediscovered late work. A group of half-length Christs by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, ranging from the compelling to the predictable, enriches the context for the portraits. A marvelously dense Tintoretto Raising of Lazarus (1573, private collection), all bravura foreshortenings and theatrical gestures, and a slightly problematic Lamentation (c. 1650, Ringling Museum, Sarasota), ascribed to Rembrandt’s studio, widen the show’s investigations to include more complex figure compositions.

The result, apart from the considerable pleasure afforded by individual pictures, is to raise challenging questions about “northern-ness” and about influence itself. Rembrandt’s admiration for the Venetians seems evident in the way he positioned figures in space and in the way he pulled forms up out of darkness with pools of light, as well as in the density of his massing, the fullness of his forms, the looseness of his modelling and drawing, and~dash\possibly~dash\the breadth of his paint-handling. (Many of these elements, though, also seem related to the Caravaggism that had seduced a generation of European painters slightly older than Rembrandt—which is grounds for another exhibition.) What is striking, however, is how different Rembrandt’s works seem from their Italian prototypes. His figures appear to be more rough-hewn and thick-set; they move less easily. They seem unidealized, as though Rembrandt made no effort to generalize or minimize imperfections, but rather was as absorbed by aging flesh or lumpish features as by voluptuous ripeness.

The Italian paintings at Salander-O’Reilly always assume an underlying ideal, the bella figura that still conditions much of Italian life on many levels. Duodo, heaven knows, was no beauty, but Titian made him so vigorous, fierce, and commanding, with his gleaming armor, red cloak, and wind-blown beard, that it takes a while to realize just what a craggy, beaky old bird he must have been. There is no doubt about the slightly porcine, rather chinless look of the young man in the Nelson-Atkins Rembrandt, no minimizing his flagrant self-satisfaction; it all makes for a terrific picture, too, but there is no sense of flattery or “improvement.”

Most engaging, in some ways, are the questions raised by the proximity of the Studio of Rembrandt Lamentation and the Tintoretto Raising of Lazarus. It is possible to see the curious angling of Christ’s body in the Rembrandt as an echo of the histrionic poses typical of Tintoretto’s generation of Venetians, even though the lamenting figures who emerge from the darkness at the foot of the cross into the light of the pallid body and pale shroud are blocky, still, and fairly frontal. But the longer you spend with the picture, the more the slender, tipped-up body, with its wrenched arm and sharply compressed head, reminds you not of Italian versions of the theme, but of Netherlandish precedents—the harsh, collapsed Christs in Rogier van der Weyden’s wrenching Depositions, for example. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while pairing Rembrandt’s paintings with Venetian works brings to life his understanding of some of the best Italian painting of his day, at the same time it clarifies the things that separate this essentially northern painter from his southern counterparts: his forthright interest in appearances—including the appearance of people dressed up in studio costumes to look like figures in older art—his innate sense of restraint and sobriety, and his profound inwardness.

Yet these are also largely the qualities that separate Rembrandt from his fellow lowlander, Rubens.

Yet these are also largely the qualities that separate Rembrandt from his fellow lowlander, Rubens. This international superstar of the Baroque seems, at first sight, to have been temperamentally closer to the Italian artists from whom he learned so much than Rembrandt was, perhaps because of the inherent differences between a citizen of Catholic Belgium and one of the largely Protestant but tolerant Dutch Republic. Rubens dazzles where Rembrandt probes. He improvises brilliantly on mythological themes; celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, the allure and danger of exotic animals, the glamor of zaftig, pearly-fleshed women and robust heroes; he wrings the last drop of pathos out of religious dramas. Rembrandt, no less sophisticated, no less knowledgeable about Italian art, and ultimately more inventive in terms of pure painting, always seems fundamentally more contemplative and less flamboyant.

“Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence” is absorbing, rewarding, and enlightening, as is the handsome catalog that accompanies the show, a beautifully produced, slim volume with essays by Sir Kenneth Clark—a reprint of his wide-ranging lecture “Rembrandt and the Venetians”—Frederick Ilchman, and David Rosand. Ilchman’s piece is a persuasive identification of the portrait of Duodo. Rosand’s is a model of illuminating information and intelligent summation of vast amounts of material, including updates of some minor points in Clark’s essay. Rosand is particularly good when discussing the physical aspects of both Titian and Rembrandt—Titian’s brushwork is one of his specialties. Unlike many contemporary art historians, he is keenly aware of the material properties of paintings, of their existence as made layers of sensuous stuff, and his reflections on the similarities of paint-handling in late Titian and late Rembrandt, both in relation to their experience of the properties of oil paint and their expressive aims, are wonderful reading. Of course, this is the ultimate theme of the exhibition and one of the great enigmas of art history: how two giants, separated by time, geography, and culture both, at the end of their lives, made paintings remarkably similar in mood and temperature, and arrived at remarkably similar ways of using their materials, forcing (or perhaps permitting) the brute stuff from which they built up their images to become eloquent in ways that seem almost independent of its role in evoking the surfaces and shapes of the perceivable world. The result, in the work of both artists, is not only to affirm the importance of the act of painting itself, but also to conjure up for the viewer a sense of heightened emotion, by suggesting that the painter himself was in some kind of exalted state when he moved paint around with such evident feeling, energy, and abandon. Rosand’s observations at the end of his essay could stand as the lesson of the whole exhibition:

From his earlier direct emulation of Titian, then, the aging Rembrandt grew closer to his Venetian model, not through continuing study of examples of Titian’s art of painting but by reinventing that art for himself. Rembrandt rehearsed the discoveries that Titian made in the very nature of the oil medium. That the two eventually arrived at such similar results in the exploration of their art, which remained such a mystery to their immediate followers and more distant successors, confirms just how deeply founded was their relationship.

Go to the top of the document.

  1.   “Rembrandt and the Venetian Influence” opened on October 3, 2000 at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York. The exhibition remains on view until November 18. A catalog, with essays by Sir Kenneth Clark, Frederick Ilchman, and David Rosand has been published by the gallery (71 pages, $60). Go back to the text.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 3, on page 48
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now