It’s easy to assume that extraordinary artistic ability is by nature prodigious, but that’s often some way from the truth. Some talents announce themselves as soon as the artist can hold a brush or thump a piano, but in most cases the expertise that produces great works is built and honed over decades of hard graft and exacting standards. Rembrandt, we are told, is one such case, and this latest special exhibition at the Ashmolean shows the progression from his hesitant efforts as a teenage artist, starting out in his home city of
The exhibition is a project by twin cities
The whole thing is full of irresistible asides. Early on we’re introduced to Rembrandt’s elderly mother and father as his most patient models; and later we’re rewarded by seeing the mother’s now familiar face, a figure in a crowd, revealing a previously unattributed work to be a Rembrandt. (Rembrandt’s own face, of course, appears again and again.) One early work known only as the ‘history painting’ represents a historical scene which scholars have long struggled to identify. The temptation to linger, to grapple with a delicious artistic mystery which has defeated experts, as if one might just stumble upon the answer, is amusingly strong. We’re shown a window into Rembrandt’s life in a whole section on his friendship and collaboration with the painter Jan Lievens. The portrayal of the talented young men developing their skill in tandem is powerful, and seeing the similarities and differences between their parallel paintings is fascinating.
There’s much more, of course, and I was lucky to be shown the highlights by curator An Van Camp, whose gentle humour creeps into the necessarily serious description panels which accompany the works. The particular strength of this exhibition, certainly when accompanied by Van Camp’s explanations, is the feeling of intimacy it evokes with the young painter and his world. While the portraiture is unarguably stunning, the finer points of technique may not be accessible to everyone, and this is a project which invites appreciation of art through the personal and the familiar - humour, friendship, family, personal improvement. Twin paintings of two great friends which usually hang in different galleries are reunited for the first time in generations, for example. Or spotting Rembrandt’s increasingly familiar features in his own works is, suggests Van Camp, a bit like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’ - a pleasurable irreverence, which far from diminishing the subject, simply serves to draw us closer in.
If you like to find personal inspiration in beautiful paintings, this exhibition can make the pursuit of the ideal something cheerful and accessible. Van Camp’s wry observation, that in following young Rembrandt’s example of perseverance we might all achieve as he did, feels intriguingly possible: we might have to redefine expertise and choose our field rather carefully, but the fruits of our industry, and of our humanity, are tantalisingly available to us all.