Struck with Amazement

John Haber
in New York City

Anthony van Dyck: Portraits

Rembrandt's Judas

For once, the Frick Collection attempts a blockbuster. Anthony van Dyck would not have had it any other way.

The most precious of small museums, the Frick manages some two dozen paintings—on top of prints, oil sketches, and drawings. They take van Dyck from a dashing self-portrait at, at most, a remarkable fifteen years of age to a portrait of Europe's leading art dealer clowning around with bagpipes in 1641, the year of his death barely into his forties. If this was the art world, I want to be a part of it. Anthony van Dyck's Frans Snyders (Frick Collection, c. 1520)Nor was he the only artist capable of showing off. "Even as I write these words I am struck with amazement." At just twenty-three, Rembrandt had a fan in Constantijn Huygens, the writer, musician, connoisseur, and diplomat—and, the Morgan Library argues, his first masterpiece.

van Dyck's portraits take him from Antwerp to Italy, where the Baroque had only just begun almost exactly the year of his birth. They show him building on the Flemish community in Genoa, a thriving port city, and triumphing as England's court painter for a decade. They move easily among the exemplars of wealth, royalty, diplomacy, and religion. For van Dyck as for England, those were in fact inseparable, with almost any man in more than one role. They show him defining himself as an artist by creating an image for others. Yet they build after all on four portraits in the Frick, starting with those of another artist and his wife.

The very image of spontaneity

That artist is Frans Snyders, best known for scenes featuring animals, dead or alive. This is not the steady accumulation of paint and foretaste of death in Dutch still life. No, Flemish art was far more assertive, in its aggressive brushwork and slick surfaces. So is Snyders in his portrait, with his hair, beard, and eyes equally alive, and one would hardly know that he is an artist. With one hand poised tautly on his lap and the other by his side, continuing the drama of a curtain tied to hang down directly above, he and his wife might just be boasting of their independent means. And so they were, for the portrait came on the occasion of their acquiring a country home.

Portraiture was like that for Anthony van Dyck, as an image of society unconcerned for mere detail—and an image of art concerned for everything. Signs of status appear casually, like a laurel or the sheer quality of dress. England's queen might be on a family outing, but she stands on a platform as on a stage, and that seeming child with a pet monkey on his back is a dwarf. The painter breaks through in 1623, with a cardinal in electric red, overlaid with a lighter fabric that could pass equally for gold or white. More often, though, color appears as a carefully chosen accent, not least in a person's cheeks. Snyders, like van Dyck himself in a commanding self-portrait at twenty-one, dresses in black.

He reveals little of himself, too. He paints his wife and, most likely, his mistress in almost the same pose and same blue dress shot through with white. Even their faces look much alike, not only because of his taste in women. Yet they reveal how he thought and worked. He left the portrait of his mistress unfinished, and the drawings show how he began. He planned obsessively, but he also planned for frequent rethinking, and he left faces to work themselves out on canvas, as a focal point and the very image of spontaneity.

Like society, he thinks first of a pose, often played off against a standing column, and then of surfaces. On paper, he sticks mostly to black chalk, sometimes with highlights in white or, more rarely, red. They work out a pose, including the articulation of hands, with faces left to separate sheets or a blur. The Frick also includes Jacob Jordaens, the Flemish painter, and Peter Lely in England—both more reliant on washes and both more concerned for finish. In Antwerp, van Dyck assisted Peter Paul Rubens, and both also tackle the same theologian, a Jesuit who served in China. van Dyck has nothing of the older artist's insight into a brooding, grasping personality still capable of wisdom, but that leaves plenty of space for the theater.

Sometimes he takes next to oil on paper, in grisaille (or monochrome), to work things out further. Only then come canvas and the face—with background color or landscape last, if at all. Still, he works fast every step of the way, with a shadow or cloud almost like a halo. This is not Brian Wilson in his room gorging on Oreos instead of making music, for all their shared obsessiveness. A sitter spoke, half bemused and half complaining, of enduring sessions over six days. I bet they were short sessions.

The curators, the Met's Stijn Alsteens and Adam Eaker, call the show "The Anatomy of Portraiture"—but anatomy is the least of its concerns, along with narrative. Even a Holy Family looks more like a family portrait than a vision. That teen self-portrait has a greater impasto, while a still earlier portrait draws on Tintoretto, the Venetian Mannerist with loose brushwork, sober faces, and ghostly light. All that quickly vanishes, as van Dyck does everything to hide his traces. While the cardinal's robe is a tour de force of red upon red, one cannot pin down a single fold. Still the painter is not done, and he converts selected portraits into a compendium of stiffer prints, the Iconographie.

Like Frans Hals in the Netherlands or Diego Velázquez in Spain, van Dyck set the standard for the Baroque portrait, but without their penetration and reserve. Maybe he never does let his flowing hair down, no more than John Singer Sargent nearly four hundred years later. Yet he looks ahead to Sargent among friends, in drawings that set aside the aristocracy for such fellow artists as Adriaen Brouwer, Orazio Gentileschi, and Pieter Bruegel the Younger. A luxuriant but vulnerable red-haired woman even approaches Jo the Irish Girl by James McNeill Whistler in 1866. For once, the most class-conscious of artists allows his sitter to cut class.

The gesture of inwardness

Listen to Huygens describe Rembrandt's amazement:

The gesture of that one despairing Judas . . ., that one maddened Judas, screaming, begging for forgiveness but devoid of hope, all traces of hope erased from his face; his gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed.

Rembrandt's Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (photo by National Gallery, London, private collection, 1629)Yet the interest of Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver does not end with that gesture. Displayed with five sketches toward the painting, it offers a rare look at the artist's first thoughts and his passage toward maturity. It shows Rembrandt back when he still worked out paintings on paper rather than in layer after layer on canvas. It also comes at the center of a further selection of prints and drawings, almost all from the Morgan itself.

To be fair, Huygens does not rest his case on a gesture either, apart from "all the other impressive figures in the painting." Judas has entered the temple, where at least eight others are going about their business. Yet another is arriving in the background, through a dark passage at right. Highlights linger on the open book and ceremonial shield above their heads, testimonies to their authority and their duties. If the disciple hopes to return the price of betraying Jesus, the priests and elders have other things on their mind. As the high priest says in Matthew, "What is that to us?"

In 1629 the young Rembrandt had not yet left a newly thriving Leiden for Amsterdam, where he got to know the Jewish community. Already, though, this is more than the story of an alien order. He takes care to insert Hebrew lettering in the book and to lend his entire cast both vulnerability and respect. They form a rough triangle within a circle, with Judas as its base. Several look apart or within. The background figure might be groping in the darkness as painfully as he.

Rembrandt knew religious wars at first hand, not in ancient Jerusalem subject to Rome, but in the Netherlands fighting free of Spain. And his delight in the exotic and in paint appear in their costumes and the shield above. At this stage, his palette is lighter, as with the Sacrifice of Isaac a few years later, and light seems not so much to emerge out of the darkness as to glow beside it. The influence of Italian art also appears in drawings after Leonardo—and in a print after a print after Raphael. Rembrandt learned from the early Baroque, too, in all its extroversion. A later print adapts a famed altarpiece in Antwerp cathedral by Rubens.

Look again at the praise from Huygens. It shows the new value placed on interior states, especially extreme states—despairing, maddened, screaming, begging. Yet it also shows the value placed on making them fully visible, as gesture and as theater. Judas, in desperation, has cast the silver to the ground, which a circle of light converts into a proscenium stage. "A blind impulse has brought him to his knees," the writer adds, "his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness." The backdrop at left, in pale green, resembles a stage curtain.

The Morgan opens with self-portraits on paper. Not only van Dyck was presenting himself with style. The strikingly young man lets his hair grow wild, and shadows divide his face in half, like theatrical lighting. He is a whole new kind of artist, self-conscious and divided in two, much like Judas. He is confessing to his impulse, but also forging an image. He is fixing on a signature literally as well—no longer RHL (for Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis), but Rembrandt.

Salvation or suicide

Far be it from me to quarrel with a polymath like Huygens. The exhibition includes a book of his, to show his learning, and a portrait by Jan Lievens, Rembrandt's friend and fellow student. Still, you may find yourself wondering at the weight he places on Judas and gesture. You may find yourself marveling more at the tension barely confined within the disciple's clasped hands, seemingly more an onlooker than an actor. Neither he nor the high priest occupies the painting's center, and the glances run every which way. This is an ensemble piece, from an artist who trained as a history painter. Rembrandt's Self-Portrait with Wide-Open Eyes (Rijksmuseum, 1630)

"Rembrandt's First Masterpiece" has the air of self-congratulation or of flattering the lender, a British private collection, and some may prefer one of Rembrandt's self-portraits in oil from the same year—or his likely first commission, a portrait in the Met painted two years later. (Per Rumburg got the ball rolling before departing the Morgan for the Royal Academy, London.) Still, an ambitious artist was working his way out of the dryness of his teacher, Pieter Lastman. He is using nimbler brushwork and thicker surfaces to capture varied textures, deeper shadows, and that inwardness. He is showing off.

Is the display too familiar, even with a masterpiece? The Morgan exhibited "Rembrandt's World" as recently as 2012. Still, it looks familiar for good reason—because work like this shook things up for good. The bulk follows Rembrandt at work on the Gospels. It shows him adopting larger and more varied compositions. One moves across them, finding new incidents every step of the way.

It shows multiple versions of the same print, the plate reworked each time. It shows him scraping away incident and then darkening the scene again—as in the Met's "The Unfinished Print." It shows him turning to the freest of tools for incising into a plate, drypoint. It shows, too, his concern for the gritty darkness of life. In that print after Rubens, he stresses Jesus not reaching to the sky, but pressing to the ground. On a lighter note, he cannot resist inserting a dog into The Last Supper.

For all that, the surprise is not how much studies for Judas reveal, but how little. Rembrandt has sketched a few figures quickly, then moved on. A leg in dense red chalk presses the ground, but it takes imagination to relate it to the panel's clothed figure. It takes even more to relate Judas to the exhibition's final section, on the artist's repertoire. Saint Jerome, too, is kneeling, although in holy contemplation. Still, Rembrandt has poses like this one available to him much like any artist, and so would you.

The greatest surprises lie in the painting—as inwardness and spectacle alike. As at a play, the viewer is watching, but so are the actors within. Judas is not gesturing wildly but looking on and looking for hope. Those looking out of the canvas engage the viewer directly with their eyes. You are in his position and in theirs. The dilemma of hope or madness, salvation or suicide, is on you.

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Portraits by Anthony van Dyck ran at The Frick Collection through June 5, 2016, "Rembrandt's First Masterpiece" at The Morgan Library through September 18.


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