Morgan Shows Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece Painted To Impress at 23
Etchings and Preparatory Drawings Show How He Developed “Judas” and Other Works of Genius From More Routine Beginnings
A Series of Youthful Self Portraits
“This is my business card” the 23 year old Rembrandt might as well have been announcing according to Per Rumberg of the Royal Academy of Art, the Morgan Library curator of Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece, the enlightening as well as heartening collection of Rembrandt’s drawings, etchings and engravings surrounding his 1629 masterpiece, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, which has been borrowed from a British private collection for exhibition for the first time in the US, which he painted before he arrived in Amsterdam never to leave it during the rest of his 69 years of life, for the masterpiece encapsulates in its composition and treatment of light and emotion all the initiatives Rembrandt took in advancing the boundaries of what could be done in painting beyond the conventions of the time, which others were developing technically without expanding, and his path breaking steps can be seen very well in four different small trial sketches using both sides of the paper in two frames on stands in front of the masterwork as it occupies a place of honor in the center of the wall facing visitors as they enter, one sketch of a fully fleshed leg upside down because it was done on the back of his first use of the same piece of paper, a leg which was to be fully under cloth in the final work, another showing that he decided later to shift the center of the painting and change its balance by adding figures on the left, which was all part of his characteristic avoidance of symmetry – “he hated symmetry!” noted Per Rumberg – and the unimaginative routines of composition followed by others at the time as he pioneered deeper exploration of the possibilities of space, light and emotion in becoming one of the most astonishingly beautiful and satisfying painters in the history of art, improvement shown also in the exhibition on the right hand side of the centerpiece where two successive editions of his engraving of Jesus Addressing The Crowd reveal that he completely erased that part of the crowd appearing below and in front of Jesus standing on the balcony in the first edition, and substituted what look all too like two large entrances to sewer tunnels, which you are perfectly free to think may have been a mistake, according to Per, while emphasizing that erasing the crowd allows Jesus to address the viewer directly, while the use of etching rather than engraving allows such changes to be made quite easily on the same plate, and thus this unusual exhibition of some 190 etchings and drawings alongside the masterwork is a master tutorial in the advances Rembrandt achieved in style and effect so rapidly that Judas could be his calling card at age 23 demonstrating he was already a master whom others would follow if they only could, a status recognized by diplomat poet and artist Constantijn Huygens whose lyrical though largely illegible (unless you look very very closely) handwritten autobiography is here to read lent by the Royal Library in the Hague, as well as a succession of typically honest self portraits Rembrandt executed at the time which show him youthful and lively, testing various expressions on his own features in his pursuit of emotional power in his art.
What Constantijn Huygens wrote on seeing Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver in Rembrandt’s workshop in 1629: “The gesture of that one despairing Judas (not to mention all the other impressive figures in the painting), 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; a blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness. […] Even as I write these words I am struck with amazement. All honor to thee, Rembrandt!”Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece
June 3 through September 18, 2016
Completed when he was just twenty-three years old, Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver has long been recognized as the artist’s first mature work, his first masterpiece. The painting demonstrates many of the characteristics that would come to define Rembrandt’s style: dramatic lighting, a rhythmic harmony of composition, and his exceptional ability to convey the emotional drama of a scene. Long held in a British private collection, the painting will be shown in the United States for the first time at the Morgan in Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece.
Adding to the importance of the presentation, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver is one of very few Rembrandt works for which several preparatory drawings survive. The exhibition reunites the painting and the drawings for the first time since their creation, offering visitors an unprecedented opportunity to take a glimpse over Rembrandt’s shoulder as he worked on this composition.
Among the first to recognize the greatness of Rembrandt’s Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver was the famous Dutch diplomat, poet, musician, and art connoisseur Constantijn Huygens. The manuscript of Huygens’s autobiography which contains his lyrical account of the painting will be lent by the Royal Library in The Hague and included in the exhibition.
Also on view will be a number of early self-portraits that show the young Rembrandt at the time he painted the panel, and some two dozen etchings and drawings of scenes from the life of Christ that illustrate the development of the artist’s narrative style. Many of the items on view are from the Morgan’s own collection of Rembrandt prints and drawings, and the exhibition also features loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the British Museum, London; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; and the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.
Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece is made possible in part by S. Parker Gilbert, whose gift prior to his death in 2015 provided early support for the project.
Generous support is also provided by Jean-Marie and Elizabeth Eveillard, the Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Research and Publications, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Parker Gilbert Memorial Fund, and Mr. and Mrs. Clement C. Moore II, with assistance from The Wolfgang Ratjen Foundation, Christie’s, the Netherland-America Foundation, and the Rita Markus Fund.
This project is supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.