Head of Christ
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (school of)
Below the image, click play to listen.
John Nolan served as curator at the Museum & Gallery for twenty years. In this month’s segment, he shares his thoughts on one of his favorite works from the collection.
Oil on canvas
Click on links for additional reference information.
This dynamic seascape by a seventeenth-century French painter bears a striking similarity to a work done by a renowned Dutch master of the same period, Rembrandt van Rijn. Until the modern concepts of copyright and intellectual property, most artists of the past eagerly learned from the creative ideas and innovative troubleshooting of both those before them and their contemporaries. Part of an artist’s training involved painting copies of famous works of art or that of their master (the teacher they were apprenticed to or worked under). The diagonal composition, dramatic lighting, textures, and even to some degree, the figures in this M&G work are clearly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (below).
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was born in the Netherlands, “a land of winds and water.” Located on the North Sea, twenty-five percent of the land is at or below sea level with the highest point (Vaalserberg) only 1053 feet above. Over the centuries, this geography has shaped both the nation’s history and the temperament of its people. For example, during the seventeenth century raging sea storms and lowland flooding often threatened life and livelihood, but Dutch ingenuity and resilience turned these formidable obstacles into valuable resources. (For more detailed exploration download the National Gallery of Art’s informative resource Painting in the Dutch Golden Age.)
In light of Rembrandt’s birthplace, it’s interesting that he painted only one seascape. Regardless, the dynamic composition and nuanced atmospheric beauty of his Storm on the Sea of Galilee reflects an intimate knowledge of storm-tossed seas. Rembrandt was only 27 when he painted this work, and art historians have speculated that the choice of subject indicates a youthful preference for action-packed scenes. Whatever his motivation, the scene clearly adumbrates the dramatic chiaroscuro and nuanced visual texture that would become a hallmark of his work.
Sadly, we are limited to experiencing the work through reproductions. On the night of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, bound the museum’s security guards, and made off with thirteen of the gallery’s prized masterworks, including Rembrandt’s famous seascape.
Artists today are still honing their skills by studying and copying such masterworks. As contemporary artist Lisa Marder acknowledges, it is “one of the tried and true techniques of classical art training.”
Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education
Published in 2017
Oil on canvas, signed and dated, 1643
Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, the son of a goldsmith, studied with Rembrandt for five years (age 15-20) and was a “great friend” of the famous artist, according to his biographer. He also continued to imitate his teacher’s style throughout his career, especially in his religious paintings. His first signed painting is dated 1641 (age 20), which probably indicates the time he advanced from student to independent artist. Therefore the Museum & Gallery’s painting, dated 1643, was one of his earliest works. In addition to painting, he worked as an etcher and draughtsman. He never lost interest in his father’s work of goldsmithing, often including precisely painted metal objects in his paintings, as well as producing a book of patterns for ornamental designs for metalworkers. His family’s Mennonite faith influenced his preference for religious subject matter, although he was also known for portraiture and landscape painting.
The biblical story of Joseph is an inspiring one. After being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and being falsely accused of attempted rape in Egypt, the depicted scene shows him in prison. Because of his trustworthiness, he has been placed in a position of leadership within the prison (notice the keys hanging from his waist) and is interpreting the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants. The butler (or person who tasted the king’s wine to make sure it was not poisoned) is shown to the right in fancier clothes with a jug at his feet; he would be pardoned in three days. The baker, however, would be killed in three days. We can see the look of despondency on his face as he learns his fate. Although the butler promised to remember Joseph to Pharaoh, it wasn’t until two years later that a circumstance caused him to remember. After all of Joseph’s trials, he praised God and told his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
The provenance, or ownership history, of the painting begins with a sale in Amsterdam in 1762, just a little over 100 years after its creation. The Dundas family of Scotland purchased it, where it remained by family descent until 1953; it became part of the Collection in 1963.
Published in 2013