- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

In the National Gallery of Art’s “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” title is cq,nga,gov expression of the 17th-century Dutch master’s spiritual beliefs, the artist paints himself as a sorrowful — even pathetic — Apostle Paul. The artist’s mournful eyes, set between a wrinkled forehead and bulbous nose, seem to foreshadow his later vicissitudes as the most important interpreter of Christ’s teachings.

This “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul,” the centerpiece of this unique exhibition, sets the tone for an extraordinary show of 17 legendary religious figures that includes the Apostles who preached the Gospel — among them Paul, Bartholomew, James and Simon — the Christ and Virgin, evangelists, monks and saints. “They’re heart wrenching,” says Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., exhibit curator and curator of northern baroque painting at the gallery.

Organized jointly by the National Gallery and Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, the main exhibit is supplemented by 24 related biblical etchings in the adjoining Dutch Cabinet Galleries.

Although chiefly noted for religious and historic paintings, commissioned portraits and self-portraits, Rembrandt deeply immersed himself in the biblical themes represented in this focused exhibit.

The artist concentrated on painting powerful bust portraits of holy figures during the late 1650s and early 1660s. Scholars conjecture that the artist gained special empathy for these subjects as the result of great personal and financial losses he suffered during this period.

Rembrandt apparently identified especially closely with St. Paul, who is depicted here in three strikingly different portraits, including the aforementioned “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul.”

The National Gallery’s own “Apostle Paul” is a huge painting on a heroic scale. It shows the idealized saint alone in prison, with a sword — symbol of his martyrdom — and a manuscript — standing for the Gospel — nearby. His left hand holds his forehead — light playing on both — while the right hand is poised to write.

By contrast, Rembrandt clearly modeled the facial features of “An Elderly Man as the Apostle Paul” from a human sitter.

Rembrandt also favored the lesser known Apostle Bartholomew, whom the exhibit label describes as “flayed alive and then beheaded.” Like the nearby “Apostle Paul,” his Bartholomew portrait is idealized and monumental. The artist portrays him as a physical fighter seemingly ready to go out and conquer the world. But the glinting knife in Bartholomew’s hand functions also as a portent of his eventual fate.

In “Hendrickje Stoffels (as the Sorrowing Virgin?),” the artist’s personal travails are viewed through the prism of his faith. Earlier in his life, Rembrandt had married well, received important portrait commissions and amassed a valuable art collection.

After his wife Saskia died due to the birth of their son Titus, Rembrandt took Stoffels as his mistress. Because of financial strictures in Saskia’s will, Rembrandt couldn’t marry Stoffels. When their daughter Cornelia was born in 1659, both the artist and Stoffels suffered as social outcasts in their native Am- sterdam. Here, in one of the most moving portraits in the exhibit, he portrays her as the mourning Virgin.

Of course, there’s much more in this breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime exhibit. Like the National Gallery’s “Johannes Vermeer” show of several years ago, “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits” should be visited again and again.

WHAT: “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Through May 1.cq,per nga.gov


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