CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rembrandt’s late religious portraits

Exhibition: 30 January - 1 May 2005


Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of Northern Baroque painting

Museum press release, 17 December 2004

In early 2005, the National Gallery of Art will bring together for the first time Rembrandt van Rijn’s powerful late portraits of religious figures, executed at a time of great personal turmoil. Rembrandt’s late religious portraits will offer a unique opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating aspects of the Dutch master’s artistic career–his brooding and pensive religious images from the late 1650s and early 1660s. The 17 paintings gathered from public and private collections in the United States and Europe have raised compelling questions about their creation and purpose, as well as their relationships to each other and to Rembrandt’s life and career.

The exhibition will be on view in the newly reinstalled Dutch galleries of the West Building, January 30 through May 1, 2005, and travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, where it will be on view from June 7 through August 28, 2005. At the National Gallery, a related selection of prints and drawings by Rembrandt will be installed in the West Building Dutch Cabinet Galleries for the duration of this exhibition.

“The National Gallery of Art is delighted to bring together for the first time Rembrandt’s religious portraits, which are among the most evocative and expressive paintings the artist ever created,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We hope that the exhibition will offer new insight into Rembrandt’s work and will provide visual delight for our visitors to Washington and Los Angeles.”

The exhibition

Throughout Rembrandt’s long and productive career in Leiden and Amsterdam, he returned repeatedly to the Bible as a source of inspiration. His paintings, drawings, and etchings depicted not only scenes and personalities from the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, but also those found in the New Testament, particularly those centered on the life of Christ.

In the exhibition, many of the dramatic portraits depict Christ and the Virgin, but there are also representations of the Apostles who devoted their lives to spreading the Gospel, among them Paul, Bartholomew, James, and Simon, and a number of the Evangelists, monks, and later saints. They include a self-portrait of the artist as the Apostle Paul and Rembrandt’s last-known portrait of his companion Hendrickeje Stoffel, possibly a depiction of the Sorrowing Virgin, both painted in 1661. The men and women in these powerful images peer out of the dark recesses of dimly-lit interiors, burdened by the weight of their spiritual and emotional concerns. Executed shortly after Rembrandt’s financial crises of the mid-1650s, when his expressive style of painting was no longer in demand by Amsterdam’s elite, these half-length portrayals reflect Rembrandt’s profound understanding of both the human and iconic character of their personalities. He renders not only their physical features but also the state of their psychological being.

For more than 80 years scholars have postulated that these religious portraits formed part of a series. By seeing these paintings together much can be learned bout Rembrandt’s painting techniques, particularly about the myriad of ways he applied his paint and modeled his forms to create his imposing images. The exhibition may also raise broader issues surrounding the nature of Rembrandt’s workshop during this period of his career.

On Sunday, January 30, 2005, at 2:00 p.m., in a program titled Rembrandt’s late religious portraits, this master’s work will be discussed by noted specialists of Dutch art, including Wheelock and Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project. (see related activities below)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Rembrandt was born in Leyden in 1606 to a Calvinist miller and a baker’s daughter from a Catholic family, the youngest of at least ten children. He attended Latin School and began his career with a certain degree of knowledge about 17th -century Italian art, based on his training with masters who had worked in Italy. He achieved fame in his twenties with his paintings of historical and religious subjects and concentrated on landscape painting in the late 1630s.

In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam, where he achieved tremendous success and attracted numerous lucrative portrait commissions, culminating with the celebrated painting known as The Night Watch, which he executed in 1642, the same year his wife Saskia died. They had four children, but only Titus, born in 1941, survived infancy. Rembrandt could never remarry as stipulated in Saskia’s will. In 1649 he entered a lifelong relationship with his son Titus’ wet nurse Hendrickje Stoffels, a relationship that negatively affected their social standing.

The late 1650s, the years in which Rembrandt began to focus on these portraits of religious figures, were extremely difficult. He was forced to declare financial insolvency in 1656 and auctioned off his art collection and household possessions. Younger Amsterdam artists largely deserted Rembrandt’s deeply personal manner of painting. Although he remained famous as an artist, Rembrandt faced many personal burdens, including the deaths of Hendrickje and Titus, due to epidemics. On October 4, 1669, he was buried in an unknown rented grave in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam.


Rembrandt’s late religious portraits is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with University of Chicago Press. The 152-page exhibition catalogue includes 45 full-color reproductions, 54 black-and-white images and entries for each of the paintings in the exhibition.

Contributors include Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of Northern Baroque painting, National Gallery of Art, with Peter C. Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut; Volker Manuth, professor of art history, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands; and Anne T. Woollett, assistant curator of paintings, The J. Paul Getty Museum.

The catalogue was published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with University of Chicago Press. It will be available for $40 in hardcover in January 2005 in the Gallery Shops by calling +1 800 697 9350 or +1 202 842 6002, or faxing +1 202 789 3047. You can also visit the Shops online


Generous support for this exhibition at the National Gallery of Art was provided by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Saunders III. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Other venue

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 7 June-28 August 2005

Related activities

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Gallery will offer a variety of related activities. Admission to the Gallery is free, and all programs are free unless otherwise noted; seating is on a first-come, first-seated basis. For more information, call +1 202 737 4215 or visit the museum website.

Rembrandt’s religious etchings

In conjunction with the exhibition Rembrandt’s late religious portraits remarkable etchings of biblical subjects produced in the 1650s by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) are on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building Dutch Cabinet Galleries. The instalment includes 24 prints, selected from the Gallery’s collection of 331 prints by the Dutch master.

Rembrandt’s religious etchings includes prints from two series, one devoted to the childhood of Christ and one with scenes from Christ’s life and resurrection. Rembrandt’s interest in New Testament series in the 1650s may shed light on questions surrounding the relationship of the late religious oil portraits as a series. The etchings are divided into four subject areas: Christ’s Childhood; Death and Resurrection; Preaching, Teaching, Praying; and Old Testament.

Throughout his long and extraordinarily productive career, but particularly during the 1650s, Rembrandt turned repeatedly to the Bible as a source of inspiration for his etchings. They depict scenes from the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, as well as stories found in the New Testament, particularly those centered on the life of Christ. Whether portraying Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham at moments of spiritual crisis, the Holy Family at rest in a simple dwelling, or Christ preaching, Rembrandt transformed the written word into vividly compelling pictorial language.

Two of the most remarkable prints in this installation are Christ Presented to the People (1655), and The Three Crosses (1653). The emotional impact of these two large-scale prints is largely due to the powerful contrasts of light and dark that Rembrandt was able to achieve through drypoint.

Lecture series: The Dutch interior

A series of five lecture programs on domestic aspects of Dutch life and culture in the 17th-century Golden Age. Vermeer, Rembrandt, and many other artists have created evocative images of the Dutch interior. These lectures explore how the depiction of homes, churches, and civic institutions reflected contemporary beliefs and behavior.

January 2
Love and the private sphere in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, H. Rodney Nevitt Jr., associate professor of art history, University of Houston

January 9
Noises and silences in Dutch paintings of manners, Mariët Westermann, director, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

January 16
Portraits and personalities, Stephanie Dickey, associate professor of art history, Herron School of Art, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

January 23
Inside the artist’s studio, H. Perry Chapman, professor of art history, University of Delaware

January 30 (Exhibition opening day lectures)
Rembrandt’s late religious portraits, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., exhibition curator and curator of Northern Baroque paintings, National Gallery of Art
Rembrandt’s late style, Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project, Amsterdam

Gallery talks

All gallery talks will begin in the West Building Rotunda unless noted otherwise.

Rembrandt’s late religious portraits
February 22, 25, and 27, 12:00 p.m.; March 2 and 4, 1:00 p.m.

Dutch and Flemish works of art on paper in the National Gallery’s permanent collection
January 10, 12, 18, and 20, 1:00 p.m. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. Please call +1 202 842 6247.

Dutch scenes of everyday life
January 22, 1:00 p.m.; January 25, 26, and 30, 12:00 p.m.