Exhibitions: Blinded by greatness

Rembrandt did his 'Samson' when he was 30. It's a shockingly violent masterpiece
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The Independent Culture
The National Gallery is showing off a loan from the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, a small museum that's presently being renovated. It's a loan of only one painting, but a mighty and unforgettable work: Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson of 1636. It has never previously been lent, so wasn't in the huge retrospective held in Amsterdam, London and New York in 1992, the defining Rembrandt exhibition of our time. If you don't know the Frankfurt museum, this picture is bound to come as a surprise, indeed as a shock. It is violent and dramatic in ways that only great artists can achieve.

Rembrandt was just 30 years old when he completed this canvas, and it must count as one of his early masterpieces. The artist's relative youth explains an abruptness in the picture. A desire to emulate Rubens and to devise history paintings accounts for a sense of competition. But the manner in which Rembrandt soars above his gruesome subject, one can only - helplessly - ascribe to his genius. Or, Christians may believe, to his understanding of God's horrific ways with men. Surely Rembrandt was the most elevated interpreter of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, who ever used pencil or brush?

Just two other paintings complete the exhibition, one an Old Testament subject, the other on a classical theme with - I believe - close connections to Rembrandt's own life. These already belong to the National Gallery. They are Belshazzar's Feast, and the picture that in the 1992 exhibition was called Flora. The National Gallery doesn't now know quite what to call it; but more of this in a moment. There is a fourth painting in the room, though it is not quite in the exhibition. This is the NG's Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his Clerk by Thomas de Keyser - a nice little picture, far removed from the tremendous emotions of the three Rembrandts, included because Huygens was important in Rembrandt's early career.

The Blinding of Samson was probably for Huygens, who was the artistic adviser to the Prince of Orange and an influential man in numerous other ways. The young Rembrandt would have been eager to secure his patronage, and would have known that Guygens's most admired artist was Rubens. There can be little doubt that The Blinding of Samson was painted in competition with Rubens, and a little walk to another part of the National Gallery will reveal, in Rubens's Samson and Delilah, what a challenge the older and suaver artist had set the young man from Amsterdam. Rembrandt's telling of the story differs both from Rubens's version and from the Bible. In Judges, we read that Delilah asked someone else to shave off Samson's hair. In Rembrandt's picture, she has done it herself. There she is at the top of the picture, triumphant in wickedness, scissors in one hand, locks in the other, looking back to see her lover's eyes put out. The action seems to take place in a cave as much as a room or a dungeon. Thus the hellish atmosphere is intensified.

Rembrandt painted other Samson pictures. Perhaps he felt affinity with the story of a man of great strength who was made to live as a darkened beast, who then caused the destruction of his enemies at the time of his own death, amid the ruins of their civilisation. And obviously no artist, especially one so empathetic as Rembrandt, could think of a blinding without a personal shudder. I add that Samson's sexual and marital life was greedy and tumultuous. The significance of its events may have been in Rembrandt's mind when he painted the second work in the exhibition, Belshazzar's Feast. The Libertine, his lords and concubines, are as it were blinded by the sudden message that judgement is at hand. However many times one sees this picture, it never fails to thrill. That is because of the electric nature of its chiaroscuro. Rembrandt as a master of dark- to-light contrasts scarcely did anything as flashing and immediate as this picture. Usually his chiaroscuro denotes contemplation. But thoughtfulness is not part of the subject of this picture. It says that Belshazzar has lived his life without thought.

After these biblical dramas it is good to turn to Flora. She is the classical goddess of Spring, so is generally represented in art with flowers, and sometimes with a shepherdess's crook. But she is also said to have been a courtesan, and therefore is the patron saint of prostitutes. In ancient Rome the games in her honour presented scenes of unbounded licentiousness. Rembrandt surely wishes to emphasise the spring-life nature of his goddess, but her sensuality is also apparent. She is, one might say, quite the antithesis of Botticelli's virginal representation of Flora in his Primavera. Rembrandt's creation is a goddess of this earth, and furthermore of Dutch earth.

For she is Saskia van Ulenburch, who married Rembrandt in 1634, two years before the Samson picture and one year before this one. The title the National Gallery now prefers is Saskia van Ulenburch in Arcadian Costume, so it appears that they have now recognised that it is a portrait of Rembrandt's wife without being keen to interpret the painting in a mythological way. I prefer to think of Saskia as a human goddess rather than a person in a costume drama. How curious it is that no one has ever put forward the obvious theory that Saskia/Flora is pregnant. She has the stance and the generous belly of a woman with child, and in her face is the delicious air of expectancy and self-satisfaction that is to be seen in women who have entered the seventh month of their term. In pursuit of this interpretation I observe that Saskia/Flora's left hand is that of a man, not a woman. It is Rembrandt's hand, gently holding both flowers and his wife's stomach. Saskia lost one baby and had two miscarriages in the early years of her marriage, just when her husband was painting the Samson and Belshazzar pictures. Those paintings were public demonstrations of Rembrandt's power. This one is private, and its true story can only have been known to painter and his loved one.

NG, WC2 (0171 747 2885), to 16 Nov; free.

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