Earlier this month, I looked at debut paintings in a New Year quiz, and the brilliance of some artists who died far too early in their careers. This weekend I’m redressing the balance by focussing on the other end of life: painters whose styles changed late in life, and whose careers ended with some of their finest work. Today I look at two of the most famous examples, Rembrandt and JMW Turner, whose late works were the subject of simultaneous exhibitions in London a few years ago. Tomorrow I look at four nineteenth century artists who are perhaps less well-known for this: Courbet, Cézanne, Hodler and Signac.
Rembrandt made his reputation painting portraits of individuals and groups, as well as finely finished narrative works.
He painted this Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in 1632, a decade before his most famous and vast Night Watch. An early commission soon after his arrival in Amsterdam, it is unmistakeably a group portrait of distinguished members of the Surgeons’ Guild in their working environment. Most remarkable is the fact that its principal, Dr Tulp, and most of his colleagues are not looking at the dissected forearm.
His narrative paintings were already showing signs of more radical departure from conventional style, as revealed in the marvellous Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel of 1633.
The young prophet Daniel (of lions’ den fame) was Cyrus the Great’s confidant, according to the book of Daniel. When Cyrus asked Daniel why he didn’t worship the Persian god Bel (Baal), Daniel responded by saying that he worshipped a living god, and not a mere idol. Cyrus then claimed that Bel too was a living god, and pointed to the offerings of food and wine which were placed before his statue, and were consumed each night. Daniel remarked cautiously that bronze statues do not eat, which for a moment threw Cyrus. But Daniel had exposed the deception of Bel’s priests.
Rembrandt has captured Cyrus, standing in the centre, pointing at the food and wine placed on the altar to Bel, whose huge idol is seen rather murkily at the upper right. Behind the modest figure of Daniel are some of the priests who maintained this deception.
Painted in mid-career, this work bears many of the hallmarks of Rembrandt’s late masterpieces. Viewed from a distance, the figure of Cyrus is portly and very solid. In this detail, it’s clear how Rembrandt built him up from painterly marks, which in places are highly gestural. The metallic highlights on Cyrus’s clothing are often no more than rough squiggles and dashes, and in places don’t appear to have been made by a brush. Even the king’s face is formed from an assemblage of marks.
Belshazzar’s Feast, from about 1635-38, is another fine example of Rembrandt’s painterly style and use of marks, together with the effects of constrained light.
As the detail below of his impasto work shows, Rembrandt applied paint quite thickly to the canvas. As in his later paintings, he had already started to break with the tradition of applying paint smoothly, leaving visible signs of its application, a technique which was used by other painters at times, but which remained unpopular and was often criticised until the nineteenth century.
By about 1660, many of his paintings had quite rough surfaces which significantly alter their optical properties.
Rembrandt continued to develop his mark-making right up to his death. It’s often at its most florid when he painted fabrics, such as the clothing of the couple shown in The Jewish Bride of about 1665.
This detail below shows how highlights on the sleeve and jewellery have been applied roughly, although it’s still a matter for speculation as to exactly how he achieved that. Lower down, on the red dress of the bride, the duller top layer of paint has been scraped through to reveal lighter lower layers.
The end result is a painting which creates its visual effects as much by its surface textures, as by form or colour. This may have arisen as Rembrandt extended the techniques which he used in oil sketches and studies to his ‘finished’ paintings.
JMW Turner first worked as an apprentice draughtsman before entering the Royal Academy schools at the age of 14, and the following year had his first painting hung in the prestigious Royal Academy summer exhibition. Travelling widely around the UK, he enjoyed early critical success with topographical and marine subjects. These early graphite and watercolour paintings continued the British tradition, with their precise architectural passages and popular motifs.
In 1802 he started to visit and tour through Europe, capturing acclaimed views of France, Switzerland, and Italy, particularly Venice, and dramatic impressions of severe weather and daunting terrain in the Alps. In the summer of 1811, he had toured the west of England, where he made studies of the River Tamar, which marks the boundary between Devon and Cornwall. The second major painting which he exhibited in the summer of 1815 had been developed from one of those plein air studies of the River Tamar: Crossing the Brook (1815).
Like several of his landscapes, it was inspired by Claude Lorraine, but is more conventional, revealing its influence from the landscape tradition, including the British line which traced back to Richard Wilson (1714-1782).
A decade later, his Harbour of Dieppe (c 1826) is a good example of his advancing but still conventional style.
During the 1830s, Turner’s attention transferred to the effects of light, and dramatic impressions of the sea and sky. His technique ranged more widely, involving scratching with his nails, spit, and experimental oil media. Unfortunately the latter have resulted in severe problems developing in the paint films of many of his oil paintings, even during his lifetime. However they enabled him to push the boundaries in depicting less tangible and concrete elements in his motifs, such as sunlight, waves, mist, and cloud. Turner thus developed his making of marks, and innovative ways of applying and removing paint from the support, to take painting on beyond the physical towards the evanescent, sensory experiences which had seldom been captured earlier.
In his Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842), the view shown is that of Mount Rigi across Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, one of Turner’s favourites, the subject of several studies and finished works. His style has departed from convention, and is now more akin to paintings of the Impressionists which were to appear on the other side of the Channel in at least twenty-five years.
Turner returned to some of his favourite landscapes, here Norham Castle, which he had first painted in English topographical style in 1797. This time, in Norham Castle, Sunrise (c 1845), his work wasn’t to be matched for more than three decades, and remains controversial nearly two centuries later. That’s not bad for someone of around seventy.