words by phil grabsky
Phil's chosen painting this week is...
The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt
Our re-release of our film on Rembrandt brings back to mind a riveting painting by this Dutch master of art. Indeed it was the image of the exhibition on which we based the film and the image we used for our poster. Take a moment to really look at it: before you read on. Look carefully for thirty seconds, a minute maybe. Try to take in the extraordinary achievement in oil paints that Rembrandt achieves here. The depiction of this illustriously-clad man and woman is both a technical masterpiece, showcasing Rembrandt’s signature use of oil paint in thick, sculpted layers, and a sensitive rendering of a remarkably intimate moment, made all the more so by the mystery of its composition.
A true innovator of the medium, Rembrandt used paint almost as if he were sculpting. It’s three-dimensional. We can show you this in the film – but I’d urge anyone in Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum to see it up close. Moulding, building, scratching and smearing, he pushed for new ways of creating detail and depth, beautifully displayed here in the couple’s richly coloured garments. The exquisite detail of the man’s sleeve for instance has been created with weighty dabs of paint, accentuated with the visceral scratches of the artist’s pallet knife.
The juxtaposition of those heavy, sumptuous garments with such a delicate and intimate embrace is a part of what makes the painting so enchanting. The viewer is, on the one hand, confronted with the refinement and modesty of a happy and clearly wealthy couple. On the other hand, the placement of the man’s hand on the woman’s breast – or, perhaps more accurately, over her heart, plus the darkness within which they are shrouded and the fact they are looking neither at each other nor at the viewer, all suggest this is a private moment not intended to be on display. The image is intimate, voyeuristic and beguiling all at the same time.
Part of the pleasure of paintings – and why it always help to know something about the artist and his or her period – is the often inevitable mystery that is associated with a work. Surely our appreciation of The Jewish Bride is accentuated by the sense of thrill and enchantment caused by the painting’s enigmatic status. Its original title, the identity of its sitters and the context under which it was created have long since fallen into an unknowable obscurity. Such obscurity, however, has spurred exciting speculation...
In the 19th-century an art critic dubbed the hitherto unnamed painting The Jewish Bride, believing it depicted a wealthy Jewish man bestowing jewels upon his daughter for her wedding. Though that interpretation has fallen out of fashion, as today’s art historians claim the image most certainly depicts a romantic couple but not necessarily a Jewish couple, the nickname has stuck.
The most popular theory today is that the painting depicts the Old Testament figures of Isaac and Rebecca. This is supported by an earlier drawing by Rembrandt (below) explicitly denoting the biblical couple, with which The Jewish Bride shares many similarities. Having ventured to the city of Gerar, the married couple Isaac and Rebecca pretended to be brother and sister for fear Isaac would be murdered out of jealousy for Rebecca’s incomparable beauty. The drawing captures the moment in which they are discovered by the king Abimelech, barely visible in the top right corner. With Abimelech omitted and the couple brought to the forefront of The Jewish Bride, their love and not the drama of the story becomes the focal point of the painting.
Given the voyeuristic nature of The Jewish Bride, many have speculated that the threat posed by Abimelech is not so absent as it might at first seem. Intoxicated by the secret romance and beauty of the subjects, have we the viewer become the prying eyes of Gerar?
Whatever the subject matter, it is a wonderful painting of a couple who once lived (even if only in Rembrandt’s imagination) and in this gentle moment are seeming to express their love for one another. Do visit our website for more information about the film and to see one or two clips from it. Also, this and other posters are available to purchase.
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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo13