For as long as I’ve been visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art there has been a small painting called “Head of Christ” (image above, top) in the museum’s John G. Johnson collection of European Art (larger but somewhat oversaturated version here).
It is a small but strikingly beautiful painting, 14 x 12 inches (36 x 31 cm) showing a head and upper torso of a plainly garbed figure, clothing almost fading into the unadorned background, but focusing on a face, obviously that of a real person and not constructed from imagination, painted with exquisite skill.
For a long time the painting was not featured prominently, often tucked away in the corner of a gallery in a modest frame, presumably because its attribution was somewhat in question — at times to “Studio of Rembrandt”, later “Attributed to Rembrandt”. It’s only recently (and I’m not sure how recently) that the attribution has changed to “Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn”, making it the only painting directly attributed to Rembrandt in the museum’s collection.
Even when the attribution was in question, many visitors, myself included, just loved this painting. If it isn’t a Rembrandt, my thought was, it’s the next best thing, a work painted with such skill as to be considered for attribution to the master, and one with an extraordinary subtlety, economy and painterly finesse. The fact that it was often tucked away in an unassuming corner just made it seem that much more of a hidden gem.
Though I haven’t heard it confirmed, it’s my guess that it was the change in attribution that led the museum, in cooperation with the Musée du Louve in Paris and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to mount a new exhibition now on display here in Philadelphia titled Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.
The exhibition is essentially built around a core display of this painting and six other similar bust-length portraits of comparable size and composition, some attributed directly to Rembrandt, others to the “Studio of”, but all shedding light on and enriching the experience of appreciating the others (images above, third, fourth and fifth down, with detail 6th down).
These have been borrowed from museums in Europe and the US, but the Philadelphia painting is the centerpiece, and the most striking of the group. I was also particularly impressed with this one (image above fourth and fifth down).
Expanding out from there, the exhibition is filled out with paintings, etchings and drawings, both by the master, his students and other artists who painted related portraits of Jesus, into an exhibition of 40 some works. It explores the changing interpretation by Rembrandt and others of the way Jesus was portrayed, something that had been bound by certain conventions, many of which Rembrandt broke by using live models and portraying Jesus as a real individual instead of an idealized icon.
The exhibit highlights this with some earlier examples by other artists but quickly moves into Rembrandt’s own groundbreaking interpretations. Though the exhibition is focused on this theme, and is far from a Rembrandt retrospective, it contains several striking works.
The Louvre contributes its wonderful painting of the the Supper at Emmaus (above, bottom two images). The tablecloth alone in this work struck me as a capsule defense of Rembrandt as one of history’s greatest painters. The reproduction from the Louvre feature on the exhibit, though not bad, still doesn’t to it justice.
There are also some wonderful examples of Rembrandt drawings (including this nimble sketch of Da Vinci’s Last Supper) and etchings in the show. Among the latter are two versions of Rembrandt’s famous etching “Jesus Healing the Sick”, commonly known as “The Hundred Guilder Print” for the extraordinary price it commanded in Rembrandt’s day. Surely one of the finest and most important etchings in Western art, this print exists in at least a hundred versions.
Not only can the individual prints (or “pulls”) from the same etching plate vary between “states” (versions of the plate that may have had lines added or darkened by the artist over time), but printmakers (in particular Rembrandt) can create a variety of effects in the way and degree to which ink is wiped from the plate before running it through the press.
The exhibition has two versions of the print on display, a darker one in which the foreground is more completely in shadow and the figures are more dramatically revealed in Rembrandt’s mastery of chiaroscuro, and a lighter, more delicate version, which I prefer. But the real treat is getting to compare the two.
Unfortunately, I don’t have crisp image of the latter; you can see it briefly in the video that runs in a small room in the exhibition (online here, scroll down) that demonstrates the process, along with the difference between etching and drypoint.
In addition to that video, the PMA has a few features on their site with work from the exhibition (though not nearly enough). On this page there are two slideshows, and another two here. The slideshow under “Breaking with Tradition” on the latter page shows eight of the heads of Christ that form the central focus of the exhibition.
The Louvre’s feature on the exhibit is distinctly better and includes many high resolution images of works from the show (though the images of the paintings tend to be a bit dark and oversaturated).
Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, having already been on display at the Louvre earlier this year, is now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until October 30, 2011 (requires scheduled tickets); it then moves to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it will be on display from November 20, 2011 to February 12, 2012.
It seems fitting that Rembrandt, so often fascinated with the commonplace and common people in his personal drawings, should be the one to bring the touch of reality to the face of Jesus.