Rembrandt: The Late Works (National Gallery)

rembrandt_ticket[1]Many an exhibition will market itself as “once in a lifetime”. The National Gallery’s Rembrandt blockbuster is no different, clearly marking out the rare accumulation of a vast amount of canonical works in one place. Exhibitions of this size take years to plan, fund and curate. Speaking to employees of the Gallery, it becomes clear that this was by no means an easy feat. The question on everyone’s lips: will it pay off?

It seems so. Aside from the excellent reviews the exhibition has received in the press, personal experiences have been equally positive. My fellow students are eager to part with their fiercely guarded student loans just to catch a glimpse of seminal works such as “The Syndics” or “The Jewish Bride”.

Focusing on his later years as an artist, the exhibition reflects a period of personal unrest. Rembrandt was beset with money worries, and as a citizen he had been hounded by the church for his common law marriage. Facing bankruptcy in 1656, he was forced to sell his spacious house and studio for more modest accommodation. One can only imagine the loss of pride for a man so concerned with self-representation in his paintings.

Yet despite this, Rembrandt was not ready to give up hope. The vast collection of work grouped together in the Sainsbury Wing assures us that Rembrandt’s creative energies could not be dulled by external factors. Organised thematically, the exhibition allows us to explore Rembrandt’s concerns during the last years of his career, spanning ideas like the representation of everyday life to more internal concerns such as intimacy and conflict.

Young Woman Sleeping  © Trustees of the British Museum

Young Woman Sleeping
© Trustees of the British Museum

In fact, it soon becomes clear that Rembrandt’s tender nature has not been blunted by hardship. His pen and ink drawing of A Young Woman Sleeping (c.1654), has been attributed as an affectionate rendering of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels, branded a whore by the Church due to her communion with Rembrandt, is here depicted softly in a position of complete innocence. This private insight into Rembrandt’s personal life suggests his ability to appreciate simple pleasures despite economic complications.

Self-Portrait with Circles. Kenwood House.

Self-Portrait with Circles. (Kenwood House)

Rembrandt’s union with Stoffels has marked him in historical discourse as a man who didn’t always conform. He offers us further hint of this inner rebellion through his many self-portraits of the later period. In “Self Portrait with Two Circles” (c.1665-9), he asserts himself as a wizened elderly man, with a frontal gaze and a hand on his hip. Painted ten years after he declared bankruptcy, Rembrandt is declaring his continued status as an artist. Our eye is drawn to his painting materials, which, undemarcated from his body, are offered as part of his very being. Two circles frame his proud expression, once again reminding the contemporary viewer that money would not stop him from devoting his life to art.

And it is this devotion, arguably, that comes through strongest in the exhibition – not only the dedication of Rembrandt to his art, but also of the gallery to its public.

Evy Cauldwell-French is a second-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in 20th century interior design.

Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until January 18 2015.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed (Soane Museum)


The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the most fitting setting for the first major survey of Alan Sorrell’s oeuvre. Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) was an English artist who worked in multiple mediums, but is best known for his archeological illustrations. Like Sir John Soane, an architect who became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Sorrell was a draughtsman who became Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at The Royal College of Art. Soane and Sorrell succeeded in their craft so much so that they enabled future artists to work as well as they did within the academic tradition. Framing Sorrell’s work inside the Soane’s Museum encourages viewers to engage and interpret the art like a new student discovering line, shape and colour in a new light.

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130


Sorrell is best known for his reconstruction drawings of British historical sites; Prehistoric, Roman and medieval. Similar to his commercial work as an illustrator (his patterns and book designs are on display as well), Sorrell captures the balance between shape and colour. The systematic attention to detail and the artistic sense of imagination creates compelling works on paper. Even though Sorrell is remembered for these drawings, I found the most compelling pieces in the exhibition to be the two self-portraits that give an intimate lens into his personal artistic process.

Self-Portrait (1928) is a drawing that Sorrell created once he arrived in Rome during his artistic endeavors. The quality of his draughtsmanship is so apparent that it begins to bleed into the viewer’s space. Pencil, ink and white gouache illuminate and stain the paper, producing an expressive moment with the artist at work. As Sorrell hunches before his easel, he looks straight out at the viewer. The contrast between the dark ink and bright gouache emphasizes the deep folds of the fabric on his body and the draped cloth beside him. The jagged edges seen throughout the composition further confront the viewer with a feeling of restlessness. The eye darts from Sorrell’s high cheekbones to his pursed lips and furrowed brow and then towards the working-sketch of the hanging lamp and multiple canvases in the background and then back to the foreground to notice the different depictions of each of the fold in his stockings. This eye movement around the image creates an entertaining (and instructive) mapping experience for the viewer.

Sorrell's late 1930s portrait

Sorrell’s late 1930s portrait

Furthermore, it becomes readily apparent that his talent is not limited to drawing when observing Sorrell’s later painting, Self-Portrait (late 1930s). Here, the artist has decidedly zoomed in to focus on his face during the artistic act of creation. His sharp gaze is literally parallel to the vertical and sharply pointed pencil in his hand. The attention to line and its function is present in his drawings and his paintings. Soane would most probably approve of Sorrell exhibiting in his home, and expanding his reputation among other artworks. The quality of Sorrell’s talent is clear, and the way he peers into the viewers’ eye he leaves no room for skepticism.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed was at the Soane Museum from the 25th October 2013 to the 25th January 2014.

See here for more information on Sorrell and the book associated with the exhibition.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.