To arrive at a true knowledge of the inventions and compositions of Rembrandt, it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine those of Albert Durer, the Leonardo da Vinci of Germany. The inventions of this extraordinary man are replete with the finest feelings of art, notwithstanding the Gothic dryness and fantastic forms of his figures. The folds of his draperies are more like creased pieces of paper than cloth, and his representation of the naked is either bloated and coarse, or dry and meagre. His backgrounds have all the extravagant characteristics of a German romance, and are totally destitute of aërial perspective; yet, with the exception of the character of the people and scenery of Nuremburg, he is not more extravagant in his forms than the founder of the Florentine school, and had he been educated in Italy, he in all probability would have rivalled Raffaelle in the purity of his design. In his journal, which he kept when he travelled into the Netherlands, he mentions some prints he sent to Rome, in exchange for those he expected in return, and it is mentioned that Raffaelle admired his works highly. The multitude of his engravings, both on copper and wood, which were spread over Germany, influenced, in a great degree, the style of composition of those artists who came after him, and accordingly we see many points of coincidence in the compositions of Rembrandt. A century, however, had opened up a greater insight into the mysteries of painting than either Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Durer ever thought of; one alone,—viz. aërial perspective, seems to mark the line between the ancient and modern school; for though Durer invented several instruments for perfecting lineal perspective, his works exhibit no attempt at giving the indistinctness of distant objects. To Rubens, Germany and Holland were indebted for this essential part of the art, so necessary to a true representation of Nature. This great genius, in his contemplation of the works of Titian and others, both at Venice and in Madrid, soon emancipated the art of his country from the Gothic hardness of Lucas Cranach, Van Eyck, and Albert Durer; but notwithstanding his taste and knowledge of what constituted the higher qualities of the Italian school, the irregular combinations and multitudinous assemblage of figures found in the early German compositions remained with him to the last. His works are like a melodrama, filled with actors who have no settled action or expression allotted them, while in the works of Raffaelle, and other great composers, the persons introduced are limited to the smallest number necessary to explain the story. This condensing of the interest, if I may use the expression, was borrowed originally from the Greeks, of whose sculptures the Romans availed themselves to a great degree. On the other hand, this looseness of arrangement, and what may be termed ornamental, not only spread through Germany, but infected the schools of Venice; witness the works of Tintoret and Paul Veronese, in which the expression of the countenance absolutely goes for nothing, and the whole arrangement is drawn out in a picturesque point of view, merely to amuse and gratify the eye of the spectator.

Now, with all these infectious examples before him, Rembrandt has done much to concentrate the action, and reduce the number drawn out on the canvas to the mere personages who figure in the history. Witness his "Salutation of the Virgin," in the Marquis of Westminster's collection, which is evidently engendered from the idea contained in the design of Albert Durer. His strict application to nature, while it enabled him to destroy the unmeaning combinations of his predecessors, led him into many errors, by the simple fact of drawing from the people in his presence. But are not others chargeable with some incongruities? Are the Madonnas of Murillo anything but a transcript of the women of Andalusia? The women of Venice figure in the historical compositions of Titian and Paul Veronese, and the Fornarina of Raffaelle is present in his most sacred subjects; those, therefore, who accuse Rembrandt of vulgarity of form, might with equal justice draw an invidious comparison between classic Italian and high Dutch. In many of his compositions he has embodied the highest feeling and sentiment, and in his study of natural simplicity approaches Raffaelle nearer than any of the Flemish or Dutch painters. Of course, as a colourist and master of light and shade, he is all powerful; but I allude, at present, to the mere conception and embodying of his subjects on this head.

Fuseli says,—"Rembrandt was, in my opinion, a genius of the first class in whatever relates not to form. In spite of the most portentous deformity, and without considering the spell of his chiaro-scuro, such were his powers of nature, such the grandeur, pathos, or simplicity of his composition, from the most elevated or extensive arrangement to the meanest and most homely, that the best cultivated eye, the purest sensibility, and the most refined taste, dwell on them equally enthralled. Shakspere alone excepted, no one combined with so much transcendent excellence so many, in all other men unpardonable, faults,—and reconciled us to them. He possessed the full empire of light and shade, and of all the tints that float between them; he tinged his pencil with equal success in the cool of dawn, in the noon-day ray, in the livid flash, in evanescent twilight, and rendered darkness visible. Though made to bend a steadfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature, yet he knew how to follow her into her calmest abodes, gave interest to insipidity and baldness, and plucked a flower in every desert. None ever, like Rembrandt, knew how to improve an accident into a beauty, or give importance to a trifle. If ever he had a master, he had no followers; Holland was not made to comprehend his power."

And in another lecture, speaking of the advantage of a low horizon, he says:—"What gives sublimity to Rembrandt's Ecce Homo more than this principle? a composition which, though complete, hides in its grandeur the limits of its scenery. Its form is a pyramid, whose top is lost in the sky, as its base in tumultuous murky waves. From the fluctuating crowds who inundate the base of the tribunal, we rise to Pilate, surrounded and perplexed by the varied ferocity of the sanguinary synod to whose remorseless gripe he surrenders his wand, and from him we ascend to the sublime resignation of innocence in Christ, and, regardless of the roar, securely repose on his countenance. Such is the grandeur of a conception, which in its blaze absorbs the abominable detail of materials too vulgar to be mentioned. Had the materials been equal to the conception and composition, the Ecce Homo of Rembrandt, even unsupported by the magic of its light and shade, or his spell of colours, would have been an assemblage of superhuman powers."

Reynolds, in his Eighth Discourse, speaking of the annoyance the mind feels at the display of too much variety and contrast, proceeds to say:—"To apply these general observations, which belong equally to all arts, to ours in particular. In a composition, where the objects are scattered and divided into many equal parts, the eye is perplexed and fatigued, from not knowing where to find the principal action, or which is the principal figure; for where all are making equal pretensions to notice, all are in equal danger of neglect. The expression which is used very often on these occasions is, the piece wants repose—a word which perfectly expresses a relief of the mind from that state of hurry and anxiety which it suffers when looking at a work of this character. On the other hand, absolute unity, that is, a large work consisting of one group or mass of light only, would be as defective as an heroic poem without episode, or any collateral incidents to recreate the mind with that variety which it requires. An instance occurs to me of two painters (Rembrandt and Poussin) of characters totally opposite to each other in every respect, but in nothing more than in their mode of composition and management of light and shadow. Rembrandt's manner is absolute unity; he often has but one group, and exhibits little more than one spot of light in the midst of a large quantity of shadow: if he has a second mass that second bears no proportion to the principal. Poussin, on the contrary, has scarcely any principle mass of light at all, and his figures are often too much dispersed, without sufficient attention to place them in groups. The conduct of these two painters is entirely the reverse of what might be expected from their general style and character, the works of Poussin being as much distinguished for simplicity as those of Rembrandt for combination. Even this conduct of Poussin might proceed from too great affection to simplicity of another kind, too great a desire to avoid the ostentation of art with regard to light and shadow, on which Rembrandt so much wished to draw the attention; however, each of them ran into contrary extremes, and it is difficult to determine which is the most reprehensible, both being equally distant from the demands of nature and the purposes of art."

This unity is observable in the composition of Rembrandt; even where a multiplicity of figures are employed, they are so grouped that the masses of light and shade are interrupted as little as possible; and it is only in his earlier works, such as those now in the Munich Gallery, where this isolated light is carried to extravagance. In many of his later pictures, we have not only subordinate groups, but a repetition of the principal lights; also a greater breadth of half-tint. "Composition," says Reynolds, "which is the principal part of the invention of a painter, is by far the greatest difficulty he has to encounter. Every man that can paint at all, can execute individual parts; but to keep these parts in due subordination as relative to a whole, requires a comprehensive view of the art, that more strongly implies genius than perhaps any other quality whatever." Now Rembrandt possessed this power in an eminent degree. At the revival of painting in Italy, the compositions consisted entirely of subjects taken from Sacred Writ—subjects that imposed a purity of thought and a primitive simplicity upon the artists; these qualities were, however, in a great measure lost in passing through the Venetian and German schools, where either the love for pictorial effect or the introduction of catholic ceremonies took precedence of every other arrangement. The prolific genius of Rubens spread this infectious mode of treatment through Flanders and Holland, till at length, in the hands of the painters of smoking and drinking scenes, historical subjects, even of a sacred character, became quite ridiculous. Yet, with all these examples of bad and vulgar taste around him, we find many compositions of Rembrandt less degraded by mean representation than many of the best of the works of the Venetian and Flemish painters. Take, for example, his design of Christ and his Disciples at Emmaus, the principal figure in which is certainly more refined than the Christ either in the pictures of Titian or Rubens of the same subject; in fact, the idea of it is taken from the Last Supper, by Raffaelle, (the Mark Antonio print of which he must have had.) Raffaelle is indebted for the figure to Leonardo da Vinci; and if we were to trace back, I have no doubt we should find that the Milanese borrowed it from an earlier master; indeed, we perceive in the progress of painting much of the primitive simplicity and uniformity preserved in the best works of the Italian school. It was only when composition passed through the prolific minds of such artists as Paul Veronese, Tintoret, and Rubens, that it was made subservient to the bustle, animation, and picturesque effect of their works. When we find, therefore, any remains revived in the pictures of Rembrandt, who was surrounded by compositions of a vulgar and low cast, we can only ascribe it to the taste and genius of this great painter. In the design just mentioned, the idea of the Disciples, as if struck with astonishment and awe at the bursting forth of the divinity of Christ, is admirably conceived. As the heads are taken from the people of his country, they of necessity partake of the character of the people. This cannot be justified, though it is excusable. Reynolds, on this head, speaking of the ennobling of the characters in an historical picture, says, "How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the Cartoons of Raffaelle. In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving. Yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular we are told by himself that his bodily presence was mean. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art History Painting: it ought to be called Poetical, as in reality it is." He further adds, "The painter has no other means of giving an idea of the mind but by that external appearance which grandeur of thought does generally, though not always, impress on the countenance, and by that correspondence of figure to sentiment and situation which all men wish, but cannot command." As I cannot defend the mean appearance of the disciples, neither shall I exculpate our great artist from blame in introducing a dog into so grand a subject; we can only excuse him on the plea of following the practice of his predecessors. Titian, in his celebrated picture, has not only introduced a dog, but a cat also, which is quarrelling with the former for a bone under the table. To this love for the introduction of animals into their compositions, for the sake of picturesque variety, many of the greatest painters must plead guilty; and though the incongruity has been pointed out over and over again by the writers on art, it is still clung to as means of contrast with the human figure. In one of the sketches by the late Sir D. Wilkie for his picture of "Finding the Body of Tippoo Saib," he had introduced two dogs, and only obliterated them when informed that dogs were considered unclean by the people of the east, and therefore it was an impossibility for them to be in the palace of Seringapatam. While I am upon this subject, it may not be amiss to refer to one of the authorities who censures this practice. Fresnoy says, in his poem on the "Art of Painting,"

"Nec quod inane, nihil facit ad rem sive videtur

Improprium miniméque urgens potiora tenebit

Ornamenta operis."

"Nor paint conspicuous on the foremost plain,

Whate'er is false, impertinent, or vain."



On this rule, Reynolds remarks—"This precept, so obvious to common sense, appears superfluous till we recollect that some of the greatest painters have been guilty of a breach of it; for—not to mention Paul Veronese or Rubens, whose principles as ornamental painters would allow great latitude in introducing animals, or whatever they might think necessary to contrast or make the composition more picturesque—we can no longer wonder why the poet has thought it worth setting a guard against this impropriety, when we find that such men as Raffaelle and the Caracci, in their greatest and most serious works, have introduced on the foreground mean and frivolous circumstances. Such improprieties, to do justice to the more modern painters, are seldom found in their works. The only excuse that can be made for those great artists, is their living in an age when it was the custom to mix the ludicrous with the serious, and when poetry as well as painting gave in to this fashion."

Many of the compositions of Rembrandt indicate not only a refined taste, but the greatest sensibility and feeling. For example, the small etchings of the "Burial of Christ," and the "Return from Jerusalem;" these, from their slightness, may lay me under the same category as the old Greek, who, having a house to sell, carried in his pocket one of the bricks as a sample; yet, being his own indications, I have given them. It is worth while to compare the "Entombment" with the same subject by Raffaelle, in the Crozat Collection. The whole arrangement is treated in the finest taste of the Italian school. The other design has been always a favourite with the admirers of Rembrandt. The feeling character of the youthful Saviour is admirably portrayed. Holding his mother's hand, he is cheering her on her tiring journey, looking in her face with an expression of affection and solace; while she is represented with downcast eyes, fatigued and "pondering in her mind" the import of the words he had addressed to her, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" And even here we can almost excuse the introduction of the little dog, who, running before the group, is looking back, giving a bark of joy at their having found the object of their solicitude. The background is conceived in the finest spirit of Titian.

These are the touches of nature that, like the expressions of our own immortal Shakspere, however slight, and though dressed in modern garb or familiar language, reach the innermost sensibilities of the human heart.


The character and costume of the people, as well as the scenery of those subjects taken from Holy Writ, have been a matter of investigation both by artists and writers upon art; for although the events related in the New Testament are not of so ancient a date as those of the heathen writers, yet the mind seems to require that the style should be neither classic nor too strictly local. Hence, though the costume represented in the Venetian pictures is no doubt nearer the truth than that made use of by Raffaelle and other Italians, it fails to carry us back to ancient and primitive simplicity. The early pictures delineating Christian subjects are modelled upon Greek forms and dresses, and having been made the foundation of those works afterwards produced by the great restorers of painting, have gained a hold upon our ideas, which, if not impossible, is yet difficult to throw off. As the late Sir David Wilkie travelled into the East with the express purpose of painting the subjects mentioned in Scripture in more strict accordance with the people and their habits, it may be of advantage to give the student his opinions. In his Journal, he says—"After seeing with great attention the city of Jerusalem and the district of Syria that extends from Jaffa to the river Jordan, I am satisfied it still presents a new field for the genius of Scripture painting to work upon. It is true the great Italian painters have created an art, the highest of its kind, peculiar to the subjects of sacred history; and in some of their examples, whether from facility of inquiry or from imagination, have come very near all the view of Syria could supply. The Venetians, (perhaps from their intercourse with Cyprus and the Levant,) Titian, Paul Veronese, and Sebastian del Piombo, have in their pictures given the nearest appearance to a Syrian people. Michael Angelo, too, from his generalizing style, has brought some of his prophets and sybils to resemble the old Jews about the streets of the Holy City; but in general, though the aspect of Nature will sometimes recall the finest ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaelle, yet these masters still want much that could be supplied here, and have a great deal of matters quite contrary to what the country could furnish. These contrarieties, indeed, are so great, that in discussions with the learned here, I find a disposition to that kind of change that would soon set aside the whole system of Italian and European art; but as these changes go too much upon the supposition that the manners of Scripture are precisely represented by the present race in Syria, it is too sweeping to be borne out by what we actually know. At the same time, there are so many objects in this country so perfectly described, so incapable of change, and that give such an air of truth to the local allusions of Sacred Writ, that one can scarcely imagine that these, had they been known to the painters of Italy, would not have added to the impressive power of their works. Without trying to take from the grand impression produced by the reading of the Sacred Writings, it may be said that from its nature many things must be confined to narrative, to description, to precept—and these are no doubt so strong as to supply to a pious mind everything that can be desired; but if these are to be represented, as certainly they have been, by those of an art who have not seen Syria, it is clear some other country, Italy, Spain, or Flanders, will be drawn upon to supply this, and the reader of Scripture and the admirer of art will be alike deluded by the representation of a strange country in the place of that so selected and so identified as the Land of Promise—so well known and so graphically described from the first to the last of the inspired writers."

These remarks are certainly applicable, but only in a degree. What is quoted from Reynolds, in a former part, shows that a licence is indispensable; and yet, without destroying the apparent truth of the subject, many things are now established that, without their being facts, have taken such hold of our ideas that they cannot with safety be departed from. I may instance the countenances of our Saviour and the Virgin, as given by Raffaelle and Coreggio—we recognise them as if they had been painted from the persons themselves; I may also add the heads of the Apostles. With regard to the scenery, many circumstances may certainly be taken advantage of, always guarding against a topographical appearance that, by its locality, may prevent the work leading the spectator back into distant periods of time. Before quitting this part of the subject, which refers to Rembrandt's powers of composition, I may notice one or two of his designs, which stamp him as a great genius in this department of the art—viz., his "Christ Healing the Sick," "Haman and Mordecai," the "Ecce Homo," "Christ Preaching," and the "Death of the Virgin."