Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Two Old Men Disputing

REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn
Two Old Men Disputing (1628)
oil on wood panel
Felton bequest

Opinions differ on who the eponymous two old men are, but what is not in dispute is that Melbourne is extremely fortunate to have this masterpiece in the NGV collection. It very nearly joined an impressive and disturbing list of great works the Gallery had missed, owing to procrastination and boardroom power games in the first half of the 20th century.

In those days there was a very tense relationship between the Felton Bequests Committee and the Council of Trustees, further complicated by the personal agendas of Bernard Hall, the director of the gallery. The viewing public were the ultimate losers in these internecine struggles. In a previous WASP I described the boardroom back-biting and point-scoring that nearly resulted in Melbourne losing the opportunity to buy Tiepolo's "Banquet of Cleopatra", which is today one of the showpieces of the collection.

Until it came up for sale in 1934, Two Old Men Disputing had been in a private English family collection and not seen publicly for over two centuries. Indeed, the only evidence of its existence had been an 18th-century Italian engraving and a sketch of the painting in Berlin.

Bernard Hall, who was in Europe at the time that the painting surfaced, scented an exciting opportunity and cabled the secretary of the Felton Committee: "Strongly advise purchase Rembrandt, £17,000, most important discovery, cannot hold against competition, accept full responsibility. Authentic find known hitherto by Italian engraving. Trust me now or never."

Hall's demand for a quick response ruffled many feathers around the board table and the game was on, The Council of Trustees on the one hand barracking to accept their Director's recommendation and the Felton Committee on the other dragging their feet and demanding further opinions from London art experts.

Two agonising months of bitching, wrangling, wheeling and dealing later, approval to purchase was finally granted but poor old Bernard Hall, who was kept on tenterhooks all this time, did not live to see the Rembrandt on the walls of the NGV – he died while still in London, aged 76. Current NGV Director Gerard Vaughan said, in an interview with "The Age", that he is in no doubt the Rembrandt episode contributed to Hall's death.

The painting arrived at the NGV in 1936, where it has been a firm favourite with gallery-goers these 70 years and more. Painted on a single oak panel, it has always been considered too fragile to travel. It did, however, have an outing to Canberra in 1997 for the "Rembrandt - A Genius and His Impact" exhibition at the National Gallery.

Our members will fondly remember the magnificent collection of Dutch masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, that the NGV hosted in the winter of 2005. As a quid pro quo, the NGV consented to lending "Two Old Men" to the Rijksmuseum for their Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition, the highlight of their celebrations of the 2006 Rembrandt Jubilee Year. Once the loan was approved, a side trip to the The Berlin Staatlichen Museum's Rembrandt exhibition was included.

The loan of a Rembrandt not seen in Europe for nearly 300 years, generated much excitement among the cognoscenti. The picture was one of the highlights of this magnificent exhibition which featured more than 35 paintings on loan from various international museums.

The core of the presentation was formed by twelve pairs of juxtaposed paintings by the two baroque masters, comparing the corresponding qualities of their work. The most obvious parallel is their matchless depiction of light and shade, but they also share a convincing realism and a profound psychological insight. I am very fortunate to have a copy of the catalogue, which makes fascinating reading, apart from the sheer beauty of the reproductions.

Rembrandt painted "Two Old Men" at the age of 22, while he was still living in Leiden. It is not certain who the two old men are meant to be: in the 18th Century reproductive engraving they are identified as the prophets Elisha and Elijah, but it has also been mooted that they are the philosophers Hippocrates and Democritus. Another theory is that the theme of the painting may just be the wisdom of the elders in general. It is a cultural phenomenon that older people are revered for their wisdom in the Netherlands, and it is indeed still customary to address one's elders respectfully as "Oom" or "Tante" (Uncle and Aunt) even if they are not related.

The more plausible suggestion is that they are the apostles Peter and Paul, though Rembrandt has not included any of the usual identifying attributes: keys for Peter and a sword for Paul. In 1641, when the picture was mentioned in the will of its first owner, Jacques de Gheyn III, it was referred to as "two little old men, seated and disputing".

It is currently accepted that Peter and Paul are the subjects of the painting. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, is traditionally depicted as a stocky man with a tonsured head and a short, squared-off beard. His bare feet and travelling satchel allude to his apostolic mission, as does the large globe behind him. Paul was usually portrayed with luxuriant hair and a long white beard.

At the time, a religious debate was raging in the Netherlands between different interpretations of the Calvinist doctrine: the more tolerant and inclusive Remonstrants, and the hard-line Counter-Remonstrant orthodoxy. It may be that Rembrandt deliberately obfuscated the identification because the disputants could be taken to stand for the opposing parties. Different art patrons supported different sides and he could not afford to become involved in religious controversy.

Paul writes, in Galatians 1:18 – "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days." One school of thought holds that the painting portrays their exegesis of the Gospel during this visit, although Paul does not say in this text what they discussed. Rembrandt has placed the figures in a study rather than in the traditional landscape scene. The scholarly setting is appropriate for the University town of Leiden, where Rembrandt grew up and where he painted this picture.

However, another theory is that the picture portrays the disputation between Peter and Paul in Antioch (Galatians 2:11 – "But when Peter came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face …"), where they argued about Peter's willingness to conform to the Jewish prohibition against eating with Gentiles, while Paul held that the universal mission of the Gospel was inclusiveness. The ecumenical position of Paul at Antioch would correspond to the Remonstrant tolerance – a departure from strict Calvinism, while Peter's emphasis on the primacy of Law equates to the hard-line orthodox religion.

The dramatic shaft of light that falls diagonally across the painting clearly shows the influence of Caravaggio's virtuoso use of chiaroscuro. Much of the picture is left in comparative darkness, a way of creating atmosphere that would characterise Rembrandt's later paintings.

Also characteristic of the great Dutch master is the careful and delicate drawing of details, in the manner of the "Leidse fijnschilders" – the "fine painters" of Leiden. Look at the fine detail of the candle, the books and particularly of Paul's wrinkled face and the delicate strands of his hair and beard.

It is hard to see the detail in a small black-and-white picture, but next time you are at the NGV, take a close-up look at the details – I always marvel at the way he painted Paul's eyes: an old man's eyes, a bit watery and pink-rimmed, the blue faded by the years.

I don't know who the model was, but both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio in Leiden, used him numerous times – he is always popping up in their work as various saints, apostles and prophets. Walk into any great art museum that has a Rembrandt or a Lievens, and you are likely to spot the venerable patriarch. Probably just an old pensioner making a few stuivers by posing for the lads down the road … little did he know that his real wage was not the few coins, but immortality.

"Rembrandt's Eyes" by Simon Schama
"Painting and Sculpture Before 1800" – NGV Publication
"Rembrandt – Caravaggio" – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Publication
"Oh! We've lent the Rembrandt" The Age, February 25, 2006
"Rembrandt's Faith" by Shelley Karen Perlove, Larry Silver

1 comment:

john said...

I live in Melbourne and visit NGV often
I tend to lean towards the Paul and Peter interpretation for a number of reasons as follows
- Rembrandt was a man of faith which wavered throughout his life
- In the hand of Peter is the scriptures
- A person normally studying the scriptures would cross reference to other verses in them, hence Peter has his fingers in different pages
- Paul is pointing out something revealing to Peter
- Peter is having an epiphany, hence the straightening of the back, clenching of the hand. He is having a WOW moment
- Rembrandt uses the light beautifully to highlight the scriptures...Peter is seeing the "light"
- The reason we don't see the Catholic religious symbols such as the Keys along side Peter and the Sword with Paul is that Rembrandt was a protestant and those symbols were not acceptable