ONE SUNDAY afternoon, when I was a very young soldier stationed, for a while, in London, I wandered into the Tate Gallery on the Embankment. I was immediately hooked. I remember standing spellbound before the works of the Great Masters until I was emptied out of the building at closing time. That was my initiation into the wonders of the finest of Fine Art and I soon became a regular visitor there, on any Sunday I had free.
Since that time long ago I have been fortunate enough to experience the fascination of the wonderful works of art in many of the great galleries of the world, including the Louvre in Paris and The Hermitage in St Petersburg. I shall, however, never forget being blown away on my first visit to The Tate, as a youngster full of admiration and awe.
In one of my previous articles (Of Tormented Genius) I discussed the tragic lives of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin. Unfortunately, they were not exceptional in their sad inability to cope with life. I concede that the archetypal image of the starving artist, racked with tuberculosis, struggling to paint in his cold abode, is now something of a well-worn cliché. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be struck by the disastrous personal lives of many of the supremely talented Old Masters.
It must be said that much of the trauma, suffered by these artists, clearly was self inflicted, but not in every case. For example, consider the sad life of countrymen of Van Gogh, the genius Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1609-69) painted scores of self portraits and in doing so recorded a pictorial story of his life from that of a young successful man right through to his bitter old age.
His last self-portrait shows him as a man of about sixty years of age, but his obvious sadness and disillusionment make him seem much older. Even after all of the intervening years, the image carries a powerful and unmistakeable visual and subliminal message of deep despair.
One might be forgiven for assuming that Rembrandt, having painted so many self portraits throughout his life, had an obvious narcissus complex. Nothing could be further from the truth. That thought is soon dispelled when viewing the canvases, for they are brutally frank, show tha ravages of time and grief, and culminate in his last self portrait that conveys such a powerful message that only a genius of the calibre of Rembrandt possibly could impart.
For Rembrandt it all started so well. He was stylish, popular and successful. An up and coming young man of society. In 1634 he married his sweetheart Saskia van Uylenburch. They set up home in Amsterdam and the marriage was a very happy one. Then ill fortune struck. each on of their three children died in infancy. In 1642 Rembrandt painted his superb masterpiece “The Night watch”, but that same year his beloved Saskia died soon after their fourth child was born.
After Sakia’s death nothing went right for Rembrandt, who seemed dogged by disaster. An abortive love affair with his son’s nurse ended in a court case in 1649, and in 1657 he was declared a bankrupt and his house and furniture was seized. Rembrandt’s second common law wife died in 1663 and his only son Titus died in 1668. Rembrandt died a year later, a broken man.
What a contrast in character to the great Rembrandt is the second Dutch painter of note I now recall, Frans Hals. In our modern parlance, Has could be described as a total waster. He had exceptional talent certainly, but he was a born waster nonetheless.
Despite receiving many well paid commissions for his fine work,Hals always was in all sorts of financial trouble. When his first wife died in 1615 she was buried in a pauper’s grave and hals twice was taken to court for failing to maintain his children. He was also frequently sued by local tradesmen for failing to pay his bills.
In 1617 Hals married an illiterate young women, Elizabeth Reyniers, who gave birth to a daughter nine days later. SHe subsequently had another eight children. When not giving birth Elizabeth seems to have spent her time being arrested for drunken brawling. It seems she and Hals were made for each other!
In the last years before he died in 1666 Hals was destitute. He was given money for bread and fuel by the city council of Haarlem, but spent much of his allowance on alcohol and was reputed to be drunk every night.
In spite of his wayward character and chaotic lifestyle, Hals created one of the world’s most famous portraits of cheerfulness and bonhomie and arguably one of the most instantly recognisable of paintings on the planet. Millions of copies of various forms have been made over the years, not least by McEwan’s the Scottish brewing firm, who famously and with resounding success adopted it as the company’s advertising logo. I refer of course to the brilliant and iconic “The Laughing Cavalier”.