Sitting before a table in the recesses of his prison cell, Saint Paul has brought his hand to his head as he ponders the words he is about to write in the large tome that lies before him. The weighty expression of his strong features underscores the depth of his belief and the purposefulness of his mission to spread Christianity to the heathen. The sword visible above the book is as much the “sword of the Spirit,” the term he used to describe the word of God in his letter to the Ephesians (6:17), as it is the symbol of his military might before his conversion or the foreboding of his eventual martyrdom.
This large and imposing painting from the late 1650s depicts a figure that preoccupied Rembrandt throughout his life, from his 1627 Saint Paul in Prison [fig. 1] to his moving 1661 representation of himself in the guise of Saint Paul [fig. 2]. As is evident from these three paintings, Rembrandt’s concern with Paul, or Saul, was not the dramatic moment in the apostle’s life when he was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Rembrandt apparently never depicted, as did so many before him, Saul felled from his horse by a blinding light from heaven, nor Saul and his companions traveling to Damascus, where, after Saul’s sight was restored, he was baptized and had his name changed to Paul. Paul the apostle, however, fascinated Rembrandt, perhaps because his writings were the most important source for Reformation theology, or, perhaps, because he personified the Christian ideal of grace received independently of merit. As Rembrandt grew older and experienced the pain and shame of his unfortunate relationship with Geertje Dirckx and the financial crises of the 1650s, the latter associations must have been strongly felt. Certainly, by the mid-1650s, Rembrandt began to focus on the frailty and the strength of the man, exploring the complex character of the apostle in this painting as well as in the historicized portrait An Elderly Man as Saint Paul of 1659 (National Gallery, London). (Similar themes are present in his moving depiction of yet another Saul—the king of Israel—with David, in a painting now in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.)
The 1627 representation of Saint Paul in Stuttgart (see [fig. 1]) offers a fascinating point of comparison with the Washington painting, for it demonstrates differences in attitude characteristic of Rembrandt’s stylistic and iconographic evolution. Whereas the Rembrandt of 1627 placed Paul in an identifiable environment, where bricks and mortar, wood and straw have been carefully delineated, and where the light source can be specifically identified, the Rembrandt of the late 1650s suppressed such references to time and place. In this later representation he created the sense of the prison cell rather than its specific character. The gentle light that illuminates Paul’s head, hand, and epistle, for example, has no defined point of origin. The late Rembrandt has also brought the viewer closer to the figure of the saint. He depicted Paul at half length rather than full length to allow the viewer to experience more fully the intensity of the saint’s expression.
Paul’s expression is also markedly different in the two works. Whereas in the Stuttgart painting Paul brings his hand to his mouth and stares into the distance, seemingly uncertain of the meanings of the words inscribed in the tomes surrounding him, in the Washington painting Paul’s hand has come to his forehead as though he is pondering the significance of Christ’s life. As he stares toward his sword, his demeanor is pensive rather than bewildered. The differences are in part due to the broadness of Rembrandt’s mature painting technique, which emphasizes the structure of form without focusing on the specifics of veins, wrinkles, and hair, and in part due to the way light strikes Paul’s head, which leaves his eyes obscured in shadow.
Paul’s distinctive facial features—his flowing beard, long nose, and deep-set, slightly sad eyes—are those of a model whom Rembrandt occasionally depicted in the 1650s and early 1660s. While this model is most directly represented in two portrait studies, A Bearded Man in a Cap, 165(7) [fig. 3], and A Bearded Man, 1661, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, Rembrandt adapted the model’s features in 1653 for another contemplative, historicizing painting, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and for The Philosopher, c. 1653, by a member of the Rembrandt Workshop (see The Philosopher). In The Apostle Paul, Rembrandt slightly generalized upon the model’s facial characteristics, both to suggest the historical nature of the subject and to enhance the contemplative mood of the scene. Rembrandt would also have adapted his painting techniques for modeling the face so that they would relate better to the broad handling evident in rest of the composition.
The paints are applied in a somewhat dryer, thinner manner than are those in A Bearded Man in a Cap (see [fig. 3]), which may well be a function of Paul’s larger scale and the probability that it was meant to be viewed from a more distant vantage point. Nevertheless, the general painting techniques in the two works are comparable. In each instance Rembrandt drew his brush across the canvas with economical strokes that suggest but do not define form. He applied flesh tones without careful blending over a warm, underlying layer, and indicated features such as the eyes and nose with planes of color instead of accentuating them with sharp contour lines. He suggested the beard and hair with long, flowing strokes, in which a few lightly colored strands stand out against the darker forms of the rest.
X-radiographs [see X-radiography] reveal that Rembrandt may have conceived of The Apostle Paul at the outset as an oval composition that extended somewhat below and substantially above the present confines of the composition ([fig. 4] and [fig. 5]). The fact that this large composition may originally have been oval raises the possibility that the painting was done for a specific commission. One can imagine, for example, that this broadly executed image could have been planned for an architectural setting, to be seen from a distance and from below. If so, the commission must have not have been fulfilled, and the painting was subsequently reduced in size and reconceived as a rectangular composition, with corners added at the top left and bottom edges. The current inserts most likely are not the original ones, however.
Apparently a major compositional change accompanied the change in format: the large tome on the desk before Saint Paul was initially propped on a slanted surface at the level of Paul’s left elbow. As originally conceived, the apostle was leaning his elbow on the desk in a pose not unlike that of David in Rembrandt’s pen and wash drawing Nathan Admonishing David of 1654–1655 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). By lowering the surface of the desk, Rembrandt effectively changed the meaning of the gesture of Paul’s left hand. Rather than providing physical support for the apostle’s head, it emphasizes the spiritual intensity of Saint Paul’s thoughts as he ponders the mysteries about which he writes. The X-radiographs also give the impression that in the original concept the apostle was staring at the text before him. In any event, the transformations in the composition, which emphasize the psychological over the physical, give a particularly fascinating insight into Rembrandt’s creative process during this period of his career.
An extensive conservation treatment of the painting in 1999–2002 confirmed that The Apostle Paul had a complicated paint structure in many areas. With the removal of the darkened varnish layers and later overpainting [see Overpaint], it has become evident that at least two layers of paint are to be found in certain areas, in particular on the cloak covering Paul’s right shoulder. The relatively murky paint applied with extremely free brushstrokes in this area seems to lack the clarity of the master’s hand, which raises questions about when, why, and by whom this intervention was made. The sword is another area where an assistant in Rembrandt’s workshop may have worked on this painting. Its careful modeling differs from Rembrandt’s freer manner of painting. Paint analysis also indicates that the sword was introduced at a second stage in the artistic process. The sword’s shape and the relatively smooth painting technique used to model it are comparable to the sword in Man in a Military Costume, a painting dated 1650 and executed by an unknown member of Rembrandt’s workshop [fig. 6]. This artist may also have painted Rembrandt’s signature, which seems to have been added after the underlying paint had dried. Painted in lead white, it is not brushed in Rembrandt’s characteristic fluid manner.
In terms of scale and iconography, The Apostle Paul relates closely to Saint Bartholomew in the Timken Museum of Art, which is signed and dated 1657 [fig. 7]. Saint Bartholomew, who leans forward and almost aggressively stares out of the picture with an alert, inquisitive expression enlivening his rugged features, holds before him a knife signifying his martyrdom. His active, dynamic personality contrasts with Paul’s more contemplative one, perhaps indicating that the adjustments to Paul’s image, including changing the format to a rectangular shape, were made in relationship to this work.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014