After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist, specializing in history paintings and portraiture. He received many commissions and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
Throughout his life Rembrandt was fascinated by the apostle Paul, perhaps because Paul’s writings were the most important source for Reformation theology, or perhaps because he personified the Christian ideal of grace received independently of merit. Sitting at a table in his prison cell, the apostle ponders the words he is about to write in the epistle that lies before him. The solemn expression of Paul’s strong features underscores the depth of his belief and sense of purpose in his mission to spread Christianity to the heathens. 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, as it is the symbol of his military prowess before his conversion and the sign of his eventual beheading and martyrdom. The gentle light that illuminates Paul’s head, hand, and epistle has no defined point of origin. By depicting Paul at half length rather than full length, Rembrandt has brought the viewer closer to the figure of the saint, whose intensity of expression is keenly felt.
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
See inventory no. 243, from National Gallery, London.
For the most reasoned assessment of the attribution of the Mauritshuis painting, with which I agree, see Ary Bob de Vries, Magdi Tóth-Ubbens, and W. Froentjes, Rembrandt in the Mauritshuis: An Interdisciplinary Study (Alphen aan den Rijn, 1978), 148–165. The authors argue that the painting was executed at two distinct periods, about 1655 and about 1660–1665.
The 1627 representation of Saint Paul in Stuttgart (see
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)
See inventory no. 751, from Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.
The paints are applied in a somewhat dryer, thinner manner than are those in A Bearded Man in a Cap (see
For the technique of A Bearded Man in a Cap, see David Bomford, Jo Kirby, Ashok Roy, Axel Rüger, and Raymond White, Rembrandt, Art in the Making (London, 2006).
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
This diagram differs from the one illustrated as fig. 6 in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century (Washington 1995), 245, which was drawn with the mistaken assumption that the white oval shape was a
No commission for such a work is known.
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).
See inventory no. Ben. 948, from Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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
A layer of paint that covers original paint.
The signature was painted over a later paint layer that had covered damaged areas. An intervening varnish layer was also found between the paint layers. I would like to thank Susanna Griswald and Melanie Gifford for discussing these issues with me.
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
Otto Benesch, “Worldly and Religious Portraits in Rembrandt’s Late Art,” Art Quarterly 19 (1956): 338–339, first noted the complementary relationship of the two paintings.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right on desk: Rembrandt f
Johan van Schuylenburg, The Hague; (his sale, The Hague, 20 September 1735, no. 31); Backer. Pierre-Louis Éveillard de Livois [1736-1790], Angers; (his estate sale, by Sentout, Angers, unknown date in 1791, no. 65); Gamba; (his sale, by Paillet and Geoffroy, Paris, 17-18 December 1811, 1st day, no. 26, bought in); purchased soon after this sale by Ferdinando Marescalchi [1754-1816], Bologna. Sir George Hayter [1792-1871], London, by 1841; (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 3 May 1845, no. 82, as Portrait of Cornelius Von Schrevellier [Schrevellius Translater(sic) of Homer); (Nieuwenhuys). James-Alexandre, comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier [1776-1855], Paris; (his sale, at his residence, Paris, 27 March-4 April 1865 [this lot 31 March], no. 182); purchased by (Otto Mündler, Paris) for Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st baron Wimborne [1835-1914], Canford Manor, Dorsetshire. (Arthur J. Sulley & Co., London); Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, by 1912; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.
Christie, Manson & Woods, Ltd.
Hayter, George, Sir
Livois, Pierre-Louis Éveillard de
Nieuwenhuys, Charles J.
Pourtalès-Gorgier, James-Alexandre, comte de
Sale, The Hague
Schuylenburg, Johan van
Sulley & Co., Arthur J.
Widener, Joseph E.
Widener, Peter Arrell Brown
Wimborne, Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st Baron
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1841, no. 71, as Portrait of Cornelius Pietersz Hooft.
- Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 17, 27, repro.
- Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2005, no. 2, repro.
- Rembrandt's Saint Bartholomew, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, 2005-2006, no cat.
- Rembrandt: Pintor de Historias [Rembrandt: Painter of History], Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2008-2009, no. 36, repro.
The original support is a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric. Triangular fabric inserts have been added to the upper left, lower left and lower right corners. The two inserts in the lower corners appear to be cut from one fabric, which is coarser than the original fabric, and the one in the upper corner is from a third fabric, which is slightly finer than the original. The bottom corner inserts appear much lighter in the X-radiograph, indicating they were prepared with a ground consisting of denser pigments than the original and they may have been cut from a previously painted composition. The support and inserts have been lined and the tacking margins have been removed. No cusping is visible.
The original canvas was prepared with a brownish quartz-based ground, of the type that is thought to be specific to Rembrandt and his workshop. A faint white area in a roughly oval form is visible in the X-radiographs.  In the lower part of the painting, where the oval shape is most clearly visible, it is significantly narrower than the present confines of the composition, though it extended beyond the top and bottom edges of the current canvas.
A number of artist’s changes were observed in the X-radiographs and during microscopic examination. The painting seems to have been executed in two stages. In some areas of the painting cross-sections show an intervening layer typical of varnish or "oiling out" between the first and second stages. Initially the apostle’s elbow rested on a book lying on an inclined lectern and the background to the right was laid out with buff-colored paint. Significant revisions carried out in the second stage replaced the lectern with a flat surface and introduced the arm of the chair on which the saint leans his elbow. The sword at the right also may have been introduced at this stage.
Paint was applied thinly in dark passages and thickly in light passages, with brushes and a palette knife. Flesh tones are heavily impasted and were blended wet-into-wet. Severe abrasion in thinly painted passages has exposed the ground layer, and thicker passages are moderately abraded. Discolored varnish and inpainting were removed during a conservation treatment that was completed in 2002. Early restorations had altered the original background, introducing forms that vaguely suggested architectural features. Removal of old repaint returned the background to the original simple wall. Paint on the front of the lectern, including the signature, is not original; microscopic examination confirms that it was applied over age cracks. This repaint was not removed, but was retained for historical documentation.
 The ground was analyzed by Karin Groen using cross-sections and energy dispersive X-ray analysis (see Karin Groen, "Grounds in Rembrandt's Workshop and in Paintings by His Contemporaries," in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 4, Self-Portraits, ed. Ernst van de Wetering [Dordrecht, 2005], 666–667). Groen studied the grounds on 153 paintings by Rembrandt and his workshop. She also studied sixty paintings created in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century by artists who were not associated with Rembrandt and his workshop and numerous other Dutch paintings that originated outside Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. She found quartz only in the paintings from Rembrandt and his workshop.
 In the 1995 catalogue of the National Gallery of Art’s Dutch paintings collection, the white oval shape was mistakenly identified as a "moderately thick, off-white ground." Cross-sections of the recto analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department during the conservation treatment on the painting in 1999–2002, however, did not reveal differences in the ground layers within and without the oval shape visible in the X-radiographs. It is possible that the X-ray dense material is on the reverse, hidden beneath the lining fabric (cross-sections on file with the NGA Scientific Research department).
 Cross-sections were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department (see report dated October 3, 2002, which summarizes the revisions to the painting, in NGA Conservation department files) and Karin Groen, "Grounds in Rembrandt's Workshop and in Paintings by His Contemporaries," in Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 4, Self-Portraits, ed. Ernst van de Wetering (Dordrecht, 2005) 318–334, including the Analytical Table on page 324.
 The paint was analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using cross-sections (see report dated October 2002 in NGA Conservation department files).
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- Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. 2nd ed. New York, 1913: repro. 384.
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- Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 384, repro.
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- Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The Henry Goldman Collection. New York, 1922: no. 14.
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- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1923: unpaginated, repro., as by Rembrandt.
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- Paintings in the Collection of Joseph Widener at Lynnewood Hall. Intro. by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 1931: 62-63, repro.
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- Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen.Utrecht, 1935: no. no. 612, repro.
- Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1936: no. 612, repro.
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- Timken Museum of Art. Timken Museum of Art: European works of art, American paintings, and Russian icons in the Putnam Foundation collection. San Diego, 1996: fig. 2.
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- expressive conotations
- looking sideways
- artist working from live model
- St Paul to Ephesians