The History of Art
28 November 1916, Dornach
Continuing our series of lantern lectures, we will today pick out a single artist — albeit one of the very greatest in the artistic evolution of humanity. I refer to Rembrandt.
In this case the former kind of introduction, indicating the historic background of the artist's life and times, would be a little out of place. With an individual artist such as Rembrandt, it is more important to give ourselves up to the immediate impression of his works — so far as is possible through some few reproductions. For only when we bring before our souls in sequence at least a few of his main works, — only then do we realise how unique a figure is Rembrandt in the history of mankind. We should, indeed, be adopting a false method if we tried — as in the case of Michelangelo, Raphael and others — to reveal the background of his creations more from the point of view of the history of his times. For Rembrandt, as a human phenomenon, stands, to a great extent, isolated. He grows out of the broad foundations of the race. In his case it is far more important to see how he himself stands in the stream of evolution — to see what radiates from him into the stream of evolution — than to attempt to describe him as a product of it.
This is the essential point — to recognise the immense originality which is peculiar to Rembrandt. As an isolated phenomenon of history, he grows out of the broad mass of the European people, once more bearing witness to the truth that when we contemplate the creative work of human individualities, we cannot simply construct a succession of historic causes and effects. Sooner or later we must realise the fact that just as one plant in the garden, standing beside another in a row, has not its cause in the neighbouring plant, so the successive phenomena of history have not always their causes in the preceding ones.
As the plants grow forth from the common soil under the influence of the common sunlight, so do the phenomena of history grow from cut a common soil, conjured forth by the activity of the Spiritual that ensouls humanity.
In Rembrandt we must look for something elemental and original. Many people in Mid-Europe began to feel this very strongly about the end of the eighties and the beginnings of the nineties of last century. It was curious to see what a far-reaching influence a certain book had which was published about that time. The book was not exactly about Rembrandt, but took its start from Rembrandt.
When I left Vienna at the end of the 1880s, I went out of an atmosphere in which everyone was reading and discussing this book Rembrandt as an Educator, by a German. Such was its title. I found the same atmosphere when I came to Weimar, and it went on for two or three years longer. Everyone was reading Rembrandt as an Educator. I myself — if I may interpolate this remark — found the book to some extent antipathetic. To me it was as though the author — undoubtedly a man of keen perceptions — had written down on scraps of paper in the course of time, all manner of ideas that had occurred to him. He might then have thrown them all together into a little box, shaken them up, and taken them out at random and so compiled his book. So confused were all the thoughts — so little logical sequence — so little system was there in the book.
However unpleasing from this point of view, the book nonetheless expressed something of great significance, especially so for the close of the 19th century. People investigated in all directions to discover who the unknown author might be. He had at any rate succeeded in writing out of the hearts of very many people. He felt that the spiritual and intellectual life of men had lost connection, as it were, with the mother-soil of spiritual life. Human souls no longer had the force to penetrate to the heart and center of the Cosmic Order, to draw from thence something which could give them inner fullness and satisfaction. The anonymous writer was everywhere referred to as der Rembrandt Deutsche, — the Rembrandt — German. His desire was to bring the life of the human soul back again to an elemental and original feeling of what pulsates as the underlying heart of things — even in the phenomena of the great world. He wanted to bring them thoughts of an awakening — calling out aloud to mankind: “Remember once more what lives in the elemental depths of the soul! You have lost touch; you are trifling everywhere on the surface of things — in science and scholarship, and even in your cultivation of artistic taste. You have lost the Mother-Earth of spiritual life. Remember it once more!”
To this end he would take his start from the phenomenon of Rembrandt and he therefore called his book Rembrandt as an Educator. He found the conceptions and ideas of men floating about on the surface; but in Rembrandt he saw an individuality who had drawn from the very depths of elemental human forces.
If you look back on our lectures here at Dornach during the last few weeks, you will realise — what we cannot but realise — that the inner intensity of spiritual life had declined considerably in Europe in the last decades of the 19th century. In all directions it had become essentially a culture on the surface. Even the great figures of the immediate past were appreciated only in a superficial way. What, after all, did the late 19th century (I refer to wider circles, a few individuals always excepted) understand of such writers as Goethe or Lessing? They understood practically nothing of their greatest works.
The “Rembrandt-Deutsche” felt, as I have said, that the soul's power of perception must be brought to feel and realise once more all that is elemental, all that is truly great in human evolution. True, if we feel, perhaps, in a still deeper way than he, what was and still is needful for our age, we cannot go all the way with him. Indeed, his limitations — bowed themselves in the subsequent course of his life. There was a deep sincerity of feeling in the “Rembrandt-Deutsche;” yet, after all, he was too much a child of his age to realise that a renewal of all spiritual life was necessary by a discovery of those fundamental sources which we, in our movement of Spiritual Science, are trying now to bring before our souls. All people of that time passed by unheeding — passed by what was “in the air,” if I may use the trivial expression: the need for a spiritual-scientific movement. Most of them, after all, continue to do so to this day.
The “Rembrandt-Deutsche” made a brave beginning. “Look,” he said, “look what it means to wrest one's way through to such resources of humanity as Rembrandt reached!” Yet when all this had been living in his soul, he probably fell more and more into a kind of despair — despair of the presence of any such living sources in the evolution of mankind. Eventually he went over to Catholicism. Thus, after all, he tried to find in something from the past — in old tradition — a consolation for the vain quest on which he had so bravely started in his book. His impulse did not carry him far enough to reach that spiritual life which is needed to sustain the future. None the less, we cannot but feel with him what he felt about Rembrandt.
(I may add that the name of the “Rembrandt-Deutsche” afterwards became known; his name was Langbehn.)
Rembrandt is not at all dependent on that artistic movement which I have characterised in recent lectures as the Southern European stream. He is even less dependent than Dürer was. Truly, one might say that not in a single fiber of his soul was he in any way dependent as an artist on the Latin, Southern element. He stands on his own ground entirely, creating out of the Mid-European life — out of a source of life which he draws from the deep well-springs of the people. What was the time when Rembrandt lived and worked? It was when the Thirty-Years' War was ravaging Mid-Europe.
Rembrandt was born in 1606; in 1613 the Thirty-Years' War began. Thus we may say that while the more southern nations of Middle Europe were being massacred in this War, Rembrandt, in his North-Western corner of the land, was bringing forth the unique creations of his genius out of the very essence of Mid-European humanity. He never even saw Italy. He had no relation to any nature like the Italian. He fertilised his imagination simply and solely out of the Netherlands nature that surrounded him. He made no studies as other painters of his country did — studies of Italian pictures or anything of that kind. Rembrandt stands out as the arch-representative of those who felt themselves in the 17th century so completely — albeit unconsciously — as citizens of the new Fifth post-Atlantean age.
Let us pass in review before our souls what had happened from a certain moment onward until Rembrandt's time. Hermann Grimm, who undoubtedly had a feeling for such things, considered the creations of Art as the purest flowers that mark the historic evolution of mankind. From the aspect of artistic history, artistic evolution, he threw many a beautiful and brilliant search-light on the history of Europe — notably in that time when the Fourth post-Atlantean age was playing over into the Fifth. We ourselves, in recent lantern lectures, have brought before our souls the flowering of artistic life in that age. Hermann Grimm rightly says that to understand what took its start in that period we must go back to the Carolingian era. Nothing can teach us to understand so well what was living in the age of Charlemagne as the Song of Valthari, written by a monk of St. Gall in the 10th century, and relating how Mid-Europe was overwhelmed from Italy, telling of all the destinies that overcame Mid- Europe. (In style and form, however, the Song of Walthari — like many other works of Art which we have shown — betrays strong Latin, Roman influences.)
Then we come to the gradual emerging of a new age. We find, developing in Mid-Europe, the Latin element in architecture and sculpture. We find the gradual penetration of the Gothic. We witness the life of this Gothic and Latin Art in the time of the poets in Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Walther von der Vogelweide. And we see how the Mid-European freedom of the cities — the culture of the free cities — comes to expression in the works — especially in the domain of sculpture — which we showed last time. At length we come to the Mid-European Reformation, expressing itself in the great figures of Albrecht Dürer, Holbein and others. Then, as we indicated when speaking of Michelangelo, there came the Counter-Reformation, spreading out over all Europe.
Once more, this is visible in the realm of Art. Hermann Grimm rightly remarks that throughout this period, when the powers of mighty States were overwhelming Europe, sweeping away the political individualities, in this period of the great Principalities, there arose what is made visible in the Art of Rubens, Van Dyck, Velasquez. With all their greatness, when we call to mind these names we cannot but find expressed in them something connected with the Counter-Reformation — with the will to break up the Mid-European people.
Rembrandt, on the other hand, is an artist who makes felt — as an artist — something that contains the highest and strongest assertion of human individuality and human freedom, and his creations spring from the deep originality of this same people.
It is wonderful to see how in Rembrandt has continued what I have already explained in the case of Dürer — the weaving in the elemental play of light and darkness. What Goethe afterwards achieved for Science (although Science to this day does not accept it, not having yet advanced so far — but it will become so in good time) — the discovery in light and darkness of an elemental weaving on the waves of which the true origin of color itself is to be sought — this, I would say, lights up in the realm of Art for the first time in Dürer and finds its highest expression in Rembrandt.
The greatness of the Italian Masters of painting lay in the fact that they raised the individual appearance to the sublime — to the typical. Rembrandt is the faithful observer of the immediate reality. But he observes it not in the spirit of Classical antiquity, for he belongs to the Fifth and not to the Fourth post-Atlantean age.
How does Rembrandt observe the reality? He confronts the object as an outsider — really and truly as an outsider. Fundamentally speaking, even Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, living as they did in the Fifth post-Atlantean age, could do no other than confront the object as men stand outside it. But they still let themselves be fertilised by what came over to them from antiquity. And thus, if I may say so, it was only half-outwardly that they confronted the object. Rembrandt confronted it altogether outwardly, and yet in such a way as to bring it — albeit from without — all his own full inwardness of soul. But to bring inwardness to the outer object in this way is not to carry all manner of things into it out of the egoism of one's human personality. It is, rather, to be able to live with that which works and weaves in space.
Rembrandt was a man who wrestled on and on for decades, — we might almost say, from period to period of five years, and his pictures bear witness to his continual wrestling and his constant progress. This wrestling essentially consists in the ever more perfect working out of light and darkness. Color to him is only that which is born, as it were, out of the light and the darkness.
What I said of Dürer — that he looked not for the color which wells forth from within the object, but for that color which is cast on it from outside — applies in a still higher degree to Rembrandt. Rembrandt lives in the surging and weaving of the light and dark. Hence he delights to observe how the play of light and dark brings forth its remarkable plastic painting effects in a crowd of figures. The Southern painters took their start from composition. Rembrandt does not do this, though in the course of his life, because of the elemental forces working in him so strongly, he rises to the possibility of a certain composition. Rembrandt simply sets down his figures; he lets them stand there and then he lives and weaves in the element of light and shadow, tracing it with inner joy as it pours itself out over the figures. And as he does so, in the very life and movement of the light and darkness, a Cosmic, universal principle of composition comes into his pictures.
So we see Rembrandt (if I may so describe it) painting plastically but painting with light and darkness. And by this means, although he only directs his gaze to the outer reality — not to be the sublimer truth like the South-European painters, but to the actual reality — he still lifts his characters to a spiritual height. For that which floods through the realms of space as light and weaves in them is the element we must always seek in Rembrandt; by virtue of it he is the great and original spirit that he is.
You will recognise this if you let pass before your mind's eye the whole succession of these pictures. Rembrandt is first of all an observer, trying faithfully to reproduce what Nature puts before him.
Then he gets nearer and nearer to the secret of creating out of the light and the darkness, until at length his figures only provide him with the occasion, as it were, to reveal the working of the pure distribution of light and darkness in the realm of space. Then he is able to reveal the mysterious fashioning of sublimer forms out of the light and darkness. The plastic forms of outer reality only provide him with the opportunity. We see emerging more and more in Rembrandt's work as time goes on, the boldest imaginable distributions of light and dark. When we stand face to face with his creations we have the feeling: all these are no mere figures that stood before him in space, as models or the like. The essential thing is altogether different; it is something that hovers over the figures. The figures only provide the occasion for what Rembrandt was essentially creating. He created his great works by using his figures, as it were, to catch the light. The figures give him the opportunity to seize the light. The essential is the play of light and darkness which the figures enable him to grasp. The figures merely stand there as a background; the real work of Art springs from this intangible element which he attains by means of the figures.
To look in Rembrandt's works for the particular subjects which the pictures represent, is to look past the essential work of Art. It is only when we contemplate what is poured out over the figures that we see what is essential in Rembrandt. The figures are no more than the medium for what is poured out over them.
Of such a nature is the delicate, intimate quality of the creations especially of his middle period. Unfortunately we cannot show this, because the reproductions are in black and white; but it is most interesting to see in the middle period of his work how really the colors in his pictures are created out of light and shade. The colors are everywhere born out of the light and the darkness. This artistic conception becomes so strong in Rembrandt that towards the end of his life's work, color recedes, as it were, into the background, and all painting becomes for him a problem of light and darkness.
It is deeply touching from a human point of view, to witness what wrestles its way through to outward existence from decade to decade in Rembrandt's work. For it is undeniable — great as was his talent, his artistic genius from the very first — he was not yet profound; he could not yet reach into the depths of things. What he created to begin with is great in its way, yet it somehow is lacking in depth.
Then about 1642, he suffered a grievous loss — a loss for his whole life. He lost the wife whom he loved so tenderly, and with whom he was so united that she was really like a second life to him. But this loss became for Rembrandt the source of a great, an infinite deepening of soul. Thus we see how his creations gain in depth from this time onward — grow infinitely richer in soul-content than before. Henceforth it is no longer merely Rembrandt, the man of genius — henceforth it is no longer merely Rembrandt, the man of genius — henceforth it is Rembrandt deepened in his own inner life and being.
Considering Rembrandt comprehensively, we must say that here at last we have the painter of the beginning of the Fifth post-Atlantean epoch in the fullest sense of the word. For as you know, we describe the basic character of this epoch when we say that the Spiritual Soul, above all, is now wrestling its way into existence. What does this signify for Art? It signifies that the artist must stand over against his object from without. He lets the world work upon him objectively, yet in such a way that there is still a universal spirit in his contemplation, for otherwise he would be creating merely out of human egoism. The very fact that he confronts the world, and even man himself, as an outer object, gives him the possibility of seeing infinitely much that could not be seen in former ages.
What, after all, would be the meaning of Art if it were only to produce the reality as human beings see it in ordinary life? It is the very purpose of Art to reproduce what is not seen in the everyday life.
Now it is natural in the epoch of development of the conscious Spiritual Soul that man should turn his attention, above all, to man himself and to all that is expressible through man. The artist of the Fourth post-Atlantean age, as I have so often told you, created more out of an inner feeling of himself — out of an inward experience of his own being. The artist of the Fifth post-Atlantean age — and this is true in the highest degree of Rembrandt — creates from outward, contemplative vision. But this signifies for man an artistic process of self-knowledge. And I think we are pointing to no matter of chance when we recall the fact that Rembrandt painted so many portraits of himself. I think there is a deep and significant meaning in the fact that he had to seek again and again for self-knowledge as an artist. His own form was not merely the most convenient model at his disposal — certainly it was not the most beautiful, for Rembrandt was not a handsome man. No, for him the important thing was to become progressively aware of the harmony between what lives within and what can be observed from without — to become aware of this harmony at that very place where it can best be studied — in the self-portrait.
Undoubtedly there is a deeper meaning in the fact that the first great painter of the Fifth post-Atlantean age painted so many portraits of himself.
We might continue for a long time, my dear friends, making one observation or another about Rembrandt. The result would only be to make us realise more and more how he stands out as an isolated phenomenon through his age, though in this isolation he creates out of the very fountain-head, out of the well-spring of Mid-European spiritual life. For Rembrandt creates out of the spirit which is characteristic of Mid-Europe. To create, to look at the outward reality, not merely seeking to observe it realistically, but with a gaze that fertilizes itself with that by which man's gaze can, indeed, be fertilized — with the surging, weaving, elemental world. And for the painter, this signifies the light and dark, surging upon the waves of color, till the outward reality is merely the occasion to unfold this living and weaving in the light and dark and in the world of color.
We will now consider a few of Rembrandt's characteristic pictures, and see how these things can be traced in his works:
Here you see at once how what I indicated just now shows itself in actuality. In Rembrandt's work, even when we stand before the colored paintings, we have the feeling that what lives in color is already there potentially in the light and shade. This must always be borne in mind.
When we let this or any other pictures of Biblical history by Rembrandt work upon our souls, we are struck by a peculiar difference between him and Rubens, for instance, or the Italian Masters. Their presentations of the Biblical figures are always somehow connected with the sacred Legends. Rembrandt's are quite obviously the work of a man who reads the Bible for himself.
We can remember that the time of his creative work was near the climax of that period when Roman Catholicism, and, above all, Jesuitism, was waging an inexorable war on all Bible-reading. Bible-reading was anathema; it was forbidden. Meanwhile, on this Dutch soil which had just freed itself from Southern influence and Southern rulership, there arose the strong impulse to go to the Bible itself. They drew their inner experience from the Bible itself — not merely from Catholic legend and tradition. Such was the inspiration of the scenes which Rembrandt treats so wonderfully with his rays of light and dark.
Even the dress is arranged in such a way as to express his favorite element of light and shadow. He even liked to use a metal collar on which the light could glisten.
This portrait will certainly confirm what I said just now, and it will show you another thing at the same time. Under the influence of his artistic way of feeling — although the reality is by no means lifted into realms of fancy — the life of the soul comes to expression with great depth.
The purest study in light and darkness. Here you will feel what I tried to characterise briefly in the introduction. All that you see here — the architectural and all the other features — merely provided the occasion for the real work of Art, which lies in the distribution of the light itself.
Here we have a picture of Rembrandt and his wife; they are both looking into a mirror:
It is interesting to hear of an experience which Hermann Grimm relates. He introduced the use of Lantern-slides in University lecturing. It is evident on other occasions, also, how much can be gained from the use of lantern slides and projectors in familiarising ourselves with the world of Art. But once when Hermann Grimm was lecturing on Rembrandt, the slides arrived a little late. He had not time to go through them beforehand, and saw them for the first time during the lecture, which thus became a kind of running conversation with his hearers, among whom there were always older people as well as students.
Now I need scarcely remind you that in lecture halls, which are generally well lighted, a more or less wide-awake attention prevails — occasionally more, generally less: But the customary condition was changed in as much as the hall was darkened. And through the darkness and the effect of the Rembrandt pictures thrown upon the screen, people in the audience again and again had a peculiar impression, as Hermann Grimm himself relates. In effect, through the extraordinary vividness which Rembrandt can achieve, one really has the feeling that such a character is present here, among the people in the room. He is there — and if you imagined all the paraphernalia removed — if there were only the light-picture by itself — it would be all the more vivid. The number of people in the room is simply increased by one, so vividly does this figure live among us.
Rembrandt attains this effect because he places his figures into that element in which man always lives — though he is unconscious of it — the element of light and dark. This light and dark which is common to us all, Rembrandt pours out over his figures, and so places them into this living interplay of light and darkness, thus endowing them with a common element — in which the onlooker himself is living. That is the wonderful thing in Rembrandt.
Here you see there is a decided attempt at a composition. Yet the composition, as such, it must be admitted, is not a great success; at any rate it is by no means equal to what is called so in the Southern Art. But look at the characteristic Rembrandt quality once more. Infinite mysteries speak to us out of this picture, simply through the distribution of the masses of light. The composition is truly not very great, and yet I think the picture makes an extraordinary deep impression upon us.
I should really have shown the next two pictures before this one, but I have purposely chosen the reverse order. I beg you to compare this picture with the two next, which most probably preceded this one in time. There is probably an interval of about two between this picture and the next but one. Showing the pictures in the reverse order, I wish to illustrate how Rembrandt perfected himself. He was constantly wrestling and striving. Compare this picture with the next but one — that of the Ascension — and you will see how he advanced. Compare them with respect to depth and inwardness. The next is the Resurrection.
And now we come to:
With the “Entombment,” which undoubtedly represents a considerable advance on this, we come near the year 1640 — or, at any rate, the close of the 1630s.
Now for an example of a landscape by Rembrandt:
And now we come to some of the most famous of his pictures:
The Amsterdam Citizen's Guard gathered round the drummers in the night — a whole host of individual figures. Rembrandt was not the only artist of his time to paint such pictures as this. Only he did so with an unique perfection. Such a picture shows us especially how this artist is rooted in the people. Look at this whole collection of men. Some Guild or other — people of one and the same class or calling, men who belonged together — ordered the picture jointly; each one paying his share. This man here, of whom only half the head is visible, made a great fuss. He was very angry and Rembrandt got into trouble because he did not find himself portrayed in his full glory.
“The Night Watch” shows us in the most beautiful way how Rembrandt had progressed. Look at the wonderful distribution in this picture of the light and darkness. This is, indeed, the very time of the great deepening of Rembrandt's life. The picture dates from 1642, the same year that he lost the wife whom we saw in the portrait just now, and in the portrait of the two together.
I think you will feel in these pictures a greater clarity, a more sublime quality than in the former ones.
Now we would like to show a series of “self-portraits”:
Then we have an “Adoration”:
With all its simplicity, this is surely one of his most characteristic pictures. To show the reader in the light, the light itself is made of the subject-matter, as it were — the subject of the story the picture tells.
A picture of great tenderness. We have now come to the year 1648.
I may remark that in the vast majority of Rembrandt's pictures, the Christ is by no means beautiful.
And now we come to that most beautiful picture:
You would realise what Rembrandt is if you could see side by side with this picture the picture of a horse by Rubens, for example. Then you would see the whole difference in the conception of these two pictures.
This horse is really moving; it is really a living horse. No horse by Rubens, ever really moves. Please do not think that this is unconnected with the artist's peculiar conception out of the element of light. He who aims at what is merely seen, he who merely tries to reproduce the “reality,” will, after all, never be able to produce more than the frozen form. However great his work may be, it will always contain just a little of what we might describe as a kind of cramp, or paralysis, poured out over the whole picture.
But the artist who holds fast the single moment in the weaving, ever-moving element that plays round the figures — the artist who does not work merely “realistically,” but places his figures into the true reality which is the elemental world — he will achieve a real impression of movement.
Look at this old woman. Is she not really cutting her nails?
Here, again, we have a picture painted by special command of these great gentlemen. Yet it is one of his greatest masterpieces. See the wonderful simplicity with which they are presented here — the dignitaries of the Guild whose task it was to test the finished cloth and set their seal upon it as a sign that it was good. They are the Presidents of a Clothmakers' Guild — the Stall-Meisters. Of course, they club together to pay for the picture, but as these were especially high lords and masters, Rembrandt must see to it that this time no single face is eclipsed. Every face must come out properly in full relief. And with the high artistic perfection of this picture this is attained. These gentlemen did not go quite so far as the Professors of Anatomy with their half-dissected corpse; one of them holds in his hand a piece of paper on which their names are recorded.
And now the work of a very old Rembrandt:
And now I wish to show you the well-known picture of Faust.
When we see this picture, we are reminded of what I said in one of our last lectures — how Goethe himself in his “Faust” portrays the figure of the 16th century in this weaving of the light. — But Rembrandt had revealed it before Goethe.
I must not leave it unsaid that to know Rembrandt fully it is most necessary to be acquainted with his art as an etcher. The especial love for this Art is, indeed, characteristic of that stream to which Rembrandt wished, above all, to devote himself. He is no less great as an etcher co, than as a painter.
Etchings by Rembrandt:
This is the so-called Hundred Guilder Print: “Come unto me all you who labor and are burdened you ...”
We see in it the real beauty of Rembrandt's art, especially in how these characteristic figures around the Christ figure are expressed.
And now we want to add to the self-portraits we have shown you as a final scene, another etching:
How different is Rembrandt from the other artists whose works we have seen during these lectures: It was only in Dürer that we saw the first lighting-up of what appears so wonderfully in Rembrandt. Rembrandt is a unique figure; he stands alone and isolated. In the continuous study of the history of Art, it is especially fascinating to dwell upon what is really characteristic in the creations of single individualities. Rembrandt, above all, makes us aware of the immediate individual presence of a strong and forceful, mighty personality, lighting forth in the seventeenth century.
At a time like the present it is not without importance that we should turn our gaze to an epoch in which, beside all the devastation that was taking place in Europe, there was this immediate and original creation out of a human soul — a human soul of whom we may, indeed, believe that he was connected directly with the prime sources and elements of world-existence.
I hope it will be given to us while we can still be here together to show some other aspects also of the continued development of Art.