Rembrandt’s Last Painting

It may have been the last time his brush ever touched a canvas. The painting was left unfinished on an easel in his studio when he died suddenly at age 63. Rembrandt was bankrupt, his eyesight possibly failing, his work no longer in demand. His wife and all but one of his children were gone before him. His mistress had also died. His house and possessions had been auctioned off to pay his debts. To satisfy creditors, he was even obliged to sell his dead wife’s grave in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk.

The unfinished painting found on his easel the day after Rembrandt died was of an old man holding an infant. It is called Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple, a subject he had painted twice before, much earlier in his career. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke in which Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented. According to ancient Jewish custom, the first-born child belongs to God and must be “redeemed” with a pair of sacrificial turtledoves. The old man Simeon, described as righteous and devout, sees the infant in the temple and recognizes him as the Christ child. He then sings a canticle of thanksgiving for having been allowed to live to see this day:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Rembrandt’s final treatment of this subject was quite different from the two he had painted as a young man. The earlier works are richly detailed, and the Christ child and Simeon are bathed in a bright light from above. The infant’s head in each is surrounded by a golden aura in keeping with the artistic conventions of the day. The old man is depicted as a commanding figure in a luxuriant robe. There are family members clustered about them, and in the second painting there is a crowd of onlookers on the temple steps. By contrast, the final version is stripped down to its essentials. Rembrandt’s palette is muted. There is no high drama of light and shadow, no colorful costumes, no pageantry, no onlookers, no arresting details -- just an old man and a baby close up, with another figure behind them in shadow who may have been added later by an assistant.

Rembrandt probably did not choose the subject of his final painting with the thought that it would be his last. And yet there may have been intimations of mortality in his choice. He was known to put his own likeness into religious paintings, although not explicitly in this case. The bearded old man bears little physical resemblance to the artist, who produced three or four self-portraits in the final year of his life. There is nothing here of Rembrandt’s sad-eyed gaze as he stares unflinchingly into the depths of his own soul. Simeon is not peering outward, nor is he looking at the Christ child. His eyes are closed, as if in prayer. In the child’s face he has seen the future, which he expresses in the present perfect tense, meaning that it has already happened: mine eyes have seen thy salvation. But it is not his future, and his gaze is already directed elsewhere. Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, he sings – in the Latin translation, the verse begins, Nunc dimmittis, for “now dismiss.” A fitting epitaph for a devout and righteous old man and perhaps for an old artist as well.

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