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Rembrandt Impasto: A Master in the Shadows

By Jessie Corbett Published 06/15/2007 | Arts and Culture

The Baroque period is characterised by dramatic art pieces that are direct and visceral. Paintings of that era depict scenes that imply energy, tension and movement. Rembrandt, a major contributor and forerunner of this period, was a virtuoso with luminosity, as well as a master at infusing his paintings with sympathy and spirituality.

Chiaroscuro and Bold Impasto
Few Baroque artists can rival Rembrandt in his use of painting techniques such as chiaroscuro and bold impasto. Chiaroscuro, the distribution of light and shadow, was Rembrandt's method of making his subjects appear to hover on the canvas. His numerous self-portraits serve to demonstrate his deftness with this technique. As a colorist, Rembrandt is famous for his unique talent in creating a precarious balance between painting in color and painting tonally or in shades. He would paint in layers, building from the back of the painting to the front, by using coats of glazes. Rembrandt impasto pieces consist of very thick layers of paint.

By the mid 1630's, Rembrandt was using five strokes of paint whereas other artists would use only one. The lines in Rembrandt impasto paintings were caked on so copiously that the brushstrokes would eventually separate and paintings began morphing to the likeness of impressionistic works that could only be fully discerned and appreciated from a distance. The expression of his ultimate vision was far more important than conforming to the artistic rules of the period. Impasto paintings benefited Rembrandt in two ways: it allowed him to reflect light in a certain fashion and it added expression to the paint. Early Rembrandt impasto pieces are brilliant examples of his mastery in a technique that could so magnificently detail the numerous folds of fabric and intricate jewellery of his subjects.

A Snapshot in Time
Rembrandt baroque works are mostly comprised of portraits and biblical or historical scenes. Rembrandt was the first artist to explore the psychological side of humanity in art. He was interested in the individual, but not just as an abstract form. He subjected himself to his own meticulous scrutiny and analysis in creating his numerous self-portraits, which total approximately one hundred.

Many Baroque works have a "snapshot" quality to them, and none more than those done by Rembrandt. The Rembrandt baroque piece titled "Syndics of the Cloth Guild" is an exceptional example. The six men pictured in this painting are looking poised, yet slightly startled, as if someone had just shouted their names and suddenly took a photograph as they looked up from their business. The shadowy coloring is reminiscent of a grainy photograph. Rembrandt baroque pieces involve the observer and conjure up immediacy. His paintings often appear to direct a spotlight on the action, thus the viewer is forced to pay attention and is pulled into the energy of the exchange.