To arrive at a true knowledge of the inventions and compositions of Rembrandt, it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine those of Albrecht Dürer, the Leonardo da Vinci of Germany. The inventions of this extraordinary man are replete with the finest feelings of art, notwithstanding the Gothic dryness and fantastic forms of his figures. The folds of his draperies are more like creased pieces of paper than cloth, and his representation of the naked is either bloated and coarse, or dry and meager. His backgrounds have all the extravagant characteristics of a German romantic, and are totally destitute of aerial perspective; yet, with the exception of his overstatement of forms, had he been educated in Italy, he in all probability would have rivaled Rafael in the purity of his design.
In his journal, which he kept when he traveled to Holland, he mentions some prints he sent to Rome, in exchange for those he expected in return, and it is mentioned that Rafael admired his works highly. The multitude of his engravings, both on copper and wood, which were spread over Germany and Holland, influenced a great degree the style of composition of those artists who came after him, and accordingly we see many points of coincidence in the compositions of Rembrandt.
A century, however, had opened up a greater insight into the mysteries of painting than either Leonardo da Vinci or Albrecht Dürer ever thought of; one alone,—viz. aerial perspective, seems to mark the line between the ancient and modern school; for though Dürer invented several instruments for perfecting linear perspective, his works exhibit no attempt at giving the indistinctness of distant objects. For Rembrandt, Germany and Holland were indebted for this essential part of the art, so necessary to a true representation of nature.
Rembrandt’s great genius, through his contemplation of the works of Titian and others, both at Venice and in Madrid, soon emancipated the art of Germany from the Gothic hardness of Lucas Cranach, Van Eyck, and Albrecht Dürer; but notwithstanding his taste and knowledge of what constituted the higher qualities of the Italian school, the irregular combinations and multitudinous assemblage of figures found in the early German compositions remained with him to the last. His works are like a melodrama, filled with actors who have no settled action or expression allotted them, while in the works of Rafael, and other great composers, the persons introduced, and their emotions are limited to the smallest number necessary to explain the story. This condensing of the interest, if I may use the expression, was borrowed originally from the Greeks, of whose sculptures the Romans availed themselves to a great degree. Rembrandt’s synthesis of Dürer and other early German artists coupled with his own innovations led to a unique approach to art and cemented his legacy as a giant of German art.
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