Painting Darkness: Bruegel and Rembrandt

rembrandt entombment sketch hi res.jpeg

My initial idea was to write about grisaille, that strange old custom of painting without colour, using only various shades of brown, or alternatively, of grey.

But then to add to that deprivation, another one, of light, and choose painters who try to paint the dark or in the dark, at night in which colour naturally disappears, so it is no longer just an artist’s trick but rendering a large area of reality commonly cut off from painting. This could be a huge undertaking, so I narrowed it to just two paintings by two of the greatest artists, Bruegel and Rembrandt, painting almost a century apart but both using the voluntary restrictions of a colourless world to provoke viewers to more intense scrutiny, like an intelligent version of the harder looking forced on someone stuck in a dark room and becoming slowly used to the new conditions.

Wallace Stevens says somewhere that good poems defeat the efforts of intelligence almost successfully. This comes as close to an explanation of my love of obscurity in art as anything I’ve ever heard or thought.

There’s something doubly perverse in setting out to collect and write about outstanding cases of obscurity in art—to share their unrecognised beauties, yes, but also, inevitably, to clarify them and end up making them less obscure, as if—horrid conventionality—the final goal in thinking about anything were always to make something clearer. Easy to accept that poetry doesn’t usually make things clearer, but prose is different–is it really acceptable to write an essay with the aim of making something un-clear?

Certain painters, Rembrandt above all, are drawn to depicting night and darkness while at the same time telling stories. And there’s a wonderful little Bruegel that takes place at night in a large room, half of which is packed with people (the crowd in the left background) you don’t even see at first. In some sense you never see them, they are so indistinct and so inessential to the main event, the Death of the Virgin lying in bed, the main piece of furniture in a room cluttered with others, and a stray figure or two, like a young man asleep beside the fire, often mistaken for St John, who usually has an important role in this traditional scene.

breugel_virgin lights.jpg

The great events here are the various candles and the fire, most of them scattered rationally but also pointlessly, as far as illuminating the main event goes. The brightest candle is outshone by a light which encompasses and dwarfs it and has no visible cause, the radiance of the about-to-be corpse that critics connect with the imminent appearance of Christ, which hasn’t happened yet but is spelled out in conventional sources.

breugel_virgin det ctr.jpg

So the painting shows a supernatural event on the verge of happening, but is also entirely (almost entirely?) explicable as an episode in the story of Light, how it travels and stops just short of a certain desired goal, how it sets out bravely and that is the end of that. How the destruction of certain modest lengths of wood has the incidental effect of putting a cat to sleep and showing human onlookers a big expanse of floor, the most collected view available of the context in which the great event is going to occur.

The most enigmatic element in the whole obscure scene is one of the painter’s slyest tricks. Someone has rigged up a little theatrical display for an audience of one, or maybe two or three. At the end of Mary’s bed propped on a cushion is a very early emblem of Christ’s crucifixion, a little model of His Body on the cross.

The picture simulates eyes getting used to the dark, and that is a metaphor for something wider or more universal, the search for knowledge. The experience of deciphering (almost successfully)–which is also what we do with any work of art, obscure or not—puts lots in play, as if much remains undecided, so it becomes a testing ground for something like experimental thinking.

rembrandt entombment sketch hi res det ctr.jpeg

Rembrandt puts much more in play than Bruegel—when you look closely, the elements of this picture of Christ’s Entombment in Glasgow do not look like anything that you’ve seen in reality before.

It’s making a fresh point about itself as a fiction, and it becomes a multiple reality. It’s at least two different things at once, a set of marks and a human story, a divergence extreme enough to make a chasm in perception, provoking an excitement that waited to be rediscovered by Cezanne.

The Glasgow Entombment creates insistent doubts we don’t find it easy to settle: are we standing in, or looking across the hollow of the grave? The level area the group has gathered in seems to drop off abruptly into a dark space we can’t fathom. How big is this void? It’s impossible to tell.

rembrandt entombment sketch hi res shroud wt.jpeg

I’ve just noticed today how the sensation of Christ’s weight pulling the shroud he is wrapped in down towards the earth is created – by two strong, wide, mainly black strokes drawn through and along the bottom of the pale sheet, which has a strong white highlight at its near edge, the largest area of pure white in the picture. Mary’s lap and Joseph of Arimathea’s forehead are the only other spots of white, and the forehead is markedly less intense.

rembrandt entombment sketch hi res tall L.jpeg

Fascinating how detail begins to be lost the further you go from the centre, but it’s not as simple as that.   Those to the left of Christ are less sharply defined, defined in fact by a different method, which is only partly accounted for by their being caught in the glare of the lamp or candle.   The tall man behind the kneeling woman (not everyone accepts that she is Christ’s mother) is seen in almost the same register as the servant holding the shroud, who is much more clearly defined. It’s almost as if it’s our attention which determines how characters will be shown. You move in different directions, up to the right of the central group, for example, and the mode of consciousness represented by the picture changes. Fascinating too how the indistinct crowd follows an almost invisible slope – the whole subject occupies a diagonal slash caught in a more pervasive darkness.  The rising trajectory of this indistinct extension is unaccountably pleasing, as are smaller tunnels of darkness behind the kneeling woman/ Mary and in front of the figure holding Christ’s feet.

rembrandt entombment sketch hi res slope R.jpegExploring the picture is again analogous to getting used to seeing in the dark. It can be a long process, working out various relations in this composition, which intrigues us so much because it is so unclear.   It’s another subject showing, like the Death of the Virgin, people gathered round a prone figure, a quintessentially static subject.

Christ has sunk to near the bottom of the space and dragged the rest with him. All the movement is downward, yet the light suggests otherwise, as if it is on the point of bursting out, and radiates upward, not downward.   Magical how far left the subject has moved, the picture is radically asymmetrical, unless you see it as a light half on the left balanced by a dark half on the right, but this equality doesn’t exist. The left is far stronger, no halves.

breugel_virgin sm rm.jpg

In Bruegel’s Death of the Virgin supernatural light has created a strangely perfect little room within the room, with top and bottom defined by their corners, and clear back and side walls, the two front walls removed, and partly indicated by bunched and dangling bed curtains. Just as weirdly asymmetrical as Rembrandt’s Entombment, with a wider range of definition in things represented, among which you cautiously pick your way, as usual in Bruegel, an inventory enhanced here by the struggle with continuing gloom.

The connection between Mary and the little crucifix is at the heart of the picture, and forms the top and bottom of a larger cross, whose arms are defined in living form by Peter and the female attendant, like a deliberate mistranslation of the crucifixion subject.   Christ is shown perversely lying on a comfortable bed in the form of a plump pillow. This is impressionistically rendered, with bold abbreviations (where are His hands?). As the exemplary Courtauld catalogue of 2016 points out, His feet have retreated until they are just two small blobs, the tiniest individuality paint can have. This crucifix is such a strange detail that you have a momentary fear you could have overlooked it.

bruegel crucifix det 2 DSC03878.jpg

If this is the threshold of a visionary moment, as some people think, then the sleeping figure may be important—what looks like a stupor is actually the disguise for a private vision, and an essential thread links the about-to-be ecstatically-raised Virgin and the young person lost in his vision, or not—could his oblivion be the dumb version of an out-of-body state, as common as sleep and at the furthest remove from the action, like a planet at the edge of its solar system?

breugel_virgin sleeper.jpg

The table and chair between him and the bed do indeed seem the impediments of an earthbound not a visionary mode. He is the furthest and not the nearest sharer of the great moment, on a par with the cat. I don’t like this interpretation, though, and would rather see him as human ordinariness getting on with daily life, harmlessly, and regardless of the earthshaking Assumption about to happen.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Death of the Virgin, c 1562-65, 36.9 x 55.5 cm, Bearsted Collection, Upton House, Warwickshire (The National Trust)

Rembrandt, The Entombment Sketch, late 1630s-early 1640s, revised mid 1650s, 32.2 x 40.5 cm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Curators in Glasgow have made a point of naming The Entombment a sketch and not a grisaille, because it incorporates reddish earth tones (unlike most grisailles), because it was named that way when Rembrandt had to sell it to pay his debts, because it hung for twenty years on a wall in his house and he kept reworking it (as extensive technical examination has shown). The figures on the left in the bolder mode of the 1650s are the strongest signs of the reworking, but new highlights and deletions are evident throughout. The painting is a striking instance of Rembrandt’s constant rethinking of his own ideas.


The Entombment, infrared reflectogram, showing bold black strokes defining forms

Jigsaws and Paintings



Am I fooling myself to imagine that you learn anything about a great painting by doing a jigsaw of it?   Of course that isn’t why you are doing it, an activity I rediscovered in the long winter evenings in Yorkshire but let creep into other seasons and times.   I wish I had a record of all the paintings I have done puzzles of.   They were a motley crew, many of which I wouldn’t have stopped in front of if I had ever seen them in the flesh. Doing puzzles of them isn’t like copying a painting or drawing a building, true meditations, which Ruskin used in order to know them better. But there are a few paintings I would love to have puzzles of, like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. That one is fairly easy to find, but it would be tedious to explain here why I don’t just go out and buy them.

Then along comes the coronavirus and makes jigsaw puzzles seem a legitimate means of staying inside, so I order a couple online which include, at long last, that elusive favourite, The Tower of Babel. The others arrive promptly, but the Tower doesn’t, and it takes sleuthing to learn that the order has been cancelled. It seems I’m not the only one thinking of puzzles as a way of passing time.   Puzzles of real paintings are now going for 40 to 60 pounds, which probably explains why the one I ordered for £15 is never going to arrive.

DSC04671 copy

Two of them slipped under the wire though, one a Bruegel, perhaps the one I know least of all, a painting that the foreign-born director of the Detroit museum discovered unrecognised in a London shop? or gallery? in a year (1930) when the Great Depression had probably dealt a blow to the market.   So it’s one of those works which almost got away. When it was ‘found’ (i.e. recognised for what it was via an unlikely encounter) it got spirited to an unlikely, distant place.

What all this has to do with the painting is doubtful, but I like the thought of its return to London (in the immaterial form of a jigsaw) from which it had set off on the last stage of its journey.

Is anyone going to agree with me that there is something mysteriously attractive in this process of taking a composition apart and putting it back together, not in a studied or appropriate way but arbitrarily, by chopping it into 100s (1000 to be exact) of mechanically gnarled or irregular pieces which have nothing to do with any natural process of disintegration or decay? When canvases or wooden panels rot or suffer serious mistreatment they do not emerge as a lot of equal-sized fragments that can be joined together again by dumb persistence.

DSC04683 copy.jpg

Still, one could argue that this contrived unrecognisability produces interesting effects in spite of itself. In a sense all the new shapes produced by the mincing of the image do not exist in reality, outside the project of the puzzle, but trying to recognise them becomes an absorbing pursuit for as long as it takes to rule out all the false resemblances and recognise the true ones, those which will return you to the starting place that only a calculated perversity ever deprived you of.

The earnest puzzler never (or at least seldom) thinks he or she is the victim of a cheap trick. While the puzzlement lasts, the searcher believes in the problem and never gives up (until he does, temporarily) trying to recognise the unrecognisable, sharpening or blurring his eyes in one direction or another.

Some forms are easy to recognise, some are difficult, and some are impossible and need luck to end in the right place. For a long time I was satisfied with the quality of the reproduction of Bruegel’s painting my puzzle had employed. Then I stumbled on a detail of it in the catalogue of an exhibition it hadn’t formed part of. This was an eye-opener.

detroit illus det ctr.png

It seemed that the painting had been cleaned since the puzzle was created, revealing plenty of detail indecipherable in the puzzle. What I thought was a post with a jug nailed to it was actually a peasant taking a long drink. Smaller figures that had seemed just blobs wore interesting expressions and became distinct characters. The trees which punctuated the middle distance became teasing obstructions closing off our view of figures behind them and reminding us our vantage wasn’t as comprehensive as we thought.

detroit expressions.png

The amazing intricacy of interlocking couples was much easier to decipher. The title, Wedding Dance, had a meaning in human pattern much more gripping than we had grasped until now. At the right edge a mysterious figure replaced an impenetrable gloom. I felt I had seen him before, a supernatural intruder from a Victorian tale.   Should I just leave the mystery unsolved, which so far had nothing to do with anything else in the picture?

detroit myster fig.jpg

Now the bride and groom could be singled out, facing each other but dancing with other partners. Blank faces became expressions, women’s aprons became mountain landscapes, drawing showed beneath and through the paint over the whole surface, and the increase in incident, and in features of line and shape, was indescribable. I found myself poring over the newly penetrated surface over and over again.

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 16.16.09.png

I’ve forgotten to say that after finding the detail in a book I went to the website of the Detroit museum and was rewarded with a hi-res image that opened up all this further wealth, where the paint is mostly much paler and more transparent so you feel you are looking deep into the painting, and getting closer to the moments when Bruegel was adding paint to his drawing without obscuring it.


In the end I credit the puzzle for its way of slowing me down and making the forms so familiar that I knew them inside out, at which point I had the luck to find there was more still in the re-united image, cleansed, clarified and revealing a whole other reality below the old surface, like seeing the sea bottom beneath an intervening depth of sea-water.

A Newly Discovered Bruegel

Bruegelsanmartin copy.jpg

A few years ago I stumbled across a reference to a new Bruegel which had been found in an obscure Spanish collection and, soon after its discovery, ended up in the Prado.

The first question was: could it be real? Could a very large painting by this painter go unnoticed for all those years?  Its subject was unheard-of and the composition inconceivably grotesque—it showed a tangled mountain of people glued together in an acrobatic mass. There were lots of them, of all different ages, trying to get their hands on wine squirting from a huge red barrel in a tiny stream, all the figures pushing forward a wide variety of containers, pitchers, bowls, hats, broken and intact, some just potsherds, the vessels a digest of the extreme human variety that jostled for space.

I was convinced almost at once of its authenticity and its large contribution to our knowledge of the artist. The painting is full of memorable poses, which fix themselves in the mind as weird but true snapshots of human types caught in extremis, stretched to the limit in pursuit of a clear goal near at hand. Typically, some of the best are seen from behind, a condition often treasured by Bruegel because it guarantees unselfconsciousness and thus a kind of authenticity. Maybe that is the main secret of the strange subject, that it combines people revealing themselves exuberantly while packed into unheard-of nearness, more like a nest of writhing snakes than any previously-known depiction of a human gathering.

Bruegel st martin detail.jpg

Bruegel has set himself an impossible, and, we might have thought before seeing how he would set about it, absurd, challenge—to build a multi-storey building consisting of human forms with no superstructure for them to cling to except the cradle on which the barrel is raised.

Bruegel uses a shifting perspective as he did in the Vienna Tower of Babel in order to show densely crowded figures viewed from above extending laterally and viewed head-on extending vertically. As in the Suicide of Saul it seems the most natural thing in the world for whole ranks of figures to be making the same gesture in series, reaching frantically upward to hold out their bowls toward the source of oblivion.

This is furthest from a still or quiet crowd–most of them are frantic–but there is also a complete spectrum of those turning away from the scramble because they are busy drinking, have already passed out or have noticed another goal, the knightly figure in the lower right corner, who is distributing something more valuable than cups of wine. St Martin on horseback has attracted a small crowd of cripples and the destitute anxious to get a piece of the voluminous cape he is slicing up with his sword.

In the distance are magical glimpses, caught as if through keyholes, of a rider at a gate and a scattering of tiny figures in the open space at the foot of the castle on the horizon. The most convincing and precious features of these sketched-in elements are the delicacy of the drawing and the transparent thinness of the paint.

One of the best discoveries of the magical enlargements on the Inside Bruegel website is seeing how often Bruegel puts the paint on so thinly it is like drawing itself and lets his underdrawing show through, invariably carried out with great confidence, without slips or mistakes.

bruegel wine of st martins day.jpg

The Wine of St Martin’s Day is painted on linen with something like tempera instead of oil, a technique known from both the beginning and the end of his career in the Brussels Adoration and the Naples Blind Leading the Blind. It looks (and is) fragile and evanescent, the colour more transparent and fleeting than usual. Why he used this frail medium in his largest painting by far – 2½ times the size of the otherwise largest Procession to Calvary — seems impossible to know.

The subject is the least substantial:  an experience of passing intoxication, another instance of religion subverted by folk indulgence, human beings behaving with the carelessness of may-flies, aptly captured in the dodgiest, most ravishing form, a work that is at once the painter’s most daring and most throwaway.

bruegel st martins day.jpg