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Simon Schama's Power Of Art: Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's "The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis," c.1666 (Oil on canvas)
©Bridgeman Art Library
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's "The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis," c.1666 (Oil on canvas)

Airs Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

In "The Night Watch" and his portraits of the richest merchants of Amsterdam, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn did the impossible: make something heroic, dramatic and grand out of a world of merchants and money. No wonder he was richly rewarded. By 1650, his paintings hung in the houses of the wealthy and the powerful who ruled Holland, which is to say, much of the world.

Within 10 years, Rembrandt was bankrupt, forced to sell his fabulous art collection (the storehouse for his inspiration) and auction his handsome house because he was out of fashion, dismissed as an obstinately rough painter in a smooth age. When the dream job came up - the decoration of the Town Hall - Rembrandt was predictably passed over. But then an ex-student suddenly died, and Rembrandt had a chance for a desperately needed comeback.

He made one of the greatest masterpieces of his, or any, age. And because he did, he blew it. He could not and would not paint in the required New Manner, all classical restraint, airy grandeur, sharp lines, and bright colors. Instead, he made the roughest, toughest history painting ever, an old lion's roar of a picture, and just in case he wasn't taking enough risks, made it almost a parody of Leonardo's "Last Supper." But he was not doing this to shock, annoy or provoke a guffaw. As always, he was doing what he could to make visual the great truth of a story.

The painting was not quite what the gentlemen of the Town Hall had in mind. It was received, it hung for a few months, and it was taken down and returned. Rembrandt cut up his enormous masterpiece in the forlorn hope that the central piece of it, his brigand's supper, might find a home in someone's house. But he was out of luck and died in poverty. But the great, torn fragment washed by the light of liberty, thick with barbarian painting, endured.

Video Excerpt: Simon Schama's Power Of Art: Rembrandt