The film starts with Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) already a well-known and sought-after painter in Holland. He spares no expense when it comes to buying the most lavish gifts for his ill wife Saskia. While having a pot of beer at the local pub, Rembrandt makes a speech about all women and how knowing his wife is like knowing all women.
It’s a marvelously recited piece, and Laughton does it beautifully, covering a variety of feelings the character espouses. After spending time in the village, Rembrandt arrives home and learns his precious Saskia is dead, leaving him to raise their son Titus on his own. We then see him painting her portrait, imagining his wife sitting in an empty chair in his studio. The next sequence moves the story forward.
A big fuss is made about a large painting Rembrandt does of the city’s civic guard. To say the denizens of high society don’t like or appreciate it is an understatement. One critic complains it has too many shadows, too much darkness and confusion. Perhaps this is what Laughton grapples with putting Rembrandt on a canvas called celluloid.
After Rembrandt’s failure with the local politicians he remarries. The new wife is his housekeeper Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence). The film then skips ahead ten years, and we see they are in dire financial straits. Furnishings are being repossessed from the large home they share. He can reverse his misfortune by painting “properly” for the prince. He is told decent painters paint decent people, not beggars (a favorite subject of Rembrandt’s). He is supposed to paint pictures people will want for their money.
There’s a lengthy scene where Rembrandt is taken on to the street to learn how to beg properly by a derelict (Roger Livesey) that has been sitting for one of his portraits. But Rembrandt knows that begging on the street is not the same as begging the prince to sponsor his work. Watching the scene makes one wonder what Laughton is thinking while saying the lines. Can an actor perform “properly” by only playing royal figures and men of great standing? Or can he be just as masterly portraying a beggar painter like Rembrandt van Rijn?
The film’s a treatise about the value of art for art’s sake versus art as business. Laughton captures the pathos of a man torn between both extremes, who continues to work because of his ongoing need to create. It’s more a meditation on character than a story with a strong underlying plot. There’s an extended segment with good character development, where he returns to the country to see his own people. Laughton revels in portraying the peasant-like qualities of the man.
When Rembrandt gets back to the city, he meets a new maid named Hendrickje (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). He puts a clean canvas on an easel and begins to paint her portrait. She’s a former country girl, so a common bond develops immediately. Laughton and Lanchester enjoy a natural, easy chemistry. Significantly Laughton uses his dialogue as Rembrandt to speak truths about Lanchester instead of the character she’s playing. At least that’s how it feels.
Some household drama occurs when Geertje clashes with Hendrickje, before she separates from Rembrandt. This is followed by troubles related to money owed the government, which culminates in the loss of Rembrandt’s house and furniture. But his spirit is indomitable, and we see Rembrandt and Hendrickje take up residence in a small house where he continues to paint. One day a marquis visits and offers cash for a painting. However, what Rembrandt earns must to be used to pay off his creditors. The creditors have the law on their side.
Cleverly Hendrickje comes up with a way to subvert the law. As Rembrandt’s new “employer” claiming ownership of his artworks, she can sell the paintings and not pay his creditors since she is not the one in debt to anyone. They are happy for a time until Hendrickje takes ill, like the first wife Saskia. So the story starts to come full circle. There’s a splendid scene where he’s painting Hendrickje for the last time, and they reenact their first meeting with the same dialogue.
The story comes full circle in another way, too. Rembrandt is seen begging on the street after Hendrickje’s death, and a brash young painter wants to do a portrait of him. The young painter and his friends take Rembrandt to a pub where they learn who he is. Rembrandt is given some pocket money, and he leaves the pub to go purchase some paints and brushes. He looks in a mirror and decides what he shall paint next.
REMBRANDT airs on TCM the 17th of January.