Bright and shining light

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The Frick illuminates a rarely seen work by Rembrandt


  • Rembrandt, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” 1646. Oil on oak panel, 6 3/8 x 8 3/8 in. Private collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

  • Rembrandt, “Abraham Caressing Isaac,” ca. 1637–45. Etching, 4 ½ x 3 ½ inches. Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

  • Rembrandt, “God Announcing His Covenant with Abraham,” ca. 1656–58. Pen and ink on paper, 7 ¾ x 10 1/2 inches. Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Herbert Boswank

  • Rembrandt, “Sacrifice of Isaac,” 1655. Etching and drypoint, 6 1/8 x 5 1/8 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt has been called the painter of light. He was enamored of it. He pursued and captured it with dazzling similitude. His works are defined and transformed by it. He invented astonishing techniques that allowed him to describe and portray it. Rembrandt’s voice, his manner of thinking, and his spirit are communicated through illumination.

Through a rare loan of “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, a curatorial fellow at the Frick Collection, shines a light on this aspect of the master’s work.

Amsterdam’s golden age produced many spectacular artists, none more remarkable than Rembrandt van Rijn. Born in 1606 to a middle class miller’s family, Rembrandt was the sole son who was afforded higher education. He took the opportunity and ran with it, becoming a sensation at a young age, instantly recognized for his astonishing artistic abilities. While portrait commissions poured in, Rembrandt was always drawn to historical and biblical subjects. They were deemed in artistic and academic circles as more prestigious, more intellectual, more challenging and creative than painting the shipbuilders and their wives whose likenesses paid the rent.

Though Rembrandt never traveled abroad, he voraciously consumed imagery from afar and was influenced by Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, as well as by the Baroque model of focusing on action and tumult and events that expressed them. He was an artist who continuously sought to capture the energy of life through both its physical and psychological drama, so otherworldly biblical scenes and the lessons they were meant to impart were an excellent subject. They also fit in with Rembrandt’s Calvinist faith. Seidenstein points out in the exhibition text that Calvinism’s prohibition of representations of God challenged Rembrandt to “devise new means for representing the divine.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” was painted in 1646, by which time Rembrandt had begun turning away from tempestuous subjects, focusing more on inward revelations. Known for enormous paintings like “The Night Watch,” he also produced scores of small paintings like this one, many on biblical subjects. Historians have suggested that Rembrandt created these smaller works primarily for himself, rather than as objects of commerce. In them, he honed his skills, focused on what mattered to him as an artist, and heeded and developed his own voice. 0

“Abraham Entertaining the Angels” illustrates the story of Abraham and Sarah being visited by angels who announce that Sarah, an old woman, will give birth to a child within a year. Abraham kneels, immobilized by the presence before him. Sarah peers in from the background. Three other figures face him, pictured in varying stages of ethereality. One, back towards the viewer, wears dark red and carries a walking stick, like any other traveler. At the far left, another is bathed in reflected light, eating bread Sarah has prepared. The central figure radiates pure heavenly light. On a pictorial level, the light draws the eye. On a conceptual level, it speaks of the spiritual realm. Abraham and Sarah view their visitors calmly.

“They have not yet grasped what is taking place before their eyes,” Seidenstein writes. “Rembrandt thus conveys a disconnect between sensory perception and cognition, portraying the couple at the cusp of revelation, suspended between seeing and understanding, darkness and light.”

The painting is just 9 inches wide, but its luminosity draws the viewer close, and that intimacy is captivating. With just a hand’s length of surface to peruse, the eye rests on the tiniest of details and the virtuosity with which they’re rendered. The bright rim of a round dish is achieved by a stroke of paint as thin as a thread, yet thick enough to create a three-dimensional projection from the surface. It depicts the shape of a bowl while becoming one.

The painting is surrounded by a tight selection of other Rembrandt scenes from the life of Abraham. Exquisite drawings, executed in sparse but powerful strokes, and etchings in which the lines vary from dark and strong to whispers that look traced by a feather, depict other notable biblical tales, and include “Sacrifice Of Isaac,” “Abraham Caressing Isaac,” “God Announcing his Covenant with Abraham,” “Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael,” and a touching father-son moment between Abraham and Isaac.

Part of the power of an artist like Rembrandt is his work’s ability to speak across centuries to timeless realities. Abraham’s story is one of loyalty and faith, but the idea of entertaining angels also occurs elsewhere in Scripture, and may have been in the artist’s mind. In Hebrews we’re told “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” An enlightening thought for our and all times.

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