Rembrandt’s restricted palette excludes several of the brightest pigments available in the seventeenth century. His blacks (charcoal and bone black) and browns (including Cologne earth, as it would have been called) are supplemented by most of the earth colors: ochers, siennas, and umbers. His red lakes were mainly madder and cochineal. Blues, too, he used with restraint—mainly smalt but sometimes azurite, as in Saskia in Arcadian Costume (1635). His principal yellow was lead-tin yellow, which was never the brightest of colors. Rembrandt used chalk as an extender, to add translucency to glazes (it is almost transparent in oils), and to give body to his medium. His thick impasto gained some notoriety, evident from Arnold Houbraken’s remark in 1718 that a portrait by Rembrandt had colors “so heavily loaded that you could lift it from the floor by its nose.”
But this limited palette had advantages, for it consisted largely of reliable, stable colors that have aged well. This was no mere good fortune: Rembrandt knew which materials would last and how to combine them safely. And that is just as well, for his mixtures attain an almost comical level of complexity. Lurking at the threshold of visibility amid his deep shadows are concoctions of truly baroque proportions. In An Elderly Man as St. Paul (c. 1659), the deep, warm brown of the dimly seen book cover is no mere umber but consists of a semiglaze of lakes, red and yellow earth, and bone black. In Portrait of Jacob Trip (c. 1661), a deep orange-brown is mixed from red and yellow lake with smalt. And for Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (c. 1661), the incidental dark gray-greenish wall in the background on the left has an unbelievable subtlety of pigmentation lavished on it. The lighter part is made up from a dark brown underpaint of red, orange and yellow earths mixed with bone black and a little lead white, which is then glazed with a mixture of smalt, red ocher, and probably a yellow lake. For the deeper shadow, a glaze of bone black with red lake and red ocher is used instead. Yet this wall is hardly distinguishable from black shadow!
One cannot help but wonder whether these elaborate mixtures were systematically blended or whether Rembrandt was merely making use of the random remnants daubed on his palette. In any event, they bring to mind Monet’s determination to mix even the murkiest of shadows from strong, pure colors. The consequence is that Rembrandt’s colors are often almost indescribable—beyond tertiaries, beyond words. What is the color of Hendrickje’s dress in Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-1656), the woman who effectively became Rembrandt’s wife after the death of his beloved Saskia? Some might say a pale lilac. Yet once again, there is no blue on the canvas—if there is a violet tint, it comes from the slight blueness of the mixture of lead white and charcoal black, blended with a little red lake.
What better articulation of Rembrandtian color can we find than the Self-Portrait with Maulstick, Palette, and Brushes (c. 1663), painted some six years before his death? Convention focuses on the enormous expressivity of the artist’s careworn face. But what is there on the palette cradled in one arm? Nothing but a bare expanse of ruddy brown, so loosely sketched that the dark coat remains visible beneath. And one can almost believe that no more color than this, deftly lightened and darkened, was needed to convey all the introspection, the frankness, and the gravity that the portrait reveals.