Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Man

[Note: This post will be familiar to some of you; it originally appeared at my now-moribund blog, Admiring Baroque Art. I've been finding myself thinking about it of late, and I thought I would re-post it here. I hope no one minds too much.]

In its gallery, it is not front and center on the wall directly opposite the entrance, as you might expect. It hangs on one of the shorter walls, and then not even in the center of that wall. It's in a semi-shadowy corner, in fact, the sitter's white collar being the first thing to catch the visitor's eye there in its penumbra. (Note: the actual painting is not quite this dark.) You almost have to be looking for it to see it: an odd thing to say about a museum's choice in hanging a Rembrandt.

As a general rule, portraits leave me a bit cold. I don't know these people; why should they hold my attention? Of course, there are exceptions, and those I will happily stand in front of, trying to get to know them--it is, after all, as though they have introduced themselves to me, rather than I to them. I think that's the initial paradox of this painting for me: off in the corner like a wallflower in the Dutch Baroque gallery, as though intimidated by the older, more-worldly man in the 3/4-length Hals in the same room, it's Rembrandt's young man that I want to spend time in front of. The Hals, as good as it is, is dead to me--just another portrait. No offense, sir. Even so, the intensity of the young man's gaze is such that I have to move away from it for a while and then come back to it.

Why is that?

As you can see, information is sketchy as to the sitter's identity or his precise station in life. Whoever this man is, he is just starting out on the adventure called adulthood. Not so his painter, though: Rembrandt would be dead 3 years after painting this portrait. By this point in his life, he knows a thing or two about how to get his viewer to pay attention even to someone who has yet to make his way in the world, at the expense of his more-accomplished companions.

Part of the explanation is "just" technique, which the Nelson-Atkins' website mentions:

Rembrandt has used the butt end of his brush to make incisions in the still-wet paint of the hair to provide a richer sense of texture.
This is certainly true, but it's not what I'm drawn to when I approach the painting for a closer look. What I notice is that Rembrandt also used that butt-end to create a slight depression in his subject's pupils, giving them a 3-dimensional quality. It's the sitter's white collar that initially catches my eye; it's his eyes that hold it.

Tiny wells, "just" minute displacements of pigments on the canvas, nevertheless draw me into the sitter's mind and heart and not just look at his face. I have no choice but to look at this fellow and take seriously his steady, quiet, confident optimism. Whether student, graduate or aspiring artist, Rembrandt certainly seems to take him seriously as well.

But here's where looking at this painting becomes not merely an aesthetic experience but a personal one for me. As so many have said regarding Rembrandt's self-portraits, the directness, the honesty of this fellow's gaze has the effect of not just regarding the viewer but implicitly putting a question to him/her: "And you? What have you to say about your spent time?" A good question, and one that, depending on the day, can be an uncomfortable one to consider. You can't rebut this fellow: he will always be quietly confident, optimistic, damn him. His life remains perpetually ahead of him. But what about yours?

What else to do, then, but promise to amend your life?


Pam said...

For me, this was a new post, and I am glad that you chose to post it here.

'What else to do, then, but promise to amend your life?'

I wonder how many people have viewed this painting, and thought similarly - and such a thought does make one ponder the intrinsic value of art beyond the aesthetic.

(But this post also reminded me a funny thing during my elementary school years: the school, Broaddus Wood, had a portrait of it's namesake in the center hallway. Wood's eyes would follow you down the hallway - and at some point or another, probably every student has found themselves RUNNING instead of walking just to get away from his gaze).

John B. said...

Sorry I'm only now getting back to your comment.
Re your childhood memory: Many of my students who have seen this portrait say it gives them the willies for the same reason. While I tell them that it's just an illusion, that all good portraits do this, the fact that they always single out the Rembrandt suggests that what they're really noting is the intensity of its gaze, along with the life-like quality of the eyes.
Also: think back on your own post on Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."