You Can Almost Hear Him Sigh
‘Rembrandt at Work’ at Metropolitan Museum
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: April 5, 2012
This year the joys of spring in New York include the visit of a large, magnificently plainspoken self-portrait by Rembrandt to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Never before exhibited in this country, it comes from the collection of Kenwood House in North London, which is closed for repairs; it will subsequently join other Kenwood paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for an exhibition that will open in June and then travel to three other American museums.
But for the next several weeks the painting is on view at the Met — the centerpiece of “Rembrandt at Work: The Great Self-Portrait From Kenwood House” — and wonderful almost beyond words. Painted around 1665, four years before Rembrandt’s death at 63, it is his second-largest self-portrait, incredibly commanding yet ineffably gentle. It hangs in one of the Met’s permanent collection galleries — Gallery 614 on the second floor, to be exact — beside the museum’s smaller, more modest, earlier Rembrandt self-portrait, from 1660, along with a selection of nine later Rembrandt portraits, perceptively chosen and placed by Walter Liedtke, a curator in the Met’s department of European paintings.
The assembled Rembrandt works at the Met vary greatly. Side by side, for example, are the imposing “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” and the touching portrait of Rembrandt’s mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, leaning delicately forward, with an almost snapshotlike spontaneity; the Kenwood self-portrait splits the difference between them by being at once heroic, even tragic, and disarmingly intimate. And once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of this gallery, you can also make the Kenwood picture and its neighbor the starting points of a D.I.Y. tour of other Rembrandt self-portraits that includes two more European loans elsewhere at the Met and a masterpiece that has been in the Frick Collection since its founding nearly 80 years ago. (More on this in a bit.)
If you are someone, like me, who tends to prefer Rembrandt’s prints and drawings and finds his paintings at times a trifle sentimental and overly brown, the emotional directness and array of beautiful whites in the Kenwood picture should unsettle that thinking. It shows the aged artist, looking toward but not at us, holding a palette, brushes and maulstick and wearing a simple linen painter’s cap whose brilliant white is echoed more quietly by his pallid skin, gray hair and the bit of white shirt visible above his dark-red tunic. He is in his studio, hard at work, intently studying his reflection, before turning to the canvas whose edge we can just barely discern at the right side of the painting, as if trying to grasp some elusive quality of his homely mien and state of mind.
The work’s emotional gravity and psychic complexity underscore why Rembrandt is often likened to Shakespeare; no artist before him had painted human interiority in all its uneasy, ambivalent, conflicted glory. Again and again his portraits and self-portraits give us pictures of consciousness valiantly making its way through life. In some ways the consciousness that he captured most fully was his own, as it registered in the face he knew better than any other and also painted more often. (A total of 40 painted self-portraits survive.)
The Kenwood painting is a superb example of Rembrandt’s late style, from a time when he had long forsaken the smooth-surfaced, so-called neat style of his earlier years and the Baroque compositional complexities of his middle period. The simple frontal pose and unadorned garb are about as Classical as Rembrandt gets; much of the surface exudes the painterly bravura of loose — or what the Dutch called rough — painting. The face is keenly real if still visibly textured; no one captures the play of light on aging flesh like Rembrandt, but he abbreviated or omitted other details as needed, keeping the reality of paint and process and the reality of his subject equally before the viewer in a way that still feels innovative and even proto-modern. Note that he doesn’t disrupt the dark monolithic form of his body, clothed in black, brown and the dark red, by accentuating the hand that holds the palette with lighter flesh tones.
The lighter tones are reserved expressly for the artist’s head and the space behind it, which is defined by a buff-colored, possibly once-white wall that is a striking exception to the dark or dimly glowing backgrounds against which Rembrandt so often set himself and his other subjects. And this lightened wall is all the more unusual because prominent on it are the curving lines of two large and nearly perfect circles, partly visible, that arc in from either side.
There has been much speculation about the meaning of these circles, and in an essay to be published in the catalog for the touring Kenwood show, Mr. Liedtke proposes that with them (and I greatly simplify) Rembrandt alludes to his departure from his early neat style and from a kind of geometric clarity that dated back to Giotto, who was famous for his ability to draw a perfect circle. So doing, Rembrandt also celebrates his mastery of more intuitive, physical, less descriptive ways of using paint. From the vantage point of the present, the circles of course resonate startlingly with all kinds of 20th-century art, from that of the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko to Jasper Johns and beyond. To take further liberties, they also echo, abstractly and much enlarged, the painter’s eyes, outlining his field of vision and underscoring the act of looking in which we find him so patiently and profoundly engaged.
I’m afraid that the Kenwood portrait makes fairly short shrift of the Met’s 1660 self-portrait, which shows the artist in street clothes, looking more guarded and put together, and is rendered in a thinner, more cautious manner in terms of paint-handling. But it is worth your time to visit the Met’s Robert Lehman Wing to see the two small, shining early self-portraits that are coincidentally on loan for “Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Nearly identical, brimming with promise, ambition and vitality, both portraits show Rembrandt’s head in close-up, wreathed in a haze of light and curls, with his face heavily shadowed. (We have to peer hard to find his eyes, mirroring the concentration necessary to make the pictures.)
At the same time these two paintings are utterly different. In the smaller one, from 1629, Rembrandt seems startled and amused, as if by us or his own reflection. Exuding an impish quality, he is caught in the process of turning suddenly toward us. In the other, which dates from 1628-29, he is still and grave, his vitality on idle, as in the Kenwood picture. In the narrow gap between these two early works you can sense his great potential for parsing subtle distinctions, both emotional and physiological.
There’s another exciting comparison to be made by travelling a little farther afield, down Fifth Avenue to the Frick Collection, to visit the monumental 1658 self-portrait — Rembrandt’s largest — that is in many ways the antithesis of the Kenwood. It shows him lavishly attired, wearing a gold-colored tunic embroidered with gold thread, a kind of Oriental sash and a large, soft black beret. He sits like a pasha on a throne, against a dark ground, all but filling the frame. His sizable hands, resting on the arms of his chair, are prominently defined; the left one holds not a palette and maulstick, but a kind of scepter. And this time he looks not inward, but directly at us, with a slightly guarded, appraising stare.
All these differences are summed up by movement of light. At the Frick, Rembrandt is the sole recipient of the painting’s available light, which flows from beneath the black hat, down from his face, over his glowing bulk and out toward us. This is almost a reverse of the Kenwood picture, where the light is concentrated on his face and expands toward the wall behind him. In the Frick picture he is radiating more than absorbing, breathing out more than in, watching us rather than himself.
The Frick self-portrait never travels, and who knows when the Kenwood will pass this way again. The chance to see these two paintings in the same city, just a few blocks apart, is a revelation not to be missed.