Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Man

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 myself 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?


Gwynne said...

Tis a shame this painting is not front and center at the Nelson. As their only Rembrandt, I always make a point of seeking it out. Maybe the placement is strategic in that sense, making us work a little harder to experience something so special. Rembrandt's portraits are a gift, but I had never thought about the impact they have on our own life assessment...great observation!

John B. said...

Gwynne, thanks for dropping by and for leaving a comment.

I don't mind its placement, either; I'd like to think that it's placed where it is as a sort of treat to the gallery-goer who doesn't know the museum has a Rembrandt but who looks at everything. It's reminiscent of how the National Gallery had its Vermeers displayed when I saw them a few years back: sort of in a corner, just minding their own business. I was deliberately seeking them out and so didn't get the jolt of pleased surprise when I saw them; in retrospect, I now wish I hadn't been deliberately looking for them.

Gwynne said...

John, when I visited the National Gallery a couple years ago, they were remodeling and stuck all of the 16th/17th century Dutch artists down in a corner and beyond some construction debris. We accidentally wandered into the area after unsuccessfully searching for it on the map. I think that bit of surprise I felt when I stumbled onto "the prize" when I least expected it is very much a part of why I hold the painting (Woman Holding A Balance) so dear.

Anonymous said...

It's an orchestra of things that make up a great Rembrandt painting. First and foremost it's the designed tonal values that appeal to us in a very captivating way, also it's the tactile sense that there is more to the weight of the paint then just merely a rendering of an object - seeing texture holds our attention and tricks our mind. Then there is Rembrandt's accuracy of observation and his ability to combine many complex and subtle emotions within one face - again done with exacting values.

He's a Master 'lier' - his paint tells of pigment rich oil sculpted and pushed about, and his limited palette of colours tell of luminosity and darkness. And yet we seem to see the reality of a young man.

This is what holds me in front of a Rembrandt.

John B. said...

Thanks for coming by and for the elegant comment. I hope you enjoyed your visit and that you'll return.

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This is an incredible portrait it's an amazing piece of art, actually I feel so identify with this because I like to paint beautiful pictures that's my hobby.

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Rembrandt knew how to stop people with his painting!!
That is the secret to be remember as he is today!!!

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