Rembrandt in the Room

After a previous failed attempt to see the Dutch Masters exhibition at the Frick, I finally got in. Yay! The show is now closed, and the magnificent loans from the the Mauritshuis are probably on their way back to their motherland of the Netherlands.

Like most visitors that afternoon, I took some time after taking in the Dutch show to view the permanent collection at the Frick. And why not? It’s extraordinary. I myself never feel completely comfortable in the Frick because it’s a mansion preserved in its original state rather than a true museum space, and I prefer museum spaces. I like “museumy” museums, it’s just a predilection I have. This is by no means a major issue. It just throws me off a little to view an artwork, step back several feet to get a better perspective, and bump into a dining room table. Looking at art at the Frick means having to navigate furniture, and personally I’d rather not.

While the visiting show presented an amazing Rembrandt, an even more impressive Rembrandt (in my opinion) could be found in a nearby gallery room. This work, a self-portrait created in 1658, stunned me more than any other painting into realizing once and for all that some works of art just HAVE to be seen in person. We all understand that great works of art lose precious ethereal qualities when viewed in digital form. Not even things like the Google Art Project and its high resolutions and dazzling zoom features can duplicate the experience of seeing a painting physically before our eyes. I can’t pinpoint the precise “lost” quality. Sure, it could be the brush strokes, the paint layering, the scale of the work, or the authentic color “in the flesh” – all things that are compromised on our computer screens. I’m inclined to believe that it has something to do with light; I mean the glints of real life light bouncing off the canvas and dotting the paint formations. You turn your head a bit, and it changes. You move a little to the left or right, and it changes. No photograph can replicate those nuances.

Here is the Rembrandt self-portrait that blew me away. This work, in person, commands the room and transfixes the viewer in a way I can’t accurately describe. He was there – right there – draped in 17th century attire, looking a bit weary but not melancholy, long past youthfulness but not beaten, surviving bankruptcy, but still a man of the Dutch Golden Age, a reddish mark on his cheek, his eyes gentle, plaintive, and a touch somber, yet he is also confrontational. A master handler of paint, Rembrandt never overlooked the humanity, the the tattered or triumphant soul of his subjects, himself included. This man here seems to be telling us his life story. Carrying burdens, but coping with them. I’ve been on a journey, he says. I am a man of my times. God bless Rembrandt. Seriously. I couldn’t tear myself away from this painting, and I was not alone in my admiration that afternoon at the Frick.

RembrandtSelfPortrait

How Rembrandt achieved the visual effects he did are of enormous interest to artists, and justifiably so. Scraping into the paint with the end of his brush handle, wiping off glazes right after they were applied, adept manipulation of transparency and opacity, mixing in crushed broken glass – whatever it took to create the desired effect, Rembrandt tried it. He was not strictly married to any one approach, and that certainly allowed him the freedom to get it ‘right”. And yet, none of his technical innovations or experiments would matter one bit if he hadn’t possessed a profound empathy for and perception of the human condition. To be a gifted skillmaster isn’t enough, as I discussed in my post about Mozart. Because skill doesn’t amount to anything if you have nothing to express.

I encourage you all to visit the Frick artwork page for this piece which includes a curatorial narration. And to anyone who plans to visit the Frick, go see this painting. Just go. That’s an order! 🙂

11 thoughts on “Rembrandt in the Room

  1. patricknicholas says:

    I thoroughly recommend Peter Greenaway’s double feature ‘Nightwatching’. One a documentary, the other a drama of the story behind Rembrandt’s huge painting The Nightwatch. Even if you have been put off by Greenaway in the past this is a real revelation in every way. Martin (Hobbit) Freeman is brilliant as Van Rijn.

    • artmodel says:

      patricknicholas,

      Thanks so much for the recommendation! I’m aware of those films, and I can’t believe I still haven’t seen them. It’s now on my to do list!

      Claudia

  2. Bill says:

    I’m really glad that you persevered — I knew you’d react this way 🙂
    I have the same experience with seeing the originals — for me, it was Vermeer’s Girl with an Earring. And, of course, you don’t usually have the sense of scale with a reproduction — the sense of the colossal with Michelangelo’s David or the intimacy of a small Rembrandt etching.
    I lead a fantasy life when I visit the Frick (or the Gardner in Boston). I always fantasize that I live there and I’m showing a special person around — “Oh no, my dear, of course it is an original Rembrandt — but I do have a nicer one down the hall. And, have you heard of Fragonard, by any chance?”

    Now where did I put that ascot? 🙂

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      Yes, visiting the Frick and similar historic mansions are great time travel experiences into the opulent Gilded Age. I like your imagined scenario! Henry Clay Frick had one hell of an amazing view of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. Not too shabby.

      And I’m glad you brought up Michelangelo’s David. To describe seeing photos of that sculpture as a lesser experience than the real thing is a huge understatement! There’s nothing like seeing that fella right before our eyes 🙂

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  3. derek says:

    What a great artist the man is and I wish I can do his technique.
    As you know I have studied art back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
    Rembrandt was something I wish I had along with the Renaissance painters I really enjoy your knwoedge of the arts and you are one fine historian. I hope I am not embarrassing you when I call you a historian. Based on your body of work you put on this web.

    I always enjoyed your historical knowledge and based on your past profession. I would love top go one day if I had the time since I live in Australia. I have been to places like Denmark and Germany and Sweden. Thanks for eveything luv. Keep writing those lovely stories.

    Anyway I will let you go, I am going to be watching movies with his my grandson from my son’s side. And of course I expect a visit from my daughter Peta.

    Derek James Tewey

    • artmodel says:

      derek,

      I don’t know if I’m worthy of the label “historian”, but I do try my best and you are most kind. You have traveled a lot. I’ve been to Europe but not the Nordic countries. Maybe someday!

      You sound like you’re doing well! Wonderful that you’ll be spending time with family. Nothing is more important.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  4. fredh1 says:

    I love that painting. Rembrandt’s portraits are so alive. There are over a hundred Rembrandt self portraits. I’d love to see a show that brings a lot of them together, because it’s so interesting to see his face and demeanor over the years. He was the 17th century king of the selfie!

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Here’s a video you might like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_H71aiz290&feature=youtube_gdata_player

      As for selfies, imagine what Rembrandt would have done with a smartphone and Instagram 😆

      Thanks for your comments. See you soon!

      Claudia

      • fredh1 says:

        That’s great. So interesting to see his face aging through the years. In his younger years he did some self portraits, drawings mostly, with crazy expressions – a way of studying how to capture different looks, I suppose. The older portraits, like the one at the Frick, have a kind of depth that perhaps only comes with many years of experience. I also love Rembrandt’s self portraits because in the pre-photography era there are usually only one or two pictures of anyone, even a famous person – sometimes none at all. It’s so great to have someone’s face at many different ages and with many different expressions.

  5. Jim O'Neil says:

    Digital is a very poor second best but it is, I think, second best. & Yes, being there is the way to go, Claudia.

    I saw Ruben’s ‘Bacchus’ at Pete the Great’s place in Petersburg (Leningrad when I was there); Walked in to the hall & there was Bacchus on the other side of the room overshadowing everything else. From across the room he was a young, joyous, jolly drinker full of wine and warmth, but walking closer he gained weight (a wine belly?). what was a smile from the distance became a brow pinching hung over headache. Up next to him his puffy eyes said it all about a lot of mornings after the nights before. I only has around 5 hours at Pete’s place but I spend a lot of my time there with Bacchus.

    So! I fully understand your spending time with Rembrandt.

    By the way, I wonder if there is more in the background of Rembrandt’s self-portrait, such as they found in ‘The night watch’ when they cleaned it.

    • artmodel says:

      Jim.

      Got your Rubens “Bacchus” right here! http://www.peterpaulrubens.org/Bacchus-1638-40.html
      Looks like the guy sure knew how to party 😉

      I relate to your story completely. Our experiences represent what visiting art museums is all about. We roam around, take in our surroundings, and then a particular work grabs us … and we are hooked, and an indelible impression is made.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

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