Emulation and Exploration- Rembrandt and Me
Updated: Aug 6, 2019
An Essay on Self Portraits and the Dutch Golden Age- by Brian Keeler
The allure to align with a master is a calling, a beckoning to apprentice and continually learn; this is the way I would characterize the desire to study and marvel Rembrandt’s example. Sometimes I am sometimes asked who my favorite painters are, which is somewhat of a challenge because there are so many, but certainly Mr Van Rijn would rise to the top of the list. My first introduction to this Dutch master came early, way back in 1968 in Amsterdam and London, before I had any real inclination to study art history and had only drawn myself for a few years. My father and I were visiting my Uncle John and his wife Eleanor who were stationed in London in the Air force. This may have been one of my first museum visits, as my father and I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London's Trafalgar Square. I later saw my first portrait artist working in Hyde Park too. And then, I had a chance invitation to travel to the continent with a friend of my uncle’s, who for some reason felt it necessary to drive his Volvo to Stockholm to have it repaired correctly. So Ron, (whose last name is lost to me now) took me on the grand tour, so to speak, which included a stop at Rembrandt’s house along with a visit to Ann Frank’s museum among many others.
Since then I have returned to Rembrandt's house and the Rijksmuseum several times, as well as the Mauritshuis in Delft. The Dutch Golden Age with Vermeer, De Hoogh, Frans Hals and many others has long been a source of delight and revelaton.
My tutelage with Rembrandt however really kicked in more earnestly when in art school at the York Academy of Arts, in York, PA. The Dutch master’s work was appreciated there by the faculty in many ways. His painterly expressions of light and beautiful brushy compositions were infused in the work of certain faculty. We all loved his work. One of the teacher’s Ted Fitzkee was the main proponent and emulator of Rembrandt. I still recall his beautiful dark portrait of one of the girls in our class, a large oil of Terry Segina that was steeped in the golden era tradition. Realism was the thing at the York Academy including portraiture, figure painting, still life and many aspects of what is considered traditional academic representational art. Thomas Wise, another accomplished teacher at the academy was also an exponent of the realist approach but with less of a debt to the Dutch school. I was fortunate to immerse in this teaching and now often reflect on the uniqueness of those years in the early 1970’s and lament that the school imploded after 40 years due too doctrinal and management disputes that turned rancorous according to faculty members.
Rembrandt is known for many things, his portraits, nudes, Biblical illustrations, history and allegorical paintings, and also as a printmaker who took that medium into new developments to further that craft beyond Albrecht Durer and other pioneers of etching and drypoint. However, his extensive self-examination as he recorded himself with more self-portraits than perhaps any other artist is what I would like to focus on here. The easy trope for some casual observers of portraying one’s visage is to claim egotism if not self-absorption and there may be that element to it of course. But anyone who has ever spent the time with even a quick sketch can realize soon enough that the process is more demanding that first realized.
There is one book in particular that addresses the process of portraiture from the subject’s point of view in a very revelatory way. Martin Gayford’s book, "The Blue Scarf" documents his myriad concerns from vanity, hubris, personal transformation and growth to historic legacy as he posed for the famous painter, Lucian Freud. It is perhaps the best account of the psychological aspects of portraiture.
With Rembrandt’s self portrait’s we are clearly on another level of self-examination. The very act of self-study perhaps suggests that this process is clearly an act of examination and recording of impressions that would hopefully side step self-deception. We realize quickly how our own aversions and attractions come into play. With Rembrandt, when we look at the years of personal record, yes we marvel at his consummate skill as a portraitist – but even more we appreciate his seeming honesty and candor at these studies of his visage. The take away is a marveling at a very human record of the frailties, foibles, strengths and perhaps what could be called virtue- but not in a sentimental or in an overwrought moralizing manner. Yes, he indulged in many histrionic caprices and recorded himself in wild-eyed expressions, like the famous etching that is not much bigger that a postage stamp. He wears flamboyant floppy hats at times along with sumptuous cloaks. He is an actor trying on many personas, and we view his dramatizations not as a ruse but as playful experiments. If one cannot have fun with one’s own image than what is the use – only ponderous propensities perhaps?
As we learn and marvel at Rembrandt’s handling of paint and emulate him we are encouraged by his own emulation of previous painters. He made the portraits of Titian and Raphael the source for the poses of two of his own self portraits. Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione is one of the hallmarks of Renaissance humanism and embodies the very essence of that author’s book, The Courtier, a guidebook for dignity and comportment. I mention these Italian painters to point out that Rembrandt’s portraiture comes shortly after the individual, the man and woman of unique personality were new in history as subject of art. Well, renewed is perhaps more apt, after a long hiatus anyway in the middle ages, as we can see numerous examples of “individuals” in the sculpture and painting of ancient Rome.
As we contemplate Rembrandt’s self portraiture we are reminded of other examples as well, like Albrecht Durers’ amazing self portrait as a youth with long wavy hair, direct gaze and Christ-like implications. This panel of Durer’s could be regarded as an aspiration, inflation, blasphemy or the epitome of emulation. Kathe Kollowitz’s many allegorized charcoals and lithographs of her image evoke a suffering and pathos.
There have been many exhibits of Rembrandt and his circle. One was at the NGA in DC a few years back of his contemporary Jan Lievens, which brought to light how the two artists shared their weaning years with many parallels and overlaps. It must have been an exciting time to be in their midst at the dawn of the Golden Age. Lievens is not so well known today amongst the layman, but his work is also memorable and he began his training very early in life, and he was actually Rembrandt's upperclassman so to speak. We can avail ourselves of Rembrandt at many museums too, the Met in NYC has an extensive collection and recently they had a magnificent Rembrandt self portrait, called the Kenwood portrait on loan, the one with the enigmatic circles in the background. The Johnson Musuem here in Ithaca has one of Rembrandt’s student’s best work, a portrait by Ferdinand Bol. So the ease with which we can avail ourselves of these masterpieces is to be appreciated.
As we just passed the 350thanniversary of Rembrandt’s death and I noted his birthday on July 15th, it reminds me of exhibits that I was not able to make. There was a major show at the Rijksuseum earlier this year to honor this anniversary that must have been exhilarating. There was also a recent show at the NGA in London too of his late works that was a splendid assemblage of his portraits and figurative works. There's a great DVD overview of this show presented from the curator's point of view. Here in the states in 2011 there was a unique survey of Rembrandt and his pupils portrayals of Christ that I did attend. This exhibit was an enthralling window into the atelier of Rembrandt showing us how his workshop operated and in this case around a singular theme. The exhibit was titled “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” and featured seven paintings, versions that survive of one portrait titled the Head of Christ. We imagine the master Rembrandt working on one as a demo, then all the students doing the same pose or copying the original with the help of the teacher. Apparently there was a significant Jewish population near Rembrandt’s neighborhood and he made use of them for these studies and other major works. In addition to the seven featured paintings there were more than fifty related paintings and prints. Once again these paintings show Rembrandt searching for a genuine human embodiment of a spiritual truth and to represent an image loaded with significance and pitfalls of falling into hackneyed types. We must also keep in mind the volatile political scene in Holland with iconoclasm and extreme intolerance coexisting in an uneasy balance with humanism and science growing and showing new understanding. Sound familiar? We can see how some issues of religion, immigration and basic humanness carry across the centuries. In short, paintings of Christ could be construed as blasphemous, as in craven images, by some neighbors of Rembrandt.
The pursuit by Rembrandt of spiritual motifs could be likened to a meditative process. We recall his many Biblical and allegorical works and one portrait of his mother as old woman reading a huge Bible in a beautiful light.
In regards to spirituality in painting, how Rembrandt becomes a spiritual guide and exemplum is explored in an amazing book by Roger Housden called, “How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons from the Master." This book really gets to the essence of how affecting the portraits of Rembrandt can be, and especially his self portraits. His chronicling of the ageing process with his characteristic acceptance has long been one aspect of his work most admired. We are reminded of the British 20th century painter, Lucian Freud too, who is considered by some to be the best exponent of the gritty realism expounded by Rembrandt. We could almost be inclined to think Freud veered so much to candidness that the objectivity was sacrificed in favor of documenting foibles and flab. He certainly took the unpicturesque and less ideal aspects of the nude into new manifestations. When we view examples of exaggeration as in Freud's work, then we truly relish a moral compass in art such as Rembrandt who seems to give us an even handed candidness without hyperbole in either direction.
Showing us our own humanity is perhaps the crux of the issue with why and how Rembrandt moves us in so many ways. Here is an excerpt from Housden's book that address this;
“The Syndics of the Clothmaker’s Guild” of 1662 or known to a certain generation as the cigar box cover of Dutch Masters Cigars. Housden says: “As in this work, he manages to take everyday people and imbue them with qualities that elevate their humanity without denying their ordinary place in the world. The real genius of his painting, though- and why, I suspect, so many people through the centuries have heaped praise on it- is that the gaze of these men returns the qualities they embody to us, the viewer. When I stand before them, I feel myself more human, more alive and engaged. As in all his later work, Rembrandt invites me to participate in this painting, instead of being a mere observer.”
Housden goes onto make many more significant unveilings, as a truly engaging author should; these are observations that offer us avenues that widen our optic and show us wisdom and not mere biography or recounting of facts. One is how the process of portraiture and self portraiture in particular is part of the “making of himself” as in Jung’s idea of individuation. Housden goes on; “Not deliberately, not self-consciously but through continued dedicated working over and over the same furrow he was given to plow, the furrow of art. Just so “we make ourselves” we are our own form of dedication to a lifelong task, a relationship, or faith."
So learning from the genius of past masters in viable avenue of study. Many accomplished painters have made it part of their discipline, Rubens copied Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari, Manet used a Raphael pose for his famous Luncheon on the Grass and many more too have mined the past for sustenance and insights. Still the process can be a slippery slope and offers humbling lessons. After all it takes some license and agency to even venture that path. There is a practicality and convenience to the process as one is always available and no need for models. With my own there are sometimes moments of angst and cringe as we find things that are less than elevated and just plain, well inconvenient. There is the issue of likeness that always comes up and we are encouraged that Rembrandt was tarred in a published essay for not measuring up in regards to capturing the likeness of a certain patron. We are also reminded of the subjectivity, which is to say how much of an artist invests his subject with his own essence. I can observe this in Rembrandt, Fra Fillipo Lippi, Leonardo and many others as the portraits all contain a similarity or if I could go so far as to say, they resemble the artists to varying degrees.. We assume, mistakenly that a true measure of success is the fidelity a given work gives to its subject. There is certainly a relevance here, as without a objective transcription that is good enough to be recognized we are standing on thin ice or don’t have a leg to stand on.
We wonder about the process of self portraits for historical artists, especially before photography was invented. The use of the camera obscura for artists of the era of Rembrandt and before has been well documented. Still for us artists we know that they were consummate draftsmen who worked from life and from mirrors on many occasions and we are not undermined in our appreciation for their work knowing this. We assume that Rembrandt used mirrors for most of his self portraits as they have that immediacy and authenticity that only comes from direct observation. For most of my own self portraits I have done them from a mirror, which presents all kinds of challenges and demands. The later ones however, I have used photographs.
When I look at some of my own early self portraits and some recent ones too, I wonder what kind of ideal I was appealing to- even though at the time of creation I was thinking that I was being objective. Ahem, such is the journey. This only underscores the idea of continually getting back from one’s work to gain a new objectivity and fresh look. In conclusion we are always looking for more understanding and through relationship with others, our world and ourselves we may be invited to continually hew and adjust our understandings and perceptions.
To learn more about Brian Keeler's art and upcoming shows and classes visit- www.briankeeler.com