4. The Man
Self Portrait c. 1630
Drawing 13.7 x 12.3cm.
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Wherein lies Rembrandts greatness? Why is that many scholars, poets and philosophers have so admired him? And what was it, that despite the silence of the professional critics and the almost defamatory reviews and statements of the pundits, would nevertheless appeal to many great artist in the following centuries, who have drawn inspiration from his works? Could it be because he does reflect the emancipation of not only an individual but a profession, to which he lent a stately and profoundly reflective voice?
Apart from his versatility and novel use of extant know-how and his innovative perfection of graphical technologies (etching) he did not create any fully new technology nor any formalized stilistic nuance. The specificity attributed now to the Rembrandt and his students, who were apparently required to observe their masters least pedantic but nevertheless very strict methodological principles is more subtle than what meets the eye. It is not just only the chiaroscuro, nor the phenomenological focus on a specific moment in time, nor the critical state of emotional expression, highlighted at its most significant moment, a symbol transformed to an all-revealing instance, nor the astounding resonance in which an onlooker may invariably find himself or herself logged into, when observing some of his works, nor the almost indescribable feeling emanating from his etchings or for that matter the methodic employed to convey the meanings of some of the ancient but eternal themes of mankind but as ever and always all that and more, that characterizes Rembrandts works and lends them their specifically universal multidimensional appeal. No doubt the personal reinterpretation of mythology was probably already initiated by Caravaggio, whose works had left their mark on many artist of the decades and his teacher Lastman. But what is significant here is his thoroughly emancipated outlook. His works in no way reflect a mere rebellious attitude to tradition nor a callous brushing away of the past heritage nor its wisdom and pedagogic, unfortunately very prevalent in our own times. They exhibit a deep understanding of the eternal themes that had been given a voice by the old masters in the past. However his search for more tangible meaning would not be constrained within the straitjacket of a select class or a school or of the prevalent epoch but rise above it all to seek an understanding of the more universal paradigms, that seemed to have been repeatedly given voice in the European and the Jewish history. This emancipated universally groping striving would lead him to an intrinsically personal methodology.
Etching 146 x 129mm.
What is evident here, is much more than a mere striving toward a personal stilistic stamp, in fact what we see is a thoroughly matured individual approach to historical facts and current affairs, conducted doubtlessly with a new sense of personal worth and a skeptical attitude to all kinds of inherited and un-reflected conformity to prevalent norms. Although consistently adhering to chiaroscuro colorist style, he never repeats himself, as is evident from his many self-portraits. Each of them is technically and semantically an individual work of art.
He was probably the first artist to voice explicitly this change in priorities, that laid emphasis on entirely individual and personally conducted analysis and interpretations of myth, legend and facts. and conclusively reveal a shift in artistic aspirations. In fact it reflects nothing less than a change in artistic episteme, executed by one of the first sophisticated modern urbanites of Europe. Not only a new artistic episteme but also the birth of a new visual semantic, that seems to have left a profound and an unmediated mark on both Constantijn Huygens and Don Antonio Ruffo. Rembrandts acquaintance with Christian Huygens, who probably incorporated congenial entrepreneurial spirit in the political, cultural and literary spheres, would result in Rembrandts fame spreading beyond confines of Leyden in a very short time and at a very young age.
Etching 10.3 x 8.4cm.
There is of course a human side to this epochal voice. Only an obsessive adherent to some strict and, judged from modern perspective, seemingly archaic codes concerning technical banalities and outdated schools of thought would be willing to deny, the ripeness and sophistication evident in his works. However this ripeness of his works does not necessarily reflect a ripe and a fully emancipated personality. In fact many moments in his life, contradict his artistic episteme. That is the human side of Rembrandt.
Geertje Dircx (?) c. 1643
Drawing 13 x 7.8cm.
British Museum, London.
To begin with, the most acute frailty of his character is revealed, in the way he treated Geertje Dircx. His behavior here is in no way indicative of a ripeness of personal character. This appears to have had mainly economical reasons but may also point to a kind of male-female rivalry. The reactions, of all those involved in this drama, seem to highlight a emotionally charged and very unpleasant atmosphere, more than the outwardly and formally conducted judicial negotiations would warrant. It appears that hate and vengeance played some role too, probably from both sides. But it seems as if it was Geertje who suffered the more. As she did not hold on to her side of the official contract, Rembrandt seems to have adamantly worked toward her getting sentenced for eleven years to a disciplinary penitentiary. However, her family managed to get her released after about four years. She died soon after. Apparently her brother opted for her instead, but since he could not pay Rembrandt the due debts, Rembrandt got him locked into the debtors prison. One does not see any Christian signs of forgiveness here. In fact Rembrandt in contrast exhibits a very prominent aggressive attitude, no doubt supplemented by his own financially desperate situation. But his behavior toward this family seems in no way to have pragmatically helped his cause and was probably a result of his disappointment, anger and hate. Or what seems like a paradox, it may reveal a peculiar patriarchal attitude of Rembrandt, unforgiving punishment for an sinful or criminal act, a far cry from the Calvinistic ideal, and more in tune with Catholicism of the times. No doubt considering the desperate situation in which Rembrandt found himself more than once in his life, the deaths of his beloved persons and the disappointments of his personal life, do mitigate to some extent the trespasses here, but they do not reveal the same kind of maturity as his professional life does. Moreover it was a forlorn cause, these people apparently were just too poor to repay the debts and in the end Rembrandt did not get what he wanted. Geertje, probably a bed partner once, seems to have functioned as low class substitute and not as a partner on an equal footing, quite in tune with the times. However the unforgiving attitude of Rembrandt stands very much against his otherwise humanistic ideals, so greatly revealed by his almost missionary zeal and his great vision.
Mother & Child in Bed c. 1635-36
Drawing 14 x 14.5cm.
Coultard Institute, London
But then we can also witness the benign side of Rembrandt. After the death of his wife, he is left with his infant son Titus. Since in the complex highly specialized western society the professional career is considered the mainstay of human existence, especially by the media and professional critics, the following years of Rembrandts life are quickly flipped over, even by some of his otherwise dedicated biographers, notable exception being Tuempel. This is because he was not artistically very productive in this phase, which has been attributed amongst other reasons, to the death of his wife and the subsequent emotional dark phase in his life. But here Rembrandt actually matures to higher sophistication. In fact this period may have presented him some genuine satisfaction and happiness, where he turned foremost to the practical demands of the day and grew to a new stage of personal ripeness, as a nursing father.
A Nurse and an Eating Child c.1635
16.5 x 13 cm.
Albertina, Graphische Sammlung
Apparently, like many other affairs of his life, Rembrandt seems to have taken this duty seriously. This is the period, where he was nurturing new bonds with his child Titus and witnessing some more subtle facts of creation, that a professional life never seems to adequately reflect. As Tuempel has acutely observed, the rather far fetched explanations for the in-this-period subdued productively of Rembrandt, like the one attributed to the disrepute that he allegedly fell into, amongst the population of Amsterdam, after the appearance of his recent paintings like Night Watch, are rather far fetched explanations and do not hold ground in view of the latest historical facts concerning Rembrandt, that Tuempel has so well put forward. There seems to have been something more significant in play here, a shift in priorities, one might conclude.
A Woman Comforting a Child
Frightened by a Dog c. 1636
Drawing 10.3 x 10.2 cm.
Collection Frits Lugt
Institut Nerlandais, Paris
Apart from the sublime pleasures of here and now, that a child inevitably almost always invokes, albeit denied to some frozen spirits, and that might have otherwise induced the father to spend some time with his child, Rembrandt was willy-nilly forced to involve himself more intimately with his child after the early death of Saskia, his wife, an occupation that has it's own subtle rewards, unknown to the materialistic market economy. And indeed this ahistorical period would bear him some great tangible fruits in future. This is revealed by his steadfastly positive relations with his son Titus. who later along with Hendrickje Stoffels, protected him from his creditors.
A Father Feeding His Child
Studio Rembrandt (c.1643)
Drawing 17.3 x 14.2cm.
In fact both of them were apparently dedicatedly involved with Rembrandts life and future career after his bankruptcy. It seems certain that Rembrandt involved himself more than superficially with this highly important thematic in life of a human being, the fact of being a parent of a new life and soul, albeit uninteresting for the later or even contemporary critics and biographers. And like everything else that confronted him in his life, Rembrandt took the challenges seriously and left us with a spectrum of his thoughtful expositions concerning this theme, which seems to have been also ghosting through his studio, as revealed amongst others by the works of his students during this period.