Studying Rembrandt

So the book Tell It Slant (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paula) came out with its 2nd edition and I have to say thetttt writing exercises are some of the best I’ve ever done. (By the way you can go to the accompanying website http://mhhe.com/tellitslant )
The exercise I enjoyed most must further in the book on writers opening themselves up to the Art world out there. I chose to write a Speculative Narrative on Rembrandt’s self-portrait (the 1659 one here:)

Rembrandt Self-Portrait
The first time I saw this painting I stopped in my tracks–I’d never realized there were painters out there who could paint something so alive.
I want to give my impression of the painting that I wrote earlier before I get into other impressions and the history and so on:

Rembrandt’s 1659 self-portrait really struck me the first time I saw it, and it has ever since. I’ve never seen a painting more real, a portrait more genuine. The eyes. The skin. The pores. The shape of the brow muscles beneath the scant eyebrows, the hard looking tone of the skin in certain areas with those brilliant white lines, but most importantly I feel, are the eyes. For one I feel like I’m looking into a mirror when I meet his eyes. They’re sad. They’re lonely. Yet there’s a stubborn, muted fire to them—as if he was angry for so long in all his loneliness and the anger resolved him or steeled him somewhat against his own character and he stopped allowing love in.
The intake of the lips, they’re not exactly pinched but they are persed, mimicking me in the mirror—it’s an action of regret. Rembrandt has regrets. What could they be of? Besides his broke and lonely heart? Not that a woman broke it—but that no one ever touched it. And he has volumes of passion. He, to me, is at a point in this portrait where he maybe has just had enough, has seen to much, judging by the attire juxtaposing those eyes. I know what it is—it looks like he’s looking into his very own soul. Yes.
I haven’t read yet about anyone else’s take on the portait, I wanted to share my opinion before it’s unintentionally swayed by facts and maybe even by others if it’s a strong enough argument.

So that’s my impression of the portrait. And of the artist himself. History has considered his many (over forty or fifty) portraits to be sort of a diary of self-discovery. The portraits were an important part of his oeuvre as a painter. Why he chose to do so many is kind of the mystery. It’s a mystery because there are fresh arguments (with a pack behind it) being made by art historian Ernst van de Wetering–he says “self-portraits” couldn’t have been made then for the purpose of self-analysis because the idea of self as “an independent I who lives and creates solely from within” arose later in the Romantic era, after 1800. They’re saying the looks, the eyes, the impression–was faked for the fashion pretty much. People were trying to step away from the idealized beauty image stemming from the Catholic church. The facial expressions were becoming a new genre of the time.
I take issue with this. Isn’t that basically saying our emotions and self-analysis were non-existent until it was a fad? And then fed to everyone else as popular? What…. I didn’t pay attention in history very well, but I find it hard to believe the people of the past never scrutinized their own beings and questioned and doubted and sought. I highly doubt this art historian, however well respected, is an artist himself. Artists know that their drive is ancient. We just know. It’s not something learned. And it didn’t evolve in our brains over so short a period of time either–if you want to make that argument.
I like how the art historian (in 1961) Manuel Gasser put it: “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means of gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.”

I’m wondering your thoughts? And what is your impression? Do you have a favorite painting or sculpture or piece?  I think my favorite piece of music that I feel stirs my soul is Rachmaninoff’s Nocturne in E flat.  Here’s a video of it.  Sends me to a certain cold place every time:

Amy Jo

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2 Comments

  1. ihatepoetry says:

    Great post, my friend. If I could paint, I’d do pretty much self-portraits, which I realize,is pretty much all I ever write. Wishing all is well with you.

    Like

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