Monday, July 30, 2007

Rembrandt And Magic

My suspicion is that Rembrandt inspires talk of magic and wizardry more than any other painter in history. I’m going to talk about this all week.

Of course, since the Industrial Revolution, division of labor and production lines and the compartmentalization of society in general, today many people have never seen an artist at work, many people have never seen an oil painting in real life. It is almost understandable the average consumer of images in the modern world would look at many Rembrandt paintings and find the painter’s aesthetic sensibility and technical facility to be out-of-this-world. They are. However, one of the infinity of remarkable things about Rembrandt is that for hundreds of years even other painters have stood in front of Rembrandt images and marveled, resorted to rhetoric of magic.

Here is Van Gogh speaking of two Rembrandt paintings, “The Jewish Bride,” and, possibly, “Portrait of Saskia:”

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild is perfect: it is one of the most beautiful Rembrandts; but The Hebrew Bride ... never has there been a painting so intimate, brimming with infinite understanding, painted d’une maire de feu. You see, in Syndics, Rembrandt is faithful to nature, although, even here, as always, he is soaring high, toward the highest summits and infinity; but Rembrandt knew how to do more ... when he was free to idealize, to be a poet, that is to say Creator. And this is what he is in The Hebrew Spouse. ... As for the paintings of Frans Hals—he will always remain mortal—to those, words can be addressed. Rembrandt is so full of mystery to say things that cannot be expressed in any language. Rembrandt is quite rightly defined a magician ...”

“Yesterday I saw a large photograph of a Rembrandt that I hadn’t known, and it struck me very deeply: it was the head of a woman, the light was falling on her bust, neck, head, on the point of her nose and on her jaw. He forehead and eyes were in shadow because of her large hat, with feathers most likely red. Perhaps there is also red in her low-necked jacket. A dark background. The expression is the same mysterious smile of Rembrandt found in his self-portrait in which he is seated with Saskia on his knees, and a glass of wine in his hand. These days my thoughts are continually turning to Rembrandt and Frans Hals, not only because I am seeing many of their pictures, but because among the people here I see many types that remind me of their time. I am still going often to those popular dances, to see the heads of women of the sailors and soldiers. ... I know that you are rather convinced of the importance of being realistic, so I can speak to you freely. If I paint farmers, I want them to be farmers; ... if I paint prostitutes, I want that they have a prostitute’s expression. It is for this that the head of one of Rembrandt’s prostitutes struck me so much. Because he grasped their mysterious smile in such a marvelous way, with an earnestness that only he, wizard among wizards, possessed.”

Van Gogh quoted in:

Rembrandt’s Wiki Page

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