the Rembrandt effect

Clar05_3623_01T.J. Clark at The London Review of Books:

Let us call this the Rembrandt effect. It is an immensely powerful one, whose mechanics remain largely a mystery. It proved inimitable; or rather, the imitations seemed often to get the mechanics right, but mostly failed to deliver the effect. People in the 17th century appear to have wanted the effect and been willing to pay for it. Their dismal handbooks of art theory (and even more dreadful guides to the progress of the soul) had nothing germane to tell them about the picture of self on offer from the disreputable showman, with his ‘whore’ of a wife and his sordid bankruptcy, but there was apparently a thriving market for the kind of face-to-faceness he specialised in. A market for the unspeakable, we might say. Whether or not Rembrandt was bankrupt, his prices remained high. Italian noblemen and international bankers beat a way to his door – a German called Everhard Jabach, art dealer-cum-financier in Paris, seems to have been the first owner of Self-Portrait as Apostle Paul. Shades of the prison house clearly appealed.

What I now think was wrong in my previous approach to Rembrandt was my choice of terms. My essay assumed that the ‘look’ of self-portraiture was paramount, and extracted the look from the ‘face’. Rembrandt did not. His pictures – not just his self-portraits, but the whole world he shows us, predicated as it is on faces – have to do centrally with the belonging of eyes and eyesight to the unlikely cluster of ‘features’ that cling to the lower front half of the skull, exposing the brain to the world. Exposure of this kind has dangers.

more here.