Looking at Rembrandts

by Mara Naselli

Rembrandt_Self-portrait_(Kenwood)Rembrandt in America, an exhibition shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a couple years ago, displayed several portraits by Rembrandt as well as works painted by Rembrandt's students and contemporaries. Curators had posted labels that highlighted the provenance of the paintings, many of which have been collected in the United States over the last century or so by the super rich. One painting, Man with Arms Akimbo, is still for sale, for $45M by Otto Naumann, Ltd., though it isn't one of the better ones. When it comes to the art market, questions of authenticity dominate, and with Rembrandt, whose style was so wide ranging, it is hard to tell what was Rembrandt’s and what was painted in his studio. Early he mastered what they call a smooth style. Later he painted in a rough style, more impressionistic, long before Impressionism became a movement. But the style of technique is not always an obvious indicator. Was the painting by Rembrandt's hand? Was the painting painted in his workshop? If so, by whom? Was it supervised or corrected by Rembrandt? Was the painting painted by Rembrandt and overpainted by his students? Was the face painted by Rembrandt, the ruff painted by someone who specialized in collars, and the black cloak painted by someone who specialized in black fabric? These are the questions that occupy an appraiser or the auction house or the billionaire looking for a place to park $45M. The art economy is fascinating in its own way, in fact it was so preoccupying that I had to come back, on the last afternoon of the exhibit, to get a good look at the paintings themselves.

I scanned the galleries. Each room was full of people and I could see the tops of some of the larger pictures—all portraits, their heads gazing out from their frames just above the crowd. They seemed to look over us, we mere viewers. As if the sitters, the subjects of these portraits, were fixed with some higher purpose. How had I not seen this the first time? Some seemed almost alive. I don't mean to be facile about this—people spend entire careers assessing what was done by Rembrandt and what wasn't, using sophisticated instruments and technology—but certain portraits were simply arresting. Their faces glowed. The expression, the depth of field, the particular countenance of each portrait. The details were neither muted nor exaggerated. They expressed the distinctiveness of the sitter: creases around the eyes, the ridge in the brow, the gaze fixed or far off, the position of the shoulders, the shape of the mouth, the curve of the spine, the turn of the head, the color in the skin. These were traces of lives lived.

I began to think that narrative was springing from each canvas, and without thinking I found myself spinning interpretations of each sitter’s character. This person looks proud and confident and rich. This person looks worn down by life. This person, in a red coat so bright it reflects onto his cheeks, looks dangerous. But then I stopped myself. These were only my suppositions, my own interpretation of these faces and their qualities. Who am I to speculate? There was something even prior to that. I am not sure what to make of first impressions, when a particular face presents itself as kind, or proud, or predatory. The more I looked at Rembrandt’s faces, the more I saw that they defied category. Then I felt I could say almost nothing about them, except that I wanted to know the people more. Who were they? How did they see themselves in their world, four hundred years ago?

I stood in front of one painting, Girl with the Gold Trim Cloak, for as long as I could manage. The face is painted with such fineness. Rembrandt shaped strands of her hair with the wooden tip of the brush, pushing the paint slightly off the canvas. Yet even with such sharp detail, the halo of her strawberry blond hair evaporates into the background. Her expression is tranquil, but also piercing. The rendering in her face is Rembrandt's smooth style at its finest. And then, when I got a good look at the cloak I could see what he was doing. He wasn't painting the gold embroidery. He was painting the light reflecting off the gold embroidery. Had I overstayed my time in front of the painting? I glanced at the people standing around me and stepped out of the way.

The gallery was crowded. Everyone seemed to have a peripheral awareness of one another so that no one viewer dominated any one painting. This was not easy, of course. One man stood with his nose to one canvas for several minutes, unaware that he was blocking the view of four or five people behind him. He was looking at a portrait painted by Rembrandt’s students. The sitter was the same as in Girl with the Gold Trim Cloak, but now older. In this later painting her face lacks depth and subtlety, and I wondered what he was looking at.


Another man, slight with darting eyes and black hair cut close to his scalp, slipped through the crowd to a painting hung in the corner. Portrait of Marten Looten was painted in 1632, at the height of Rembrandt's career. As in many of the commissioned portraits, the sitter wears a black cloak and a wide brimmed hat. He is holding a letter, inscribed with Rembrandt’s and Looten’s names. The eyes and face muscles are relaxed, the mouth slightly open. He appears capable of receiving whatever is before him. The background, as with most of these, is gray, making the face stand out all the more, which must have been Rembrandt's strategy.

I saw the black-haired man hold up a strip of paper to the painting. It was covered in a spectrum of flesh colors, each square of paint coded with a number written in pencil. He would raise it to the painting and then duck back into the center of the gallery, where he had set a small black bag, and wait a few moments, until the next group of viewers left, and then approach the painting again, with another strip of colors. This day, in the last hours of the exhibition, would be a terrible time to test colors for a copy, which makes me wonder what kept him, or what perfectionist impulse made him return, just to get one last look. It truly isn't the same looking at a painting in a book, or in Google Art, where you can zoom in so close you can see the brushstrokes. Alternatives to the real thing have their advantages, but there is something about seeing the work in front of you, the scale of it (sometimes larger, sometimes smaller than you expect), the way it behaves in the light of the room.

One painting disclosed a detail I am sure I would have missed had I not seen the painting in person. It was a commissioned portrait of Anthonie Coopal, Rembrandt's brother-in-law, painted in 1635. The painting is held in a private collection in New York, but is in a long-term exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The sitter is wearing a broad brimmed hat; half of his face is shaded. He has long, wavy hair draping over his shoulder and an unusual lace collar. Instead of the stiff millstone ruff, this collar drapes well below the shoulders, covering them in white. Rembrandt's portraits are often lit from the left, with the shadow of the sitter to the lower right. And just above that shadow, he signs his name. But in this portrait, in addition to the figure's shadow, we see another shadow to the lower right in the broad lace collar. It is so unexpected—for most sitters are wearing black, that sober, puritan costume that visually suppresses the body and highlights the face. Who could it be but the painter himself?


By the end of his life, Rembrandt had suffered some great losses. His beloved wife Saskia died in 1642. Rembrandt was falling into debt. He could not marry Hendrickje Stoffels, the young woman who would eventually become his common-law wife. Saskia’s will, following the convention of the day, required Rembrandt to buy out his share of Saskia’s estate or be left to their son. But he was always short of cash. When Hendrickje became pregnant, she was excommunicated from the church. Rembrandt's reputation suffered. He moved his family to a modest home and worked for the rest of his life essentially in poverty.

Looking at all the pieces in the exhibit, it became clear that throughout Rembrandt’s career, he returned to shadow. He seems to have been especially obsessed with studying how shadow changed a subject’s eyes. He used hats to darken the faces and yet still found a way to bring out the expression. But those later paintings, after 1642, get dark. Very dark. The etchings too. One etching of St. Jerome in a dark room, from a distance, looks like a square of black. Once you get close you can see a sliver of a window, the shadow of a staircase, and the shadow of a man bent over a desk. Shadow upon shadow upon shadow.

In 1666, Rembrandt painted a portrait of Lucretia in the moment of her suicide. Lucretia was the wife of a Roman aristocrat and military man. When she was raped by a guest she had welcomed into her home, she killed herself as a self-punishment. Her story has been told over and over in literature and painting. Rembrandt’s study of her, though, is disarming and intimate. Hendrickje was his model. Black shadow envelops the ornament around her hair and seems to reach around her arms and waist. The gold overskirt hangs open, falling around her hips. The light brings forth her face and upper body. Her white chemise, buttoned at the neck and in the middle of her chest, is stained with blood. The dagger is wet. She stands straight, steading herself by holding a cord that hangs beyond the edge of the painting. Her dark eyes stare off. A shadow hides almost half her face. She hasn’t shed any tears, but if you look close, you can see that the pink lower lid of her eye glistens with moisture.

In his meditative essay In Praise of Shadows, Junichirō Tanizaki describes the Western fascination with brilliance in contrast to the Japanese aesthetic for subdued patina and “the soft fragile beauty of . . . feeble light.” Yet, just as ancient Japanese architects shaped interior shadows, Rembrandt also cloaked his vision in darkness. He set out to veil and obscure. “Though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow,” writes Tanizaki, “we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence.” Which makes me think of all my impulsive suppositions. The portraits reveal not what we can know of the person, or even what the sitter wanted to convey. Instead, the paintings show how much is obscured, how much we can’t know of the person sitting, day in and day out as Rembrandt layered a likeness onto the canvas. In this world of shadows, writes Tanizaki, “there is a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament.”


By the time he died, in 1669, Rembrandt had made about ninety portraits of himself. It’s tempting to psychologize these portraits, to assign our own narrative of who we think Rembrandt was in these pictures, and to see them as a sign of his own introspection: Rembrandt youthful and full of potential. Rembrandt flush with success. Rembrandt humbled and old. It is more complicated than that, though. They are studies. He was trying to understand how feeling shows itself in the skin, how the movement of the eyes or the mouth changes the entire face—the ears, the fleshy area of the cheeks, the tautness of the skin around the chin, the shape of the eyes. How light—where it hits and where it is obscured—changes a visage altogether. Look at Rembrandt's larger pieces, like the massive Night Watch. Each figure—I counted twenty-two when I looked up the image on the Rijksmuseum website—has a particular expression. Rembrandt was painting distinct dispositions in a particular moment in time, on the edge of transformation from one emotion to another. In one early self-portrait, Rembrandt is looking as if the viewer has just caught him in a moment unawares. His head is turned, his mouth slightly open, his eyes are widened, shaded by his hat. The muscles of his face are subtly drawn back. Who was that shadowy figure in Anthonie Coopal’s portrait? A presence. A witness. Rembrandt instructed his students to use the mirror to understand emotion. But with these shadows, he seems to be telling us, the viewers, how little we can know.


In the last gallery, a man and a woman huddled together in front of a group of small etchings, whispering in the crowded gallery. His pink skin, mottled with age, his gray hair coarse, in contrast to the sharpness of his collar. She tipped her nose toward his ear. She wore her yellow hair short in a practical cut. There was a glint of gold from a chain no thicker than embroidery floss. The early etchings have the brightness and curiosity of youth. They hung as a group, each one only slightly larger than a postage stamp. The couple straightened to look at them anew. They huddled again as if sharing a secret. Rembrandt is playacting: Rembrandt skeptical. Rembrandt astonished. Rembrandt glowering. Rembrandt angry. These tiny studies were made around 1630, when the artist was barely twenty-five years old, just before he left his hometown of Leiden for Amsterdam. Each hair of his mustache, each line of his collar, each shadow—under his cap, his brow, to the side of his nose, under his lip and chin—was scraped into a coated copper plate with a needle. Then the acid wash ate into the metal where the needle had left its mark. The plate was inked, pressed, leaving this cluster of lines to suggest not just a face, but a feeling.

The woman's back and shoulders rounded under the slight puffs of her rayon sleeves. The man's eyes widened, his cheeks pressed into a smile. So this was what Rembrandt set out to study. She leaned into him, and whispered.