Thursday, March 7, 2013

Looking at a young Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn. Self-portrait with Gorget. c. 1629
37.9 x 28.9 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague 
I recently had a chance to see this self-portrait very close up, at the exhibition from the Mauritshuis in San Francisco.

Exhibitions from the Dutch "Golden Age" never fail to leave me with a rather odd feeling. It's always a show of a very strong stylistic coherence of the age, and an extremely high and consistent mastery of skills in realistic treatment of details. This display of realistic exuberance seems to attract most viewers' admiration (maybe because it's back in fashion nowadays), almost hiding from them the genuine, age-independent, power and artistic strength of some paintings (not all of them, by no means). I will probably return to this motive in a later post.

I am not sure how many of the viewers notice that the "like a photo" level of illusion is often achieved by completely "unlike a photo" means; in many cases, the illusion of detailed realism is supplied by the viewers' minds at a certain distance, and disappears if one looks closer. It might seem that every leaf on a tree is painted as such, but "in reality" it's just a mess of suggestive brushstrokes.     

In this context, this self-portrait of Rembrandt's stands remarkably apart from the crowd (leaving alone, for the moment, all the other reasons why it stands apart). What you see in the photo is more or less close to what you see from a couple of steps away from the painting: a precocious young man, with smooth, nearly cherubic look (or it would be, had he not been looking at you with obvious pride in himself and a bit of hidden ironic smile: he knows his worth, and would have gladly overestimated it if that were humanely possible in this case; I can do anything, his look says, you just try me). 

If you get a chance to look closer, though, you will see something quite unexpected: the portrait seems to show every single tiny imperfection of his skin, let alone the imperfections of that morning's shaving. "Oh, it's realistic details you want?" -- the young painter seems to ask his potential clients ("You want it to look like a photo?" -- he would have asked had he lived now). "Well, if that's what you want, I can give you more than you've ever asked for; more than your poor imaginations can take. And I will even try to hide my smile from you, albeit not very successfully, while I am at it." What the portrait shows, and how it is done, merge together perfectly, with an unmistakeable touch of genius.    

Unfortunately, this painting doesn't seem to be represented in Google Art Project as yet, but to give you some idea of what I am talking about, there is another one from approximately the same time: just zoom in, and you will see what I mean. 


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