“The humanity, the simple direct humanity of his figures—you feel like they’re real people that you can empathize with. He treats them with a certain dignity, it’s not like he’s trying to belittle them by making them seem so down-to-earth. He has respect for the ordinary person.”1
This is one of the many observations that my friend and colleague Stephanie Dickey has made regarding the work of Rembrandt van Rijn. She is one of the leading authorities on this artist, and was interviewed by Smithsonian Magazine on the anniversary of his 400th birth. She is unique amongst art historians, in my opinion, as she is so aware of, and sensitive to, the thought and painting processes of artists, not unlike the writing of the poet Robert Bly, who has himself had a life long interest and sensitivity to the work of painters and sculptors.
The Old St. Peter by Rembrandt
“Noah’s ship does not sail with its elephants forever.
The crying of the monkeys breaks off and starts again.
Even shame does not last a whole lifetime.”
“‘It was dark,’ Peter said. ‘We were alone. We had
A single candle which shone on the steel breastplate
Of the Roman soldier. The whole town was asleep.’
We are bubbles on the lips of our friends.
Each time they turn their heads, we drift toward the Pole;
We pass into the Many and return.
Who can say, ‘With God, the rest is nothing?’
Who can say, ‘I am a grandchild of the unfaithful?’
Who is able to wait one month to drink water?
We fell into weeping yesterday at five o’clock.
We wept because slavery has returned; we wept
Because the whole century has been a defeat.
Oh Peter! Peter! The night behind you is black.
A beam of light falls on your outworn face.
What can you do but lift up your hand for forgiveness?”2
Rembrandt’s Brown Ink
“The sorrow of an old horse standing in the rain
Goes on and on. The plane that crashes in the desert
Holds shadows under its wings for thirty years.
Each time Rembrandt touches his pen to the page,
So many barns and fences fly up. Perhaps that happens
Because earth has pulled so many nights down.
When we hear a Drupad singer with his low voice
Patiently waiting for the next breath, we know
The universe can easily get along without us.
So much suffering has been stored in the amygdala
That we know it won’t be long before we put
Our heads down on the chopping block again.
Our thighs still remember all those smoky nights
When we crouched for hours on the dusty plains
Holding small-boned mammals into the fire.
How is it possible that so many nights of suffering
Could be summed up by a sketch in brown ink
Of Christ sitting at the table with Judas near?”3
Rembrandt’s Portrait of Titus with a Red Hat
“It’s enough for light to fall on one half of a face.
Let the other half belong to the restful shadow,
The shadow the bowl of bread throws on the altar.
Some are like a horse’s eating place
At the back of the barn where a single beam
Of light comes down from a crack in the ceiling.
Painting bright colors may lie about the world.
Too many windows cause the artist to hide.
Too many well-lit necks call for the axe.
Beneath his red hat, Titus’s eyes hint to us
How puzzled he is by the sweetness of the world—
The way the dragonfly hurries to its death.
So many forces want to kill the young
Male who has been blessed. The Holy Family
Has to hide many times on the way to Egypt.
Titus receives a scattering of darkness.
He’s baptized by water soaked in onions;
The father protects his son by washing him in the night.”4
Everything he paints, he paints with a sense of light (a touch of light) and a tacit understanding of the sitter just across from him. The form is felt with each brushstroke, and handled with sensitivity as the light falls across the space/face. One may identify one of these paintings from across the gallery, even without seeing the didactic information posted on the nearby wall. Always recognizable. And this work has grown so much, almost mythologically, that it exists on a whole ‘nother level of culture. So the last word on this surely belongs to my colleague and friend Stephanie Dickey from her observations on 400 Years of Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s reputation has taken on a life of its own:
“One thing that really surprises me is the extent to which Rembrandt exists as a phenomenon in pop culture. You have this musical group called The Rembrandts, who wrote the theme song to Friends—‘I’ll Be There For You.’ There are Rembrandt restaurants, Rembrandt hotels, art supplies and other things that are more obvious. But then there’s Rembrandt toothpaste. Why on Earth would somebody name a toothpaste after this artist who’s known for his really dark tonalities? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I think it’s because his name has become synonymous with quality. It’s even a verb—there’s a term in underworld slang, ‘to be Rembrandted,’ which means to be framed for a crime. And people in the cinema world use it to mean pictorial effects that are overdone. He’s just everywhere, and people who don’t know anything, who wouldn’t recognize a Rembrandt painting if they tripped over it, you say the name Rembrandt and they already know that this is a great artist. He’s become a synonym for greatness.”5
Dr. Stephanie Dickey,
Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art,
Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
1 Amy, Crawford; An Interview with Stephanie Dickey, author of ‘Rembrandt at 400’; “Arts & Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine; 1 December 2006; Washington, DC; Archived 21 September 2018.
2 Bly, Robert; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Perennial/Harper Collins; New York; 2001; p. 75.
3 Bly Robert; My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy; Harper Perennial; New York, London, Toronto and Sydney; 2005; p. 35.
4 Bly, Robert; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Perennial/Harper Collins; New York; 2001; p. 39.
5 Amy, Crawford; An Interview with Stephanie Dickey, author of ‘Rembrandt at 400’; “Arts & Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine; 1 December 2006; Washington, DC; Archived 21 September 2018.