HARVARD DIARY
Rembrant's Old Ones

October 1996By Robert Coles

Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Unlike many other 17th-century painters, or, for that matter, any number of painters who lived in earlier or later centuries, Rembrandt stubbornly refused to let rich and powerful people (in his case, they belonged to a prospering Holland) have complete access to his studio, his skills as a master of portraiture. Indeed, over half of the subjects he decided to attend were of his own choosing — relatives and friends and neighbors, a number of Jews who lived near his studio, even blacks, and, all in all, a substantial percentage of ordinary people whose appearance or habits or manner of living, whose being, really, he happened to find interesting. Moreover, those he found interesting, he made interesting. The individuals he offers us summon our attention, show us much about themselves, or so we conclude — Rembrandt, the careful judge of character, the faithful witness to it, the wonderfully capable mediator of it: On his canvases he conveys what he, the moral and psychological observer, has learned, seen.

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1601 to working people; his father was a miller, his mother a baker’s daughter. Holland was a mighty nation then, and its citizens were memorialized in different ways by Frans Hals, who was born 25 years before Rembrandt, and Jan Vermeer, who was born a quarter of a century after him. For Hals the people who mattered were the prosperous burghers, whom he presents in all their fulfilled zest for life: They smile and banter; they eat and drink and seem to be without major worries — as merry as their observer makes them. They love to dress up, and we are asked to take note of those clothes, not to mention other possessions: furniture, tableware, an adorned, lucky secular life which seems secure for the foreseeable future. For Vermeer, that life was not only promising, but thoroughly admirable; his subjects seem less brashly, nervously affluent — they are the well-to-do who have also become genteel, refined, unashamedly pleased with the “culture” they have learned to possess, an acquisition all its own, a distinctive one, they seem to know and indicate, as Vermeer gives them the sustained afterlife of a presence on his canvas: there, in all the restrained splendor of their haute bourgeois daily life.

In contrast, Rembrandt struggled hard to take note of another Holland, another world — his was an art both documentary and introspective. His refusal to become owned by the privileged was a rare act of courage — he thereby resisted a constant temptation for artists over the centuries: paint for those with money, paint pictures that tell of their life, paint them, and do so in such a way that they are flattered, given the nearest earthly thing to an honored eternity, the continuing life that a painting on display can provide. In contrast, he found inspiration in his own wife, his son, his kin, and, as mentioned, his fellow citizens. He looked around the neighborhood he inhabited, and he also looked back across the centuries, pictured in his mind the Bible’s stories, and set himself the task of connecting them to the people with whom he shared a time, a place. Put differently, Rembrandt embraced a biblical humanism — he wanted to present the figures who appear in Hebrew Scripture and in the New Testament as the men and women they once were, rather than exalt them visually in such a way that they appear larger-than-life, beyond the reach and understanding of we mortals who have come along later: readers of stories once enacted in various locations of what now is called the Middle East. Rembrandt also remembered what many for various reasons have wanted to forget, that the Bible, all of it, is a Jewish narrative — so, if one wants to portray on canvas not only Abraham and Isaac and their descendants, but Jesus and His fisherman friends and peasant followers, there is every reason to know Jewish people: Their faces are the faces of two of the world’s great religions. The Rembrandt who gave us Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem or Christ and the Woman of Samaria or St. Peter or St. Paul in Prison or Christ at Emmaus or The Descent from the Cross is the Rembrandt who painted Portrait of an Old Jew, A Jewish Philosopher, Head of an Old Man, Portrait of an Old Woman, Old Man Praying, Two Negroes — and, yes, who drew The Rat-Killer, Beggar Receiving Alms, Beggar Woman and Child, Jews on the Street.


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