Friday, February 27, 2009

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Last summer, there was an exhibition in an art museum on Rembrandt’s works. I did want to go see the exhibition, but failed to do so. I wish I could’ve seen the drawings of Rembrandt, so I looked up for the books about his drawings. I found several books of Rembrandt, but one of the books was containing interesting topic.
The author focuses on the noses in the portraits of Rembrandt. He feels that the noses possess a will of their own. They have their own inclinations and seem to obey their own promptings rather that the laws of objective resemblance. They are long and slender, flat and squat, smooth or wrinkled, bony of fleshy, dainty or gross, pitted, scarred, inflamed, unblemished. According to the book, Rembrandt indicates a nose with a vertical tick or a pair of dots for the nostrils. He lavished as much care on layering pigment to build up a nose as on capturing the play of reflections and shadows in an eye. He rendered the complexion of a nose with the same fastidiousness he brought to paraphrasing the sheen of velvet or fur.
In his portraits and self-portraits, he angles the sitter’s face in such as way that the ridge of the nose nearly always forms the line of demarcation between brightly illuminated and shadowy areas. A Rembrandt face is a fact partially eclipsed; and the nose, bright and obvious, thrusting into the riddle of halftones, serves to focus the viewer’s attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light – an overwhelmingly clarity- and a brooding duskiness. If the sitter is the lead actor of a performance, then the nose is his understudy on the stage of the face. The nose stands in the center, the focal of our gaze, if not the exact center, and demands that we notice it. It’s a peacockish actor: too obvious, too egotistical, too histrionic. It upstages the rest of the face and would make us forget that its posturing is mere vanity and vacuity compared to the eloquence of the eyes and lips.
Rembrandt tried on faces-and noses-like a child making grimaces in a mirror. Of the eighty-odd self-portraits now accepted by Rembrandt scholars, no two are alike. While all are recognizable as portrayals of the same man at different stages of his life and in different roles, circumstances, and moods, they display such an extraordinary variety of expressions, and the features are molded in such a diversity of shapes, that looking at them as a body is like leafing thought the scrapbook of an actor blessed with a particularly rubbery face. Here is the artist as a soldier; here he’s a gay blade, a beggar, a burgher, St.Paul, Democritus; here he is laughing or putting on a frown; here he looks terrified; here, inexpressibly sad.

1. Self-portrait in a Gorget, c.1629. Oil on Wood, 15 x 12⅛inches.

In this picture, the center of gravity, the weight of the face, is upward to the nose, which juts almost architecturally against the shadowy dark quarter of the moonlike visage. It is only after one’s gaze takes it in, with its tip mere millimeters below the picture plane and the soft highlights on the ridge trailing upward into the slight depression between the eyebrows where a thoughtful frown is gathering- only then does one begin notice the other details of this stunning painting: the reflective eyes, the wisps of hair against temple and forehead, and humid lips, the 5’o clock shadow on the well-propositioned chin, the bright tones on the scarf and gleaming gorget. This is one of the Rembrandt’s least theatrical, most intimate self-portrayals; it’s as much a depiction of the state of being absorbed in though as it is a straightforward description of flesh. The eyes concentrate the sitter’s reflective mood; the nose proclaims his physical reality.

2. Self-Portrait, 1629. Oil on Wood. 6⅛x5 inches. Munich, Alte Pinakothek.

In the above self-portrait, the uncertain gleam of pale light on his cheek, the edge of lips, and the orb of his rounded nose – a pale moon suspended before the stormy moon of his face – appears to be cast by an unsteady lantern, and it reveals a darkness more unfathomable than the murk it lights up. The eyes, nostrils, and parted lips- those gateways to the obscurity within the artist’s soul- are caught, in that flickering instant, in a welter of hatched, dabbed, slashed, scraped, and scratched brushstrokes which anticipate the tempestuous surfaces of Rembrandt’s final years. He’s painted a storm here, in more senses than one.

3. Self-portrait in a Cap, Open-mouthed, 1630. Etching (B.320). Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt depicts himself struggling to shape his lips around a whistle or, in this case, soundless whisper. This time the light rakes his face, as the knowledge of what makes him flinch and grimace harrows his mind, shedding its glare on the tapering, elongated pyramid of a nose jutting out with an architectural indifference to the storm sweeping the rest of his features. And the nostrils are exposed, as if to indicate, like the open mouth and shocked eyes, that the artist is defenseless. He has not donned his armor here, is garbed in no finery or protective camouflage, and has no weapon other than the useless parody of a tusk formed by the shadow cast by his all too vulnerable nose.


Michael, Taylor. Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh& Spirit in the Master’s Portraits. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. New York, 2007.

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