Only a Blur

John Haber
in New York City

Surface and Reticence: A Rembrandt Self-Portrait

Ever want to take up a brush to correct Rembrandt? Surely someone did it once, Pieter Lastman. Rembrandt served in his workshop, and teachers are awfully hard to hold back. I have watched one criticize a Renaissance master, and I was glad he had left his pencil at home. Maybe that is why museums place drawings under glass.

But go a step further. Ever want to tell Rembrandt that he might as well give up portraits, especially self-portraits? There are specialists in those things. Maybe not, but I heard it just the other day, and it made me think a little differently about portraits, modernity, artistic identity, and "surface" meaning. Since when can an artist decide what not to say? Self-Portrait (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1629)

Face the music

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my visit to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I expected, I think, a sort of old-master Barnes Foundation. Fortunately, no museum could be that quirky.

In contrast to the old Barnes, access is easy, a short walk down Boyleston to the Fenway or a turn behind the MFA. Quality is often enough extraordinary. The hanging is traditional, or at least roughly chronological and at most two tiered. Attributions are at worst understated, like the Man of Sorrows just demoted from Giorgione on account of such beautiful touches as its hard-edged tears. At this date, I shall no longer credit it all to Bernard Berenson, the pioneering art historian whose advice built the collection. At least some museum directors have kept their integrity.

That still leaves the dim lights, the furniture and ropes one stumbles to avoid, the paucity of labels. It also leaves plenty of artists who normally do not make greeting cards. Call it the far-sighted art historian's dream afternoon—or the worst nightmare of a graduate qualifying exam. With my eyesight, leaning precariously from moment to moment, I could have broken something, but luck was with the museum. I shall call my test results fair to good.

What sticks with me right now is not two Raphaels, a fragment by Piero della Francesca, Titian's Rape of Europa, or the empty frame that once held a now-stolen Vermeer, among so many others. I keep returning to an early Rembrandt because of what I overheard.

A man, not much older than Rembrandt in that self-portrait, was passing with his mother. She noticed the painter's right side thrust forward, the light helping to outline a gold chain, much as on a Rembrandt portrait in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. No way around it: that painterly relief looks careful and vivid, but his face is hardly a blur. Oh, she told her son, some painters are good at some things, like portraiture, some at others.

I doubt she knew whom she was calling a lousy face painter. Then again, even a scholar has implausibly called Rembrandt portraits "walleyed." Like my art-teacher friend faced with Filippino Lippi, I nearly launched into a free docent tour, but I restrained myself—until I was alone with the harsher outlines of my own face and my all too personal computer.

A map of shadow

It sounds silly, but she makes a kind of sense. Rembrandt ran one of the greatest workshops of all time, in an era of great Dutch painting, a testimony to his early successes. Not even someone as prolific as Frans Hals or Anthony van Dyck bothered. He returned again and again to self-portraits, back when few artists even attempted one. His scrutiny of himself is central to how viewers today think of art and of themselves. Still, try to recover Rembrandt's strangeness.

Most museum-goers know him for that murky brown, a tone that still reassures people that they get an old master. Only on close inspection does one make out a density and brightness of color, the plain form, a subject matter. The style makes sorting out Rembrandt from assistants and copyists the task of a lifetime, not to mention an industry.

One knows the early work for firm, slightly blue shadows that blur the edges of ordinary shapes. Art took for its standard the depth of Italian color and shadow, but out-of-focus shots were still a novelty. There was no photography yet, and the invention of the lens stood for a new precision, an extension of human knowledge to the very large and the minutely small.

Think of the detail one admires in painting of Rembrandt's time, the catalog of ships in a seascape or textures in a still life. Svetlana Alpers, whom I have just paraphrased, has written of the "mapping impulse" in Dutch art, starting with sketches by Hendrick Goltzius. Another historian, Kees Kaldenbach, has recreated a plan of Delft with the dates, locations, and stages of completion of every building and shipyard. Vermeer got it right. But you knew that.

If Rembrandt really had any problem with faces, he no doubt could have teamed up with a face painter. The Dutch art market perfected the division into the genres that one takes for granted today. If buyers wanted landscape, still life, architecture, portraiture, or cattle, they knew where to find specialists in each one. Lastman stuck largely to narrative painting, and that is what his greatest student learned at his side.

Rembrandt carried those same impulses to portraiture—the mastery of shadow, texture, and story. In successive states of an unfinished print, he could even erase his own strivings for precision, painstakingly, by abrading the plate. So what he was doing when he painted himself imprecisely? Should he have left faces to another hand, as the tourist I overheard imagined? Alpers tries to imagine how conventions of visual accuracy emerged. I want to put conventions on hold for a minute, so that I can find the messy relationship between seeing clearly and describing, between surface and modernity.

Ways of seeing

A portrait describes a sitter, but in so many ways. As oil on canvas from a distinguished hand, it reflects a patron's means and taste. As the illusion of seeing, it provides a living likeness of a man or woman who will never be alive, or at least the same, again. Through props, clothing, and pose it indicates status and interests that belonged once to a person and now belong to history.

Paint itself, the vision of a world, and social realities, all of these are mere surfaces, the flat and vivid imaginings on which people stake their lives. Painting is about keeping up appearances, even when it falls into haphazard strokes and illegible shadows. And every one of these helps an artist to re-create, perhaps to invent, a temperament, an individual. The Gardner lets one see how van Dyck let a man feel glory, how Raphael showed a religious man as a humanist, how Sofonisba Anguissola became one of the first women artists empowered to flatter that kind of judgment.

A portrait looks without and within, and no one can fairly separate the two. If they seem contraries, they grew up together. Oils, portraiture as a genre, a market that gives private buyers their say in what is painted, and an elevation of the individual—all developed side by side. With the Dutch they flourished as never before or since. Its public spaces, from frozen ponds to church interiors, set men and women side by side in near-equal dignity.

The revelation of a sitter lets someone else show off, too, a painter. Painters both flatter a sitter's self-image and project their own, with more or less conflict as the daring of each permits. What happens, then, in a self-portrait, when the artist goes on display in more ways than one? Art's dignity becomes at issue, because a brush marks depth just as a pen creates a "character."

With a self-portrait, the painted surface belongs to its creator as long as he or she wants to keep it. The likeness is the painter's art. The status is the artist's, as no one else need perceive it. The individual steps out of a guild or workshop. And yet the creator remains the sitter, available to others. A painter's gaze and individual self-certainty become subject to the eyes of strangers.

When Artemisia Gentileschi injects herself into an allegory of painting, now in London, she echoes the cry of painters since Leonardo da Vinci to be taken seriously. After all, Jan Vermeer would soon create his allegory of painting, too. As Mary Garrard writes, Artemisia ranks her centuries-old craft among the liberal arts. Her depicted surface, with soft, grainy earth tones, blends into the actual painting's ground. But the choice comes with risks. The viewer sees none of the allegorical painter's subject matter, nothing to justify its dignity. Even the withdrawal from self-portrait into allegory calls art's real demands into question.

Dandy and patriarch

The Rembrandt self-portrait self-consciously shows himself not painting. Does that mean that he seeks a painter's dignity apart from painting? Is he like a lawyer taking off his tie and putting his baseball cap on backward? Yes and no, and the mix of pride and apology still puts painting on the spot.

The cloak sweeping forward, the gold chain, the dramatic turn away into shadow—all these announce his aspirations in a different way from Artemisia's. Make no mistake: this is a man of means and quite the dandy. He has stuck a feather in his cap, and he claims that he earned it. In its own way, like Titian's late self-portrait with an honorary medal, his work makes the case for a painter's status. He knows what he is doing.

One can already see that he fully intends the contrast in sharpness between foreground and background. The two elements, clarity and blur, each highlight part of this picture.

The foreground gives the painting's greatest weight to the gold chain. One sees the skill in describing how light strikes each link. One admires the craft in the thick strokes of paint. One withdraws instinctively from the young artist's swagger. Any stronger, crisper background would only stand in the way.

Blur and shadow matter for their own sake as well, as a refusal to tell all. They stand for a nobleman's altogether proper reserve, as exaggerated by an outsider, like an American in Henry James's Europe. (I imagine Gardner as one.) The Dutch republic had mixed feelings about true nobility and plenty of shams about. Refusal also becomes a painter's style: by the risk of painting "badly," Rembrandt presents himself to potential patrons more effectively than ever.

Refusal thus stands for the indescribable personality within. Rembrandt, who identified all his life with stories from the Old Testament, knew what not to say. As Eric Auerbach put it, the Bible's silences suggest deep human conflicts and a powerful presence beyond humanity. For the artist, humanity's greatness hinges on both, and that is why Rembrandt seems modern. As long as the allegorical impulse lurks within, alongside the drive to deny depth in favor of a "flat" surface, modernity holds as well the seeds of what has become postmodern.

To attain the blur

By softening Rembrandt's thin but slightly puffy face, the blurring emphasizes his youth. The man who created this amazing likeness, it says, is a prodigy. No wonder he can display a touch of ostentation and wealth.

He is also one smart prodigy. To become a liberal art, painting should demand and assert learning, just as much as a science. Leonardo tried his hand at pretty much every investigation of nature known to his time; Vermeer knew the inventor of the microscope. Rembrandt's blur takes painting's surfaces to the cutting edge of understanding: he has witnessed what a lens can do.

The camera obscura, still a new technique, created an image with a narrow depth of focus. Think of a photograph with a slow shutter speed. The painter thinks faster and moves faster than a lens in order to assimilate and surpass its knowledge. One sees another reason that Rembrandt cannot show himself at work. Rembrandt no longer represents painting allegorically, but he takes literally the act of painting. Again the seeds of modernity suggest the contradictions that one now calls postmodern.

This is a young man's painting, and Rembrandt was to change more than any painter I can name. The brightness of this painting vanishes from his late work. So do its confidence, its trust in material wealth, and even the sharp distinction with which I began between brightness and blur. All these gave way to a dignity found only in love, skill, thought, disappointment, and failure.

The great self-portrait in the Frick Collection shows him as he became. He is now monarch of all he surveys, but what he surveys is poverty without and a far greater, far less definable wealth within. The blur has blended into the painterly brushstrokes of that early foreground. It resonates with color and shadow.

Yet something in his art never changed, in what museums still like to call "The Age of Rembrandt." Even as Rembrandt faced despair, he became more comfortable with the painter's risk as sitter. Before he reached that point, his reliance on shadow and surface had to turn on itself, to commit him to the light and the humility of a mere human eye. Rembrandt worked all his life to attain and resolve the blur.

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This Rembrandt self-portrait is in the permanent collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I also refer to Alpers's The Art of Describing, Garrard's wonderful monograph on Gentileschi, and "Ulysses Scar," the first chapter of Auerbach's classic Mimesis.


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