This week I want to share a personal reflection on art, motivated by a recent article in the New Yorker.
Take a minute to look at – and into – this person’s eyes. He died 351 years ago.What do you see?
(Seriously. Take a minute. It’s worth it.)
First, a little personal background.
I did not want to take the required art appreciation course in college. I grew up in San Bernardino, a town whose claim to fame was not its art galleries or general sophistication but being the birthplace of the Hell’s Angels and McDonalds. When I got to college, I had the experience of people saying they could “see” things in a poem or a novel or an artwork, but try as I might, I couldn’t see what they claimed to see. This made me feel ignorant, self-conscious and defensive.
That’s the attitude I carried into the initial art history class. But as that course unfolded, I was intrigued, then fascinated, then transfixed. I traded potential embarrassment for lifelong curiosity.
Some years later I was drawn to Rembrandt, particularly by his portrayal of Biblical scenes. These weren’t fancy, perfectly coiffed characters. They were ordinary people. They looked real. But he brought depth and presence to them. You could sense their soul.
Let’s turn to his “Self-Portrait of 1658”. It was one of many paintings mentioned in the February 15 issue of the New Yorker by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl.* His focus is a new book, “The Sleeve Should Be Illegal: & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick,” in which a broad range of people give personal reactions to many of the art works at this unique museum in New York. The “Self-Portrait of 1658” merits comments from Schjedldahl, the actress Diana Rigg, and the cartoonist Roz Chast.
First, I’ll share my impressions and thoughts as I took time to look. It’s always an interesting exercise to just see what comes to mind.
- I notice he seems to be looking just over my left shoulder.
- Next, I notice the double chin. That leads me to think of how my own double chin has been emerging this last year, made more obvious thanks to Zoom; it appalls me. But he paints his without apology. He is capturing his real life at this point in time. I then think, “He must have a sense of dignity that is deeper than mine.”
- A little later I notice he dressed himself up in fancy clothes, a favorite technique of his. Do the clothes suggest vanity after all? Or are they an effective contrast with the aging face?
- I look back into his eyes now, rather than just at them. I sense he is not looking at me but letting me look at him. Looking deeply, I feel we are suddenly connected. It reminds me of Star Trek: Mr. Spock was capable of performing the “Vulcan Mind Meld” by placing his fingers on someone’s head and going into a trance, then tapping directly into the person’s psyche, bonding with a hidden pain, memory or secret.
- Accepting his invitation to look into his eyes, I sense he is strong, assured, confident. At peace. Also, generous, in that he let me take as much time as I want to make the connection across 350 years of time. He never knew me, but he let me – and all of us –gaze into his soul.
- I sense the particularity of the person he was. It reminds me of the particularity of each one of us. You see it in the eyes of a newborn. Or a family member or friend when you take a moment. Sometimes in a stranger, who then no longer is as strange.
These are some of my initial impressions.
Let’s turn now to Schjedldahl’s description:
Another matter is the best painting in the museum, if not the world: Rembrandt’s fathomlessly self-aware “Self-Portrait” of 1658, made when he was fifty-two and sorely beset by personal and professional woes. He knows that he’s the leading painter in Amsterdam, but he seems to wonder if that’s worth anything. It does nothing for his tiredness. A shadow falls across his eyes. I’m loath to argue with the five contributors who single the work out. It becomes part of each viewer’s life: a talisman…
And then these two comments.
The late Diana Rigg recalls thinking, when she first saw the picture, “That is how I want to act!”
Roz Chast recounts an existential encounter. She writes, “I felt as if he were saying to me: Once I was alive, like you. Sometimes I suffered. Sometimes things seemed funny, or maybe absurd, especially myself. I was a man. I was an artist. I was a great artist. My name was Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. I painted this painting. I lived. I died. Yet here I am. There you are. We are looking at each other.”
It’s a mystical experience to look deeply into the eyes of another being in the present moment and across time. I’m grateful for all the artists who make that happen, and skilled guides like Peter Schjedldahl.
If you gaze at him again, what do you see? Where do those thoughts lead? I invite you to add any of your observations in the “Leave a Comment” space below so we can make this a shared experience.
Truly a spacious mystery, this thing called life.
With COVID and mandatory mask wearing, eyes play an oversized role in our communication. Is someone happy, sad, anxious, annoyed? With a mask covering much of our face we have to discern these emotions through the eyes. I was smiling at someone the other day and then I commented, “Oh, you can’t tell I’m smiling at you”. She said, “Yes I can, I see it in your eyes”. I’ve been volunteering as traffic control at a drive through vaccination site near me and I’ve learned to read people by looking at their eyes. Some are anxious, not having driven or been out of their house much over the last year. Some are scared, all the waving flags and lane markers (as well as the pending shot). And others are elated, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, a return to “normal”. It’s all there in the eyes if we learn to look. I have come across some eyes in the drive through that leave me tongue tied and speechless. I don’t know what these eyes are trying to convey, but I will always remember how it felt.
Beautiful comment, Nancy. I had not thought about masks and COVID when reflecting on this painting. Love what you said.
What I noticed first looking into his eyes, Steve, was an unutterable sadness, yet acceptance. The tiny spec of light in each of his eyes tell me where he is looking, and it is as if he is looking right at me, telling me, it’s ok, I’ve been there. I’ve experienced life, illness, death, disappointments, yet I am here. Those tiny flecks of light giving light in his eyes bring the whole painting to life; as they do to any painting. Without those flecks of light the painting would be still, lifeless. It reminds me that our life comes from a tiny speck of life. And each of us has that light in us, no matter how small the flame may be, and that is what we should focus on, not the disappointments. I too wonder about his clothing. He looks knightly in his cloak (I imagine it to be heavy brocade), holding his ornate cane. It makes me wonder about his life. Was he ridiculed or shamed for his desire to paint? Does the clothing say to the world, and himself, I made the right choice, I am a success, I make a good living, can afford rich clothing. Finally I notice his hands. Those hands which have created so much indescribable beauty that has endured the ages to now. Those skilled hands, very much at rest here. Even the cane rests gently in his hand, is not clutched with his hand clenched. I sense he is at peace with himself.
Finally, I realize once again the wonder of the technology we now take for granted. If we were viewing this painting in a gallery we would be viewing if from a corded distance, and hanging a bit above us. We could never look eye to eye with the subject as the painter painted it. Even the ability to write with one electronic device (my iPhone) while viewing the painting with another (my iPad). The ability of my iPad to zoom effortlessly to focus on just the face, or some feature, unimaginable to me years ago when I took Art Appreciation at City College. I had chosen the class as a required elective, and at the time I signed up for the class I was wondering how this class was supposed to round out my education (all my other courses were biological science classes or math classes), and I was resentful of the time away from my chosen field. I came to love the class though, and to look forward to each lecture and slide show. Thank you for your posts, Steve. They are always thought provoking, and I look forward to your next reflection posting.
Sent from my iPad
Very thoughtful and “in-sight-ful” comment, Ann. Thank you for sharing that.
Hi Steve. I think this is my favorite one of your posts so far….and I have enjoyed them all.
Thank you for sharing this Rembrandt self-portrait, and the opportunity to think together about the experience of looking at it/him deeply, with patience.
As I look, and allow him to look back at me, I found my eyes drawn to his mouth, which seems to me poised between smiling and registering some sadness or doubt. I do see the confidence and peace that you mention, but I also sense some quietly smoldering emotion, which feels concealed and mysterious.
I could look at him for a long time and not get bored.