The Astronomer. This one is maybe my favorite. Everything about this speaks philosophy and the work of the person—not the person himself. Even his full face is hidden from view, turned towards his endeavors in studying the universe. He reaches out toward the globe, the spherical representation of knowledge, with an opened book placed in front of him on the desk. More books fill the shelf in the back, and pinned to the front of the shelf is a diagram of geometric lines of radial symmetry. He is, as most of Vermeer's figures, near a window. The lighting in the room is warm, and the glow from the outside sunlight falls onto the astronomer as a kind of symbolic display of God's radiant presence in his studies of the cosmos. It was around this time that scientists Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Sir Isaac Newton were making breakthrough discoveries in the study of nature and the order of the universe. Even these scientists, and especially these scientists, believed in the existence of a Supreme Deity, God, a Creator and Sustainer of the heavens. Recently Dr. Stephen C. Meyer spoke on this subject in an interview, stating, "The founders of early modern science…all not only believed in God but they thought that their belief in God actually made it easier to do science."
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Next, let's look at Jan Vermeer. It should be said that his are among the most coveted paintings in the world because they are so rare. His style, too, however, is one of impeccable exactness. I heard someone at an art museum lecturing a while back, and he was arguing to his class about the quality of touch in painting. All other techniques, he said, can be copied and mimicked. Colors can be reproduced, tone reused, shapes obviously can be refashioned on a flat canvas, the dimensions of a painting can be duplicated to an exact facsimile—the images are there to be painted again; however, he said, the one thing that cannot be replicated is the sense of personal touch in the artwork. You may have Vermeer's colors and tools, but you do not have the exact lightness of fingers that he did in dabbing finite brushstrokes to his paintings with the delicacy of hair-splitting precision and, more importantly, you do not have the precise velocity of his brushstrokes to produce the tone of harshness conflicting with softness that is present in some of his most famous works. This is the irreplaceability of Vermeer's work.
Vermeer often liked to paint pictures of everyday life, akin to the now established Protestant tradition of genre painting. He painted portraits in which the interiors seemed to have greater importance over the figures, and he is known today for his lush interiors more so than for his actual portraits (with the exception of the above, the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring). Most of his paintings are of the same room, actually, which presents an interesting microcosm to the viewer. "All the world's a stage" was penned by Shakespeare some sixty years earlier. "And all the men and women merely players:" the people in Vermeer's works are often presented as less important than the light and textures of the stage picture he displays. In order to see the consistency of his approach to his subject matter, it is beneficial to look at several of his works. In the spirit of true, hardworking diligence, we'll just look at a few.
Monday, July 22, 2013
And thus we come to the late works of Rembrandt before his death, where his style changed from specific attention to detail to less and less fully developed, concrete forms. A kind of social outcast, financially bankrupt, and alone, Rembrandt's later self-portraits display him as the saintly martyr to society which he viewed himself as. When given his last public commission, then, to paint a work for the newly constructed city hall, the artist let his disdain and bitterness towards society come out in The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, which was rejected and sent back to Rembrandt, who then destroyed most of it for resale (the image we see today is only a fraction of the original painting). Soon after, the artist grew so desperate for money that he was forced to sell his wife's grave.
Here we see a chapter from the account of Tacitus' Histories being portrayed: the meeting of the lower-class conspirators, led by Claudius Civilis, in forming the Batavian rebellion (ancient Dutch) against the Romans in 69-70A.D. This is how the Dutch civilization was born; every citizen in Amsterdam would know it. What could be more appropriate for city hall, remodeled to celebrate Dutch society? But look at the painting's composition. It looks more like a rough sketch than a finished painting; the glorious rebels look like barbaric and haggard old ghosts—or are not given clearly distinguishable faces at all. The lighting of the work is impossibly contrived, and the color scheme is a bland blob of browns spilling with repressed reds and sickly yellows. The lines deviate and the shading varies in splotches. The individuals' faces look like cartoon drawings, and the leader, Claudius himself, comes across as a deformed figure of feigned political and military authority. His facial wound from battle is cast in full view; he is a one-eyed Cyclops of a man, ugly and animalistic. Why did the artist choose to paint it like this? It was his last chance to impress his Dutch audience, but Rembrandt didn't care about that. He had always painted his own face with his nasal wart and unattractive wrinkles showing. How much more, then, would he exploit the lesser qualities of his peers who had lowered him in their minds to such meager social standing? This, in turn, is Rembrandt's scathing review of his peers. By painting the founding of the Dutch civilization, he attempts a comprehensive portrait of the Dutch people themselves. In a way, this is Rembrandt's final portrait, and it is a portrait of his fellow townsfolk in all their broad imperfection. A bitter old artist gets his revenge against a society that had cast him out and left him alone, like the windmill on the hilltop from the painting he had done twenty years earlier. And that is how Rembrandt died.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
In 1642, Rembrandt lost his wife (presumably to tuberculosis), and in the following months the artist began the practice of taking long walks in the country alone to help overcome his grief. During this time he painted The Mill.
This painting once again carries out the invisible emotions in a very visibly symbolic way. Solitude and loneliness are themes of this work. A solitary, old windmill stands totally alone in the center of the painting, facing the light but haunted from behind by enveloping dark clouds that foretell death and devastation. The people in the painting are all weary travelers stopping by the lake to gain refreshment from the water; but is anyone truly ever rejuvenated? (This is certainly no Fountain of Youth.) But for all its brooding drama of light and dark shadow and sky, the setting is quite calm and quiet, peaceful and tranquil in a transcendent way that only a person who has ever gone through such deep sentiments of sorrow can understand.
Rembrandt was widely known during this time to be a poor manager of his money. He was a prodigious spender and collector; he would collect prints, portraits, clothing, and the like for his work, but it eventually led him to becoming broke. There are stories of his students painting guilders (coins) and putting them on the floor to see if Rembrandt would pick them up. His first wife—his only wife, I should say—was rather a well-to-do woman, but the only way he could maintain an entitlement to her fortune after she died was to never remarry. So Rembrandt went on to take mistresses without marrying. It was known that he was having an affair with his maid in the years following his wife's death because they were having children together before long. The maid was excommunicated from the Dutch Reformed Church; Rembrandt was not. This is because Rembrandt had never become a member of the Reformed Church and therefore maintained immunity from the practice of church discipline. He attended but never joined the church, and it has been argued that this was because Rembrandt was an Arminian. At first widely successful, the artist's high reputation gradually diminished for these reasons—kind of like how nobody really cares about Tiger Woods anymore because of the recent scandal involving his more disreputable personal life.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
An early painting by Rembrandt (and arguably one of his most enigmatic works) is titled The Artist in His Studio and features Rembrandt himself staring into a large canvas. This autobiographical piece brings in the stark realism I described earlier. The room is far from an elegant royal court. The wood floor is old and has sustained water damage; the paint on the walls is chipping off; the room itself is poorly lit and scantily furnished. This is hardly an abode, hardly a "studio" at all. Yet Rembrandt titles it "The Artist…"—not "An Artist…"—"…in His Studio," as if to imply the simple lifestyle and ultimately minimalist technique of not just one artist but in fact all artists. In this painting the artist himself is mostly hidden in the corner and obscured by shadow. The most interesting feature (and also the biggest object) of the painting is the canvas. In a tantalizingly mysterious call, Rembrandt has chosen to turn the canvas from the viewer. This massive object that takes up the bulk of the frame is turned around so that we cannot see what is painted on it. Is it a self-portrait? a genre painting? something else? We don't know, and we'll never know. So we can never really know what "the artist" (again, representative of all artists) is painting when he produces a work from his studio. Art has an exclusive relationship with the artist, as intimate and personal as the private life of a married couple. Outside viewers, the art critics of the day, can never fully enter into the conversation.
Monday, July 15, 2013
While flattering, Rembrandt's portraits also exhibited a stark realism relatively new to the art world of grandiose, saintly images of idealized bodies in perfect poses. Rembrandt's self-portraits show him as an awkward-looking weasel of a man with wrinkles on his face and a wart on his nose. The honesty of such rendering speaks to the values of a man who wanted to paint people as they really are: flawed. Art will only begin to fully accept this vision of flawed humanity two centuries later with the advent of Modernism. But early spokesmen, like Rembrandt, Goya, and others who painted non-idealized images (some even downright grotesque) were the precursors to the ensuing trend of the second half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. In that sense these artists were very literally ahead of their time.
The thing I personally appreciate the most about Rembrandt's portraiture style is his ability to visibly capture the invisible. A portrait, if you think about it, is largely a secularized image of an individual. We are presented with the person's fleshly body, their outer image and appearance; but in such a two-dimensional rendering we certainly cannot tap into the person himself, his thoughts, beliefs, aspirations, and feelings, can we? Rembrandt is somehow able to. In his portraits we connect with the individual on a much deeper, emotional, and spiritual sense than other portraitists of previous artistic periods (perhaps with exceptions like da Vinci). Rembrandt is able to tell us something personal about the sitter in addition to presenting the viewer with that individual's physical qualities. Like Hals' Laughing Cavalier, emotion and expression of inner thoughts begins to come out more in portrait painting at this time—thanks to the Protestants.
This is the idea in art of the authoritative sincerity of the painter. I heard this concept lectured on in a certain museum about a year ago, and it may be hard to grasp; however, we must tackle it now. When Rembrandt paints a self-portrait, we believe that what we see is the reality of Rembrandt's image, whether it be an accurate likeness or not in the terms we would qualify as accuracy—i.e., whether the clef in his chin was really so large, the dimple on his cheek so measured in length, and so forth. We can forsake this image of Rembrandt as he would appear in the flesh and substitute it with his canvas creation because, under the authoritative, autographed name of the artist himself, his self-portrait is published to be Rembrandt. It's a step further from mere suspension of disbelief because it becomes the reality itself. Where one might say that by painting Rembrandt, Rembrandt has "put a little of himself" into the painting, a true art critic might say, "No, no, the painting is Rembrandt." The abstract soul of the artist is totally infused into the work, having been painted on a literal canvas, making the imaginary real. Now, the ideas of Rembrandt's portrait, of his intangible character traits and spiritual personality, are transferred from immateriality to physicality in the form of oil paints applied to a tangible canvas. This painted rendering of Rembrandt has become Rembrandt, the true version of the man (art succeeding the artist). So, when we look at a Rembrandt self-portrait, we completely believe that we are looking at the true face of the artist as he actually existed in the deeper, hitherto-imperceptible, philosophical vision of Rembrandt as the true soul he was and is evermore. We look at his soul when we look into the framed painting hanging on the wall in the gallery: it's not just a painting. At any rate, that is the idea.
Monday, July 8, 2013
Now we come to Rembrandt. Rembrandt van Rijn was an enormously successful Dutch painter who specialized in the study of light, shadow, and atmosphere. He produced a wealth of paintings conducive to a study of the artist's lifelong development into style. Throughout his entire career, Rembrandt painted portraits of himself as he grew older and more accomplished. His self-portraits total around 40 paintings and almost as many etchings.
For most of the period of Rembrandt's career in major artistic development his works specialized in the study of light, shadow, and atmosphere. In this famous painting, titled The Night Watch, a small group of volunteers from the town militia are painted as royal military heroes and aristocrats of only the highest noble rank. The light falls on certain figures in the middle of the painting but is generally scattered abroad in random rays. Some figures are plainly visible while others are in shadow.
This painting was produced in 1642, during the period when the artist had peaked as one of the most successful and most sought-after portraitists of his time. And apart from the biblical and historical paintings that has since earned him the high-class reputation associated with Rembrandt in modern times, in his own day this was what he was most widely known for: portraits.