Being Seen by Rembrandt
An Analysis of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in the Frick Collection and a Self-Portrait Generated to Test that Analysis
by Gerald Owen Grow
Copyright © 2001
An examination of Rembrandt’s self-portrait in the Frick Collection, with reference to how the painting changes with the light, complexity through split faces in Hals and Van Dyck, Rembrandt’s method of interleaving multiple competing expressions, Joseph Raffael’s Pomo and deeply hidden expressions, and the use of Photoshop to draw out some of aspects of the portrait. The author argues that Rembrandt embeds multiple competing expressions that the viewer is forced to integrate, and that the painting, as a result, appears to respond to the viewer.
The author makes a self-portrait of his own by combining conflicting expressions from several photographs, applying the principles derived from Rembrandt.
Additional self-portraits that lighten the experience of being immersed in the tragedy of Rembrandt’s work.
In the summer of 2001, while members of my family were away on various trips, I had a week to myself. I experienced the luxury of waking every morning and being able to ask what I most wanted to do that day. The answer was always the same, and it surprised me: I wanted to write about the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Frick Collection.
I can’t explain why a middle-aged man would want to spend a week contemplating a portrait another man made of himself in middle-age. But I did.
There is something about this portrait that has drawn me to it repeatedly, since I first came upon it 35 years eaerlier. I had visited New York earlier in 2001 on business for the first time in a decade, and the portrait had been one of the highlights of the trip. Of all the art treasures in New York, this was the one I wanted most to see.
The portrait seems alive in a remarkable way. In particular, it seems to change as you look at it. The changing light from the overhead skylight brings out different expressions in the face. It has been described as regal, kingly, powerful, monumental, godlike, lordly, forceful, intimidating. Yet in a certain light, you also see what the Frick describes as “a face blurred and eroded by age, sorrows, and illness.”
The face also seems alive in a more internal way. It changes depending on what you feel when you look at it. As a way of spending time with this painting, I set out to discover more about how a painting could appear to change as you look at it.
Along the way, I tried to visualize what the painting would look like as the light changed. I looked for different, contradictory expressions in the face and sought ways to make them more apparent. Using Photoshop, I highlighted some of those expressions, to suggest the range of emotional experience the painting conveys. Seeking to understand how this painting drew me to it so strongly, I recalled watching a copyist duplicate another Rembrandt self-portrait in Vienna, I examined portraits by Hals and Van Dyck (also in the Frick), and I reviewed a powerful experience I once had with a portrait by Joseph Raffael.
This was not an exercise. It was a calling — a small calling, but a very real one. My purpose was not to analyze Rembrandt’s painting, but to occupy my very curious mind with as rich an analysis as I could manufacture, so that I could sit at the feet of this painting and, as it were, listen to it.
I’d like to tell you what I thought. And what I heard. And where this led.
As the Light Changes
As the light changes, the face changes.
And the light on a painting like this would naturally change. There would be days of bright sun outside, overcast, mottled shadow, and the painting would have been glimpsed at night by moving candlelight and lamplight.
The painting would emerge into view each morning in the pre-dawn light and fade into the shadows of dusk–changing all the time.
This is not an effect we can easily see in books of reproductions, or even in many museums. Luckily, the Frick has a natural skylight, supplemented at times by artificial lights, so that you can actually experience the way the portrait changes under different kinds of light.
Watching the expression change. In full light (perhaps exaggerated in the prints of the painting commonly sold), the face is powerful, commanding, kingly — capping the mass of the posture and the power of the huge hands.
As the light fades and the painting darkens, it darkens selectively in a way that makes the face appear to become more aged, tired, worried. The eyes, seen close up, show how darkness brings not just the diminution of light but an actual change in expression.
The darkening light brings out the darker wrinkles and sags, the hint of accusation, the worry lines, the sadness, and the creases that suggest strain or sternness.
In the original, this effect is even more pronounced, perhaps because the pigments do not fade uniformly as the light fades, but instead present a constantly changing configuration of varying patches of color and light.
As the light decreases, the vigor and unity of the expression begins to break up. The expression increasingly loses its confidence — in part from a diminution of energy, but also in part by an increase in the contradictory qualities of expression in the face.
In the illustrations that follow, the amount of brightness is reduced by degrees of approximately twenty percent in each example. Notice how the result is not just a darker version of the same face, but, increasingly, a face in which a different overall expression emerges.
The illustration above shows my best estimate of what the portrait looked like when I last saw it in the Frick, on a drizzly, overcast day in New York — Rembrandt weather.
In the portrait, the face always appears to be shadowy. It is high on the wall and you can’t get close to it, so, as you move around to see it better (avoiding the glare off the surface), this also causes it to take on different qualities from different angles.
The illustration above was darkened using a different method to suggest the way a painting darkens selectively as the light fades, with shadows deepening faster than highlights.
Rembrandt’s right side, in particular, undergoes considerable change as the light fades.
Note on left and right: I assume with other authors that self-portraits are made while the painter looks in the mirror. Thus the eye appearing on the viewer’s left is also Rembrandt’s left eye–not the right eye, as it would be if you were facing a living person.
His right eye changes expression from a confident, alert presence to an inward, pained, troubled, angry, concerned, suffering, blaming, pondering expression. One particular thing to note as the light fades: The highlight in his right eye all-but disappears into the black hole of inwardness Rembrandt is so good at evoking.
Meanwhile, his left eye, as the light fades, modulates from stern and regal toward an expression that is more vulnerable, pained, and even affectionate.
The painting does not change luminosity in a uniform manner. As light increases or fades on the original oil painting, different colors, shadows, and highlights emerge and different aspects of the expression gain or lose prominence. This results in a face that modulates subtly among several dominant tendencies, rather than staying with one fixed expression. Seen by firelight or candlelight, the portrait would probably show even more changes in expression as the uneven light flickered across it.
If you have a high speed connection, click on this animated picture (about 464K) that suggests how the face changes with the light. (It will open in a new window.)
Of course, all paintings share some of these effects — parts of the painting darkening more rapidly than others as the light fades. But Rembrandt may actually have planned his portrait to make it change in response to varying light.
The changing light, however, is only one reason this self-portrait appears to change expression over time. Another reason the picture changes lies in ourselves.
The Copy and the Original: Selecting What We See
In 1981, I visited Vienna. Many days, I returned to the Kunsthistorishes Museum where, day by day, I could not only visit the Rembrandt self-portraits in that collection but also watch a talented woman make a painstaking copy of the small self-portrait. The copyist was a perfectionist; she returned many days to add one finishing touch after another to the expressive highlights of the face. The copy, drying on its easel in front of the original, was a powerful and moving painting. It presented a man who was solid, experienced, worldly-wise — someone who had overcome suffering and attained something approaching a nobility of spirit, a gentle self-irony, and a profound sophistication.
Five feet away, however, the original Rembrandt self-portrait told another story, and seeing it alongside the copy brought that story out. The original expressed all the things the copy did — but there was more. There was in the copy, a clarity, a definiteness; it was the image of a life interpreted, a life settled deeply into a deep philosophy — a wise and knowing face.
|Rembrandt — smaller self-portrait in Vienna, unretouched scan of reproduction. (Sorry about the green eyes — they were in the reproduction.)||My reconstruction of the interpretive version made by the copyist, with a worldly-wise, cheerfully melancholy “Viennese” expression.|
The original, by comparison, was shot through with self-doubt and indecision In addition to nobility in the face of suffering, Rembrandt in the original looked worried that he might not be able to sustain this resolute posture. In the original, he was far more tired and ragged looking, much less of a finished man, and more of a person in process, a person filled with the strain and uncertainty and effort of bearing an unavoidable change. If this painting does date to 1656, that was a time (as Schama relates) that Rembrandt was on the verge of financial disaster. He had turned over the control of his belongings to a kind of bankruptcy committee who held a sale later that year that brought Rembrandt little relief from his debts.
What the copyist showed was the way we interpret paintings as we look at them, for she had abstracted from the muddled cross-currents in the original a single one of its several expressions and heightened that one expression until it filled the entire copy. She gave the portrait what I can only describe as a “Viennese” look — wrinkled with age and suffering, but robust, urbane, and worldly wise.
I would not have found in the Vienna portrait this particular look. But that is what the copyist saw in the painting. Watching her copy the portrait gave me a privileged glimpse into how selectively we interpret what we see.
Many portraits require just such interpretation, because they present you with a face that yields more than one reading — a face with real complexity in it. Let’s review a standard method of embedding complexity in a portrait by painting faces with contrasting left and right sides — and then look at how Rembrandt creates complexity in his self-portrait, engages us in interpreting it, and then uses that engagement to show us to ourselves.
Creating Complexity in a Portrait through Split Faces
Hals, “Portrait of a Man”
The hidden side of the face.
But there is “something” about the face that is hard to put your finger on. The moment you isolate the right half of his face (second illustration above), you see what it is: A contradictory expression leaps out, strongly suggesting vulnerability, worry, almost alarm, as if he must be constantly watching lest he lose that which has given him such a glow of contentment.
It would be a good guess that the contrast between smugness and fear may be more than an accident of this sitter’s face. It is likely that Hals embedded this contrast as an all-but subliminal commentary on the shaky underpinnings of the surface prosperity of the sitter — and perhaps of the times. Contemporary viewers, though perhaps not seeing the right-left split, might have felt a “realism” in the face they could not quite explain. It spoke, after all, to a split they probably felt in themselves.
Van Dyck’s portrait of Frans Snyders in the Frick shows a similar method of presenting two different expressions on the left and right halves of the face. Unlike the Hals, this portrait immediately strikes you as complex. It has an eerie quality, an unsettled feeling about it.
Looking closer at the painting, you can get some idea why this is so. The left side of the face, when isolated, has the cocky, confident, cooly appraising air of a man of obvious power.
However, if you isolate the right side of his face, an expression leaps out at you that is in strong contrast to the dominant expression.
Van Dyck, Portrait of Frans Snyders
The hidden side of the face.
The right half of his face contains at least two separate expressions — depending on how you “read” the corner of the mouth. If you read the smudge on the mouth as rising (with the whiskers), the face shows something like a kind, glad, considerate, attentive look.
But if you read the mouth smudge as falling (with the shadow down the chin), this half of the face suggests an expression of a vulnerability so extreme that it plunges the face down into the black hole on the shoulder beneath it — pushed from above by the slicing diagonal of the backdrop.
If you darken these portraits, the way we darkened the Rembrant above, you might get a slightly enhanced sense that there is another side to the sitter, but little changes. These portraits do not contain Rembrandt’s dabs of paint in expressively suggestive spots on the face that can change prominence with the changing light.
In the Hals and Van Dyck portraits shown here, each face basically contains two contradictory emotions, with one so strong that it dominates one’s perception of the sitter. The dominant expression secures a kind of Gestalt reaction from us, in which we commit our perceptual interpretations of the paintings in a single, cohesive way. As viewers, we have the experience that we are “seeing” the painting “as it is.” The moment you cover the dominant left side of the face and allow the subordinate expression on the right to emerge, however, you realize that your perception was an interpretation and that the face contains two distinctly different expressions — expressions so different that they can hardly be held in view at the same time.
You see here a painterly counterpart to the Gestalt puzzles where, for example, a drawing can be interpreted as “stairs ascending” or as “stairs descending,” but never as both at the same time. The painter feeds us one dominant configuration to seize upon — the sitter is “confident,” “cocky,” “smugly cheerful,” or some such strong, clear perception.
And at the same time, these portraits haunt us with an unperceivable shadow-side — another expression in contradiction to the first, one that is literally un-seeable until you break apart your original interpretation, re-focus on the subordinate side of the face, and allow the implications of that expression to come forth. The result is an evocation of human complexity in the form of a bold public self and a less-certain private self.
Hals and Van Dyck analyzed their sitters to portray an interpretation of their character in the form of two conflicting tendencies — one shown on each half of the face. It is a brilliant, effective technique that seems to have been widely used in the history of portraiture.
In addition, the “other” side of the Van Dyck uses a kind of “smudge” technique that requires the viewer to consolidate parts of the image into one of two or more potential expressions, by providing the expressive marks necessary for both expressions. Rembrandt developed this method to great depth.
(Except to enlarge them, the details shown here have not been altered in any way to emphasize their effect.)
The concept of using split faces is not a new one. Faces with double expressions have been depicted since ancient times.
This carousing cup from classical Greece shows a donkey on one side and a ram on the other. When the cup is raised to the lips, both faces become visible as a single, divided whole.
The cup might be a interpreted as a commentary on the soldiers who would use it — fierce when fighting, exuberant to the point of braying when drunk.
Ancient Greek “Donkey-Ram” cup, left side, showing the braying (probably drunken) donkey. (About 10 inches long.)
Greek “Donkey-Ram” cup, front view of bottom, showing split face with donkey on left, ram on right.
Greek “Donkey-Ram” cup, right side, showing the powerful, fierce, determined ram.
Rembrandt: Complexity through Interleaved Expressions
In his self-portrait, Rembrandt used both methods for suggesting the complexity of human character– the left-right split, and, to a greater degree, a “smudge” method that enabled him to portray multiple expressions of great complexity.
In addition to showing a face with contrasting left and right halves, Rembrandt presents a face that contains several overlays of potential, competing, “virtual” expressions, held in suspension by emotionally charged but ambiguous dabs and smudges of paint at strategic spots.
To view such a face, you must pull one expression out of it and gestalt it into a whole expression — while at the same time, one or more potential states compete with the first emotion, tug at it, challenge it, qualify it, modulate it — shift it from major to minor keys, play deep in the orchestra, in the second violins and violas — a different, darker note, a note that belongs to the present but simultaneously belongs to several other shades of being.
As Ernst van de Wetering puts it in Rembrandt: The Painter At Work,
“The interplay of the visual cues provided by the painter and the ‘beholder’s’ willingness — in fact compulsion — to project some reality onto these layered and veiled brushstrokes on the other hand, makes looking at Rembrandt’s paintings such an ever inspiring and intriguing activity.” (2000, p.221)
Through this approach Rembrandt gave his self-portrait the sense of being definite but indefinite, distinct but changeable, whole but complex. The face seems to change as you look at it. It seems alive. Human. And It raises the question of what it means to be human.
Multiple Expressions and the Process of Portraiture
Capturing multiple expressions may be a natural byproduct of the process of portrait painting. Think of what happens when a live sitter comes for a portrait. An oil portrait might take many sittings — starting with sketches, then moving to sitting with the painter, followed by additional sittings to complete the fine details of the face.
Unlike a photographic portrait — which captures an image in an instant of time (about 1/60 of a second), and which may be completed in a single sitting — the painter is required to see the sitter repeatedly — and these repeated sessions will show the sitter in different lights and different moods and present the painter with an almost enforced opportunity to gain insight into the different sides of the sitter’s personality.
Portrait painters over the centuries seem to have developed a way of painting a face that combines, in one image, the different defining expressions of the sitter’s personality — expressions that, in life, might not ever appear simultaneously. A painting can show simultaneously the expression of arrogant confidence that a sitter normally has, combined with the expression of anxiety that occasionally interrupts it, perhaps interleaved with the expressions of irritability or of delight that at times take over the face.
The portrait painter can take different facial expressions that occur over time and blend them together into a single image. The result is something that could never happen in real life — a face that contains in one moment a range of expressions that normally take place over time. The result can be an image that looks more like the person than he looks like himself.
Rembrandt, knowing his own changes of feeling over time, embedded multiple and contradictory expressions in this self-portrait.
Multiple Expressions in Rembrandt’s Face
When commentators give labels for the expression on the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Frick, they acknowledge that Rembrandt shows himself “blurred and eroded by age, sorrows, and illness,” but monumental in his “strength” and worldly power” — a “kingly” figure of “richness” (from the Frick commentary on the painting).
In a similar vein, Schama describes Rembrandt in this self-portrait as “Godlike, enthroned, mantled in lustrous gold, staring down presumptuous mortals . . . a suggestion of lordly amusement playing about his eyes.” Other terms are: force, authority, intimidating, adamant, imposing — like a king.
These interpretations are not wrong — they are incomplete (as you would expect any interpretation of a great work of art to be). But interpretations are useful — the way the copy of the Vienna portrait was useful in seeing the original more clearly.
As humans, we are interpreters of faces. We are born with that ability and develop it from infancy. It is our natural tendency to assemble stimuli from the environment into the shape of faces and to read into those faces emotional states that we respond to. Every newspaper cartoonist makes use of the way viewers take the merest suggestion and construe it into a complete emotional experience. Rembrandt made this activity on the part of viewers the foundation of his portraiture.
One of the main ways we appear to interpret Rembrandt’s portrait is by combining different parts of it into a coherent emotional expression, then combining other parts into an emotional expression that contradicts the first one.
To explore how this happens, I divided Rembrandt’s face into four quadrants and combined those into four pairings. The first and last are the left and right sides of the face. The middle two are the diagonals of the face — left eye and right corner of the mouth, and vice versa.
No alterations have been made to the picture other than to select the four quadrants and combine them in pairs.
Remarkably, even with this simple mechanical exercise, we are immediately drawn into the changing emotional complexity of the portrait.
1. In the first illustration of the figure below, the left side of Rembrandt’s face is isolated. Viewed alone, it appears confident, strong, somewhat stern, with a hint of a smile.
2. But Rembrandt’s confident left eye changes dramatically when paired with the diagonal corner of his mouth and chin. The grim mouth makes the same eye suddenly appear sadly introspective. A change of this kind, I suggest, takes place naturally as our eyes scan the picture from highlight to shadow, assembling its many hints into a symphonic drama of emotional changes.
3. The other diagonal — right eye and left mouth — combines to produce a tired look of determined endurance in the face of difficulty, an alert and smoldering anger, a tough sadness.
4. Finally, the right half of Rembrandt’s face, seen in isolation, holds the deep shadow of suffering, a harsh truthfulness, a powerful undercurrent of accusation.
Slowly scan the images below from right to left and pay close, inward attention to your own emotional response to the expressions on the face. I think you will see a portrait changing from a strong and confident face, through a range of struggling emotions, to a look of accusation and sorrow. Focus on the eyes and notice how their expression changes, depending on what other aspects of the face you include in your field of interpretation.
Then read the images from left to right and compare your emotional experience of them to the first reading.
And these are only four of the expressions this multilayered, changing face plays through — like a Bach cantata, burrowing into deep states of feeling, then emerging into their opposites.
These “slices” show how the quadrants of Rembrandt’s face change expression when paired with other quadrants.
1. His left side is confident, strong, open, accepting, with a hint of a smile.
2. His left eye changes dramatically when paired with the right mouth (below). The grim mouth makes the eye sad and introspective
3. His right eye and left mouth (below) combine to produce a tired look of determined endurance in the face of difficulty, a smoldering anger, a tough sadness, a penetrating awareness.
4. The right half of his face holds a hint of accusation, an unflinching truthfulness, and the deep shadow of suffering.
When I describe the right side of his face as sorrowful and suffering, this is only a way of pointing, using words to direct your attention to an experience. My wife, an artist, said that she did not find the right side of the face to be sorrowful but “lively” and “more present.”
I can see that. Reading this face is like interpreting, say, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. To Bruno Walter, that movement was a sweet and somber chorale. To Karajan, it was a grandest of formal dances. To Toscanini, it was the wild, energetic pulse of the universe. And so the music of Rembrandt’s face may be interpreted — must be interpreted — in different ways.
Let’s take a closer look at what I have been calling anger and sorrow in the face.
In the two illustrations that follow, no change has been made except to select a portion of the face and to block off certain expressive areas. In this way, we can bring out of the same half of the face two contradictory expressions that I see as more angry (on the left below) and more sad (on the right below).
Because Rembrandt uses ambiguous strokes at certain places, certain expressive parts of the face (such as the corners of the mouth and the eyes) can be read in multiple ways, depending on which cluster of hints the viewer assembles into an interpreted emotion.
Many things are impossible to show in a reproduction. In a certain light, for example, the falling shadow on the right cheek looks almost exactly like a tear rolling down.
Detail, masked to bring out the expression of anger.
Detail, masked to bring out the expression of sadness.
Rembrandt, I suggest, developed a method for displaying the shimmering, changing emotions of the human face by interleaving a meaningfully contrasting set of virtual emotions, with one of them just dominant enough to anchor the face.
The other potential combinations of emotional patterns are, however, so close to the surface that the appearance of the face changes with the changing light, and it changes as the viewer’s emotional state changes.
The painting seems almost to be alive, because it responds to the conditions of the day. And it responds to you as you look at it — much like the expressions of the faces of real people.
This is Rembrandt teaching us how to see.
Deeply Hidden Expressions: Joseph Raffael’s Pomo
We have seen that a portrait can contain expressions that seem hidden, even though, when you direct your attention to them or block off certain parts of the face, the expressions become clearly visible.
There can also be expressions so deeply hidden that they yield themselves less easily.
The idea that a painting could contain deeply hidden expressions came to me in the Berkeley Art Museum in the summer of 1993, on a pounding day when I had retreated into the museum to escape the crowd and the noise and the heat. Overloaded by the incessant stimuli that I have never learned to shut out, I moved from painting to painting, looking for some image in which I could take refuge. It is one of the ways I try to deal with sensory overload — seeking a single thing that absorbs my total attention, so that I forget everything that is overwhelming me from outside and inside, and focus.
When I reached Joseph Raffael’s painting of a Pomo Indian, my confusion stopped, and I left my overloaded, busy, noisy, stressful world and entered the world of the painting.
It is a nighttime portrait — a dark, almost black-and-white work with a face suggested by myriad reflections, rather than by the usual sense of outline and mass. As I entered the painting, I slowly became aware that I was seeing a face, insofar as it could be seen, by reflection from an unseen fire below and unseen stars above, and perhaps the light (from the upper left) from the sliver of a moon. To see the face at all is to intuit that it is the face of a man alone, under the stars, in the desert, over a dying fire.
The Pomo’s face seemed to come to rest amid thousands of splinters of light and darkness, in a symphony of sadness. It told of loss, defeat, rejection, of a way of life torn off, crumpled up, thrown into the fire, and burning in its last ashes. It told of the frail thread that held the sure skills of the warrior, alone in the vast Southwestern desert night, to his uselessness in a world that had changed, a world that did not need his knowledge, a world that considered him at best irrelevant.
As the Pomo’s eyes looked straight into me across the unseen firelight, penetrating the deep desert darkness that seemed to open up through the painting, like a window, his expression held me with what seemed to be its awareness of its own condition. He gradually took on the tragic dignity of those who lose everything except awareness.
Then the expression on the Pomo’s face modulated into something that almost shocked me: His sadness was not for himself alone. It was not only a sadness for his people, his way of life. He, stripped of everything, alone in the huge and merciless desert, in the dying firelight, under the undying stars, was feeling sorry for me! He — brushed aside, invalidated by history, relegated to irrelevance — was looking at me as someone who had not yet discovered the same things about myself, but sooner or later would — as everyone everywhere will eventually feel the seeming solidity of their world dissolve into something even more insubstantial than scattered reflections from firelight and starlight in the desert darkness.
Then, perhaps 20 minutes into the painting, alone in this corner of the gallery, I experienced one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. All of a sudden, unrelated to anything I had been seeing or thinking or feeling up to now, an entirely different expression emerged from the flickering sadness of the Pomo’s face. “Emerged” is too slow a word. It was as if the image suddenly leapt about 18 inches off the canvas and stood planted there in three dimensional space.
The effect was similar to that of looking at one of those computer-generated images that looks like a jumbled pattern until your eyes find the right focus — and at that point a three-dimensional image leaps off the page at you with startling clarity.
The new face of the Pomo was still the face I had been seeing as in an inexpressible pain over the loss of his world. Only it had been transformed, as if purified beyond all pain by a radiant gladness that was not on the face but inside it, shining through — inside the night, shining through, inside the firelight and starlight, radiating through everything — a great, glad, peaceful, endlessly creative, undying light that he knew himself to be part of and that, all along, he had been trying to lead me to see.
I stood there, the two of us alone in a gallery, tears streaming down my face, while the Pomo that I had been feeling sorry for, gave me his blessing.
Deep in this Rembrandt self-portrait, you can find an expression akin to the one in Joseph Raffael’s Pomo. In the original and in reproductions of the Rembrandt, you readily see the power of his presence, the magnificence of his appearance, the stern, appraising look he casts on you, and, if you look closely at the face, you can also see the shadow of pain and loss and hurt that we have been exploring.
What you are less likely to see is the smile.
Whenever I have had the opportunity to contemplate the original painting in the Frick Collection in New York, I have always, eventually, seen the smile. It is rare that the smile is immediately apparent. On some visits, I have gazed many minutes before the smile emerged. I suspect that the appearance of Rembrandt’s smile depends in part on the light, but more on the viewer’s ability to take in, accept, and resolve the realities of the rest of the painting.
When I am in a position to see it, the smile appears. It is deep, direct, compassionate, accepting, loving, like the smile of Christ or the Buddha. It is a smile founded upon eyes that miss nothing, eyes that see everything, weigh everything, and take everything in. It is the smile of being seen through and through, seen in every glory and pretense, every heroism and failure, every nobility and nonsense, seen in the full tragi-comedy of your human drama — and accepted for exactly who you are.
Being seen in this way by Rembrandt is what has drawn me to this portrait again and again for the past 35 years.
When you are looking at the whole, complex expression, the smile remains hidden in plain view, waiting for you to find it — hidden on the bright, left side of a face that is heavily inflected by the shadow side. But if you mask off all but the left part of the face, and make no changes to the resulting image, the smile appears.
And — characteristic of Rembrandt’s “smudge” method of interleaving conflicting expressions — the left corner of the mouth contains both a falling shadow and a rising curl (the moustache). As a result, that corner of the mouth can be read to support either the somber suffering on the face or the smile in the eye above it. What you see depends on how you see.
If you then mask off a few details that suggest age — how unexpected! — the smile changes further to seem to be the smile of an eternally young and vigorous face, like the face of a god shining through.
In case this sounds too improbable, Schama reports some informed speculation that this portrait could have been half of a pair, made to represent Jupiter and Juno — so that it is possible that Rembrandt is here playing the role of the king of the gods.
The face is, like the Pomo Indian’s, a complex expression of not only what was happening to Rembrandt at this time in his life, but of what could happen to us all — or a dramatized version of what always happens to all of us in the daily course of being human.
It is an expression — among other things — of the ruin of hope, a ruin made infinitely more painful by the unblinking consciousness that takes in its every detail, yet a ruin transformed by that same consciousness into the dignified self-awareness of a self so complex as to be almost beyond self.
And it is an expression that, while deeply inward, does not stay alone inside: It looks out with the recognition that, as I suffer, all suffer; as I am, all are. I am fool, hero, beggar, king. The result is a piercing truthfulness sheathed in compassion.
Somehow, almost inexpressibly, the huge powerful dignified ruin of the self-portrait also contains a kind of celebration — perhaps a deep and somber celebration, a service with quiet singing and flickering candles — but for sure a celebration of what we have been, of what we are, of what it means to embrace the fullness of being human.
When you see everything there is in this complex portrait and take it to heart, perhaps this deep tender of a transfigured smile is the true resolution the heart longs for.
Or perhaps it is just another fleeting possibility.
Being Seen by Rembrandt
Let us return to the picture and try the impossible task of seeing it whole, in the light of the contradictory expressions we have drawn out of it so far. We have not discussed the amazing, meaty power of the hands, the bold brilliance of the golden chest, the painter’s stick wielded like a scepter, or he way the sash unloosens and lets everything fall, fall — beneath the head held high.
It is the face we have focused on. Let us return to it as a whole.
This self-portrait is not just a picture of himself that Rembrandt framed for us to look at. It is a picture that tells us that human beings are made of contradictory, competing elements that they struggle to integrate into a sense of self. In showing us these contradictions in Rembrandt’s own face, the portrait instructs us to be responsive to these contradictions in the faces of others we meet. In this way, Rembrandt teaches us how to see other people.
He also teaches us how to see ourselves. By forcing us to interpret, Rembrandt reflects us back to ourselves as intepreters. By forcing us to integrate the conflicting elements of his paintings, Rembrandt reflects us back to ourselves as integrators. By engaging us with a complex presentation of a human presence, Rembrandt shows us that we too are complexly human. By requiring us to create a context that makes sense out of what we are seeing in his paintings, Rembrandt reflects us back to ourselves as builders of worlds, makers of meaning. While we look at Rembrandt, and he shows us how to see others, he also looks at us, and shows us how to see ourselves.
And he urges us to see ourselves with an unpitying truthfulness — an unrelenting acknowledgement of our warts and wonders — that is sustained by a tough, generous, celebratory compassion, and a deep undertone of delight.
Besides showing us how to see others and how to see ourselves, the painting makes a statement about the nature of human experience. It tells us that in matters of human concern, the answers are not given to us clearly and simply. We have to look for ourselves. And what we find when we look is richly suggestive but eternally challenging. And it always changes.
But still, we have to interpret and commit ourselves to a position and act and strive to manifest our convictions–and take our chances. The outcome — eternal fame or bankruptcy or something in between — is ultimately beyond our control. The eye of confidence is always qualified by the eye of suffering and doubt.
You start by looking at the portrait. You end with the portrait showing you who you are by what you bring out from the painting — as if Rembrandt were painting your portrait.
As you immerse yourself in this painting, it becomes a dual self-portrait — not only of Rembrandt, but also of you. It then offers you one of the great experiences of art — the experience of being seen by Rembrandt.
Part II. A Test of this Interpretation
I have argued that (among other things) Rembrandt’s great self-portrait in the Frick Collection combines into one image several facial expressions that normally take place over time. It uses a left-right split to hide one of the expressions–the smile–in plain sight, hidden by being overshadowed by the other side of the face.
The portrait also combines other expressions by interleaving them so that they share the same space, competing for attention with key areas (such as the corners of the mouth), spread out with a smudge that permits several interpretations. The smudge might cover the area the mouth would occupy in both a smile and an angry frown, for instance.
The result is a portrait that is both definite and ambiguous. It is liminal: It borders several emotional expressions, and, depending on the light in which you look at it (both the outer and the inner light), the face subtly changes expression–the way living people do.
This all sounds plausible, but how would we know if this interpretation is any more valid than another? — There is one test we could perform: What if this analysis could be used to produce a convincing self-portrait?
Please bear with me from this point forward: In order to carry out this test, I must ask you to shift from looking at Rembrandt to looking at pictures of the only person interested enough to carry out this experiment in portraiture, available on my schedule, and affordable — me.
As a way of testing the ideas behind this article, I took a series of hammed-up photos of my own face, in which I made the effort to express a series of different emotions inspired by the ones I was finding hidden in Rembrandt’s own face. The expressions are pretty theatrical — familiar representations of ease, happiness, anger, contempt, worry, sadness. Inspired by the tone of Rembrandt’s portrait, I did not record many happy expressions for this experiment in portraiture.
Faces with Split Expressions
The first experiment was with faces that contained different expressions on each of the two halves–thinking of how Hals and Van Dyck employed this method of portrature. I extracted the left halves of the photographed faces, then the right halves, and began to mix and match them. The results, though somewhat mechanical, were intriguing.
My version of the Viennese expression: Cheerful but worried.
The other half of that worried face, plus angry.
An easy cheerfulness dominates this face, but if you block off the cheerful left side, you will see a fallen face.
The cheerfulness here is clearly qualified by a contradictory expression, but can you see what it is? If you block off the cheerful left side, you will see a different face.
Crude as they are, these experiments bring to mind an early etching Rembrandt made of himself in 1630, which might be read as having an expression of anger that is contradicted by a simultaneous expression that suggests a worried look of self-doubt.
The etching first gives an impression of anger and defiance, but then a second, qualifying expression emerges from the right side.
The difference between the angry left eye and the more vulnerable and worried right eye is accentuated by the rising curls on the left and the drooping curls on the right.
When you look at the “angry” face up close, its contradictory expressions become clearer. Beneath the angry pose is a face of vulnerability, self-doubt, worry, a hint of disgust, a sense of loss, perhaps a struggle against helplessness, an overall tenderness, a great strength of determination, a surge of personal power, and a whiff of guilt (or the equivalent of this reading in a differently perceived mix of emotions, depending on who is looking.)
This face has more than a left-right split, for the eye on the left has a heavy drooping lid that weighs down the energy of the anger moves it toward the defiant, hurt look of someone preemptively protecting the rawness of his emotions.
The unresolved contradictions in the expression draw in the viewer, engaging us in interpreting the etching– and in seeing ourselves.
In creating works that had the ability to grab viewers, pull them in, and engage them in interpretation and discussing their interpretation, Rembrandt was not only exploring his humanity, he was also creating marketable products that had a powerful and mysterious appeal.
Recent research has emphasized Rembrandt’s production of such “tronies” — portraits of interesting heads, often in costume and emotionally primed to visually represent standard concepts in the culture: “piety, bellicosity, the strange and exotic, youth, old age, transience, and so on” (van de Wetering, 21).
I suggest that Rembrandt, in his tronie-like self-portraits, went far beyond cultural icons to present images that gained added power by containing undercurrents that challenge their dominant emotion. These were icons that reflected the sense of complexity that accompanies self-awareness.
Faces with Interleaved Expressions
Something far more interesting developed in my own self-portrait when I began to experiment with what I have been calling Rembrandt’s method: interleaving contradictory expressions on the same face. I started with a blandly cheerful picture (which is probably what I usually look like in public) and interleaved components of other contradictory expressions, taken from different photographs, including some of those shown above in the split-face experiment.
The blandly cheerful photo that forms the basis of the composite portrait.
My intent was to juxtapose in one face several expressions that might take place over time, but which could not occur at once–except in a portrait. I retained a general left-right split, but with the addition of expressions on the “dark side” of the face that contradict and qualify one another, seeking ways to suspend several emotions right on the edge of expression, but with no one of them quite coming clear. The animation on the left, below, shows the original picture with each expressive patch from other photos being added onto it. Note that some of the expressions cover the face; others cover a previous expression in a semi-transparent manner, so that both expressions remain present at the same time.
Original photo–animated to add each change. (You may have to wait for the animation to load.)
Completed portrait combining parts of five photos and three Rembrandt “smudge” effects.
In the animation, you can watch the original cheerful expression being modified as contradictory emotional cues are added.
The Resulting Self-Portrait
To complete the portrait, I darkened the picture to increase the chiaroscuro effect and added golden highlights. As with Rembrandt’s self-portrait, the increased darkness seems to bring out the complexity of the face.
I sometimes think of William Blake’s aphorism when I work with graphics: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” So the first version takes everything too far–it is dramatic, conflicted, heightened — Rembrandtesque.
The second version contains the same elements in a more subtle, modulated form — but it is all still there.
The first face is torn by its contradictions; the second seems, if not to integrate them, at least to gather and hold the contradictions in one personality — something I aspire to — and something I turn to Rembrandt for help with.
Influenced by the tragic dignity of Rembrandt, this portrait has modified a cheerfully confident face to suggest a shadow side of subtly turbulent yet familiarly human cross-currents.
Does it look like me? — No, but in some ways it looks more like me than I look like myself.
Analysis of Gerald’s self-portrait. The resulting portrait contains an expression that could never occur on my face — as Rembrandt’s self-portrait shows him as no camera would. This face shows a glad left eye over a cheek that inexplicably falls to a mouth with ambiguous corners that can be read as glad, grim, or strong. (The corners were literally copied from a scan of Rembrandt’s self-portrait, and resized to fit my own mouth–where they blend into the corners of the moustache.) The left eye is under a brow that contains an uneasy wrinkle of puzzlement and worry that seem to tug at the eye’s gladness.
The right eye presents an almost startling puzzle. As your eye searches the nearby cheek and brow for clues, the eye shimmers among borderline expressions that suggest intense interest and suspicion and accusation and anger and contempt and hurt and exhaustion and sorrow and worry and puzzlement — take these labels only as pointers — all with an inexplicable underlay of gladness, acceptance, and delight. (Some of these are more evident in the first version of the portrait, where the right eye is like a little black hole sucking you into the portrait.)
But the right half of the face refuses to resolve into a single reading. And we know why: The animation above shows that it is composed of several interleaved expressions that contradict and qualify one another without any one of them becoming dominant. The face has been composed using Rembrandt’s method of interleaving competing expressions — only I have used photo-editing techniques, and not his painterly smudges, to create the multiplicity.
Sidenote: The simple flash used on this camera, as on many others, creates the illusion that the viewer is the source of light — so that, as you look at such a photo, it reflects you back as if you were an illuminated being.
Conclusion. We know what expressions are in this face — we don’t have to guess — because we have put them there by cutting and pasting them from photographs that clearly contain those expressions. What is amazing is how readily these contradictory expressions blend together into something that begins to look like a real face seen in real time — and yet it retains a greater range and sense of liminality — of being poised on the threshhold of several possibilities — than any one of the photos it was made from.
What do you think? Have we learned anything from this study of a Rembrandt self-portrait?
Do these changes transform the original, blandly-cheerful photograph into an engaging portrait? Does it have a sense of complexity about it that makes it seem more human? Does it seem to change as you look at it? Do you feel seen by it? Does it seem alive?
Do the mutually contradictory expressions in the portrait draw you into actively engaging with it? Do you not just look at it, but also interact with it?
Have these observations about Rembrandt’s method enabled me to produce a portrait that looks back at you and seems to comment on what it is like to be human?
We can think of this as an exercise to test a theory about Rembrandt’s method of portraiture.
Or we can think of it as an effort to imagine what it might be like to be seen by Rembrandt.
Part III: After Being Seen by Rembrandt
This Rembrandt self-portrait prompts you to see yourself as a person who actively interprets this changing world, recognizes complexity, and strives to integrate the experience of life into a whole self–and succeeds only in part.
Perhaps it is not so embarrassing, then, that an article that started by being about Rembrandt ends by being about me. I wrote this article for no reason other than that, during a week alone the summer of 2001, the one thing I most wanted to do each morning on waking was spend time reflecting on this particular Rembrandt self-portrait. Somehow, Rembrandt became part of my attempt in midlife to reflect on my life and begin to integrate myself. The result, though it uses some of the language of intellectual analysis, is unabashedly personal.
I loved being immersed in the depth, seriousness, tragedy, and complexity of Rembrandt’s self-portrait, and I loved responding to it with a somber, multifaceted self-portrait of my own.
But I found my self-portrait hard to live around. Although deep, it is also narrow. Even in the presence of my mother’s excruciating six-year decline into Alzheimer’s (which darkened the reflections of this essay), the sprawling, resilient, fortunate comedy of my nature kept provoking me to make additional self-portraits to balance the almost grim seriousness of the first one.
I can justify these only by saying that they arose as an irrepressible and inexplicable response to writing this article and that, somehow, they are responses to the intersection of Rembrandt with my life–just as Part I of this article is. Rembrandt, after all, experimented with self-portraits that looked wildly different from one another.
These whimsical self-portraits also create expressions that could never have taken place on a person’s face. And, like the first portrait, they also integrate widely disparate elements: One integrates two faces across 50 years. The next two integrate faces across species.
All three use the same smile.
Gerald Grow at 2 with the beard of 52
This picture anchors my earliest memory–of the man with the large black camera on a tripod, the black cape he hid his head under, and the sudden flash, beside the flowery wallpaper in my grandmother’s high-ceilinged living room–as my mother and my aunts looked on, and waved at me, and smiled. In Pearson, in southeast Georgia, in the summer of 1945.
(For me, this photo records what the child in it is seeing.)
Gerald as Shadow
Shadow was a profoundly loyal and loving being, full of sweetness, devotion, sensitivity and delight–qualities her memory helps me celebrate.
Gerald as Max
Max is smart and playful and funny and amazingly focused. His unrelenting efforts to make himself lovable have a tender edge of desperation to them.
This led to an ongoing exploration in self-portraiture. Some examples are shown here:
The sense of “being seen by Rembrandt” depends in large part on seeing yourself in Rembrandt — in the sense that, out of the painting’s possibilities, you see reflected back to you the particular emotional gestalt that you are primed to respond to — either as a reflection of your feelings or as the projected counterpart to them.
Wherever we look, we see, in part, ourselves, our possibilities, and our shadows. Perhaps it is only by looking deeply into something else that we can see ourselves.
It was inevitable that I would try imagining Rembrandt’s self-portrait as my own. This lets me leave the high tragedy of his portrait with a Satyr play, a little dog-dance of those more fortunate than the mythical figure whose worn face we have meditated on.
The final illustration brings out the warmth and kindness of Rembrandt’s left eye — the smiling eye — which is used here unchanged. The less-confident right eye is mine.
And that leaves me, as I have been throughout this article, sheepishly playing Rembrandt, while Rembrandt plays the king.
Credit: Photographs are from Google Art Gallery, WikiMedia, and other public domain sources.
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