An Argument in Art School
Following this Rembrandt ink wash landscape are three more of his amazing drawings.
Back in the late 1960's I was a studio art major at Oberlin College. There were only three artists on the faculty, and of those only one could have been called an effective teacher and a good artist, Paul Arnold, a printmaker. I had the good fortune to be able to augment the limited art instruction. I spend the entire summers of '68 and - '69 living in New York City. I went to the art museums over and over again, my eyes drinking up all the delicious lessons on their walls.
And I went full time to the Art Student's League of New York, one of the country's most venerable art schools. It was pretty good too. I made hundreds of drawings from the model and did my first figure paintings in oil.
What was marvelous was for the first time I was around other art students with more experience than I had, and in some cases a desire equal to mine to plunge deep into painting and try hard make some great work. There was one fellow who I became friendly with who was a few years older than myself. He had been a junior stockbroker on Wall Street and had quit, feeling it had "chipped away" at his soul. He wanted a fresh start in his life and was determined like me to make his way as a painter.
Also like me he had fallen in love with Rembrant's magical drawings. We were in a painting class together but seemed to talk with each other about how we could learn to see well enough to make accomplished drawings. I was particularly taken with Rembrandt's figures- how in just a few flowing strokes he could capture the essence of a pose. His figures inspired me to study his remarkable use of lines, how he varied the direction, weight, and edge quality of his lines to evoke form and the figure's personality. He could get such amazing solidity with ever so few lines. This was his greatness I was convinced.
My friend preferred Rembrandt's landscape drawings. His take on was that Rembrandt's figures were so good only because he was such a master of creating the space around the figures. I'd never heard people speak of such a thing and couldn't wrap my head around what he was saying. We went back and forth over several weeks, neither convincing the other of our point of view. I think we both liked nursing the argument along.
But even after the summer ended I kept looking at Rembrandt's spaces and trying to see what my friend had been so taken with. Along about this time in the following Fall it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at paintings differently. I'd catch myself scanning across the surface, hopping from point to point, instead of focusing on favorite details. My eyes had taken up the habit of squinting ever so slightly to try to take in the whole of the piece I was looking at. And most of all found myself loving the sensation of slowly sinking deep and then deeper still into the farthest background in paintings. I remember in particular looking at a reproduction of a painting by Rembrandt's contemporary Rubens. It was a wonderful panoramic landscape with a group of hunters in it. It was so strong it made me feellike I was looking at the whole world. I even did a copy of that piece by Rubens. I realized I was changing and my painter's eye was growing stronger.
I wrote my friend a post card, and the body of the text contained only three words:
"You were right."