Light Revealing/Light Concealing
Here's Rembrandt as a young man. Think of how many self portraits you've seen where the painter's eyes stare out at you as the key feature of the painting. Not so here. Rembrandt's having a ball playing around with the light direction, bringing out only the shapes on his skull he feels best evoke the feeling he's after. Instead of a left eye we're given a darkened bird's nest of an eye socket with a bottom left edge carved by the turning silhouette of the artist's cheekbone. Cleverly, Rembrandt interests us the thing next to the eye we wanted to see.
The portrait is of course lit from behind, pushing the whole right side of the chin, jaw, and neck and far shoulder into a flat dark silhouette. We don't see much of his lower lip, but we don't miss it as the empty space right under his jaw seems to glow with its own shimmering personality. It's as if Rembrandt is painting himself by painting a portrait of the space next to his head.
It might at first seem an odd choice for light direction as it conceals so much of the detail of the artist's features. But by holding back from us the details we'd expected to see Rembrandt has gained something else. He makes a more surprising composition that draws us in and leaves us intrigued. What's going on in this young man's head.
Below is an old friend of mine, Rembrandt painting himself several decades later (1650's rather than 1620's). It lives in the Frick Collection, the small palace that Henry Clay Frick had built for himself on the edge of Central Park's ritziest neighborhood. The building is a monument to polished marble and elegant spaces. If you want to see a collection of what were at the time some of the most expensive paintings in the world, this is the place.
My wife's family s at the same time lived down in the slums down on the lower East side of Manhattan. Her mother had to drop out of school at ten and a half and work in sweatshop literally so that her family could eat. I think about that jarring contrast whenever I marvel at the over the top opulence of the Frick.
Nonetheless, when money is no object and you can hire the services of an expert to select work for you, you can make a pretty spiffy collection. I used to go to the Frick to study when I was attending the Art Students League of New York. My favorite was this Rembrandt.
He used light in this one in a completely different way- bathing the whole front of the figure in a honey-infused illumination. Only a small shadow passes over the sitter's eyes, but this time he allows enough light in to show us the artist's ever so slightly raised eyebrows. Rembrandt here show us a sort of resigned acceptance. Since the earlier picture his wife and child had died and he'd seen his career take some serious nosedives.
I always found this painting offered a sort of fatherly comfort when I stood before it. It's at least life size and has a quiet emotional presence to it in person that has to be unrivaled. The light shines with a tenderly soft intensity on a few favorite places- his cheeks and nose, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and his hands. Notice how the highlighted hands are a touch oversized and are both pushed forward towards the viewer's space by the well placed darks that lie directly behind them.
Many of the Baroque era painters went hog wild with sensuous surfaces and elaborate folds in clothing their figures. Rembrandt pares that way down. The loosely described network of folds over his chest gives way to an almost completely unresolved robe covering his stomach and thighs. I think the artist here sensed he has said enough and wants gradually back out of the painting, quieting his strokes down to almost nothing by the time you reach the painting's bottom edge.