The Firstest with the Mostest

My first favorite artist was Rembrandt van Rijn. Apparently, even as a young child, I didn’t fool around; I just went with the best. I remember being awestruck by The Night Watch when I was about five years old – at that time I probably didn’t know the word epic, but I did know that this painting had to be bigger and better than anything else in the world.

 

I became familiar with The Night Watch when an aunt gave me the book The World of Rembrandt.1 I don’t remember if I already knew who he was when I received the book, but afterward I thought Rembrandt must be the greatest painter to have ever lived, and The Night Watch was obviously his masterpiece. There are three full-page details of The Night Watch in the book; I would just sit and stare at them – I was amazed that someone could actually make such a thing. It’s a monumental painting, with sixteen near-life-size figures of the militiamen who commissioned the piece, plus fifteen “extras” whom Rembrandt added to the composition.2 One of these “extras” is probably my favorite figure in the painting – a young girl, a dead chicken tied to her waist, scurrying through the scene. I have no idea why she’s there, and I certainly don’t know why she has the fowl, but I do know she was not a random addition. The way she seems to glow makes her as much a focal point as the two main figures in the middle foreground.

At that time I definitely didn’t know the word chiaroscuro, but I did love the deep shade and brilliant light in The Night Watch. While the rest of the company is in varying degrees of shadow, the captain and his lieutenant – quite the dandy in his feathered hat, yellow brocade jacket, and sash – almost seem to be under a spotlight. In a piece filled with texture, the lieutenant’s sartorial elegance, along with the way he is lit, provides the brightest and showiest details. The manner in which Rembrandt depicted light and shadow does not always necessarily make strict literal sense, but the power of what he invented is undeniable.

Despite the book’s black and white reproduction, The Slaughtered Ox became another favorite. As a child I was fascinated by skeletons,3 and Rembrandt’s Ox is perhaps the most visceral depiction of flesh and bone I’ve ever seen in a painting. The sheer mass of the animal, hanging suspended by its hind legs from a large wooden frame, is palpable – I could feel the weight of the carcass, as well as the dank atmosphere of the room. Whether or not it was intentional, Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject is much like that of a crucifixion – a startlingly modern take for an artist working in the seventeenth century. This piece was also almost certainly the first in what for me would become a long line of beloved paintings with untraditional subject matter.4

At that young age, drawing was already all I wanted to do,5 and as a result of the book, I knew I also wanted to paint, and I wanted to paint like Rembrandt. I still kind of do, although when I eventually did start painting I never attempted to emulate Rembrandt’s work.6

Over the years, many artists have become important to me, but Rembrandt has remained my favorite pre-nineteenth century painter. Although I continue to find The Night Watch an enormous achievement in art in general and group portraiture in particular, I would no longer cite it as my favorite Rembrandt painting. Since my late teens or early twenties, I’ve had a preference for his more intimate work, especially the self-portraits, of which he did many. One can follow him from the time he was a young man through the last year of his life, when he died at sixty-three. Rembrandt was not a classicist; he painted real people, not idealized figures, and in his self-portraits he did not abandon this tenet. Although his late religious paintings are often considered to be his strongest work, I believe his self-portraits to be his main contribution to art history. Neither his eye nor his hand wavered; Rembrandt documented his aging process in a more detailed and perceptive manner than perhaps any other artist ever.

After all this time, The World of Rembrandt still occupies a space on my bookshelf. I never got peanut butter and jelly on it or dropped it in the bathtub. I don’t look at it as much as I once did, but when I do, Rembrandt still seems like the greatest painter to have ever lived, and the book seems like one of the best gifts ever. Thanks, Joyce.

 

1 Robert Wallace; Time-Life Books (1968). She also gave me two other volumes from the Time-Life Library of Art series – the Van Gogh and the Titian – neither of which I liked very much. In time, I came to appreciate Van Gogh; Titian still leaves me a little cold.

2 Three figures, including two members of the company, were lost when in 1715 the painting was cut down to its present size. Yes, cut down to its present size. This fact does not appear in The World of Rembrandt; if it had, I would have been aghast.

 3 I also loved x-rays and other types of scientific imagery, including the photos of the moon taken by the Apollo astronauts, topographical maps, those clear plastic overlays in anatomy books, et al.

4 When I was a teenager discovering the work of Francis Bacon, including Painting 1946 with its butcher shop imagery, I’m sure it fell within my sensibility and was accessible to me at least in part because of my knowledge of the Rembrandt piece. Interestingly, I recall Bacon being quoted as saying he didn’t particularly care for The Slaughtered Ox – he felt it looked as if were made of wax, not flesh and bone.

 My older brother remembers when he would come home from a hard day at kindergarten, our bedroom floor would often be covered with drawings I’d made while he was gone. I was three years old.

6 I obviously had more good sense than did Van Gogh.

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