The God of Realism

He came from the lower middle class of Holland. His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (circa 1568– 1630), owned a half-share in a flour mill in Leiden, and his mother, Cornelia van Zuytbrouk (1568–1640), was a baker’s daughter. He was the second-youngest of ten children, and although big families were commoner then than now, the effort of raising such a brood must have placed an exhausting strain on his parents; it is written all over the seamed, lined face of his mother, whom he frequently painted in her old age. Nevertheless they were able to send him to Leiden’s Latin school, where he would have studied Latin, classical literature, and history. In later life he would not show a great enthusiasm for painting subjects from classical mythology—or at least the patrons of Leiden and Amsterdam did not commission many from him—but this would certainly not have been from ignorance.

He was a singular connoisseur of ordinariness, and some of his self-portraits are eloquent proof of this. His first self-portrait in particular: it is the artist as a young dog, an etching of himself snarling at the mirror, rejecting the viewer’s (and by implication, society’s) gaze. We see the same rebarbative snarl in other self-portraits and (most tellingly) in an etching which is not identified as being of Rembrandt, an image of a seated peasant glaring at anyone who might be self-satisfied enough to pity him. The expressions seem no less intense when you realize that he was testing out dramatic expressions—acting for the camera which was himself.

Nor did he ever treat the human form as a means of escape from the disorder and episodic ugliness of the real world. Reality was always breaking into celestial events. How many other painters of his time would have been likely to show the soles of the bare feet of an angel as it flies up and away from the family of Tobit? Not for Rembrandt the refinements of the female body one often sees in late Mannerism—the smooth tapering, the swan-like necks, the preposterous elongations of torso and thigh. Women’s bodies in Mannerist painting had the same relation, or lack of it, to reality as the bodies of today’s runway models do: that is, they are absurd, hyperstylized goddesses who have nothing to do with experience.

Rembrandt’s own lack of interest in refinement and smoothness in the Italian manner—his rejection, in short, of the abstract—would cost him the loyalty of some connoisseurs, such as the “German Vasari” Joachim von Sandrart, who complained that for all his talent Rembrandt hadn’t grasped “our rules of art, such as anatomy and the proportions of the human body,” partly because he “always associated with the lower orders, whereby he was hampered in his work.”

This Dutchman just wasn’t officer material, and didn’t belong in the officers’ mess, still less at court. And when you see some of the plebeian and aging bodies of women that Rembrandt painted, and then designated as goddesses or biblical heroines,…

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