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PAUL SOLMAN: The most famous brand name in western art. In America alone it graces toothpaste, bracelet charms, restaurant and bars, countertops and of course the town of Rembrandt, Iowa just halfway around the world from the Rembrandt Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. Funny thing is Rembrandt might have been quite pleased with such widespread notoriety. He was, of course, to a show that’s just finished touring the country after many months one ambitious guy whose work was among other things an advertisement for himself. Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Ronni Baer starts with a self-portrait at age 23.
RONNI BAER: And I think it was made to show the Amsterdam burgers what he could do. I think he is showing off his talent for capturing every kind of material you can envision. He shows us the nap of the velour versus the heavyweight of the gold chain versus the more thin inter-woven lines that make up the scarf.
PAUL SOLMAN: And he showed off his talent for capturing his none too retiring self. In the 1600s Protestant Holland had become the trade hub of the western world. And while the spirit of capitalism may not explain the birth of a Rembrandt or dazzling contemporaries like Vermeer wealth made a mark for their work especially in Amsterdam.
RONNI BAER: It had the first stock exchange. It was the center of power and trade and riches, and people were making a fortune being merchants. So it was really… it was a hopping place… 17th century Amsterdam.
PAUL SOLMAN: And a hot market for a self-promoting university portrait painter with a one word name: Rembrandt.
RONNI BAER: Nobody did that in Holland surely. The people who did that before him were Tisha and Rafael and Michelangelo.
PAUL SOLMAN: Not that Rembrandt didn’t have a lot else going for him. His skill won him prestigious commissions in Amsterdam. His flare for the dramatic gave great appeal to his scenes from the bible as here when Delilah, having gotten Sampson drunk, awaits her accomplices to cut off her lover’s awesome hair. Moreover, Rembrandt showed off his success. He became a well known collector of exotic objects. He bought the priciest house on a fancy block. It costs millions in today’s dollars. He bought costly clothes which he wore even when he worked. He was intent, it seems, on announcing the noble status of the artist. Here as he lavishes attention on what was, after all, a form of manual labor.
RONNI BAER: He gives us his various palettes and the grinding stone and the….
PAUL SOLMAN: Grinding the paint.
RONNI BAER: For the pigments. The pigments would be dry. They would be mixed with oil, linseed oil which would be in these containers on table in the back. His easel has this rough spot where the feet of the painter would have rested because painters painted sitting down not standing up. But in terms of painting technique the thing I love about this painting is the single stroke of white that stands for the side of the panel. I think it’s superb.
PAUL SOLMAN: Rembrandt was a realist craftsman who showed off his craft to sell his work. His paintings brim with self-confidence as this in bold oil sketch of the entombment of Christ painted with an almost modern bravado. His drawings were dashed off with a Zen-like assurance. His etchings complete and elaborate works of art in themselves which sold in great quantity to two Dutch middle class. Like the etchings says print curator Tom Rassieur known as the hundred gilder print, a huge amount at the time.
TOM RAISSIEUR: People realized that this was an extraordinary price to pay for a print and word got around and the name stuck. In fact, it’s almost hard to get beyond calling it the hundred gilder print and actually get into the image and see that it’s about Christ preaching and that it’s a very complicated image in which all these individual bit players have different relationships to Christ. You have the rich man who has been told that it’s more difficult for a Richman to enter the gates of heaven than it is for a camel as we see over here to pass through the eye of a needle.
PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile there are the pharoses, the poobas of the temple who warn the people to steer clear of Jesus. There are the lame looking for a miracle cure from the beacon of God, the light of the world. There’s a woman praying in his presence.
TOM RAISSIEUR: And the close connection between her and Christ is made so dramatic by her hands casting a shadow on to Christ’s cloak.
PAUL SOLMAN: Look at that.
TOM RAISSIEUR: It is a “look at that” image. This is Rembrandt taking the gauntlet and throwing it on the ground and saying to anybody, try and do this. This is drawing at its most magnificent and meticulous.
PAUL SOLMAN: A sacred image with a profane purpose as well. To further what one artist historian has called Rembrandt’s enterprise, his business. That business also involved the image of the artist himself. Rembrandt did more self-portraits than anyone until Picasso.
TOM RAISSIEUR: First of all he’s practicing by looking in the mirror and staring intently and concentrating. One of his students wrote about the idea of being both actor and audience simultaneously when you’re practicing your art in the mirror. And that’s exactly what Rembrandt is doing in these early self-portraits. Here he’s dressed himself up as a dandy. He’s wearing a military uniform with this big floppy collar, the lace edges. And he has long flowing hair. And so he’s turning himself into a matinee idol.
PAUL SOLMAN: A matinee idol perhaps but not one who kissed up to his audience.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, come on. This is not a congenial fellow.
TOM RAISSIEUR: I grant you it’s anything but an avuncular image. He’s depicting himself as the prince of painters and he has incredible confidence here. This is done in 1639.
PAUL SOLMAN: He’s 33 years old here.
TOM RAISSIEUR: Yeah, he’s a rising star. He isn’t going to yield to anybody here.
PAUL SOLMAN: Isn’t going to yield but as it happens wound up having to. Because from this point on, the Rembrandt story becomes as somber as his art. Indeed his grave images become progressively graver as life itself darkened.
During the years that he reworked the image of simian for example seeing Christ presented in the temple three of Rembrandt’s four children and his wife died plus the lover who succeeded her was sent to the women’s house of correction. His success of etchings of the crucifix suggest a man who has become less and less worldly because they were done after the artist’s imperious manner had begun alienating patrons costing him commissions forcing him into debt. At the age of 50 just a few years after his etching of Christ’s entombment Rembrandt declared bankruptcy. Three years later he painted a very different sort of self-portrait which usually hangs in Washington’s National Gallery.
RONNI BAER: It’s truly an amazing, penetrating look at an aging man.
PAUL SOLMAN: It’s him looking at himself.
RONNI BAER: And it’s him looking at himself. You feel the weight of this man’s life in his face — in the sagging flesh, which is broken up into lots of different brush strokes. What I want to show you here also, you see how his hair has been scored over and over and over with the butt end of the brush into the wet paint. That’s standing for individual strands of hair. He uses it much more in the lit side than he does in the shadowed side where he just uses it a couple of times. He sculpts in paint. There’s a saying attributed to Rembrandt where he told the patron if you don’t like the smell of paint stand further away from my paintings.
PAUL SOLMAN: Bur for all his bravado, right through the end Rembrandt has become a synonym for both art and quality not because of self-promotion but a mixture of elements you can see in the portrait of his son Titus age 14 borrowed from the museum in Rotterdam. In its details like the thumb indenting the cheek it’s the work of Rembrandt the virtuoso with paint.
In other passages, it’s as free as a work of abstract expressionism, Rembrandt the modern. Then there’s the familiar glowing contrast of light and dark, Rembrandt the dramatist and finally there’s dreamy Titus himself as painted by his father, Rembrandt the loving humanist. A host of enduring identities fused together in what has become perhaps “the” brand name in art.