Rembrandt: Facing the Darkness

Zach Taylor

The ARTiculation Prize 2019 was won by Zach Taylor for his heartfelt and intelligent discussion of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, an adaption of which was filmed by HENI Talks at the National Gallery.

Zach explores how through facing the darkness in his personal life Rembrandt brings his viewers into the light. With his mastery of chiaroscuro and references to the great artists of the past, he positioned himself as a master of a new age: confident in his talents yet honest about the effects of painful life experiences.

ARTiculation is the Roche Court Educational Trust’s acclaimed initiative which champions students, aged between 16 – 19 regardless of background and experience. It provides a platform for students to develop their confidence and ability to express their opinions, thoughts and ideas, through the arts and public speaking.

5 comments on “Rembrandt: Facing the Darkness

  1. Zach Taylor amazingly described my own feelings when I visited the Museum Het Rembrandthuis in 2013. He saw what I saw, he felt what I felt, though he was able to put in words those thoughts, those feelings we both shared and which I still can’t.
    Zach Taylor helped me see Rembrandt’s works from a different and fascinating perspective.
    HENI Talks, thank you both !!!

    1. Thank you so much Mia. I’m honoured that I was able to share with you more of the power of Rembrandt. And I’m so glad that we and others can have a shared experience of the beauty of Rembrandt’s work. It shows just how significant he is in stirring our inner thoughts and emotions through so honestly expressing his own broken experience and so enabling us to relate to that

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Darkness.

Most of us are scared of it.

Whether it’s the darkness outside our door at night or the darkness inside of us – the part of us we’d rather hide.

Are we brave enough to face the darkness?

Carl Jung said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Rembrandt makes the darkness conscious. He doesn’t run from it. He faces it. His language was darkness and light. He was the master of chiaroscuro, constantly experimenting with strong contrasts between light and dark.

This self-portrait is famous for the way Rembrandt’s spot-lit face stands out from the darkness. Whilst the light is remarkable, it crucially relies on the darkness surrounding it to make its impact.

What fascinates me most about Rembrandt is the brilliance that emerges from the darkness in his own life.

I first experienced this brilliance four years ago on a family trip to The Netherlands.

Whilst wandering the streets of Amsterdam, we stumbled across the Rembrandt House. I stepped from the cold, cobbled streets into the warmth of the quirky 17th century building that was both his home and studio. I ventured from the formal reception rooms downstairs, where the artist negotiated the sale of his paintings, through a complex of creaking staircases and hidden wooden cavities; the dingy and musty interior of these fairy tale spaces lit only by candlelight. Already I was glimpsing a darker facet to the renown of this famous painter of the Dutch Golden Age.

Yet still, his studio on the upper floor was light and spacious. I remember inhaling the bitter smell of linseed oil as I stood in the shadow of his vast easel. I felt in my hands the raw pigments he would have used – some smooth, some rough and crumbling under my touch. I marvelled at the electric blues and yellows standing out from the earth tones that ground his paintings. Leaving Rembrandt’s house, my thoughts and senses were lit up by his genius and the incredible possibilities of expressing oneself through the shades and tones of art.

We can trace in Rembrandt’s self-portraits the progression of his self-awareness and expression. At the outset of his career, in Self Portrait in a Gorget, Rembrandt emerges from the half-shadow, soft hair framing the lucidity of his youthful face. A glimmer of light bounces off the hard steel on his shoulder. This single piece of armour, borrowed from a more formal portrait style, highlighting how his talent lies not in military prowess but in the brilliance of his brush strokes.

 Rembrandt moves towards more contemplative portraiture in middle age. In his Self Portrait of 1640, here in The National Gallery, his self-assured pose and elaborate 16th century dress are commonly perceived as expressions of confidence at the height of his career. Rembrandt deliberately points towards the Old Masters of the previous century, referencing Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione.

Titian asserts the authority of his subject by the way in which the figure commands the space, with his arm resting at ease on the stone wall. Rembrandt places himself in a similar stance, yet his jaded look replaces the mistrusting demeanour of Titian’s subject. He stands out from the shadows with a look of knowing introspection.

He had by now endured devastation in his personal life, each of his first three children having died within months of their births. Suffering and loss had made their mark on him. He bears a melancholic countenance, with almost sickly pale skin and distant reddened eyes.

With Rembrandt’s flowing brushstrokes and tonal blending echoing the textural painting of Raphael, perhaps the sentiment evoked in Rembrandt’s self-portrait is a comment on the philosophy of Raphael’s subject, the author Castiglione. Castiglione’s ideal of the perfect courtier is encompassed in the term ‘sprezzatura’, a form of defensive irony, in which it is important to disguise one’s feelings behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.

Yet, Rembrandt doesn’t put a smokescreen in front of his troubles by means of a superficial portrayal. He puts himself in plain light, his emotion undisguised. He presents himself on an entirely human level, allowing us to relate to the brokenness of his experience in a very real and powerful way.

It is poignantly evident that Rembrandt does not conform to the popular styles of other artists in order to live up to society’s expectations but is instead drawing on past genres to express the depth of his thoughts and feelings.

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at The Age of 63 takes us to the last year of his life and is the penultimate of nearly a hundred self-portraits painted over his lifetime. The frail man before us contemplates his prodigal life: two scandalous relationships following the death of his wife, Saskia, and the financial bankruptcy that came from living beyond his means.

On first glance, this painting is pleasing and gentle to the eye – a warm blend of muddy browns lifted by the luxurious reddish hues of the velvety fabrics. However, as we are drawn to centre of the piece, the stark white light brings full focus onto the subject’s face – his spot-lit forehead standing out from the soft smudged browns of his garments and surroundings. His use of the impasto technique, described later as ‘the school of rough’, builds here from the thinner paint of the darker outer to the thicker paint of the lighter inner. This creates a three-dimensional illusion, with the shadows under the nose and chin projecting the facial features forward even further.

As we trace the faint outline of his figure, it emerges slowly from the darkened surroundings, until it feels like we’re standing right up close to him.

Through his fine brushstrokes, Rembrandt accentuates numerous small details which give the portrait texture – from his wisps of silvery hair to the glistening shine on his nose and forehead.

With his face almost fluorescently illuminated, the rosy patches in his nose and cheeks bring a subtle warmth and life to the face of the man before us. But this remarkable face is far from beautiful. The honesty of its depiction is fitting with historian Simon Schama’s appraisal that Rembrandt, ‘enjoyed reading the marks left by worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin which gave the human countenance a mottled richness’.

The darkness of his eyes draws us in. We search for the emotion that Rembrandt might be feeling. Is he looking upon us impassively or is he pushing back his deep despair beneath the surface?

We sense that this is a man weary with the strains of his life, his skin sagging and his hair grey. It is as though we can almost hear him sigh under the weight of his troubles, as though he might just be pulled back down into the darkness that surrounds him.

Every time I meet Rembrandt’s eyes afresh, I experience something new. The ambiguity of his facial expression draws something out of us. As we exchange glances with him, our hidden feelings are brought to the surface. Will we push our disquiet, our darkness back down inside or are we brave enough to put them into the spotlight?

 The feelings evoked in these pieces reflect his changing fortunes and outlook, but characteristic in all of them is his honesty about the impact of human experience, giving his work its universal and lasting appeal.

 Although painted nearly thirty years down the line, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at The Age of 63 faces his younger self.

He reflects upon his own experience and the reality that financial success now eludes him. He died a poor man, simply a number in a graveyard, but despite his pitiful demise, I would argue that it’s against the darkness of his human failings that the brilliance of his legacy stands out.

Light.

Rembrandt shows us that it’s as we bring our darkness into the light that we create something beautiful out of the brokenness.

Indeed the courage of these self portraits and so many of his other paintings is that he an artist who is willing to bare his own soul. He takes the risk of bringing his own darkness into the light to show that it is possible for us to face our own souls and leave a lasting mark on the world.

This is a risk I hope I am willing to take.

Are you?

 

With thanks to

The National Gallery, London

 

ARTiculation
Timothy Revell, ARTiculation
Josepha Sanna, ARTiculation
The Roche Court Educational Trust

 

Archive

Germanic National Museum, Nuremberg

Getty Images

Louvre Museum

The National Gallery, London

 

Music

Audio Network

Freesound

 

Artworks

Slow-motion, flame fire on black background
Sutichak / Getty Images

 

A splash of water creates ripples and bubbles reflected in a moonlit sky
Jonathan Knowles / Getty Images

 

Full moon with storm cloud
User2547783c_812 / Getty Images

 

SLO MO ECU Single candle being blown out/ Auckland, New Zealand
WOWstockfootage / Getty Images

 

Self Portrait at the Age of 63
Rembrandt, 1669
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Looking out from boat on canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Nisian Hughes/ Getty Images

 

Rome buildings reflected in puddle water
Piola666/ Getty Images

 

Netherlands: Rembrandthuis
Goddard_Photography / Getty Images

 

400th Anniversary of Dutch Art master Rembrandt. On February 2006. In Amsterdam, Netherlands
Francis DEMANGE / Getty Images

 

Woman walks up old staircase grabbing handrail
Nathaniel Vossler / Getty Images

 

400th Anniversary of Dutch Art master Rembrandt
On February 2006. In Amsterdam, Netherlands
Francis DEMANGE / Getty Images

 

 Netherlands – Rembrandt’s Studio
John van Hasselt – Corbis / Getty Images

 

400th Anniversary of Dutch Art master Rembrandt
On February 2006. In Amsterdam, Netherlands
Francis DEMANGE / Getty Images

 

400th Anniversary of Dutch Art master Rembrandt
On February 2006. In Amsterdam, Netherlands
Francis DEMANGE / Getty Images

 

Self Portrait in a Gorget
Rembrandt, c.1629
Photo © Messberger, Germanic National Museum, Nuremberg
Loan art collections of the city of Nuremberg

 

Self Portrait at the Age of 34
Rembrandt, 1640
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo
Titian, c.1510
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione
Raphael, 1514-1515
Photo © Louvre Museum
Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Angèle Dequier

 

Sun in dramatic sky
Nobuhama55 / Getty Images

 

Beautiful beach and tropical sea
Primeimages / Getty Images

 

4K: Water surface at sunset
BugTiger / Getty Images

 

Light – Natural Phenomenon
Kogelmogel / Getty Images

 

 

Rembrandt’, National Gallery

Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, ‘Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1659)’, Smarthistory, 9 December 2015

Lisa Marder, ‘Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits’, liveaboutdotcom

Rembrandt van Rijn’, ArtUK

Ernst van de Wetering, ‘Rembrant van Rijn‘, Encyclopaedia Britannica

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