Oct. 4 marks the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt van Rijn. Although the Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker enjoyed great success during his lifetime, he died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk, one of Amsterdam’s first churches built for Protestant worship. Twenty years later, his remains were removed and destroyed, which was customary treatment for the poor of that time.
Today, Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest artists in history, and exhibitions honoring him have been taking place around the world throughout this 350th anniversary year. The Met’s “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met” brings together some of the most important works in their extensive holdings of 17th-century Dutch art, and 11 of their 20 Rembrandt paintings take center stage here.
His portraiture features prominently in this exhibit, most notably a 1660 self-portrait painted when he was 54 years old. The heavy buildup of paint, used to create the wrinkles of age that accent his face, represents a style characteristic of his later period, when his art started to lose popularity in the Netherlands. Though his devotion to realism led him to depict his own physical imperfections in this self-portrait, the piece also reveals a proud artist determined to explore his craft regardless of the consequences. His eyes look anxious and weary yet also knowing and somewhat defiant, and his stolid posture, clenched jaw and pursed lips seem to convey stubborn resolve. The flamboyance of his enormous cap easily identifies him as an artist, combined with his aged appearance and steadfast demeanor, which infer autonomy and mastery of his craft.
A few years before this 1660 self-portrait, Rembrandt had to sell many of his most valuable possessions as a collector of art and antiquities. His bankruptcy was a result of living beyond his means. Inventories of his possessions demonstrate lavish expenditures but also speak to his appreciation for the work of others and his interest in great ideas.
One of the treasures inventoried in his possessions was a bust of Homer, which served as a model for his “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” a painting featured in the Met’s Dutch Masters exhibit. It depicts the figure of Aristotle standing beside the bust, resting his hand on its marble head, and gazing into the middle distance, lost in contemplation. In his book “Rembrandt and Homer,” art historian Herbert von Einem interprets the subject matter of the painting to reflect Rembrandt’s deep religiosity, writing, “The ancient theme breathes a Christian spirit.”
Rembrandt’s Aristotle was done on commission for Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo. Aside from two subsequent works of lesser importance produced for Ruffo, Rembrandt’s Aristotle was his only known commission from a foreign collector. He completed the work in 1653, around the time when his popularity was beginning to fade in the Netherlands.
Though Rembrandt never left the Dutch Republic, he gained exposure to Italian Masters in the art market and learned of their techniques from Dutch painters who had studied in Italy, especially the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Conflicts of religion raged throughout Rembrandt’s life, and, like many during that time, he had both Catholic and Protestant influences. His art comfortably hovered between these two worlds, and he drew particular inspiration from Flemish Baroque Catholic painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Considering his wide array of influences, Rembrandt would have felt confident taking on the commission from Ruffo, who collected works of great masters regardless of nationality but who remained strongly influenced by the Italian artistic tradition. Rembrandt chose the subject matter, and the topic he settled on was likely intended to appeal to Ruffo’s Mediterranean background, given that themes of antiquity were popular in Italy throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
In his book “Rembrandt’s Aristotle and Other Rembrandt Studies,” art historian Julius S. Held contends that the painting represents a complex juxtaposition of ideals. A large gold chain hangs across Aristotle’s body from right shoulder to left hip, with a medal that dangles from the right side of the chain and displays the image of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s most famous pupil. The implication is that Alexander gave the gold chain to Aristotle, and, in that sense, the chain represents a great honor bestowed upon him. However, the chain also represents a kind of servitude because, by wearing it, Aristotle acknowledges that his status in life depends upon remaining in the good graces of this powerful ruler.
Aristotle, in fact, did not remain in the good graces of Alexander—they became estranged when Alexander executed a relative of Aristotle’s for conspiring against him. Held asserts that this history may have influenced Rembrandt’s melancholy depiction of Aristotle, who would certainly be ambivalent about having his status in life hinge on the whims of a vengeful ruler.
Homer represents an ideal for both Alexander and Aristotle. For Alexander, who carried a copy of the “Iliad” with him wherever he went, it was the ideal of honor personified by the heroes of Homer’s stories. For Aristotle, it was an aesthetic ideal summed up in his “Poetics,” wherein Homer’s work stands as the measure for artistic achievement. Amid this dynamic, we can imagine the figure of Aristotle measuring the transient honors bestowed by Alexander against the timeless achievements of Homer.
Held relates this meditation to the life of Rembrandt, showing how he faced the same dilemma as Aristotle. Held writes of Rembrandt, “The greatness of his art, in the last analysis, is due to this fact: that it is the work of a man who never compromised, who never permitted himself to be burdened with a chain of honor, and fiercely maintained both the integrity of his art and his freedom as a man.”
This path of integrity contributed to Rembrandt’s hardships in the later part of his career. But that is also a period when he produced some of his most brilliant works, including the two mentioned here, which tell stories that lay bare complex human situations and reveal the soul of a man willing to suffer to create art that is true and stands the test of time.