The Lost Motifs of Rembrandt’s Late Pictures – By David Molesky
Rembrandt – Man in Armor.
As outlined in the previous essay “from Poets to Artists,” there is much evidence of Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories influence on Rembrandt’s late period. The confusion around the intention of these pictures is likely due to the circumstances of the Dutch financial crash. Rembrandt was bankrupt and lost his home and collection. Many of the paintings made at this time were set adrift into foreign collections where they fell into some obscurity. Due to this turbulence, our understanding of the inspirations behind Rembrandt’s late paintings is rather slim.
Many of the titles we use for these late works did not come from Rembrandt himself, but were invented by merchants or historians. Often the paintings were named after obvious features and presume that Rembrandt was painting simple representations of his subjects. Just as an artist might give a ‘nickname’ to a work but intend a different official title containing clues to ideas behind the work. (For example, we simply refer to Damien Hirst’s piece titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” as Hirst’s “Shark.”) Regardless, institutions have remained loyal to these historic titles for good reason. For example, it would be quite confusing to research a painting that had changed names. However, it is also a shame if museum going art lovers miss-out on the illumination of multi-layered meanings and narratives unearthed by scholars.
What is particularly amazing about Rembrandt is that he uses his great abilities as a storyteller to go far beyond basic representations. Take, for example, his group portrait of the militia guild. Rembrandt has captured the fervor of the boisterous crew as they march through the street beating drums, while other artists have painted the group portrait commission like a prison line-up that, as Hoogstraten commented, “you could behead the whole lot with one blow.” Rembrandt is in all senses a narrative painter and integrates great stories from history even into his portraits. For example, it is widely accepted that the so called Man In Armor is not a ‘tronie’ or character type like Girl with a Pearl Earring of someone wearing a suit of armor, but is a portrait of a specific person: Alexander the Great. Other examples of ‘Portrait Historie’ misidentified as character types include: The Jewish Bride which is actually a depiction of two figures from the Old Testament: Isaac and Rebecca; Titus As a Monk is a portrait of Rembrandt’s son as Saint Francis, and up until the 20th century The Apostle Bartholomew was believed to be a portrait of a baker. It similarly appears that two of the greatest Rembrandt masterpieces housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection are also obscured by their titles and wall text.
The painting by Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the so called ‘Aristotle’ Contemplating the Bust of Homer, has likely been misnamed for posterity. Simon Schama in his book Rembrandt’s Eyes presents a strong argument, with a long list of evidence, that the figure is actually Apelles. The sculpture in the painting has the clear likeness of the famous bust of Homer, of which Rembrandt likely owned a plaster copy. With plaster copies of Aristotle equally ubiquitous, it is curious why we can’t see his likeness in the figure.
The third figural presence in the composition comes from the medallion hanging from the gold chain, which has been widely accepted to contain a profile portrait of Alexander the Great. With that established, one can deduce that the figure was a respected member of his court. One only need to look at several of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits to gain a sense of the personal symbolism he held for that kind of object. Since Rembrandt’s earliest days, he aspired for the same kind of recognition that Titian received – honored as the court painter with the gift of a medal from Charles V. This is Rembrandt’s symbol of the relationship between an artist and a great patron. Apelles was the court painter of Alexander the Great, in fact the only person permitted to paint his image was Apelles. Furthermore, Schama points out that Apelles was much more often associated with Homer in the 17th Century than was Aristotle. Probably even more significant is the fanaticism for Apelles rampant in Amsterdam at the time Rembrandt made the painting. The same year it was painted, 1653, a banquet was held for the Society of Apelles and Apollo, instituted to celebrate the mutual admiration of poetry and painting held its banquet.
Furthermore, the qualities that Pliny describes in the paintings of Apelles read like a checklist for the attributes found in the ‘Aristotle’. The four-color palette, the dark glazes, the beautiful roughness of the painted sleeves, the fingers that seem to jut out of the canvas can all be found in Natural Histories. Rembrandt might have been even more motivated to make this painting as an example as he was also caught up in a debate about Apelles’ working methods with his rival Flinck, whose interpretation was a tighter, brighter version.
Despite the financial collapse Rembrandt’s etchings had brought him fame overseas and he found patronage in distant Sicily. The painting at the Met was the first of three paintings he was making for a harbor official, Ruffo, in the town of Messina, who aspired to create a gallery of scholar portraits like those Rubens made for the home and print factory of Morteus.
When Ruffo received the work and saw the stack of books in the background, he assumed that the painting was of a poet or philosopher. Later realizing that the bust was of Homer, he entered the painting into his inventory as a “half-length figure of a philosopher by Rembrandt.” By the time he referred to the painting again in 1661, Ruffo had decided that it was indeed of Aristotle. Considering Rembrandt’s money problems, you could understand why the painter did not make the effort to communicate a correction of the works true subject, when he was working hard to secure two more painting sales from the collector. It is from these circumstances that the masterpiece at the Met is labeled as a portrait of Aristotle.
In acknowledgement of Rembrandt’s interests in antiquity during his late period, several scholars have offered new interpretations of some of Rembrandt’s late paintings. Rembrandt’s largest Self Portrait at the Frick Collection in New York is one such painting whose true intentions has yet to be defined. Pointing out the similarity in composition, Simon Schama theorizes that the Frick Self Portrait is Rembrandt as Jupiter and is meant to accompany Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife as Juno. I think Schama is on the right track, sensing that the figure is from mythology, but Rembrandt is not illustrated to the same level of godliness as the Juno, who wears a crown and other regal signifiers.
As part of her essay “the Late Self Portraits” in the catalog accompanying the “Late Rembrandt” exhibition in 2014-15, Marjorie E. Wieseman wrote that the self-portrait in the Frick Collection is of Rembrandt as Apelles. She points out in her essay that Rembrandt is dressed to the nines compared to other self-portraits of the period. She discusses how the self-portrait in Vienna and many others from the period are dressed in a dark brown smock – depictions of a working painter. In the Frick self-portrait Rembrandt is dressed in the fashionable clothes of the period, especially ones representing Eastern exoticism: a Polish jerkin, a paltrock, and a red sash with a metal pomegranate at the end. In addition to the fancy dress, Rembrandt depicts himself seated in a throne like chair, pressed up against the picture plane in a manner that is similar to Van Dyck’s portrait etching of the one armed landscape painter, Martin Rijchaert. Both Schama and the Frick believe that Rembrandt based the pose off of this etching. The addition of the missing arm and hand into the painted composition appears slightly awkward, possibly smaller than it should be considering foreshortening. This lead me to believe that the hand was possibly added later, but xrays show that it was present in the underpainting.
I do appreciate Wieseman’s interpretation, especially that Rembrandt’s interest in Apelles is acknowledged, and I tend to agree that this is Rembrandt painting himself as Apelles, but I think there may be another layer to the narrative. Take into consideration Rembrandt’s handling of the outfit that he is wearing and the peculiar aspects that our attentions are drawn towards. It cannot be accidental that the shapes in the fabrics suggest femininity. He seems to have breasts and if you follow the folds of his jerkin down to below his knees there is a suggestion of a camel-toe.
These aspects are not present due to any carelessness on Rembrandt’s part or him arbitrarily painting the folds of cloth dutifully with no mind towards how they might be perceived. Especially considering that in this late phase, Rembrandt had become so good at directing our eye to what he wanted us to see and pay attention to, versus what is unimportant and should remain of little perceptibility. Take for example the presence of background figures in his painting Prodigal Son. If Rembrandt did not intend for these aspects to catch our eye he would have glazed them back.
Rembrandt is a great story-teller with tendencies towards complex narratives, multiple meanings, and stories within stories. Rather than a simple historical portrait, where someone dresses themself up like another figure as if it’s Halloween, Rembrandt offers us a puzzle to contemplate if we can ask the right question: Who would Apelles paint himself as? If Apelles is the great hero figure for Rembrandt, who could that be for Apelles? What kind of qualities would you expect them to have? As the greatest painter of the human figure who supposedly ever existed, who would Apelles hope to emulate in his life? A good candidate for this person can also be found described in Pliny’s Natural Histories – Tiresias.
I must admit, I did not think of this seemingly wild theory on my own. Odd Nerdrum mentioned it to me during my apprenticeship and again while we were visiting the Frick Collection in 2016. Walking towards Rembrandt’s Self Portrait in the main gallery hall, I asked if he still thought that the painting was of Rembrandt as the blind hermaphrodite. Either following the inspiration of the moment or being under the influence of his Tourette’s Syndrome, or both, Odd blurted out quite audibly “Look at his pussy,” while pointing at the lower area of the canvas.
Recently, I wrote Odd to see if he agreed with the Cleveland curator that the Frick self-portrait was Rembrandt as Apelles. I heard back via email from his son Bork who reported that yes, Odd agrees it’s a portrait of Apelles. Initially, I wondered why he abandoned this exciting idea? I checked out the essay by Weiseman, but nothing there seemed moving enough to abandon the Tiresias theory in my mind. Ernst van de Wetering (author of the fabulous The Painter at Work) points out that the Frick Self Portrait is the only self-portrait depicting both hands. In most self portraits as a painter, usually only one hand is visible, the one holding the palette, while the other hand is outside of the composition making the painting. Also curious, is that this is the only portrait of that time where he does not paint himself with the look of a painter.
Considering the Apelles theory, I wondered why if he was depicting himself as a painter there would be nothing to distinguish himself as Apelles besides fancy dress or regal pose. Unless, of course, this is a painting of who Apelles would paint himself as – someone who is presumably not a painter.
In Natural Histories, Pliny describes Tiresias as a blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, who is attributed with the invention of augury. He has the ability to understand the language of birds and see the future from indications in fire. Tiresias was a seer, whose insights regarding humanity was relied upon by Zeus. Who better to emulate as a figure painter?!
Tiresias was a shepherd who gained the attention of the gods when he beat to death two mating serpents with a stick. At that moment Zeus and Hera were in the midst of an argument about who has more pleasure from sex, a man or a woman? Hera took some jealous offence that Zeus was sure that women had more pleasure. So Zeus zapped Tiresias and turned him into woman, as which he lived for 7, 9, or 10 years (depending on the source) and was then called back to Olympus to report what he found out. He replied for every one pleasure a man experiences from sex a woman experiences nine. (A strange synchronicity, as its been proven that men have one nerve going from their genitals to their spinal cord while women have three, which means they have nine different neural combinations of stimulation.) Hera was so angry that she blinded Tiresias. Feeling bad about this irreversible curse, Zeus tried to make up for the loss by giving him the power to see the future. Tiresias, the blind prophet who understood both men and women equally, was the greatest judge of humanity in Greek mythology. As a well known character he even made an appearance in the Odyssey, continuing his work as a seer in the underworld of Hades.
Acknowledging these stories of Tiresias, we can approach the Self Portrait at the Frick and see that all of its quirky qualities are there to support an image of Tiresias. The shadow of darkness over the dull eyes signify blindness. The suggested bosom and vagina found in the folds of cloth signify a man turned to a woman. The double-banded sash crosses his belly like two copulating serpents and he holds the stick with which he killed them. Even the pomegranate medal hanging from the sash symbolizes the passage to Hades where Tiresias appears in the Odyssey.
Visionary Tiresias has truly projected through to the future, from ancient oral traditions, into the texts of antiquity, and through to Rembrandt. Through their work, seers, poets, and meta-magical painters have found socially appropriate ways to share their insights into the surrounding world.
Engaging history in this way allows someone to step out of the system of time. In dialogue with the past, Rembrandt made powerful works that are alarmingly present and continuously culturally relevant. Stubbornly, our concepts of time place him as a Dutch 17th century painter, when he actually evolved into an eternal craftsman working in the tradition of Apelles.