Rembrandt, Up Close


The Dayton Art Institute is hosting a traveling exhibit from the Rijksmuseum, featuring a number of famous works from Rembrandt as well as other Dutch masters and Rembrandt apprentices, including Jan Steen, Adriaen van der Werff, Nicholaes Maes and Gerard Dou. Apparently the Rijksmuseum doesn’t let its work travel all that much, but right now its undergoing an extensive renovation, so the thinking is that there’s no harm done in letting somee of this work travel about while the museum is getting fixed up. And thus: Rembrandt and friends in Ohio.

We went to it today, and it was really delightful, and a reminder that some things are better experienced in real life. The picture above, for example: The Denial of Saint Peter. Here on this page you have a nice picture of it, and you can see Peter, questioned about his acquaintance with Jesus, saying he doesn’t know them. The composition is good, the lighting (via a hidden candle held up to Peter’s face) evocative, and the whole piece clearly a great work. Then you go see the actual thing, and it’s like going from black and white to color. You can see how completely Peter is torn, as his heart longs to say how he loves Jesus but his mouth says he knows him not. You see how the light in the picture actually seems to glow, illuminating Peter’s torment. And you can see, in the background, Jesus turning to hear his beloved disciple renounce him, his expression sorrowful as Peter’s is tormented. And you know why this is art: Because you feel Peter’s denial as if you were there yourself, wrung from you through the use of oil, canvas and varnish. You can sense all of this when you see the picture in some other medium; you feel it when you stand in front of it. Art is a tactile medium.

I went in knowing I’d enjoy seeing Rembrandt’s work, both his paintings his print work, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much I enjoyed the other art work as well, particularly the work of Nicholaes Maes, a student of Rembrandt whom I had not known of before. Maes seemed taken with loading his work with symbolism; a picture of a young servant pensively lookig out of a window, for example, is supposed to be an allegory for the sin of sloth. I don’t know how I feel about that; I think she just looks like she’s having a moment to think about something, which doesn’t seem especially slothful. But then I’m not a 17th century Dutchman, either. Another painting in the exhibit had a hunter coming back from the hunt and offering a woman a partridge; to your golden age Dutchman, this picture was apparently screaming that the guy wanted to get busy with the woman. You miss a lot of allusions over the gulf of 350 years.

We naturally took Athena to the exhibit with us; she’s just old enough to appreciate something like this, so long as we didn’t linger too long in one place or another. We timed our pace so we finished the exhibit just as her tolerance wore out, which I thought was nicely done. The exhibit did something I thought was very smart, which was that it had a kid’s level audio program as well as an adult level audio program, so Athena happily went from picture to picture and listened to what was going on in the picture. I didn’t bother with an audio program myself, but I’m glad someone thought ahead about how to keep an eight-year-old amused at an art exhibit.

I think this is one of those things she’ll appreciate more as she gets older; Rembrandt doesn’t mean much to her now, but as she learns more I think she’ll be happy she saw some of his work in her hometown. As it is, she came out of the exhibit declaring that she wanted to be an artist, including that with her two now-long-term planned professions of dentistry and building demolition. I told her I was proud of her multi-disciplinary ambitions. And I am.

17 Comments on “Rembrandt, Up Close”

  1. I miss being in a big city with great museums. I mean, we can drive down to Boston, but it’s not quite the same.

    There really is nothing like good art. Good art – I mean the stuff by the masters – is just astounding up close.

    I want to take Sophia to The Metropolitan Museum of Art some day. Now that her grandparents don’t live near there, it’s a longer trip.

  2. “Art is a tactile medium.”

    Vision is essentially tactile! Aristotle/Nietzsche! Whoooooo!

    (sorry, grad school seems to be RUINING MY BRAIN)

  3. I love good art, and I have to admit it’s nice to live near NYC and it’s great museums. =)

    I don’t think that eight is too young to go to an art museum, by the way. I remember going to the Met when I was younger than that, although you should remember that the Met also has the Egyptian exhibit and the Temple of Dendor, which are always good for children. But overall, I remember my mom taking me to art museums since I was a very small child; the same thing with places like the Museum of Natural History. Kids are never too young to appreciate some of the stuff that’s going on there, and I think that I love museums so much because my parents exposed me to them at such a young age. =)

  4. Building demolition? Dude, your kid is awesome.

    I think I wanted to grow up to be President when I was eight. That or an artist. Building demolition is so much cooler than politics, though.

  5. Yeah, the Denial of St. Peter really struck me too, when I got to visit the Rijksmuseum lo these 8 years past. I had the same reaction, of how stunning it was to see these works in person.

    That trip really taught me how much I love Dutch painting. The best are so eloquent at illustrating everyday life, making it beautiful and real at the same time. Sigh.

    I wish I’d been able to get to Dayton. I’d love to see those paintings again.

  6. She needs to get into forensic identification of bodies by dental records so she can combine the two. (You already know I think she rocks.)

  7. Regan – How about forensic identification of bodies by dental records – that are found at the site of demolished buildings!

    That wraps up a nice trifecta of interests while including job longevity, given apparent immortality of the war on terror.

  8. I used to live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and a favorite Saturday for my husband and I was to go up to the Dayton Art Museum. They got to host the Chinese terra cotta army exhibition; that was incredible–until I saw parents lifting their children onto the terra cotta lions, past all the big huge signs saying PLEASE DON’T TOUCH, just so that they could get pictures of the kids riding ancient Chinese pottery.

    Athena: never settle! Do it all! You rock ’til the breaka breaka dawn!

  9. Going to art museums is very cool (except for those types havng their kids ride the terra cotta lions). It’s great that she gets to see things like that in her life, John. (We’re still waiting for the Cleveland Museum to reopen, oh, it’s a short winter outside but a long winter inside).

  10. There is an awesome book about Rembrandt by Simon Schama (he also did a well known tv series about the history of britain) called Rembrandt’s Eyes. It’s like a history of the Netherlands combined with biographies of Rembrandt and Rubens and an art history text, all smooshed together. Oh yeah, and it weighs about 30 pounds. And yes, I sense your skepticism, but believe me, this monster is really good. It’s the kind of thing you read chunks of over a couple of years. Give it a try, especially if you dig Rembrandt.

  11. We naturally took Athena to the exhibit with us; she’s just old enough to appreciate something like this, so long as we didn’t linger too long in one place or another.

    What? Sir, I am shocked, nay, appalled you would take a tender youth to such a despicable exhibition! I understand there were pictures of men bequeathing a partridge unto a Lady. Shocking!

  12. The National Gallery in Edinburgh has a self-portrait from Rembrandt’s middle age. The National Gallery may be the best small art museum I’ve ever visited, in part because its scale invites you to explore the entire collection (basically the opposite reaction you have when you unfold the multilayer map of the Met or the Louvre), in part because its location along Edinburgh’s main drag (I *think* they have some kind of proper name for it, but who can remember a decade later). You just wander in off the sidewalk, visit your favorites, and then still have time to make it to the bookstore and coffeeshop before you have to catch your return bus to St. Andrews or wherever.

    Anyway, during the year I spent at St. Andrews, I must have spent a couple of hours, cumulatively, staring at that self-portrait from a range of about 10 inches. As much as I had already liked Rembrandt from seeing his pictures in books, the second-hand experience was *nothing* like seeing the real thing up close.

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