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.