Rembrandt, “Portrait of the Artist” (c.1665), oil on canvas, 45″x47″ (all images courtesy English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, via Met Museum) (all images can be clicked to enlarge)

Back in the day, before latex makeup and CGI, all that an actor like Charles Laughton needed to age convincingly onscreen was a precise command of his body language and facial tics.

As the title character of Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (1936), he portrayed the Old Master from the time of “The Night Watch” (1642) through the years just before the artist’s death in 1669.

Over the course of the movie’s 85 minutes, Laughton goes from a robust 36 — his own age at the time — to a frail but impish 62 or 63. The transformation is remarkable.

In the bittersweet closing scenes, he wears a floppy white turban, not unlike the headgear Rembrandt sports in several of his self-portraits from the 1660s. Among them is “Portrait of the Artist” (ca. 1663–65) from Kenwood House, London, which has just landed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a seven-week run (through May 20).

This painting is one of the artist’s richest and most profound self-portraits, rendered in earth tones softly illuminated by raking, flaxen light. Rembrandt, who would live for only three or four more years, may be staring mortality in the face, but his expression bespeaks stillness and calm, even as his posture – chest forward and arms akimbo — betrays a subtle, ineradicable haughtiness.

Which is all the more remarkable for a man who should have been humbled, if not broken, by circumstance. The conditions of his life, as Julius Bryant describes them in his book, Kenwood, Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest (2003), were mortifying:

By now he had become an employee of his son Titus to escape his creditors, the contents of his house had been sold as a result of bankruptcy and he had even had to sell his wife’s grave. His mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, had died in a plague in 1663 and soon he was unable to pay the rent for her grave.

And yet, as Bryant quickly adds, “in the last ten years of his life he was almost as active as an artist as he had been [during the peak of his fame] in the 1630s.”

The Rembrandt we meet in the Kenwood House “Portrait of the Artist” is a man whose personal peaks and valleys, very high and very deep, have taught him how “to care and not to care,” as T.S. Eliot prays in “Ash-Wednesday” (1930): “Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood / Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks…”

The painting is considered unfinished for obvious reasons, namely the lower half. As Bryant discusses in his study:

Comparison with an X-radiograph … shows how originally he stood more at an angle to the viewer, painting as if with his left hand, while holding more brushes and the mahlstick in the other hand. Rembrandt was not left-handed, and he must have realized his mistake in copying his reversed mirror image (which is surprising, given his lifetime of painting self-portraits). But in correcting his mistake … he goes further, obliterating the hand, sharpening the sleeve contours and turning full-face to the viewer. He creates this more formal, pyramidal composition, transforming a self-portrait into a monumental Portrait of the Artist.

The brushes, palette and mahlstick (or maulstick), which is the long wooden rod used to steady the painting hand for finely detailed work, are barely sketched in. I’ve pored over this painting in books for as long as I can remember, and that patch of canvas, particularly the mahlstick, has always disturbed me — which is strange, given our thoroughly modernist acculturation in the unfinished and the fragmented.

The reasons for the unevenness in Rembrandt’s paint handling are perfectly understandable – he was old (for his time), distracted and pressed by financial concerns, and so why should he stress about a few negligible details on a personal project? And yet, as soon as “Portrait of the Artist” arrived at the Met, its first-ever showing in the U.S. (thanks to renovations underway at Kenwood House), I felt compelled to go and check out those brushes for myself.

Are the brushes and palette barely sketched in because he wishes they would disappear, ridding this compulsion from his life?

The ghostly mahlstick is more solid-looking in person than it seems in books, but only slightly. The brushes and palette, which recede into shadow, are even more insubstantial than I expected. The hand holding them is barely a smudge.

Maybe the decision to change the brushes from the right to the left hand was for the sake of verisimilitude (as Bryant suggests), but what it does, formally, is destabilize the composition. What surprised me the most upon seeing the work in person was the prominence of the painting-within-the-painting, indicated by the edge of a stretcher bar at the top right corner and tapering down the side of the canvas to just below the midpoint.

The diagonal created by the stretcher bar, combined with the angle of the mahlstick, form a vector that attempts to pull attention away from Rembrandt’s spotlighted hair, face, turban and collar, knocking the triangular design of the head, shoulders and torso off kilter. The composition’s monumentality is, in this way, dramatically compromised, and the shift in balance is exacerbated by the countervailing angle of the palette and the two mysterious circles on the wall behind.

There has been much scholarly speculation about those two circles, which Bryant summarizes with allusions to Apelles, Giotto and geography (it has been hypothesized that they are the outlines of unfinished maps, one of the Old World and one of the New). Be that as it may, the relatively finished state of these two circles, which would be, one would think, just as peripheral to the painting’s main event — Rembrandt’s face, hair, hat and fur-trimmed cloak — as what he’s holding in his hand.  And yet one is worked through and the other isn’t.

The final sequence of Korda’s Rembrandt begins with Laughton bumming a handful of florins off a well-meaning burgher with the promise that he will use the money to buy food. With coins in hand, he shoots straightaway to the pigment merchant, who tries to throw him out until Laughton slaps the money down on the counter.

This is one of the hoariest and, to my mind, most disrespectful clichés of art history — just how long can an artist continue to choose to buy paint over a meal? Not very. Still, the next and final scene is quite interesting, but only for the way Laughton plays it.

Apparently forgetting his hunger, Rembrandt rushes into his studio and immediately busies himself with his brushes and palette, glancing into a mirror as he begins a self-portrait, which is hidden from the audience’s view. His expression, however, conveys none of the artist’s familiar gravitas; it is more one of delighted, childlike narcissism.

But then the camera angle shifts, and we see his face in the mirror, which is cracked along the upper left corner. He pauses for a moment, and then quotes, deadpan, the words of King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Might the incomplete and strangely discordant rendering of the painter’s tools in “Portrait of the Artist” (accentuated by the above-described compositional tensions) be an outward manifestation of a raw internal conflict? Are the brushes and palette barely sketched in because he wishes they would disappear, ridding this compulsion from his life? Does he recognize that, at bottom, he’s just another junkie getting by on cigarettes and candy bars, doing anything he can to score his next fix?

All wild conjecture, but questions worth asking. Laughton’s biblical quote is highly ambiguous but curiously germane — just what, we ask, is this vanity of vanities? Is it the narcissistic vocation of the artist, symbolized by recurring treatments of his own likeness? Or the absurdity of making art in the teeth of personal tragedy? Or the presumption that art can create order, or make sense of anything at all?

These are dilemmas we are familiar with today; why should past practitioners have been immune? And did their doubt, pessimism and regret find their way into the facture of their work?

That is to say, do the translucent strokes denoting Rembrandt’s brushes, mahlstick, palette and all-but-invisible hand hold the ghosts of his wife, Saskia, his mistress, Hendrickje, and his three children who never survived infancy?

Again, wild conjecture, but art being in the present tense, no options are off the table. And for the next several weeks, if you’re anywhere near New York, you can seek out the ghosts as well.

Rembrandt at Work: The Great Self-Portrait from Kenwood House continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 20, 2012.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

One reply on “Rembrandt’s Brush: A Ghost Story”

  1. yeah I was standing there thinking…”no hands!?”  was he out of time, paint? Illness?  Never occurred to me it would be intentional …as an expressive commentary….”to wish they would disappear.”….  Somehow I just don’t think so, he never painted emotions in gimmicky ways.     

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