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Rembrandt, or the portrait as encounter Essay

‘A good painter’, says Leonardo da Vinci, ‘is to paint two main things, namely man and the workings of man’s mind. The first is easy, the second difficult’. As portraiture came into its own during the Renaissance, it became accepted that a good likeness alone does not make a portrait. The able painter must convey, besides mood and affect, a sense of who the sitter is: their personality and, deeper still, the sense of what it is like to exist as this person. In other words, portraiture is a matter not just of aesthetic proficiency but also of moral and psychological attunement. But how does the painter step into the sitter’s subjectivity? How does s/he paint acknowledgement? It seems the artist here must depart from the familiar province of seeming and enter the unmarked domain of being—a puzzling transition if we consider that art traditionally pairs with imagination and makebelieve.

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In this essay, I argue that imagination isn’t an impediment to moral perception. In fact, imaginative depiction plays a crucial role in apprehending others as persons. I develop this line of argument by reflecting on a key feature of portraiture: likeness. Likeness is normally understood to be a property of a person’s appearance; but it is also clear that, by definition, likeness refers to a model of comparison beyond appearance proper. A person doesn’t look like herself—this is a tautology; she looks like the image of herself we mentally draw for her. At first blush a portrait presents the likeness of a person; on consideration this likeness cannot pre-exist the portrait. Thus portraiture is essential to having a likeness, of looking like oneself.

Of interest here is that likeness shifts from the singular to the plural, from the personal to the interpersonal. My likeness relies on another person’s creative witnessing. How does the intersubjective nature of likeness inform portrait painting? How, in particular, does the painter represent their commitment to offering the gift of likeness (which is ultimately the gift of personhood) to their sitter? I examine this question through a selective discussion of portrait paintings of Rembrandt, paying special attention to those instances where likeness breaks down for the sake of, paradoxically, preserving the uniqueness of the represented person.

I

It is no use trying to hide the elephant in the room—not an elephant this size. Rembrandt cuts an anachronistic figure in a volume of essays addressing portraiture in the digital age. Next to digital photography, facial-recognition software and web imagery, Rembrandt is bound t look a tad passé. Yet anachronism is far from being the subject of this essay. For nothing about a Rembrandt portrait is out of date; nothing in what I propose to convey about Rembrandt is indifferent to our present circumstances. The time of the portrait, I want to show, i now—the now of encounter, the now of the human conversation.

And this moment, this now, is the beating heart of great portraiture. This idea that an excellent portrait radiates personal presence is actually rather uncontroversial outside of academia. Hopefully, the experience I propose to describe isn’t foreign to even the gimlet-eyed connoisseur. Wandering through a picture gallery, your eye grazes on seascapes and genre scenes, gods and queens, crucifixions, abductions, rapture and woe, a repentant Magdalene, a defiantly murderous Judith, a congress of happy shepherds. From the corner of your eye you wearily spot a portrait. You lumber up to it. You gaze.

Then it happens. Suddenly, or perhaps slowly, but surely unawares, you are drawn into a hypnotic face-to-face. The walls melt away, the  huffling crowd vanishes, the world becomes background and you are alone in the presence, no longer of a picture, but of a face, a person—a person who wants something from you. At last you shake yourself free of the spell. You readjust your gaze: once again it is just a picture you are looking at. And yet it has become much more. The portrait seems to hold the presence, the aura, the heft (there is no right word for it) of a real person. Though it falls short of the real person, in another sense it feels like too much of one. His or her demand on our attention feels unconditional, agonisingly more pressing than the real presences we allow to intrude into our everyday attention.

We seem to have had an ‘encounter’—a word, and an experience, on which we will want to cast light. Not that this encounter is unusual.

In fact, the subject of Rembrandt’s human realism is, rather, a commonplace of art history. But to say that it is commonplace doesn’t mean there is anything ordinary about it or that it has been properly looked into. One might even say it has been easier to dismiss, for there is something about the achingly pressing presence of a Rembrandt portrait that outstrips the remit of art historians. It seems to call on the joint counsel of psychologists, philosophers, spiritual teachers and saints. It asks for our reckoning, but reckoning isn’t the business of art criticism. Whereas the art critic will often privately admit the bliss of an encounter, professional training, academic discourse and the distinctions of art history journals do not really make room for the language to describe it. Specialised and technical to a fault, the language of criticism is inimical to the ‘subjective’ haze of encounter.

Rather than emotions and intimations, the professional critic prefers facts, among which, certifiably, is the artefact. Of one thing the learned critic is sure, a painting is a thing. For all its likeness to a person, a portrait is an image, and images don’t speak, see or feel. To forget this is to wander off into a magic forest where statues walk and plaster Madonnas weep. But representations are first and foremost facsimiles. However we dig into them we will find pigments and oil and canvas and the imaginary reconstruction of an artist. The hard kernel of reality is out of the picture. Any attempt to recover it is sentimental indulgence; it belongs in the bottom drawer of criticism known as the pathetic fallacy, the mistake of attributing an emotion to the object  that evokes it rather than the person who feels it. In sum, if you want a real person, go to a singles’ bar, not a museum, and by all means stop trying to have encounters with dry old paint.

In search of scientific facts, art criticism latches onto the social and material context of art. Rembrandt scholars invite us to focus on the conditions of workshop production, the buying and selling of pictures, public taste—indeed any contextual element that helps bury the fact that for three months a human being sat before another, the first to offer their likeness, the second to ponder and recreate it in paint. You may call this portrait a Rembrandt, says the critic, but it is really ‘market conditions’, ‘stylistic conventions’ and ‘set programmes’ that created the paintings.

But, of course, this is a will o’ the wisp—and most unscientific to boot. Abstractions like ‘the market’ or ‘public taste’ do not make pictures. Men and women do. Indeed, to dismiss this plain fact is to commit a pathetic fallacy, and on balance it is probably more scientific to believe in weeping icons than historical abstractions that paint. Of course it is not my intention to lead us to forget that an image isn’t what it represents. I am, however, going to look at the person inside the portrait to see what lies at the bottom of this naive encounter. Is it a misapprehension? If so, is it pathetic and perverse, or benign and necessary?

II

Some conceptual work is in order if we are to develop the discussion further. In essence, I want to show that looking at a portrait and seeing a face aren’t dissimilar actions. To see the face as a person is to see the portrait in it. My hunch is that the realism we naively maintain at the portrait gallery is the same naive realism that allows us to see one another as persons and not things.

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A portrait, we are told, is a thing. This is quite true, but empirically speaking a face too is a thing—ridges and dips and holes tied to muscle attachments. It is realist naivety—our sympathetic tendency to project form, intention, sense and feeling—that transforms those ridges and holes into a face. Unless we imagine into its surface, unless we take it as manifesting consciousness, a face is a hunk of flesh. Our everyday approach to the human face is, in a restrictive sense, aesthetic: it draws the material data into a portrait, and believes in it.

Infants are precocious portrait-makers when they interpret the blur of eye-mouth-cheek-nose as mother’s face.

And when young children begin drawing, they start by squiggling faces. Representation starts spontaneously as portraiture. And this isn’t because a face is a quaint and interesting circle. Rather children draw a circle because they see a face in it, and drawing it allows them to enact the transfer from mind to mother. We begin our toddler-doodler career as naive realists. We do not depict in order to cover up or look away from human reality but to relate to it through other means. On this score, to insist that a portrait is just a system of paint smears is like the sinister pedantry that would consist in teaching a child to say not ‘this is mum’, but ‘this is a shower of photons bouncing off a face, hitting my optic nerve and forming into a mental pattern that denotes another object called mum’. In everyday life we elaborate portraits of each other; we see the face as figuring forth a human being.

This is not to deny that the human brain somehow gets tricked into projecting personality into a two-dimensional facsimile; it is to insist that this sort of emphatic naive projection quickens the normal process of seeing actual faces. My worry is that when critics deny the person in the portrait they undermine the representational thinking that sustains ordinary moral intelligence—the intelligence that allows us to imagine constructively the life of others and behold the face as a portraying-forth. Now this is all very well, but a portrait is a thing, and the face quite another. The former we hang on the wall; the latter we hang not, or else only to punish. But let us look again into the distinction between face and portrait. Our ways of speaking often betray us, and in this instance reveal that the difference isn’t
a hard-and-fast one.

Of both a portrait and a face we say that they present a likeness. This, we say pointing at a photograph, is a likeness of Winston Churchill, and we thereby designate an object. But we also use the word ‘likeness’ in another sense; for instance, when we say ‘this photograph captures
Sir Winston’s likeness’ or ‘Sir Winston and Sir Randolph, his son, share a likeness’. We can also say a likeness binds the young, middleaged, and elderly Winstons. In these instances we are referring not to an artefact but to an abstraction. This abstraction is no fancy conceit; it is how we identify a person. To recognise Winston Churchill is to check his face against an enduring likeness—a likeness that exists independently of Winston since, as we have seen, Randolph also has a claim to it. Does young Winston look like old Winston, or is it old Winston who looks like his younger self? Randolph looks like Winston, but this is because Winston looks like Randolph. The point is that a likeness doesn’t really belong to the person proper. But, then, to whom does it belong?

The observer, of course, and our ability to make a mental portrait out of the living person. All in all, and so far as we recognise one another, we are the artists of each other’s likeness. This, we are beginning to see, has an interesting bearing on personal identity. For if identity assumes being identical to oneself, and if such similarity is construed by an observer, then identity will surely involve a strong interpersonal element. It takes at least two persons to look like oneself.

Let’s summarise this way: first, a mug becomes a human face insofar as we mentally portray it; second, identity is conditional on recognition;
and third, recognition requires the imaginative projection of a portrait onto the face.

III

Let’s now carry these abstractions back to the painter’s studio. At  the heart of Rembrandt’s art—I think this is true of all great portrait painters—is an insight into the commonality between being and being depicted; between, if you will, identity and portraiture.

The person in the portrait says, ‘I am here because I have been seen. I  exist because I have been painstakingly acknowledged to exist’. And this statement is no less true outside the portrait gallery. There, too, someone’s humanising gaze of others is needed to actuate your or
my personhood.

The idea that others give us our humanity doesn’t sit well with our culture’s individualistic ethos. We, the children of Descartes, Locke and Kant, tend to believe in spontaneously autonomous personal identity. Public and private, me and others: this distinction is integral to the modern psyche. The self is a private fiefdom. When the ‘I’ presents that fiefdom to the world it is always with the sense of putting up a public relations pageant. For the true self is what one deeply is, never what one shows. Hence our propensity to suspect the touch-up job, the slick lie, in portraiture. We cannot help assuming that whatever the intention, a portrait holds a mask over the face. The painter, we say, could only show what the sitter seemed, not who they are. There are several reasons why this is not true, at least not true of great portraiture such as Rembrandt’s. Let’s begin with the historical reason. The clear-cut duality of private self and public persona, or, if you will, face and portrait, doesn’t travel well across the ages. Admittedly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did see a trend towards more individualised experience. Castiglione, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Descartes—their works are the milestones

of a growing sense of separation between the private self and public life. Until quite recently, however, these were more philosophical exercises than realities. Actual everyday life mostly went on as it had for centuries, woven into an intricately communal web. If Shakespeare did ‘invent’ the deep modern self, this invention took place on the rowdily public London stage—hardly a solitary affair. Even the protoindividualist Hamlet needs an audience, and a performance of his individuality, to get at who he is privately. He doesn’t know himself until he acts out his various social selves. Of course he worries about being honest and true to himself. The problem is that there is no ‘himself’ until he acts before a public.

This was also Rembrandt’s world—a gregariously civic milieu in which very few people would have fretted about the division between their ‘true’ selves and their social selves. It would scarcely have occurred to them to consider the gaze of others a Trojan horse. Little would they have understood Sartre’s Cartesian trepidations about the objectifying glance of others. Seventeenth-century man was an unquestioning public creature. To be and to be seen, to be and to be portrayed wasn’t the feuding pair it has become in the modern age of privacy.

If anything, the golden age of Dutch society would have deepened the social embedding of selfhood. Released from feudal vassalage, men and women had to negotiate their lives and livelihoods, their good names and fortunes, in teeming urban environments. Not fixed ancestry but trade and burghers’ councils and influence-peddling defined who one was. A drawback of merchant society, aristocrats bemoaned, was that no one was ever relieved of having to prove their worth. No step up the social ladder was secure. The work of garnering social relevance
was never finished.

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Identity was a fungible asset, always in need of recognition and reaffirmation. It was, we might say, permanently on the auction block.

This fragility is the context of Rembrandt’s portraiture. It explains the expectant attention of his faces, their susceptibility to slight, their pained need of confirmation. These were the faces of people who lived by the esteem of others. They are the faces of men and women taking part in the strange new experiment of having their portraits painted,

a luxury formerly the perk of princes and prelates. Their parents had been commoners, invisible and unpaintable. Suddenly they were sitting in front of a painter’s easel, like gawky provincials in Sunday dress—though dress, when it comes to it, was not something you could hide inside because clothes were generally plain and uniform in Calvinist Amsterdam. Sumptuary laws frowned on the wearing of insignia, frippery and showy signs of distinction. One’s good name was one’s face, bare and uncovered, and this is what Rembrandt looked at, alive to his sitters’ expectant mood, which sometimes bespeaks utter vulnerability. The faces he painted look for a witness: for someone with whom they can put themselves in trust.

Very often Rembrandt’s portrait commissions were of merchants (the shipbuilder Jan Rijksen, the fur merchant Nicolaes Ruts, the cloth merchant Maerton Looten), men whose livelihoods depended on social exchange and thus on trust, negotiation and reputation (the part of our own self we do not own). Hence the implicit aim of these portraits: to present a face that says to investors, bankers, underwriters and society at large, ‘you can trust me’, ‘your investment is safe with me’, ‘give me your guilders and I will repay you tenfold’.

Rembrandt discovers, or at any rate chronicles, what happens to the human face in the bourgeois age—the age that made human identity ever so much more fragile, more conditional and more contingent than it had been under the feudal caste system. Under feudalism, in an age
of virtually non-existent social mobility, identity was mostly an innate non-negotiable asset, high or low, which fortune, better known as Divine Providence, allocated at birth to the individual. One was born a peasant or a great lord, a laborator or a bellator, and no amount of striving could turn the former into the latter (not, at any rate, within one lifetime). Enforcing this rigid, one-time allocation of identity was the work of theocratic ideology, which remitted the matter of personhood to divine ordinance, laying bare the contents of one’s psyche to God’s omniscient and omnipresent eye. Why discuss, debate, argue, doubt or explore the contents of one’s soul when all is decreed and defined by the ultimate Judge above? The question of personal identity was, as it were, out of one’s hands and, crucially, out of other people’s hands as well. Without straying too far into the sociology of the transformation from agrarian feudalism to the mercantile, citybased economy of the nascent modern period, it is well-known that the economic and social experiment first started in the Italian city

states of the Renaissance and then more clearly emerged in Flanders, Holland and the cities of the Hanseatic League, together with ordered trade, manufacture and banking, and the political administration of industrial prosperity.

With urban mercantilism came social mobility and therefore a more fluid, contingent and change-prone experience of personal identity. No longer was identity a fixed allocation. It was a movable and negotiable asset, a currency subject to the upward and downward re-evaluations of good and bad luck (for this reason the allegoric figure of Fortuna re-emerges during the Renaissance), and subject also to the contingencies of personal success or failure, and consequent civic standing. In sum, identity in the bourgeois economy of incipiently modern Europe had a much more fragile, vulnerable, fungible quality. As society moved from the Court to the Town, identity came to depend on ongoing exchange with equals, competitors, fellow guildsmen, associates, customers, fellow traders and neighbours. Acknowledgement was given, but like all things given could be taken back or refused. We see in the mercantile city just how much identity rested on the currency of one’s good name, one’s reputation: that is, through the recognition of others.

The contrast between the fixity of pre-bourgeois identity and a contingent bourgeois experience of identity is best seen when we consider the court portraiture of the Cinquecento of a painter like Bronzino against Rembrandt’s civic portraiture of mercantile Amsterdam. The high gloss and immaculate finish of a Bronzino portrait, such as the portrait of Eleonora of Toledo, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, conveys but one thing: that the creature before us is a kind of immaculata conceptio of identity. Bronzino doesn’t delve into the inner springs of personality; he maintains the mystique of aristocratic status, its aloofness, the idea that a great lord is not made but born. The Duchess’s subjectivity doesn’t wait on our testimony. Nor does it wear on contact or leak. It is decay-proof. Certainly it isn’t liable to downward reappraisal. For this reason no grand duchess of Tuscany ever asked a Rembrandt to do her portrait. She who thrives on ignoring the gaze of the awestruck many—this person wants not a Rembrandt but a court artist; the Bronzino of the Medici court or the David of Napoleonic glory, an artist who can rustle up the stainless gloss  of  a bulletproof face. Sensitive portraits of tyrants are few because tyrants freeze the person-to-person encounter that begets intimate portraiture: Elizabeth I is a jewel-box, Louis XIV a minotaur, Stalin a poster idol. Court portraiture conveyed all this by holding forth a miracle of synthesis: not a visible brushstroke betrays its making, its workshop provenance.

This contrasts sharply with Dutch portraiture. Unlike its Italianate cousin, a portrait by Rembrandt or Frans Hals doesn’t conceal its layered, analytic, obviously manufactured construction. It isn’t just that Dutch portraiture doesn’t airbrush the corrugations of time and the material genealogy of the individual’s flesh. It’s that the portraitist flaunts their brushstrokes (thick, streaky, laboured), which tell of industry. The strenuous hand admits that these burghers, far from being born into an identity, made themselves who they are. In life as in paint, they are made of contingency.

Social identity in the bourgeois age is work-in-progress. Unlike the Duchess, a Dutch burgher cannot take recognition for granted. Eleonora of Toledo’s identity is an awesome fait accompli. The Dutch merchant who sits for his portrait, by contrast, calls on our recognition; his likeness has an expectant, other-directed quality, conveyed by the deliberately tentative, cumulative brushwork. The latter tells us that identity is a mutually constructed thing. Both sitter and painter have to work at it. Identity is interaction, that is, artefact, and it is achingly alive to the confirming look of others. See me, the Rembrandt face says. See me and ponder me, because without you I am not sure. Here identity awaits confirmation. Thus the contrast between aristocratic and bourgeois portraiture, Italian and Dutch, Court and Town comes to this: while a Bronzino records a pre-existing face; Rembrandt recommends a face to our attention, knowing that this face exists only so far as this recommendation and this attention last.

Where caste and religion prevail, the painter isn’t invited to puzzle out the sitter’s personality, the facial chiaroscuro of seeing and being seen. The painter doesn’t need to plumb the silence of a human face because there is no silence. God knows everything, down to the lees of one’s mortal soul. This certainty siphons off facial depth and mystery. The  faces of the theological-aristocratic age are those of people who know they cannot stop being who they are. If they do pose, their posing comes naturally. One might say that it hides nothing.

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Rembrandt, or the portrait as encounter Essay
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‘A good painter’, says Leonardo da Vinci, ‘is to paint two main things, namely man and the workings of man’s mind. The first is easy, the second difficult’. As portraiture came into its own during the Renaissance, it became accepted that a good likeness alone does not make a portrait. The able painter must convey, besides mood and affect, a sense of who the sitter is: their personality and, deeper still, the sense of what it is like to exist as this pers
2017-08-09 15:39:19
Rembrandt, or the portrait as encounter Essay
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