Rembrandt, Artist in His Studio. c. 1628. Boston MFA
Gerrit Dou, Artist in His Studio. c. 1630. Priv. coll.


1.2.2017 / Rembrandt's Artist in His Studio and the Invention of Interiority

Art Hysteria will often be about the ancestors of modern art, notably Goya. Today's post is on another of Modernism's great predecessors, Rembrandt, and his Artist in His Studio of 1628. Rembrandt is just 21 or 22 years old when he paints this picture; but he is already Rembrandt.

There's a reason we have exhibitions called the Age of Rembrandt; whereas the Age of Dou, not so much. 

I've written before on the parallels between Shakespeare's innovation of interiority/self-reflective consciousness in literature - for more on that see Harold Bloom and his book “The Invention of the Human” - and, a generation after Shakespeare, Rembrandt's effective invention of much the same in painting.   As with Shakespeare on the stage, Rembrandt innovates what i'd call the visual representation of individuated psychological interiority.  
The thesis, in a nutshell, is that Rembrandt develops the impression of psychological interiority in his representations of people; a sense of actual individual human beings reflecting on their condition, notably in his self-portraits; and it is this quality above all others that makes Rembrandt seem so “modern;” so enduringly pertinent. That interiority certainly sets Rembrandt apart from his greatest and most immediate forebearers - lookin' at you, Caravaggio - and for that matter, even from his contemporaries - like, say, Gerit Dou (7 April 1613 – 9 February 1675).

Actually, Gerit Dou was younger than Rembrandt (15 July, 1606 – 4 October, 1669). Not only that: Dou was Rembrandt's student, one of his most promising. However, Dou, literally nose-to-nose with what Rembrandt is doing, nonetheless fails to grasp his master's core achievement, the heart of Rembrandt's revolution. To see what I mean, let's take a look at Rembrandt's Artist in His Studio, in Boston, and Gerit Dou's treatment of same, done very shortly after Rembrandt's.

It may not surprise you that this is not the first time that a comparison has been made between these two paintings. Here's one (National Gallery of Art, on the occasion of a Dou exhibit):

“The monochromatic palette enlivened by a swath of greenish blue, the unmodulated application of paint, and the strong chiaroscuro are common to both paintings. Dou's artist, like Rembrandt's, holds palette and brushes, while the easel faces away from the viewer. Neither Dou nor Rembrandt depicts a particular individual but offers a generic representation of "The Painter."

So - actually no, these pictures don't present two interchangeable versions of a “generic painter.” Quite the contrary.  The many obvious formal similarities aside, these are fundamentally different works.

Dou's picture is a (proud) declaration of professional status, and an indexical - not to say fussy - representation of his trade. Gerit Dou is a talented and assiduous technician; he is obsessed with getting the details, the surfaces, the shadows, just right. Dou could spend several days painting a hand; his detailing was so meticulous, he had to make his own superfine brushes - not that there's anything inherently wrong with that.

However - paradoxically you might say - there's nothing in the picture about that vaunted process of his; the painting is, rather, pretty much all about status. In fact, Dou positions the canvas not only out of sight, but behind him – for him, what is, or isn't on the easel, is not the main event.

By contrast, Rembrandt's painting, while not strictly a self-portrait either, is precisely that - a self-portrait. It is, in fact, radical self-portraiture, for its time. it is Rembrandt trying to paint a picture not of what he looks like, but what is on his mind.

His Artist in His Studio is neither professional boast, nor an archiving of plaster busts and mandolins. Rembrandt's painting, is, rather, a meditation - deep and clear - on creativity. It's the artist when he is about to address the blank canvas. It's decision time. It's pencil and brush on the canvas time. There's nothing visible except the essentials – the space; the light; the easel, bearing a spatially dominant, looming canvas; the palette, the brushes, essential tools; just that, and just the artist, in a moment of contemplation and imminent action.

Look at the close-up – the artist's eyes - and the interplay, the crucial visual vector established, between the artist in the background, stage left, and the easel and canvas in the foreground, stage right.

This compositional and psychological vector is the heart of the picture, and the source of much of its considerable power. Just those two black dabs for eyes - fulcrums of tentativeness and indecision, resolution and determination, hope and apprehension – manage to say, and mean, more than all the finery and the finely painted passages in all of Gerit Dou's considerable oeuvre.