Rembrandt's Theatrical Realism

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The God of Realism" by Robert Hughes, in The New York Review of Books (April 6, 2006).

THE WORKS OF SOME GREAT artists inspire admiration and awe, but fail to connect at the gut level with the viewer. Not so the paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), observes art critic Robert Hughes. In an age dominated by grand paintings and ennobled human subjects, Rembrandt never used "the human form as a means of escape from the disorder and episodic ugliness of the real world." He imbued his subjects with enough flaws and "ordinariness" to earn a place as "the first god of realism after Caravaggio."

Yet a misunderstanding of Rembrandt's realism has been one of the pitfalls of the effort by the Rembrandt Research Project and others to eliminate work falsely attributed to Rembrandt from his canon. One art historian discredited a putative Rembrandt called David Playing the Harp Before Saul (1650-55), on the grounds it was "too theatrical." Says Hughes: "Theatricality doesn't disprove Rembrandt; it is one of the things that makes him a great Baroque artist, as well as a great realist."

The task of authenticating Rembrandt's work is vastly complicated by the milieu in which he painted. Hardly a reclusive genius, Rembrandt surrounded himself with students and assistants who learned to emulate his style. Hughes lists among the characteristics of Rembrandt's work the honest, even vulgar, details of commonplace life, the ability to depict "unvarnished, unedited pain," as in his gory The Blinding of Samson (1636), and a skill as "the supreme depicter of inwardness, of human thought," even in allegorical figures. …