Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn
I T is surely no accident that the name of Rembrandt is familiar to thousands who know little or nothing of his art. It has, in fact, become so embedded in the mental consciousness of modern times, that, even as it must have been a household word in his own day, so almost it has grown to be in ours. And for this there seem to be two reasons. In the very use of the word "household" there is a hint of one: the homely, in the sense of plain and simple, and very heartfelt appeal that his conception of the subject-matter generally makes to the imagination. But there is another reason and a greater. It is the magnitude of his personality as an artist. This was but dimly recognized in his own day, in the succeeding century forgotten, and is only beginning to be fully understood in our own times. The influence with which he fertilized art was to prove so great, that it needed a long period of gestation before it came to birth, and a correspondingly long period of development before it reached maturity. Now it has grown to be recognized and felt, until, like all the great contributions to human ideas, it is, so to say, in the air. Unwittingly as well as by conviction the world is conscious of it. Briefly, the nature of the influence is that it has revolutionized our attitude toward beauty. It has not eliminated the old idea of beauty, but supplemented it with a newer one, no less potent and far more adapted to our modern needs. The absolutism of the classic ideal has been overthrown by it. Art, that once was solely aristocratic, has been expanded to include the democratic ideal. It was therefore necessary for the world to have mastered the latter, as a principle of life and conduct, before it could be capable of appreciating Rembrandt to the full.
For Rembrandt's art is the antithesis of Greek art. The Greek is founded upon a hypothesis, upon the assumption of a possible perfection; Rembrandt's upon an acceptance of imperfection, upon the facts of life in relation to things as they exist. The one is based upon an artificially constructed absolutism, and is technically expressed through form—form, absolute and supreme. The other, in its recognition of the relativity of everything in life, is based upon tone, as affected by its environment of light. The difference is fundamental both in its technical and psychological aspect.
As long as society was conditioned by the aristocratic theory, Greek art, and the Renaissance interpretation of its principles, sufficed; but, with the growth and spread of the democratic, a new principle became necessary. Rembrandt conceived it, and our own age is learning to apply it. Our appreciation of the character of beauty has become enlarged by a realization of the beauty of character. The latter may be associated with beauty of form and features, though in real life it is more often not; yet, even when it is, we have discovered that the beauty of character is due, not to the form itself, but to the expression inherent in the form, and that character, as revealed by expression, is discernible also in things homely, even in the ugly. Art, in fact, has extended its province until it more nearly corresponds with the universal scheme of earthly conditions, wherein the good is mingled with the bad, and the sun shines alike on the just and the unjust. Meanwhile, even as humanity gropes toward some divine reconciliation of the coexistence of evil with good, so art must find some means of spiritualizing the facts of life and of idealizing the homely and ugly. This preëminently was Rembrandt's gift.
The few known facts of Rembrandt's life are clearly associated with his art. Born on the 15th of July, 1606, in Leyden, he was the son of Harmen of the Rhine, a miller in comfortable circumstances. He was sent to a Latin school as a preparation for entrance into the University of Leyden, that "when he became of age he might serve the city and the republic with his knowledge." But he was destined to serve them in another way. Since he showed no taste for Latin and a single desire to be an artist, he was removed from school and placed with the local painter, Jacob van Swanenburch. He was then about twelve years old, and after spending three years with this teacher had made such progress that the father decided to send him to Amsterdam to study under Pieter Lastman, whose pictures of religious subjects had made him the most popular painter of that day.
With this master Rembrandt remained only six months. Lastman's influence, however, had been considerable, though scarcely in a direct way. In fact, what he did for Rembrandt was to pass on to the latter the influence which he himself had derived from Elsheimer during a two years' stay in Rome. For this German painter had made a great reputation by treating Biblical subjects in the natural or anti-classic manner. The scene was suggested by the Italian landscape, and the personages were real men and women, clothed in ordinary costume of the period. It is this translation of the Bible story into the vernacular of the day, corresponding as it did to the motive of Lucas van Leyden in his picture at Leyden of The Last Judgment, which must have been familiar to Rembrandt, that affected the latter's imagination.
He returned to Leyden and for seven years in his father's house continued a course of self-study. It was based on direct study from life, his models being himself and his relations, and included (where again one may trace the influence of Lucas van Leyden) the practice of etching. The earliest date recorded of any of these products of his needle is 1628, which appears on An Old Woman's Head, Full Face, seen only to the Chin, and Bust of an Old Woman. In 1624 appeared another dated etching, Rembrandt, a Bust, and the following year a series of small plates for which he himself was the model: Rembrandt with an Open Mouth; with an Air of Grimace; with Haggard Eyes, and Laughing.
These prints give a remarkable clue to a phase of Rembrandt's personality that has not been sufficiently emphasized. They show that it included the instinct and faculty of an actor; the consciousness that in his body he possessed a muscular instrument capable of expressing the emotions of the mind; and, moreover, the capacity to play upon it. This throws a new light upon the habit, exhibited at intervals throughout his life, of making portraits of himself and frequently in costume. The latter particular is apt to be dismissed as a harmless pleasantry, whereas it should rather be considered extraordinarily suggestive. For he was not merely "dressing up," but enacting a part in his own person; actually realizing in his body the idea that possessed his mind. That he could do this and needed to do it for the satisfaction of his own mental and physical impulses, helps to explain his extraordinary facility and power as a draftsman. For the virtue of great drawing consists in its quality of expression, in its ability to infuse feeling into a gesture or movement and so correlate the latter to the mood of mind, presumed to be dominating the subject. This virtue cannot be gained at second hand from a model; it must be inherent in the artist himself, and will be efficient according to the degree in which the artist can feel the emotion in himself and is capable of physically expressing it; in a word, to the degree in which he possesses the instinct of an actor. Viewed in this light Rembrandt's habit of grimacing before a mirror, dressing up and posturing, gives a most illuminating clue to the source of his amazing versatility and capacity of expression as a draftsman.
In the same year, 1630, which produced the small prints, appeared also two "serious" etchings of himself; also two Biblical subjects, Jesus Disputing with the Doctors and The Presentation with the Angel; and, further, several fine portrait studies. In this year he moved to Amsterdam.
He was twenty-four years old, and, as far as etching is concerned, "was already in the peculiar situation," I quote from Hamerton, "of an artist who has left himself no room for improvement except in attempting art of another kind, and in overcoming new, though possibly not greater, difficulties." Among the oil-paintings that he had already executed are St. Paul ( Stuttgart); St. Jerome in a Cave (Berlin); two portraits of old men (Cassel); and one of a young man, resembling himself, at The Hague. It was the fame of his portraits that, according to Orlers, brought invitations from Amsterdam to settle there; and during the first years of his sojourn over a shop on the Bloemgracht he executed six that are still in existence. But the most remarkable picture of this year is the St. Simeon in the Temple, now in the Gallery of The Hague. Here we detect for the first time the power and strangeness of Rembrandt's imagination, displayed in the mysteriously lighted expanse of mammoth architecture and in lustrous fabrics, and, more essentially, the foretaste of his lifelong effort to construct a composition out of colored light. It is the first revelation of his peculiarly individual self.
Meanwhile he had been attending the anatomy classes of the famous Dr. Tulp, and the following year, 1632, produced the Hague picture, The Lesson in Anatomy, as remarkable for clearly defined characterization as the St. Simeon had been for its imaginative treatment of light. Both have elements of indecision, for the artist was only twenty-six, but in them the qualities of Rembrandt's personality are already established.
The Lesson brought him fame. Pupils flocked to his studio, clients sought his pictures, and the ten years that followed teemed with productivity and fortune. They cover his life with Saskia van trylenborch, whom he married in 1634 and lost by death in 1642. She appears in frequent portraits and inspired many of his pictures. He occupied houses successively on the Nieuwe Doelstraat, Binnen-Amstel, and the Jodenbreedstraat, living simply, but indulging profusely in the collection of works of art. This heyday of prosperity in the companionship of Saskia is commemorated in the superb portrait of his wife sitting upon his knee, in the Dresden Gallery.
In 1642 his fortunes received a double blow. Saskia died, and his corporation picture, The Sortie of the Frans Banning Cock Company, popularly but erroneously called "The Night Watch," was received with disfavor. It proved to be a turning-point in his career. Public recognition began to wane, and financial embarrassments to increase; yet his artistic fecundity continued, marked by more frequent examples of landscape. Toward the end of the forties he enjoyed the sympathetic support of the burgomaster, Jan Six, an enthusiastic lover of books and collector of works of art, whose friendship lasted till his death in 1658. Meanwhile, about 1653, Rembrandt seems to have married the woman who had devoted herself to his care, Hendrickje Stoffels. She died in 1656 and money troubles crowded upon him. He was declared a bankrupt; his household goods were seized by his creditors and later sold at an appalling sacrifice; the house in the Jodenbreedstraat also passed under the hammer, and Rembrandt retired to a house on the Rosengracht. This was in 1658. The house, which still exists, was a comfortable one; and it seems probable that the eleven years during which Rembrandt lived in it, until his death in 1669, were a time of tranquillity, as they certainly were of continued artistic activity. This period, indeed, produced The Six Syndics of the Cloth Hall (Amsterdam), a masterpiece of assured self-possession and complete achievement. It also was marked with many portraits of himself, no less than four having been painted in the last year of his life. One of them shows him blear eyed, with red and bulbous face, but laughing, and holding his maulstick like a scepter.
Eugène Fromentin, skilled alike as a man of letters and a painter, analyzes in his "Maîtres d'Autrefois" the art of Rembrandt. The argument has been so generally accepted, that it must be described here. It may be compressed as follows: Fromentin discovers contradictions in the art of Rembrandt. It is at one time so realistic, and at another so visionary. He explains this apparent contradiction by the theory that Rembrandt's was a dual nature. On the one side he shared with his fellow-artists their practicalness, direct seeing, and love of clear and definite expression; while on the other he was a solitary dreamer, a visionary, to whom the mystery of things made chief appeal. Thus, by turns he was realist and idealist; occasionally, as in The Sortie, his pictures seem to have been the battle-ground of his two irreconcilable natures.
Fromentin calls the realist in Rembrandt the "exterior man" as contrasted with the "interior man," revealed in his examples of idealism. The former he characterizes as an accomplished technician, with certainty of hand and a keenly logical mind. "His aim is to be comprehensible and veracious; he emulates the true colors of the daylight; draws with a fidelity and thoroughness that, while it makes you forget that it is drawing, itself forgets nothing. It is excellently physiognomical. It expresses and characterizes, in their individuality, traits, glances, attitudes, and gestures, that is to say, normal habits of behavior and the furtive accidents of life. His execution has the propriety, the ampleness, the high bearing, the firm tissue, the force and conciseness that belong to passed masters in the art of fine idiomatic expression." The original of this last phrase is l'art des beaux langues; and we may note, in passing, its significance in connection with the context. Indeed, the whole paragraph might as accurately characterize some fine literary production, such as would satisfy the high standard of the French Academy. It is based upon the clear comprehension and logic of form.
On the contrary, when Rembrandt is in the mood of idealism, Fromentin no longer discovers in him the consummate technician. He sacrifices form to chiaroscuro. And what of his use of chiaroscuro, so peculiar to himself that it has come to be called by his name? Fromentin, in a beautiful passage, first suggests the general value of chiaroscuro. Ordinarily used, it is the art of rendering the atmosphere visible and of painting an object enveloped in air. "But it is more than any other medium the form of intimate sensations or ideas. It is light, vaporous, veiled, discreet; it lends its charm to things which are concealed, invites curiosity, adds an attraction to moral beauties, and gives a grace to the speculation of conscience. In fine, it is concerned with sentiment, emotion, the uncertain, the undefined and infinite; with dreams and the ideal. And that is why it is appropriately the poetic and natural atmosphere, which the genius of Rembrandt did not cease to inhabit."
It was natural, therefore, that Rembrandt should bring to perfection this method of chiaroscuro, which Fromentin describes as the art of "enveloping everything, of immersing everything, in a bath of shadow, of plunging into it even the light itself, in order to draw out the light therefrom so that it shall appear more distant, more radiant; to cause waves of shadow to revolve round lighted centers; and to modulate these shadows, to hollow them, make them dense and yet render the obscurity transparent, and the less obscure parts easy to penetrate; in a word, to give to the strongest colors a kind of permeability which stops them from being black."
But it is Rembrandt's peculiar characteristic that he carried the method of chiaroscuro much further. Fromentin thus sums the matter up: He calls him a luminarist, apologizing for the word, which, when he wrote in 1876, was still a "barbarous" one. And a luminarist he defines to be one who conceives of light as outside of fixed laws, attaches to it an extraordinary meaning, and makes great sacrifices for it. And, he adds, "if such is the meaning of this newly coined word, Rembrandt is at once defined and judged, for the word expresses an idea difficult to render, but a true idea, a rare eulogy and a criticism."
Briefly, then, Fromentin's argument is this: Rembrandt in his ideal moods essayed to use light as the actual material out of which to construct form; he composed in light. The result was admirable, when the character of the subject justified such treatment; but open to serious criticism when it did not. The famous instance of the latter, in Fromentin's judgment, is The Sortie or "Night Watch."
"Rembrandt had to represent a company of men-at-arms. It would have been easy enough to tell us what they were going to do; but he has told us so negligently, that people are still unable to comprehend it, even in Amsterdam. He had to paint some likenesses, they are doubtful; some characteristic costumes, they are for the most part apocryphal; a picturesque effect, and this effect is such that the picture becomes undecipherable. The subject, the personages and details have disappeared in the shadowy phantasmagoria of the palette. Ordinarily Rembrandt excels in rendering light, he is marvelous in the art of painting an imaginary subject (fiction ); his habit is to think, his master faculty is the expression of light. But here imagination is out of place, life is wanting, and the thought atones for nothing. As for the light, it is unnatural, unquiet, and artificial; it radiates from the inside to the outside, it dissolves the objects that it illuminates. I see some focal spots of brilliance, but I see nothing illuminated; the light is neither beautiful, true, nor reasonable (motivée )."
Before discussing this judgment let us note Fromentin's approval of Rembrandt's use of light—in the case of subjects that seem to him to justify it. He instances particularly The Supper at Emmaus and The Good Samaritan, both in the Louvre. He speaks with fine sympathy of the original and infinitely human conception of Christ in the former picture, while upon the technique of the latter he comments as follows: "The canvas is enveloped in smoke (enfumée ), all impregnated with somber golds, very rich in depth and, above all, very grave. The material is muddy, yet transparent; the brushwork heavy, yet subtle; hesitating and resolute; labored and free; very unequal, uncertain, vague in some parts, astonishingly precise in others. No contour appears, not an accent added in the way of routine. There is evident an extreme timidity, which is not the result of ignorance and proceeds, one would say, from the fear of being banal or from the price which the thinker attaches to the immediate and direct expression of life. The objects have a structure that seems to exist in itself, almost without the help of formulas, rendering, without any means that you can seize upon, the uncertainties of nature. There are some nude limbs and feet of irreproachable construction—moreover, 'style.' In the pale, pinched, groaning visage of the wounded man, there is nothing save expression, something that comes from the soul, from within outward; tonelessness (atonie ), suffering; as it were, the sad joy of collecting one's self when one feels about to die. Not a contortion, not a trait that overreaches moderation, not a touch in this rendering of the inexpressible that is not pathetic and restrained; everything dictated by profound emotion and interpreted by means altogether extraordinary." And, adds Fromentin: "Examine other painters of sentiment, of physiognomy and characterization, the men of scrupulous observation or of verve. Take account of their intentions; study their scrutiny, measure their domain, weigh well their language, and ask yourself, if anywhere you perceive an equal intimacy in the expression of a visage, an emotion of this nature, such ingenuity in the manner of feeling; anything, in a word, which is as delicate to conceive, as delicate to say, and is said in terms more original, more exquisite, or more perfect."
Nothing else, I suppose, has ever been written about this phase of Rembrandt's art that is at once so fine in thought and diction, so enlightening, and so memorable. For one here meets in union the trained thinker and practised writer and the painter; thus getting much more than the painter's exclusive point of view, and at the same time the latter, interpreted by the painter at first hand. The gist of it is that, when the subject involved an idea, Rembrandt was not only justified in sacrificing the corporeal to the incorporeal, but was master of a technique that could express the idea conclusively and with supreme emotional appeal.
In conclusion, Fromentin considers that the whole life of Rembrandt represents a struggle between the two sides of his nature. The earliest battle-ground was The Sortie, from which, owing to the nature of the problem, he came off worsted. But did he ever succeed in reconciling the "exterior" and the "interior" man? If ever, Fromentin concludes, surely in The Syndics, which, in a word, is a work of imagination and yet of real life.
The whole exposition of Fromentin's argument, from which these fragments have been gathered, is worth careful study, particularly because of the constructive nature of the criticism. In its combination of technical information and logical point of view, in its subtlety and human sympathy, it affords a model for the method of approaching the serious examination of a great artist's work. One may acknowledge its value and the benefit derived from it, without subscribing entirely to its conclusions. It may be possible to feel that it has the defect, if one is to find a single word for it, of excessive concentration. It centers too exclusively around one picture, The Sortie of the Banning Cock Company.
This picture has suffered from too much exploitation. It has been praised "not wisely but too well" by artists and has been worshiped by the public. Fromentin may have approached it with undue expectations; at any rate, he found himself disappointed; and, being at variance with the general judgment, felt the need of justifying his own attitude. He has done it so exhaustively as to warp his own judgment, until what there is of weakness in the picture has become almost an obsession with him. It is never absent from his thoughts, and continually peeps in on one page after another, and mingles with the judgment of other pictures. Fromentin has used it as a pivot around which to swing his whole appreciation of Rembrandt; and, more than this, has himself been sucked into the vortex of his own revolving argument. It is an expedient scarcely to be warranted by breadth of criticism to select one picture of any artist as a focusing-point for a consideration of his whole work, and least of all in the case of an artist so universal as Rembrandt.
Moreover, Fromentin does not persuade us that he had a very wide acquaintance with the master's work. He knew his Louvre well; grew up with it, and had become habituated to it and fixed in the impressions he had derived. Later in life he made the acquaintance of the National Gallery and visited Dresden. Then he makes the pilgrimage to Holland. He first reaches The Hague, where The Lesson in Anatomy fails to satisfy his expectations. He is alive to its excellence in parts, but does not find the strength and character of two or three of the heads sustained throughout the canvas. He feels that an unreasonable amount of adulation has been lavished on the picture. It arouses his antagonism and piques in him the critical vein. Then an interval in his approach to Rembrandt ensues. He alights at Haarlem and notes with what definitive skill and clearness of comprehension Frans Hals treated the corporation subject. Fresh from these impressions, he finds himself in front of Rembrandt's treatment of a corresponding theme. By contrast it seems to him a work of confused motives and manifold uncertainties. Yet how extravagantly it has been lauded! Like The Lesson in Anatomy, The Sortie of the Banning Cock Company has been prejudiced by uncritical applause. The critic in Fromentin is now thoroughly roused. With every wish to be fair to Rembrandt, he proceeds to build upon these two pictures a fabric of constructive and destructive criticism. His faculties are narrowed to a focus spot of concentrated heat, are swept into the ardor of their centripetal momentum, and become caught up in the subtleties of their own compressed invention. He elaborates a theory, and into its compact limits would squeeze the genius of Rembrandt.
Further, what kind of mind did Fromentin bring to bear upon this examination? A generous one, desirous of being broad; but a Frenchman's and an Academician's; one, that is to say, which clings to logic and bases its expression upon form. It exhibits and demands clarity of reasoning; declares itself in refined exactness. It knew of Impressionism, yet was too old in its convictions, too fixed in earlier traditions, to comprehend it. But, since the day when Fromentin's mind was in the forming, the world's point of view toward art, even one may say toward life, has changed; and its attitude toward the manner of expression has progressed, until it has come back to Rembrandt with a new and more intimate comprehension. It recognizes him as an Impressionist of sensations and tries to judge him by what we now know and feel about Impressionism.
Briefly, we have learned that there may be something in art more valuable than the record of a person, place, or incident, and this is, the impression of it conceived and rendered by the artist; that, through this interpretation, the place, person, or incident becomes illuminated, more vitally represented. How, for example, can Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty compare with the interpretation of the idea evolved by such a man as Lincoln? The idea thus logically and formally shaped in the Statue will not even bear comparison with that which is expressed by the spontaneous utterance of some poor emigrant, as he finds his foot at last planted on the free soil of his imaginings. In life, as in art, the real thing to us is what we feel about it; in Rembrandt's art, what he feels about his subject and makes us feel.
Then, again, we have discovered that often we are made to feel most deeply, not by detailed statement, but by suggestion: in the case of a speaker, perhaps by a momentary gesture, or play of features, by a sudden inflection of the voice, or a pause in speech, and the occasional accent of a word or sentence; in the case of a writer, often as much by what he leaves unsaid, by the thought that is veiled behind the statement, by the choice and emphasis of certain features of his record. Further, we may have learned to find occasional value even in uncertainty or indecision. We may sometimes tire of, and possibly distrust, the world's tendency to "get things down fine." The latter may seem to imply that the thing itself is small, or that there is smallness in the vision of the man who thus approaches life. We may be conscious of life itself as an aggregate of moments of brilliant realization and more frequent half-tones, enveloped in a sea of shadow; and may reach nearer to the heart and meaning of it by welcoming its mystery.
Surely something of this sort was Rembrandt's attitude toward life, and therefore his point of view toward. art. He has been called unlearned, because he had small taste for Latin and no scholastic acquisitions. But in the wisdom of life, as drawn from life itself and distilled through the brain and temperament of one who searched life deeply and lived his own life ardently, he has had few equals, at least among artists. For the explanation of Rembrandt is that to him life presented itself as an idea.
Thus he is without a rival in the sympathetic rendering of old age. He saw more than the exterior of it; he penetrated into its psychology. For—how shall I express it?—the fruit of living is experience, and experience tends more and more to lose sight of the concrete in the abstract, to replace the substance of the form with the higher reality of the idea. The young man, as he ceases to depend upon the ministrations of the mother, enshrines her in a personal idea of motherhood; the old lover rediscovers the bride of his youth in the idea with which time has enveloped the wife. The idea is the aureole or nimbus that gathers about the form and proclaims its sanctity. It is the idea, then, that Rembrandt, the artist of ideas, the searcher after the higher reality inherent in form, discovered in old age.
On the other hand, while Rembrandt exalted the idea above the substance, he was not indifferent to form. No great artist whose domain is the world of sight can be.
Indeed, the wider the acquaintance with the master goes, whether in the galleries throughout Europe, or through the examples which occasionally emerge from private collections, as in the recent extraordinary display in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more one is impressed not only with Rembrandt's feeling for form, but also with his amazing power of rendering it.
Sometimes, as in the marvelously detailed Portrait of Elizabeth Bas (Amsterdam), the impression he derived of the original was one which he could render only by enforcing the bulk and character and precision of form. This lady, though not of gentle birth, was, as the widow of Admiral Swartenhout, a figure in society. This much we know from the written record; the rest is recorded in the portrait. As Rembrandt saw her, she was a woman of determined personality; a narrow and rigid believer in her own importance, and a stickler for its recognition; an ingrained precisionist, as upright as her backbone and as set in formalism as her corseted figure. Yet the flesh of her face and hands has the dimpled softness and delicate contours of well-preserved old age. She is fully conscious of prerogatives, but her hardness has been made gracious by the kindly touch of time. All this, no doubt, was written in detail on her ample person, and Rembrandt, feeling the intimate value of its completeness, has detailed it in the portrait.
Or take another example of the record of an impression, The Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels in the Berlin Gallery. The devotion of this woman had stayed the artist in his trials, and her exuberant youth had put fresh force into his courage. He had learned to depend upon her watchful solicitude, to lean upon her abundant vitality, and to warm his imagination in the glow of her physical ardor. In the portrait he wraps her strong figure in the rich grandeur of a mantle that burns with wonderful brown lights above an under-robe of golden cream, while a flash of crimson glows in her brown hair, and a golden warmth is exhaled from the full, firm features and hovers above the ripe harvest of her bosom. The portrait is an artist's apotheosis of the glory and the benediction of physical vitality; and, let us not forget, in the strength of this woman's companionship Rembrandt achieved his masterpiece of austere and virile intellectuality—The Syndics of the Cloth Workers' Guild.
And so we might take one by one the pictures of this master, and, whether the impression that it records is drawn mainly from the exterior of its subject or from a penetration of the character or soul within, whether it be the expression of the soul of some fact of Bible story, no matter what the degree of idealism involved, every time it is form or some interpretation thereof, that is the foundation of the picture. Not form, however, for its own sake, for the purpose of rendering it in its logical and reasoned completeness or of exploiting the master's efficiency in doing what every student aspires, and many can learn, to do; but form so felt, so rendered, that what we are made conscious of is not alone the physical sense of form, but its abstract significance; in a word, if I may say so, the soul of form, as from time to time it is used to interpret some one or other of the artist's impressions.
You cannot pass from one to the other of the thirty-seven examples of Rembrandt in the exhibition that, as I write, is being held in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, or travel round the galleries of Europe, intent upon the wealth of Rembrandts that they contain, without reaching a conviction, that grows more and more assured, of the profound knowledge and feeling for form that Rembrandt possessed and communicates. He may reveal clearly but a portion of a figure, veiling or obscuring the rest; but what is revealed is sufficient for the physical appreciation of the whole figure, and enforces the physical significance, while the spiritual significance is profoundly increased by the demand that has been made upon our imagination. After long study one comes to believe, not only that Rembrandt treated form differently from other artists, which no one, I suppose, denies; but also that no other artist has ever treated it with such a mingling of power and subtlety, with so fine and sure a reliance upon its physical qualities, and yet with so marvelous a capacity to interpret its spiritual significance.
Almost similar in motive is Rembrandt's use of color. He is not a colorist in the sense that the great Venetians were, for they extolled the glory of local color—the actual splendor of hue with which they clothed their radiant figures and wove about them a triumphant orchestration. This also is an abstract use of color, involving a consciousness and suggestion of the effect that color as color has upon the imagination. But Rembrandt went further. He, too, had the love of beautiful fabrics, bought them freely, and as freely used them on his models. But here he parts company with the Venetians; for by this time he has ceased to think of the fabric or its color as something of value in itself. It has become merged in the impression that he has formed of the whole subject. It may occupy a large or small part in the total impression; that is as it may be; but henceforth it is only contributory to the physical and spiritual sensations that he has received and is set upon interpreting. Thus he is at no pains to preserve the material integrity of the local color; he uses it as he does form: extracting from it this or that, here forcing or there veiling its emphasis, plunging much of it in shadow. Therefore, even as his treatment of form has proved an enigma to some critics, so some hesitate to call him a colorist. After the manner of the Venetians, I repeat, he is not. But need theirs be the only manner of the colorist?
Rembrandt used color as he used form, as a symbol of expression; and, to repeat, what he sought to express was the impression that the form and color had aroused in his imagination. When the impression was derived merely from the externals of form, he would elaborate in detail the retinal impression and in such cases usually preserve the integrity of the local color. But it was otherwise when the impression was extracted from the soul of the subject, whether the latter were an individual whose portrait he was painting, or a Biblical incident the significance of which he was elaborating out of his own inner consciousness of its meaning. For then he is not representing things as he sees them, but recreating the impression that they have made in his imagination. The local color becomes merged in the color of his imagination; gathers brilliance from its certainties, fades into the half-lights of its questionings, is threaded through and through with strands of discrimination, and plunged in the mystery of the unknowable.
Finally in this use of form and color, Rembrandt is nearer to what is most modern in the art of to-day than has been generally recognized. For of late Impressionism has entered on a new development. During some time it was intent upon a more vivid and truthful representation of the facts of life. It sat at the feet of Velásquez, trying to do again what he did so supremely well. It did not succeed in equaling his authority, for the sufficient reason that an imitator never rivals the master; but at the same time it added something to what Velásquez stands for. Helped by science, it has carried further than he did the study of light in the variety and quality of its manifestations, and has gained, especially in landscape, an instrument for interpreting sentiment and moods of temperament. In the intellectual analysis of the appearance of nature Velásquez said the last word; and now in the domain of emotion and of spiritual expression, as interpreted by the representation of nature, there is nothing further to be said. In a word, the ideal of graphic art, as based upon the representation of nature, which since the thirteenth century has occupied the artists of the Western world, is now found to have reached a development beyond which no further development is possible. As a commentary upon this is the development of photography, which along the line of representation vies with painting.
Certain original minds, therefore, have realized the need of a new ideal, a new motive with which to refertilize their art. They are seeking to discover it in a new conception of Impressionism. Their position, in effect, is this: Need the impression that is derived from nature be limited by the necessities of naturalistic representation? Can it not free itself from the liability of being judged by the standard of what it is derived from, and claim to be enjoyed for its own abstract qualities of form and color? May it not detach itself more freely from the concrete, and attain nearer to the abstract? Are there not further possibilities in the conception of form and color as symbols?
The new movement, for such it has grown to be, in France, Germany, Austria, and England, has come by way of the East. The harvest of a century of Eastern exploration, ripened during the last fifty years by an increasing intimacy with the art of Egypt, China, Korea, Japan, India, and Mesopotamia, is at length being stored. We are beginning to realize the Oriental conception of art as decoration, relying upon the abstract qualities of form and color, and using them, not as vehicles of natural representation, but as symbols, appealing freely, without concrete reference, to the imagination. To repeat, these pioneers of the new movement find themselves at the point where the Renaissance started in the thirteenth century. The latter broke away from the remnant of the Oriental ideal, left in Byzantine art, to conquer a new world of natural representation, and its evolution has been completed. The new movement has recovered the Oriental standpoint from which to attempt the conquest of a new ideal. It is a movement, at present, mainly of experiment, and necessarily so. For all of us, whether artists or laymen, are as yet too much under the influence of centuries of inherited tradition to be able to free ourselves from the consciousness of what it stands for.
The artist of our own time whose intuition steered him first in the direction of this new conception and use of form and color is Whistler; and among the potent influences of his own life was Rembrandt. That the latter was habitually desirous of evading the concrete significance of form is contradicted by innumerable pictures; but that in some he did evade it, even as Whistler did in his Nocturnes, is undeniable. Moreover, Rembrandt showed less regard for the traditional use of form and color than any artist up to our own day. With all his sense of its significance, he used it with the complete freedom of personal expression; and so enveloped it in the half-lights and obscurities of an atmosphere of his own invention, that, while the picture represents an incident, it contradicts the idea of material representation. It is, to a more abstract degree than has been reached by any other Caucasian artist, the record of a spiritual impression, based on the symbolic use of form and color. It approaches the brink of that still further detachment from the necessities of natural representation that characterizes the New Thought in modern art.