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Discovering Rembrandt's humanity and passion

December  15, 2011

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Saskia, 1636

(Editor's note: Veronica Smith, a senior in art history, art and environmental studies, contributed this essay after a recent lecture by Rembrandt scholar Tom Rassieur, curator of prints and drawings for the Minneapolis Institute of Art.)

Veronica Smith

She stared at me as I munched on chunk of cheese and a rather crumbly cracker. I was alone in the lower level of the Augustana Art Museum, attempting to get as close as is acceptable in a gallery setting to one of two Rembrandt etchings housed by the Augustana collection.

Saskia, the beloved wife of the 17th-century Dutch painter and etcher, did not seem nearly as interested in me as I was in her. In fact, I thought she looked a little surly at first. Somewhat incongruously, I thought of the prototypical Facebook profile pictures of newly "official" couples, all smiles and pixilation. To some extent, this comparison was apt. Rembrandt produced this work only two years after he and Saskia married.

I thought of the time differential inherent in the medium. For this petite etching (only about four inches by three inches) a man had spent years mastering his art and then employed that mastery to produce a lovingly rendered self-portrait featuring his wife. I'd be willing to bet a whole plate of cheese and crackers that creating the plate for that etching took a heck of a lot longer than snapping a photograph with an iPhone.

Mistakes become techniques

Somewhat comfortingly, Rembrandt was not born a master etcher. Tom E. Rassieur, a leading Rembrandt scholar, had made a point during a lecture (which I had attended before heading to the gallery) to share some of Rembrandt's failed attempts at etching. They were pretty awful. Blotches of inky darkness obscured beautifully rendered figures while other areas of the image remained indistinctly bright. Despite initial difficulties, Rembrandt continued experimenting with etching as a medium. After many trials and many errors, beauty began to emerge. What had once been mistakes gradually became new techniques.

I leaned in closer still. This new proximity revealed an incredibly compelling combination of tenderness and steeliness in Saskia's face, emotions difficult to capture in their subtlety let alone to convey over cultural and chronological barriers. I stopped chewing, amazed. How is it that a man who did not speak the same language as I, who lived three centuries before I was born, and who probably never dreamed of photography, let alone Facebook, could communicate emotion to me so clearly? Many, including Rassieur, would argue that this emotional clarity was largely what made Rembrandt a master in his own time, and upheld his reputation over the subsequent centuries.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with the visiting scholar only minutes before. As we were walking to the gallery after his lecture, I had asked Rassieur why he thought Rembrandt was still relevant in the 21st century.

Thomas Rassieur

"Well, mastery of his craft, for one," he said. "This guy was rock-solid in his technique. It is incredible to me that I can take one of his prints, blow it up to the size of a barn door, and still find such exquisite detail."

I nodded in agreement.

"Though people may be losing the ability to contemplate and meditate," Rassieur continued.

Face to face with an actual Rembrandt, I was beginning to feel the truth of that statement. I had only stood before the etching for as long as it takes to polish off a plate of hors d'oeuvres, and despite genuine interest in what I was viewing, I was already antsy. I forced myself to keep looking. After all, Rassieur did not become one of the leading experts on Rembrandt etchings by glancing at a single piece for three minutes. In fact, he spent years just looking at the works of Rembrandt and visually absorbing everything he possibly could. I dutifully admired the technical proficiency of the work before me. However, I was again pulled to the emotion of the piece.

Rembrandt's humanity

Despite the artist's almost doleful expression, the frilly-ness of the couples' 16th-century clothing lends a sense of levity to the etching. The opulently outdated clothing and the studio setting of the image (denoted by the art materials Rembrandt holds) defy the composition of traditional Dutch marriage portraiture, which tended to place couples in domestic settings and adhered to contemporary fashion.

In this departure, Rembrandt was proclaiming the depth of his love. No ordinary marriage portrait would do for his Saskia. Instead, Rembrandt portrayed his wife as muse and as steadfast support, literally standing (or sitting, in this case) behind his art. She is surrounded by ethereal light, almost foreshadowing her premature death six years after the etching was produced. The artist's face seems careworn but satisfied. His deeply shadowed eyes impart a sense of troubles endured, but a faint smile tugs at the ends of his mustache. I wondered at how such miniscule lines define the slightest beginnings of a smile.

Near the end of our conversation, Rassieur concluded, "There's a humanity about Rembrandt that is timeless."

Rembrandt went bankrupt, nearly lost his house, lost his wife — his experiences weren't that different from what many people today experience — and he was able to capture the humanity of that experience in his work.

A large part of that humanity is passion. Rembrandt had passion for his wife and passion for his craft, and that passion is what resonates still. In this new millennium, Tom Rassieur carries on that passion through his zeal for his discipline, a lesson students, faculty and staff of all academic backgrounds can appreciate.