Baroque and Rococo





The Mystery of the Revealed Form



 Baroque and Rococo Art Map
     Rembrandt van Rijn
     Rembrandt - a never-ending experience  
     Rembrandt the thinker: The structural conception of Rembrandt's early pictures  
     The encounter between observer and subject  
     From interpretation to observation: The Night Watch  
     Observation as comprehension: The Staalmeesters  
     The search for life in the picture: Susanna and the Elders  
     The search for life in the picture: The Return of the Prodigal Son  
     The mystery of the revealed form: The Jewish Bride  
     Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn -1606-1669: Chronology  
     Rembrandt - DRAWINGS  



The mystery of the revealed form:

The Jewish Bride


The Jewish Bride
Oil on canvas, 121,5 x 166,5 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The picture of Isaac and Rebecca (The Jewish Bride)has been the subject of many interpretations. The name The Jewish Bride refers to the long-held view that the picture portrayed the Jewish father of a bride bidding farewell to his daughter. A drawing by Rembrandt resulted in what has become the generally accepted description. This painting is also connected with a historical event, although it is restricted to the depiction of two people together. The only thing to remind the observer of the story is the masonry behind the embracing couple. This could be the well where King Abimelech eavesdropped on Isaac and Rebecca - yet this motif, which is still alluded to in the drawing, is absent here. The drawing shows the young woman on the man's lap. In the painting, however, the figures are merely close to one another, and it can hardly be ascertained whether they are sitting or standing. Isaac is bending towards Rebecca, has put one arm around her shoulders, and has laid his left hand - seen from the viewpoint of the observer - on her breast. The two are not looking at each other. Their gazes would appear to be turned inwards, reflective. With her right hand, Rebecca is touching Isaac's hand on her breast in a confirmatory manner. The drawing shows the same motif; here, however, Isaac is looking at Rebecca. The pictorial tradition has also handed down this motif in another narrative context. A drawing by Rembrandt depicts the Prodigal Son in a tavern, clutching the breast of a girl who is sitting on his lap. Rembrandt portrayed himself as The Prodigal Son in the Tavern in the Dresden painting, with Saskia on his lap. The self-portrait became generalized as a result of the role-playing. The faces and situation in The Jewish Bride produce such an individual effect that it is hard to imagine these faces coming into being without the use of models. It seems reasonable to suspect in the couple a portrait of Titus and his bride, Magdalena van Loo. Through its portrait character, the archetypal scene with the intimate couple takes on the binding force of an individual meeting.


Isaac and Rebecca, with Abimelech Eavesdropping


The picture shows no external actions - not as movement. However, the posture of quiet duration involves a union in the embracing, touching gesture, a continuing activeness in the feeling of giving and receiving, in the growing awareness of a sense of togetherness. This activeness cannot contradict the quiet and static nature of the picture. Rather, quiet is the important condition here for experiencing the kind of incident revealed in this scene.
The description of the scene from Susanna and the Elders was concerned with the question of the effect upon the observer of the lines, which introduce him to the process of comprehending the picture. No such consistent graphic context or independent lineament is present in The Jewish Bride. Indeed, identifiable lines may be seen only in parts of the middle zone. It is only the contours of the faces, hands and arms, together with the bands making up the border at the breast, which are defined by clear lines. However, the extent of these is not great. The clarity of the contours decreases to both sides of the group. Even the vertical lines in the wall of the well masonry, or the horizontal line at lower right, which could represent a stone bench, emerge merely as a narrow boundary zone between areas of differing brightness, and not as clear contours. (In examining the effect of the reproduction, it should be borne in mind that reduction has taken place.) If one pictures what is contained in the picture in the reverse direction, starting from the periphery and moving towards the centre, then an increasing clarity may be noted running along the contour of Isaac's cloak as it rises from left to right. However, the clarity of the lines remains relative, even in the central area of the picture; even in the case of the details mentioned above, they remain soft, transitory, merely somewhat denser than those widening out into the surrounding area and dissolving. The lines appear not as a structural means of its own but as the result of more or less distinct transitions within the coloured bright-dark area. They are clearest where the bright and dark zones present their greatest contrast. If the observer's gaze follows them from the periphery in an inwards direction, then they are perceived to thicken; seen from the inside moving outwards, they reveal a tendency to dissolve. In the same way that total delimitation is not found in the centre, however, total dissolution does not take place in the outer area. The observer's gaze is kept floating, and experiences - depending on the direction in which it moves - the tendencies of objects to become clearer or less differentiated, more concentrated or more diffused, to take on and lose form, as they merge with one another in smooth transformation.
An important element will be touched upon here but fleetingly: it is only when the central zone is covered up that one fully appreciates the intangible nature of objects in the surrounding area - it is no longer possible to give a concrete interpretation to anything, as far as the frame. Here, too, however, the effect of transference is at work, as observed earlier in the example of the shadow thrown by Captain Banning Cocq's hand in The Night Watch: one convincing detail causes the imagination to believe that it has seen the object at another place also, one where visual clues are lacking. From an objective point of view, it is impossible for a couple to stand or sit in the manner portrayed in the picture; similarly, no real lighting situation could result in such illumination. Nevertheless, the softness of the lines still gives a concrete impression inasmuch as it is understood as an atmospheric spatial effect — as seen earlier in The Staalmeesters. However, this exceeds every empirical comparison - with consequences that will be seen.
The observer's gaze is pushed in a certain direction and led in certain directions, not by individual lines, but rather by the broad, bright surface lengths of the couple's arms and hands, the contours of which could be seen as represented by the lines. Furthermore, attention should be drawn to the extent to which the rather isolated bright ovals constituting the faces tend to draw the observer's gaze and capture it, so that a faint resistance may become noticeable when the gaze is transferred from them in order to take in another surface element or follow the "lengths" described above. Two observations among many stand out here, which in turn simultaneously indicate the very individual structure of this picture's effect.
It has already been noted that the ovals of the couple's faces, among the brightest individual elements, draw and hold the observer's gaze. However, this can apply to only one of these elements at a time. If one attempts to keep one's eyes on one of the heads for a longer period of time, then it becomes noticeable that the force of attraction exerted by the other increases. The forms lie too closely together for the one to be seen apart from the other. If one accepts the attraction of the second oval, then a kind of jump occurs over the dark zone between the two faces - one of the darkest in the whole picture - the power of which to hold the observer's gaze is far less than that of the oval shapes. And for the twinkling of an eye - in the truest sense of the word - the effect of the first oval reasserts itself, so as to stimulate the eye into making the jump back again. This interaction is weak, taking place neither rapidly nor with a rhythm that can be grasped. It may be compared with a musical interval: if one attempts to listen to one of the tones more clearly, then the other pervades the consciousness all the more. The individual quality of the interval lies between the two, however — inaudible, yet in some way audible after all. The same is true of the picture: the relationship between the two bright ovals, perceived differentially in this way, lies in the quality of the movement between them — simultaneously visible and invisible.
However, the brightness of the faces is bound up with the other bright forms to be found beneath them, so that the faces can each become the starting-and end-point of a movement of observation, one which - seen from left to right - leads over Isaac's shoulder and arm to Rebecca's breast, travelling from there, over the border at her breast and the bright neckline, upwards to her head. The approximately circular form that is passed through here does not close at the top between their heads; the observer's gaze is prompted to retrace its course, so as to take the same path once again. In contrast to the first observation, however, the gaze now takes in everything on and adjoining its path, and the possibility now exists for it of deviating from this course and climbing over Rebecca's hand as she has placed it on her breast to her right shoulder, thereafter gliding back down to the hands again along her right sleeve; from here, following this direction, it continues over the breast border until Isaac's right shoulder is reached, from whence the gaze flows back along the band of his cloak-fastening into the length of his arm; and so forth. The gaze's direction can join a pattern in the form of a reclining figure-eight, although this form is in no way a conclusively closed one.
If the observer's gaze moves in the direction outlined above, then it renders clearly visible the possible relationships among the individual visual elements in the picture. In this process, the movement of the gaze itself takes on the character of these relationships. The observational movements must be carried out by the observer, and are in this sense a subjective action. However, they take their form from the objective actuality of the visual elements within the picture. Subjective movement and objective shape penetrate each other, becoming a dynamic form. The picture thus speaks through the dynamic form executed by the observer. What precisely is spoken — if this is to be put into words, a different starting-point must be taken. The visual nuances indicated here would be misunderstood if one attempted to make them speak in all their variety and interrelationships. The character of the visual relationships in The Jeuish Bride can only be alluded to via the interdependence between unity and duality: the duality of the faces asserts itself in the previously described interdependent dynamic forms of the observer's gaze between the bright fields of this otherwise so unified double figure. In the case of the sequence of movements reminiscent of a reclining figure-eight, it is those tendencies interlinking the duality of the figures to form a unity which predominate. The purely visual dynamic forms noted here reveal themselves to be the occasion for the immediate manifestation of an inner structure, one consisting of the flowing together of two individuals and a two-ness in unity. It is through the process of observation that the living dynamic form of two who love each other takes place, the innermost and spontaneous expression of which is their embrace.

The Jewish Bride (detail)
c. 1665
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The strength of this picture, the factor responsible for its effect, may ultimately be seen in the colours themselves. The red colour-tone of Rebecca's dress - one example of the effects generally achieved through colour - is unusually strongly broken, interspersed with dark brown - almost black - particles, but also partially brightened through the use of yellow, and also of white in some places. The fine, varnished texture, partly opaque in nature, partly shimmering through, reveals brush- and spatula-marks. When seen from a few paces away, this weave of colour merges before the observer's gaze, albeit without becoming completely uniform. From an objective point of view, the dark and bright parts could be interpreted as the play of light and shade among the fall of the folds of Rebecca's dress, and as the heaviness and softness of the material - as with velvet, for example, which does not fall smoothly and either shimmers in the light or allows one's gaze to sink somewhat into its surface. An objective interpretation must also take into account the effect described in the context of The Staalmeesters, that of the interplay of colours against a common shade of gold-brown, an effect caused by a brightened gloom between the objects and the eye. If this gloom were not also seen, the colour-tone would lead one to the superficial opinion that the dress appeared dirty or even decaying. The opposite is true, however: it creates a warm, velvet impression, as if glowing from within. This reddish tone is perceived, without one necessarily needing to be conscious of the fact, as if it were influenced by the three aforementioned factors - illumination, dress material, atmospheric gloom. A tacit assumption here is that the red of the dress material is uniform and - especially - that it is a property of this fabric. It is in this certainty, one that is not further called into question, that the fundamental agreement of depictive observation lies. This internalized bias implies that cause and effect in the relationship of colour and depicted object are reversed when one observes a depiction. The velvet dress, its illumination, and the visible atmosphere - none of these are themselves actually present in the picture; in consequence, none of them can be vehicles for the quality labelled "red". It is the red quality present in the picture — acting in combination with the other structural elements - that prompts the imagination to recognize the aforementioned objectivity. It is this red quality, exactly as it stands here before the observer's eyes and in no other way, that constitutes the vehicle that conveys to the imagination the concepts of dress, material, atmosphere, light. These properties reveal themselves in the representation as vehicles for the depicted object.
The establishment of this point may seem trivial. This, however, represents the starting point for the more complex question as to how it is at all possible to understand the true nature and quality of the colour here. Even if one disregards the question of reference to an object, then the colour still seems to have changed: when looked at from a distance, it can appear blotchy and nondescript. If one opens oneself up to the colour, however, then one perceives its shade as a pure, warm red glowing from within. In theory, it is impossible for a colour to manifest itself in a different way to its actual appearance: otherwise, we would be dealing with another colour. How can the impression emerge of this particular and consistent hue of colour? The shade of red which the observer sees as "the" red of the dress is not to be found in the pigment applied to the picture's surface — not even in small areas. This shade is seen, yet it does not exist. If a search is made in the colour structure for material evidence of this shade, then it vanishes in an indescribable variety of different nuances. In the course of this attempt to find it, the eye is struck by all those colours which differ from red — white, golden yellow, golden brown, dark brown, black — without the red disappearing completely. However, it is also possible at any time to discern the previously comprehended uniformity of the shade of red again. Nonetheless, this uniformity does not achieve an exposed, opaque red surface. Even when the red appears to glow from within, this is merely an approximation. The impression remains unstable. At any moment it can weaken, only to become stronger again a moment thereafter. As was mentioned above, the lines can be seen only as a system of qualified delimitation or dissolution, floating in a state between acquiring and losing form. It has now been seen that this is equally true of the colour in this picture. It must be comprehended not as a continued existence, one defined thus and in no other way, but rather as a tendency within the red effect towards or away from red, in a flowing, open intermediate state between concentration and diffusion, growing alternately brighter and darker, becoming present and withdrawing: in brief, a state between appearing and disappearing.
The consequence of this is that the visual effects of the picture's surface are perceived as something undergoing a process, one which is not fundamentally different from the movement perceived as the content of the picture.
In this way, the quality of appearance of the colour itself comes to play a role in the event, as the present effectiveness of light in colour. Light itself cannot be seen. Its effect can only be understood from the dynamics of colour. Light, as has been observed above, must be effective and active if it is to become a phenomenon. The same was said at the outset of these remarks regarding the actions of the figures. The effect of colour in the picture is revealed as the naturally invisible inner event: the warm, enveloping colours, together with their silent glow, seemingly intensifying from within, can display the same quality of feeling, in the form of a visual impression, as that which inwardly binds together the two who love each other. If such words had not already been used, one could speak here of a glowing quality, of the appearance of something which has no effect upon the senses in a sensory experience. However, it is not claimed here that something is felt in either one particular way or another; rather, the view is advanced that such nuances of feeling are opened up through this kind of painting, not as a result of intellectual conclusions based upon that which the scene portrayed in a picture communicates, but rather through the process of observation itself.
If one accepts that effects, in the manner characterized here, are the chances of a picture, however, then the term "picture" can no longer be taken to mean only the object hanging on the wall, the merely sensory creation of colour and form before the observer's eyes. There would be as little sense in saying of this creation that it was changing or in motion as there would be in expecting a depicted movement to take place within it. The observable effect of the colours and forms only occurs and appears when the observer mobilizes his powers of observation and reason and enters into the game of possibilities offered by the work of art. This requires him to grasp the work of art, both with respect to its individual elements and in its entirety, and to combine them in accordance with the rules given by the picture. It is only in the light of such a conception of the picture's reality that there can be any sense in speaking of the appearance, the process of events, the temporal quality of a painted picture, for without the observer this process will be impossible, in the same way that it is impossible in the absence of this particular work of art. The creation supplies the structure. It is given life in the act of observation, thereby — and only thereby — coming into existence.
As a result of his structural conception, Rembrandt allocates the observer a particular role, utilizing the later structural conception of The Staalmeesters to enable the observer, if he understands the context of the scene, to see himself as involved in the depicted process. This applies not only to that which may be understood from the picture but also to that which can be seen within it. Through Rembrandt's style of painting, the observer is assigned a constitutive role. In this manner of painting, one which causes the observer to appreciate the act of revelation instead of merely presenting him with a revealed form to look at, it is largely left to the discretion of the observer as to what he recognizes in the picture, since the aforementioned processes of observation are generally dependent upon his activating them. If he does not open himself up to these processes, then they will not become evident to him. The consequence will be that these pictures simply appear unfinished - the more so, the later their date of origin - for it is precisely in their leading the observer into a never-ending process of revelation that their completion lies. Nowadays, at the end of the 20th century, following the concrete experience of Modernist pictures, this never-ending quality of Rembrandt's art can make one conscious of the open, nascent, creative element present in the act of observation itself. The process of becoming aware of life in the picture, the process of becoming aware of the act of revelation, is an encounter with the productive powers of one's own observation. It is in the action of observation that the mystery of the revealed form lies to which we are led by Rembrandt's art.

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The Artist's Son Titus


Titus en habito de monje


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