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  



Observation as comprehension:

The Staalmeesters


Sampling Officials of the Drapers' Guild
(The Staalmeesters)
Oil on canvas, 191,5 x 279 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Rembrandt painted his last group portrait in the year 1662. In The Staalmeesters — the name given the board members of the Clothmakers' Guild — the artist would once again combine the achievements in the structural conception of his portrait scenes. After the so richly developed scene of The Night Watch, the later picture strikes the observer as a simplification; it appears to take up the earlier work of The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp and even - going beyond this painting - the group-portrait tradition of more than a hundred years, in which the persons to be portrayed are collected one after the other around a table, generally with a minor figure included. However, the picture with which we are concerned here surpasses its predecessors in density, complexity and fullness of life. Moreover, the superficial resemblance to the traditional forms reveals all the more clearly the fact that Rembrandt's crucial innovations consisted not in an external break with the forms which he had taken over but in their transformation. The portrait, as a document of someone existing in time, is intended to release that person from the bounds of time. It is the task of the representation to turn the observer's thoughts back to the subject of the portrait and thereby preserve the memory of him. In contrast to this, Rembrandt's structural conception converts the portrait so as to give it the qualities of a temporal event, thereby changing remembrance of the past into observation of the present. It is not his intention in his portraits to overcome the temporal nature of a person by using art to disconnect it from time, to immortalize it. Instead, he is on the way to overcoming the temporal through a form of anchoring it in time, one in which timeless eternity appears itself in the present. It is not his intention to extend the temporal, ephemeral element of man to everlasting duration; rather, he wishes to anchor in time the timeless element - that is, that which is independent of temporal restrictions - and thus to enable it to achieve a present that can be experienced. But what pictorial form must this take so that it may be experienced?


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman


The members of the board are giving their report. The offices of those present are indicated by the open book on which Willem van Doeyenburg has let his hand drop in explanation and in which the gentleman on his right has placed a hand, ready to turn to a certain page; by the treasurer's purse on the far right; and by the notebook by means of which the half-standing Volckert Jansz. is propping himself on the table, while Frans Hendricksz. Bel, the house supervisor, who is standing bareheaded in the background, serves to give an indication of their significance. Poses are no longer adopted here. The body language of the men reveals a complete obliviousness to the world around them, stemming from their preoccupation with what they are doing. The facial characteristics of the figures are finely differentiated, from expectant concentration directed outwards, apparently connected with a readiness to intervene in what is happening, via an interested following of what is taking place, to a relaxed observation of the entire scene. Here, too, the expressions are made to speak. However, the attitudes of the men are not typical of the representative attitudes encountered at a board meeting, unlike the typical attitudes of those attending a lecture displayed in The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp, for example. The characteristic gestures are so nuanced and meaningful that their only sensible interpretation can be as an expression of that individual - and him alone - in whose face they are to be read. A key to the scene, however, is provided by the observation that it is within this very individualization that the persons act, not each for himself but collectively, simultaneously and equally.
Extremely economical allusions to perspective — the view from below of the table, the armchair, the panelling on the receding back wall, and — no less — that of the hat brims — make it apparent that the group is seated on a level above that of the artist. Assuming that the depicted situation is taking place in an assembly chamber, then it is only from a seat in the audience that the observer would so perceive the board members on the podium.
In The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp, the observer's gaze is met by those of two figures in the picture, inviting him to see himself as a fellow-protagonist. None of the figures in the scene of The Staalmeesters is looking at the observer. The three gentlemen seen above the area of the red table are indeed looking out of the picture; however, their gazes pass to the left of the observer. The man in the armchair to the left is also turning in that direction, while Volckert Jansz.'s eyes are directed towards a point to the observer's right. This makes it quite clear that the group is not only acting collectively but also reacting collectively, to a partner outside of the picture, to an audience. The fact that the figures are looking past the observer draws him into the scene to a far greater extent than was the case with the direct exchange of glances in The Anatomy Lesson. Quite unexpectedly, he finds himself a member of the large audience, this latter constituting the cause of the group's reaction. At the same time, it becomes clear that he is no active participant within this audience - in the sense that he does not put his hand up, give his vote when invited to do so, or maybe even interrupt the speaker. As a member of the audience, the observer is allocated the role of a witness, a spectator. In the earlier work depicting his mother as the reading Prophetess Hannah (Rembrandt's Mother as the Biblical Prophetess Hannah, 1631), Rembrandt rendered the observer a potential participant to some extent by allowing him to look into the book. Henceforth, this motif is revealed to be a comprehensive and inescapable principle of Rembrandt's structural conception: in seeing - and grasping - the situation as portrayed in the scene of The Staalmeesters, the observer is already executing his observational role. The fact of his looking at the scene is itself already a pictorial motif, a part of the picture's action, whether he wishes this to be so or not.

The Standing Syndic
(Study for The Staalmeesters)

However, whereas the effects resulting from the structural conception of the picture thus become comparable with real-life situations outside of the picture, the basic depictive problems of the portrayal of temporal actions become all the more critical. How does Rembrandt represent movement here? Volckert Jansz.'s posture has been interpreted in many different ways. In the preliminary sketch, he is seen still standing upright. An X-ray of the picture reveals the fact that Rembrandt altered the posture a number of times while painting the picture. In the final version, he is shown neither sitting nor standing. One hand, holding the notebook, is propped on the table - as described above -while the other appears to be groping behind him, as if touching the armrest of a chair, or being on the point of doing so. This, together with the concentrated look directed outwards, can convey the impression that Volckert Jansz, is standing up to answer a question from the audience. On the other hand, he could also be on the point of sitting down after a speech. While the attention of the other board members is still or currently occupied by someone or something on the left, his gaze remains upon a member of the audience who - to give but one possible explanation - is not yet content with the answer which he has received and is making the fact known, as happens again and again in business discussions, while the debate is already moving on elsewhere. What is significant is the fact that the two interpretations given here totally contradict each other. The directions of movement mentioned are diametrically opposed to each other: one cannot simultaneously stand up and sit down. Nonetheless, Rembrandt's attempt to portray such a posture - as documented by the numerous alterations that he made - would appear to have taken the direction of just such a contradiction. A broad range of possibilities is to be found in the middle area of the course of events between standing up and sitting down. Volckert Jansz, stands up, but the situation changes rapidly; before he is upright, he hesitates in a half-erect posture: either he could straighten up, or he could take his seat again.


Alternatively, he has been speaking on his feet and is about to sit down when an objection occurs; he pauses, could stand upright again and add a postscript to his speech — or could complete the process of resuming his seat. It is also possible, having attained such a posture, to pause for a moment while taking note of a vote by the audience and deliberating whether an intervention is necessary or not. Rapid external movement, the lingering action of temporary duration, and the quietly continuing action, seen distributed among a number of persons in The Blinding of Samson - all three characteristics of action are encountered here in a single gesture. The motif of action within these particular limits is ambiguous.
Corresponding to this concept, the nature of the glances of the other board members is equally ambiguous. As shown here, their gazes can be understood as lingering, but also, if one looks at the picture in a different way, as fleeting glances moving over the audience. And even if they are interpreted as lingering glances, they can be subject to change through an increasing or decreasing degree of interest, in the progressive forms that have already been examined in the various possibilities of interpretation regarding Volckert Jansz.'s posture.
The ambiguity observed here should not be interpreted as indicating a lack of clarity; rather, it is purely functional. One need simply recall the fact that it is not until the observer uses his imagination to conjure up the various potential facets of the action that the corresponding qualities of movement or change come to light. The fact that the actions are brought before the observer should not be seen as representing a contradiction to the static nature of the picture; rather, the observer himself is challenged to actively complete the mental picture, to play a game. If he does not participate, then he cannot understand what is in front of him. This game consists of linking the various ambiguous elements. A structure of relationships brought about by actions develops, although its elements openly undergo change even in their various aspects. As a result, the structure becomes complex and many-layered, and can no longer be tied down to a single status. In the course of all this, the game of imagination itself acquires a certain progressive character. Within this progression, the observer experiences the to-and-fro motion of directions and impulses, the alternation of action and reaction. In so doing, he carries out an action the course of which is as changeable as is sometimes the case in a debate between two groups of people at a meeting. This also ultimately implies that the observer, in becoming aware of this, realizes himself to be already involved in this action, as it is in fact a question of his own conscious action.
However, such qualities of experience are not only dependent on the motifs of action of the figures. The spatial structure was only partially characterized above. Despite all certainty, it is in fact simultaneously completely open. The section seen in the field of vision presented to the observer gives no indication as to the distance from the observer to the figures. As a result of the lack of foreground, they give the impression of being observed as if from close to. At the same time, however, a different effect argues for their being seen from afar. The colours of the figures, the objects and the surroundings are uniformly broken in colour against a warm shade of brown. The impression arises that this common shade of refraction is not inherent in the colours but stems from a gloom illuminated by light, one such as appears when haze or smoke fills the otherwise clear medium of the air. The brightened gloom of the atmosphere - certainly intensified here beyond the empirical possibilities — can only be found between the coloured objects and the eye of the observer. It thus becomes impossible to exclude the observer from this spatial system, since this state of "between" only comes into being when one is face to face with the picture. If the observer understands the manner in which the objects and figures appear as an atmospheric effect, then he finds himself taken up into the atmosphere of the pictorial space - in a manner that is just as inevitable as was the case with the scenic constellations. For the figures can only be seen in this way by an observer who can be said to share the atmospheric conditions of visibility experienced by the figures in the picture. Put another way, the objective manner in which the pictorial world is painted can only be seen if one is looking at it subjectively. This was noticed by Jacob Burckhardt: "Rembrandt is indifferent to the real structure of things; it is their appearance which is all-important for him ... as far as Rembrandt is concerned, events, forms, natural objects only exist inasmuch as air and light play their wondrous game with them." However, it is not necessarily a question here of gaining an "undreamt-of magic" from the light, nor of mystically transfiguring the world. Previously, the act of observation itself appeared to be drawn into the scenic process; now, the observer cannot avoid being involved in this event in the pictorial world, also with respect to the manner in which the object world appears in the picture. The picture loses the character of something existing objectively for itself, inasmuch as the "depicted" act of seeing and that performed by the observer no longer occur independently of each other: for something to appear within the picture, it must be disclosed by an act of observation.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

One final observation concerns the relationship of the scenic order to that of the picture itself. The positions of the individual figures, as surface elements, stand in a subtle relationship of interdependence with each other and with the background. Thus, the jamb of the chimney at the back frames the treasurer, while the position of the man on the armchair to the left receives clear confirmation through the projecting corner above him. The red table unites the three board members seated behind it. Volckert Jansz, stands out on account of his half-standing posture, which in turn is qualified by the higher position of the house supervisor. The two heads for their part render Willem van Doeyenburg a central element; and so on. The positions on the surface become isolated under the influence of one aspect and combine under the influence of the other; they simultaneously emphasize and qualify each other. A structure of relationships results, one appearing ever more complex, the further the observer pursues the interactions that are presented. The apparently so simple arrangement, one which seems so natural through its apparently arising from the chance element of a seating arrangement, enables the observer to see the forms at one and the same time as a number of isolated individuals and yet also as a group of differentiated people acting in unison.
The pictorial form of the portrait would appear to be no longer subject to the event being depicted. As has been seen, the interplay of relationships emerging from the change of aspects becomes itself a kind of action through the activity of the observer. Furthermore, the structure of this interplay corresponds to the event and contributes an additional nuance to the interpretation: the interaction of the individual areas of colour becomes a condition for the individual element to be shown to its advantage, each serving the other and defining itself via the others. It is difficult to describe this wealth of relations in words, but it perhaps has something to do with the kind of relationships among the persons, and between them and the audience.


Abraham's Sacrifice


This also serves to explain why it is that one does not grow aware of the purely visible pictorial values - the interplay of bright and dark areas, of red, yellow, white, black, and gold-brown - as a self-supporting system, as was the case in The Night Watch. The dramatic effects of the bright-dark structure have been reduced. Painting is no longer presented in terms of artistry and virtuosity. This is not to say that these are not to be found here: indeed, they are present to a high degree. In order to achieve the outlined effect of the atmospheric element, the execution of the painting must satisfy the highest demands in a technical respect as well. Rembrandt's style of painting has also become extremely individual. The qualities of his painting have lost any intrinsic value, are becoming discreet, and are absorbed into the service of the previously mentioned manner in which something appears. Rembrandt's path towards enabling the observer to experience that which is temporal through the picture is thus indicated: he forms the pictorial elements themselves in such a way that the observer can only become aware of them within the process of their appearing to him. This will ultimately be observed to comprise the realm in which the mystery of Rembrandt's art lies. In The Staalmeesters, the appearance in the picture of the event's temporal structure would seem to have been approached, in the same way that the temporal action would appear to have been approached; with regard to the actions of the observer, this means that comprehension is brought closer to observation.
First of all, however, we should focus once again on the path leading to the final step, that in which the motifs of the action ultimately become one with their appearance. The artist's work on structural conception can be grasped all the better from his drawings, since this medium of itself means that the visual qualities fade in importance, to the benefit of the action portrayed.


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