Commentary Magazine


Rembrandt & the Artist's Touch

At a recent concert in Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of hearing a young pianist from Tbilisi, Georgia, named Dudana Mazmanishvili. Her playing of works by Beethoven, Schubert, Llwellyn, and Balakirev was extraordinary, marked by an exquisitely varied delicacy of touch and a sense of utterly individual authority, and evoking emotions encompassing, it seemed, everything from exultation to despair. But a big part of what made the performance so moving was her passionately physical engagement with the piano.

So great was the impact of this performance that after it I felt I had not really known until then what a piano was. In the crowd on the way out, I happened to overhear a woman who evidently had a similar reaction. But she expressed it differently, remarking to her companion that she wanted “to know the make of that piano.”

Aesthetic experience offers many kinds of pleasure, among them the pleasure of unexpected, intense beauty and the genuine surprise of encountering something one thought one had an acquaintance with as if for the first time. Still, it was clearly not the instrument but the pianist herself, and in particular her hands, that deserved credit for producing the result that so astonished both me and my fellow concertgoer.

The movement of those hands got me thinking about the way a visual artist uses his hands when at work on a drawing or painting. That they are indispensable to an artist’s work may seem an obvious point, and it is. But I am not sure the nature of that indispensability is always fully recognized or understood, even by some artists.

A case in point is the painter David Hockney, who several years ago set out to demonstrate that Renaissance painters could not have drawn as well as they did on their own but must have relied on optical devices like the camera obscura. Hockney tendered this idea in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001, reissued last year in an expanded version).

A camera obscura can be created by placing a convex lens in a hole in the window of a room and eliminating all other sources of light. According to Hockney, Renaissance artists used such devices, along with concave mirrors, to project images that they then traced in order to create their highly realistic paintings or drawings. The practice, he says, was similar to that of a contemporary artist like Andy Warhol, who traced images made by a projector. Hockney even claims to have identified tell-tale linear similarities between tracings by Warhol and, for example, paintings by Caravaggio and Frans Hals and drawings by Hans Holbein. At one point he suggests that not only these artists but also Van Eyck, Leonardo, Giorgione, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and others may have used “optics” to draw and paint. Michelangelo, he concedes, was among those who preferred “to stick to eyeballing.”

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I will return to Rembrandt later on, but it should be noted that Hockney can supply no direct evidence for his claims. He merely contends, or implies, that because optics were a subject of experiment and study in the Renaissance, painters were very likely using the optical devices then available. Nor is his analysis, if you can call it that, based on an actual examination of Renaissance works of art; instead it is limited to a comparison of color reproductions, a methodology disqualifying in and of itself. Finally, the evidence he does put forth consists of anatomical and perspectival distortions in Renaissance paintings that he says resulted from the use of lenses—this, in support of a thesis claiming that the point of using these devices was to obtain naturalistic accuracy! By the end, Hockney is swimming in his own illogic.

From Michelangelo to Matisse, as it happens, distortion or exaggeration in representational painting has been a deliberate part of the artist’s aesthetic strategy. But Hockney seems as incognizant of this as he is of the fact that great artists are capable of drawing and painting naturalistically from imagination and memory. (Aids to drawing have of course existed for centuries, but their use can hardly be equated with the act or essence of drawing itself.) According to some of his critics, Hockney’s theorizing is motivated by the fact that he himself does not draw very well. Be that as it may, it seems that in elaborating his eccentric notion, he succumbed to the same fallacy embraced by the lady at the concert trying to account for what she had heard but could not quite believe she had heard.

Hockney’s unwillingness to accept that great drawings and paintings of the past could have been made by hands unaided by highly specialized devices suggests a rather large imaginative failure on his part. In fact, his unfounded theory is merely the latest variation of an old idea—that Renaissance painters excelled at their art because of “secret” knowledge they possessed concerning materials and techniques, knowledge that was subsequently lost. In The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques (1991), Ralph Mayer cites an early-20th-century authority on the “common mistake” of “mak[ing] up for the want of manipulative skill on the part of the modern painter by inventing complex mediums which the painter of old is supposed to have used.” Or, one might add, by inventing complex drawing processes.

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For an artist, getting his hands to do what he would like them to do when he paints or draws is a critically important issue. But those who master the discipline need no more rely on special optical devices than a great pianist needs to depend on a mysterious brand of piano in order to play beautifully. More to the point, the act of drawing, truly understood, bears no relation to the Hockneyian notion of the artist’s hands merely transcribing what his eyes see or what a projector projects. What it does depend on is an appreciation of the relative importance of seeing and touching, and of the relationship between the two.

Kimon Nicolaides elucidated this relationship in his classic study guide, The Natural Way to Draw (1941):

Because pictures are made to be seen, too much emphasis (and too much dependence) is apt to be placed [by the artist] upon seeing. . . . Merely to see . . . is not enough. It is necessary to have a fresh, vivid, physical contact with the object you draw through as many of the senses as possible—and especially through the sense of touch.

In the case of a painter, the sense of touch plays a double role. In creating a work, he makes marks on paper with a pencil or applies paint to canvas with a brush, a physical activity through which he communicates what he has to say. The results can often lead observers to comment on the nature or quality of his “touch.” And as Nicolaides’ book makes clear, success in this endeavor derives from a painter’s having trained himself, in learning how to draw, to imagine that he is actually touching the object or model in front of him as he is drawing it.

This imaginative sense of touch eventually becomes so much a part of a painter’s working practice that he is no longer conscious of it; but because it ultimately comes to contain everything he seeks to put into his art, and becomes the point of concentration for his heightened sensations, it is what enables him to infuse his work with feeling. It is, in other words, what enables him to make drawings or paintings that come alive.

In his book on Auguste Rodin, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described how this process operated in the mind of the great sculptor:

During the sittings his eye sees far more than he can record at the time. He forgets none of it, and often the real work begins, drawn from the rich store of his memory, only after the model has left. His memory is wide and spacious; impressions are not changed within it, but they adjust to their surroundings, and when they pass into his hands it is as if they were the entirely natural gestures of these hands.

As this suggests, the artist’s hands acquire what might be called an intelligence or mind of their own. Sometimes they know what to do even before the artist becomes aware of it, especially when he is working quickly. Eugène Delacroix referred to this in his Journal in describing his disappointment upon entering a Paris church and finding the pictures “colder and more insipid than ever. . . . I only wanted one touch, just one single spark of feeling and deep emotion from all these pictures which have been so patiently and even skillfully executed by many different hands and schools—a touch which I feel I could have given almost unconsciously.”

Delacroix’s lament was still more particular. “What a lot of energy is spent in making a mess of canvases,” he wrote, “and yet what finer opportunity could any man have than religious subjects such as these!”

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One artist whom Delacroix admired and who did not squander his opportunities when it came to treating religious subjects—or any other subjects—was Rembrandt van Rijn, now the subject of several exhibitions occasioned by the 400th anniversary of his birth. One of them, devoted to his prints and drawings, has been at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.*

Of all the great artists, Rembrandt has long been among the most widely recognized, and his “international fame,” wrote Frank Getlein in his introduction to The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt (1970, edited by Bruce and Seena Harris), “was based chiefly on his etchings.” The National Gallery has 300 of these and nearly two dozen drawings; the exhibit, consisting of nearly 190 works, is drawn from these, presenting examples of Rembrandt’s portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, scenes from everyday life, and religious scenes.

Rembrandt drew in many media—pen and ink, red chalk, charcoal, wash—and there are some wonderful examples at the National Gallery, including Bust of an Elderly Man in a Flat Cap (1635/1637), Self-Portrait (1637), and View of Houtewael (1650).

In his drawings and etchings (as in his paintings), Rembrandt varied the degree to which he modeled or finished different parts of the picture. The contrast between more and less finished is a leading characteristic of his work, and is one of the things that, subject matter notwithstanding, make that work seem “modern.” But what viewers will perhaps more immediately recognize in looking at his prints is the same thing that, according to the exhibition notes, Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange, saw in 1628, when the artist was twenty-two: namely, his “uncanny ability to convey feeling through gesture and expression and through dramatic contrasts of light and dark.”

One can grasp what so impressed Huygens by looking at just one print, Negress Lying Down (1658), another version of which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The dark figure of the woman, lying on her side and facing away from us, is monumental, even though it is contained within a sheet approximately 3” x 6”. Bathed in shadow, she is vulnerable and mysterious. One can almost feel the softness and the hardness of her remarkably long body, whose attraction lies in its womanly warmth and weight. All this is rendered by Rembrandt’s contour and a seemingly infinite number of cross-hatchings that shape both the woman’s form and the darkness that envelops her.

One sees something similar in The Great Jewish Bride (1635), another work in which layers of cross-hatchings model the dark space, ceiling, and walls behind the seated lady, adorned in a sumptuous robe, her luxuriant hair flowing down from a soft, roundish face. Again, every texture has the feel that one would expect if one could touch the subjects of the composition.

An even more stunning print is The Three Trees (1643), one of the artist’s most famous images and typical of his densely worked etchings in its contrasts—between dark and light, between the main subject and a multitude of surrounding details, between a sense of impending or enacted drama and the feeling that life goes on, and, perhaps above all, between the emphatically different ways in which Rembrandt uses his etching needle to realize the image he desired.

Rembrandt’s unpretentious line moves with utter assurance: it can be sharp and quick; smooth or gnarly; studied or forceful. Contrast and variety, both in his line and in his use of chiaroscuro—to give emphasis, to model fully, or merely to suggest—are evident throughout. It was through this kind of variation in touch that Rembrandt was able to convey everything from the power of nature (The Three Trees) to the placidity of a country landscape (Three Gabled Cottages Beside a Road, 1650); from the force of Christ’s suffering (The Three Crosses, 1653) to the anguish of a family reunion (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636); from the lumpiness of the human body (Adam and Eve, 1638) to its erotic appeal (Jupiter and Antiope, 1659); from the innocence of a child (Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1655) to the weariness of old age (Bust of an Old Bearded Man, 1631); from domestic contentment (The Hog, 1643) to spiritual contemplation (Jerome in a Dark Chamber, 1642).

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The editors of The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt point out that one of the things distinguishing genuine Rembrandts from those made by imitators is that, “In the portraits and human studies that Rembrandt actually did, there seems to be a life force, an anima, that is missing in the others.” And what greatly contributed to the force of his prints, writes Getlein in his introduction, was Rembrandt’s own pioneering innovations in the use of etching techniques.

An etching is made by drawing with an etching needle on a waxy ground that is laid over a copper plate. When the drawing is done, an acid is applied that eats into the plate where the lines have been incised in the ground or where there are other exposed areas. The etched plate is then inked and put through a press, from which prints are made on paper.

Many of the prints on display at the National Gallery, including The Three Trees, are the result of both etching and drypoint, a technique in which the etching needle or a similar steel- or jewel-tipped tool is used to cut directly into the copper plate. Rembrandt often reworked his etchings in this manner, giving him a further means of developing or modifying an image.

A remarkable example of drypoint combined with engraving is The Three Crosses, of which there are four different prints, or “states,” at the National Gallery. The differences among them—and particularly the differences between the first and fourth state—demonstrate how Rembrandt could change the entire emotional content of a print by varying the range and intensity of the areas of light and dark.

Before Rembrandt’s time, Getlein writes, etching was mainly employed “as a fast way of making engravings.” But Rembrandt took unique advantage of “the new technical and expressive possibilities” of the technique—especially “the increased directness of working on the [copper] plate, and the greatly extended range of light and dark”—and turned them into “infinitely delicate instruments of expression.” With regard to Rembrandt’s religious pictures, Getlein is worth quoting at length:

Rembrandt was not the last religious artist, but he was in the last generation in which it was possible for great artists to find in Christianity thematic material for their complete engagement intellectually and complete fulfillment artistically. . . . His etchings of the traditional Gospel subjects present a view of the sacred persons and events with which the personality of the viewer, led by the personality of the artist, is brought into intimate contact. The relative informality of the etched line may be cited as making this possible: it expresses so clearly the movement of the artist’s hand holding the needle.

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With that movement of his “hand holding the needle,” Rembrandt made prints that still retain all of their freshness and delicacy, pathos and vigor, and still seem somehow modern 400 years after they were made. Key reasons for this, in addition to the ways in which he revolutionized the printmaking medium, lie in Rembrandt’s authority and in his capacity for human empathy, both of which found full expression in his touch.

For this, he eventually paid a heavy price. As the historian Stephanie Dickey recently wrote of his paintings:

[I]n his own time, his rough paint surfaces, dramatic lighting, and pensive, down-to-earth characters increasingly set him apart from prevailing trends. Toward the end of his life, a taste for ideal beauty was sweeping Europe, and Dutch connoisseurs were demanding elegant figures and settings, clear light, and refined technique. For refusing to conform to this fashion, Rembrandt was labeled in 1681 by dramatist Andries Pels as “the first heretic in the history of art.”

His heresy, Dickey writes, included his treatment of the nude: “While classicists argued that artists should aspire to the cool perfection of Greek sculpture, Rembrandt assiduously recorded his subjects’ wrinkles and garter marks, knobby knees and wispy hair.” The National Gallery show offers abundant examples of how he did this in his prints and drawings of both nudes and other subjects. If those subjects are often not beautiful, his renderings of them decidedly are, and in a very particular sense: they are presented without judgment, for what they are, for our eyes to examine and for our imagination to reflect upon. Their raw physicality is their most important attribute, both in and of itself and because of what it discloses about their inner life.

This is true of both his religious and his non-religious subjects, each of which he treated with equal dignity, respect, and care. Whatever the quality of Rembrandt’s own faith—according to Getlein it was both abiding and deep—his religious pictures are religious only to the extent that their subject matter is religious. Unlike, say, the works of El Greco, they do not inspire religious or spiritual emotions; rather, they record them, or testify to their existence. Rembrandt makes religious subjects accessible to the modern mind—that is, both interesting and pleasing—by emphasizing the human reality imagined in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

In fact, it could be said that Rembrandt’s art brings us closer, not to God, Who is basically taken for granted, but to ourselves, and in particular how we understand our own aesthetic experience. Delacroix wrote of Rembrandt’s painting that “the background and figures are one. The interest is everywhere, nothing is separate, it is like some lovely natural scene where everything combines to please.” This is true of his drawings and etchings as well, which is a major reason why we find them so appealing and compelling.

This quality—the quality of pictorial unity—is also a matter of touch, and is in turn related to the way Rembrandt consistently humanizes the divine, or renders the supernatural as “real.” In that rendering, one could even say that his touch subsumes his faith: the physical and the tactile are ever-present in Rembrandt’s art. In giving his art its due, an appreciation of this is at least as important as an appreciation of his wide-ranging subject matter.

 


Footnotes

* Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings opened on November 19, 2006 and closes on March 18, 2007.

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