Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn Young Man in a Black Beret

REMBRANDT: Tinge of Melancholy

By Tony Baskin

You can say it is a conceited interest of mine to compare myself to someone immortalized by Rembrandt’s brush. But there is definitely something very revealing in the exercise.

It’s testament to his great ability that I can recognize great similarities and subtle differences in the personality Rembrandt painted. There is a tinge of melancholy that I see so often in candid photographs of myself. His eyes are serious yet his lips have a coy smile as if his true feelings are detached from the image he chooses to personify. He gives an air of imagined grandeur, of vanity. These qualities that Rembrandt describes in his sitter, seem so much like my own. But the unmistakable wit in the subjects eyes, and that coy smile – so indicative of his cleverness – cannot be mine. If the man in the portrait stepped out of the frame we would easily be mistaken for one another, but Rembrandt’s sensitivity as an interpreter of the human character makes me believe that we would have very different temperaments; his artful and quick, mine cool and aloof.

Rembrandt’s skill in making us empathize with his subjects allows us to witness art’s great power to recognize ourselves as intrinsically tied to history. Rembrandt can make me believe that the content of my character is not essentially different from the man he painted even though he is far removed from me in the course of history. The sitter’s position, rank, and status are irrelevant. What is important is that I can relate to the man represented, because it implies that the great achievements in the arts and sciences, and the horror of local religious warfare were created by people not essentially different from myself. I want to suggest that by virtue of the human inclination to live life at the consequence of one’s emotions within the culture one was born into, the man in this portrait played an inherently important role in the development of the ideas, trends, and values of Baroque history. In other words, if the man lived an otherwise normal human life, he played as important of a role in the course of human events as Prince William of Orange. In a sense, his life is the stage on which the drama of the Prince of Orange unfolds. His age and ours, are not separate or different from one another in their consitution of human souls.

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn Young Man in a Black Beret

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn Young (Man in a Black Beret)

If the old adage is true, that we must study history in order not to repeat it, then we must study art to see ourselves as an essential part in the course of history. There is incredible emphasis in our history books on the monumental figures that seem to be at the front of major historical change. This approach to telling history is dismissive of the influence ordinary individuals have over the human condition and it is a perfect complement to the kinds of stories Rembrandt tells – where the mundane and ordinary reach a state of sublimity. Everyday, there is a myriad of simple human exchanges that guide the outlook and subsequent development of humanity, and each human being is responsible for creating the condition of a better society. Gestures of kindness or subtle aggression can determine whether a society produces a monk or a tyrant, and each person is on the giving and receiving end of our collective effort for a better world.

Rembrandt was in his time powerless to the tides of change we now read about in history books. But his efforts have made him all powerful today. What we understand of the past the man himself wrote with his brush.