Review: The Art Institute’s Quartet of Rembrandt Portraits
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many partsAnd play Rembrandt does, with the quality of light, with the range of expressions and the intricate, costume-like adornment.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to schoolPortrait of a Boy (1655-60) is unfinished, and is thought to be the painter’s son Titus. His face is cherubic, pink with a Cupids-bow smile on his lips. His face is framed by blond curls, and he directly addresses the viewer from underneath a large plumed hat. His lush bronze-colored tunic appears to complete the costume from an earlier time. There’s a sketch of a pet monkey or bird on his shoulder, so perhaps he’s playing a pirate. He is prepossessed and approachable yet wise beyond his years.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful balladA decade earlier, Rembrandt painted Young Woman at an Open Half-Door (1645). She is pensive, leaning out from her liminal space. She is prim, hair up, dark dress punctuated by a double strand of red beads. She looks askance, and her arms are akimbo on the lower door. She’s somber and in control of her space. Maybe she’s a response to “Venus on the Half-Shell,” here taking control of the male gaze from a room of her own.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instancesThe 1636-38 Self-Portrait (pictured above) addresses the viewer, with his hand tucked into his elaborate jacket, another theatrical costume with a velvety, adorned lapel. There’s a lace collar, a thick chain, a jaunty hat, and a van Dyck moustache. The expression is pensive, as perhaps the painter is figuring out his place in the frame and the world. Is he accurately depicting himself or merely putting on a show?
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivionThe last painting is the earliest work, Old Man with a Gold Chain (1631). He’s also wearing a costume, a voluminous velvet affair that makes his wrinkled head feel tiny, also dwarfed under a floppy, feathered cap. He’s also got a chain, and a military steel gorget. He looks off to the side, as if to feature his hoop earring. He’s likely a “tronie,” a Dutch Golden Age painting of a costumed stock character. He is the least warm and most formal of the quartet. Harold Bloom famously posited that Shakespeare might have invented three-dimensional humans on paper, and this brief collection asserts that Rembrandt likely did his part to flesh out our understanding of real people on canvas. The paintings are on the ARTIC website, but go see the vibrancy in person. The Rembrandt Portraits exhibit runs at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 9. See the website for info and hours. Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!