Review: The Art Institute’s Quartet of Rembrandt Portraits

This exhibit feels like it’s being billed as a big dealio, but, in fact, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rembrandt Portraits, running through June 9, is merely four paintings, two of which are from their own collection.

Old Man with a Gold Chain and Young Woman at an Open Half-Door are joined by Portrait of a Boy and Self-Portrait from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, so the scope is a little underwhelming. But they are Rembrandts, after all, so worthy of a gander to revel in the master’s application of light, detail and nuance.

There’s a “life stages” feel to the curation of this collection, spanning from youth to old age. There’s also a theatricality in the figures and their presentation, both conceits evoking Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

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 parts

And 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 school

Portrait 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 ballad

A 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 instances

The 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 oblivion

The 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.

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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