Sunday, April 17, 2016

AIC - Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print

Rembrandt, self portrait, 1648

I am grateful for this New City Review by Stephen F. Eisenman that got me to head down to the Art Institute yesterday to see whether I agreed with his conclusion:

" the battle between van Dyck and Rembrandt, which is also a contest between fixed and fluid identity -, or between tradition and modernity, is the main event."

Noting the opposition of concave to convex (window to table)  and horizonal to vertical (nose to books), he  succinctly concludes: "This rigid geometry highlights by opposition the open character of the model.

The actual print is so small, it's difficult to read to the face.  But zooming in with graphic software, the face does appear to be anxious, maybe even soul-searching.  We may or may not associate this attitude with being a professional fine-art painter.  But it would not surprise me if Rembrandt did. Many of his other self portraits offer a similar expression.

Lorenzo di Credi (?) portrait of Perugino (?) 1504 (?)

Compare it to the above piece from an earlier century. Is this geometry any less rigid? Is this character any less open? Is this identity any less fluid?  Is this portrait any  less modern?

portrait of Jan Lutma, goldsmith 1656

This print was also in the show - and the design also feels rigidly geometric as an arrangement of squares and rectangles.

But could this exemplify "fluid identity"?  The goldsmith feels withdrawn.   He has barely managed to endure the tragedies of life.

Clement de Jonghe, Printseller” (1651)

The review notes the difference between the two states of this print that are on display.

In the early one (shown above), "the seated man is relaxed, his left arm between his legs, his right arm across his chest and his eyes forward."

In the third state, "his eyes are shaded and his gaze cast to the right. Rembrandt doesn’t fix identity in one plate, as van Dyck does. He locates it through triangulation, using multiple states. Rembrandt and de Jonghe, unlike de Momper and Vorsterman, cannot be reduced to their profession or social status."

A further discussion of the states of this print is found here.

 we can see how changed in lighting between these states and state iv/vi make for a more dramatic and realistic portrait. The shadow of the hat's brim cast across de Jonghe's face makes him appear wily and wry. His eyebrows suddenly stand out, giving him more expression. His hat and cloak stand out stronger from the background, in turn giving him a stronger presence in the portrait. 

Since homo sapiens is a social creature, probably the most important thing our visual intelligence does is read the expression on another human face.  The slightest variations in detail can change friend to foe - smart to stupid - honest to sly.

The changes between these two states of the same print are many.  Even the middle- front brim of the hat is different - it no longer suggests a smile on the lips or suggests a receptive, curious attitude.

The differences between different prints of the same state can also affect perceived character.
(so can different scans of the same print)

Was Rembrandt "triangulating" the character of his model by presenting different images - or was he just adjusting - and playing with - the plate as it was inevitably modified by wear and tear.

Here's  another Rembrandt print from the show - and it's far less impressive. The artist seems more interested in displaying the model as he wishes to be known - rather than experimenting or maximizing his art.

I feel a firm - not  fluid - identity.

Anthony Van Dyck, portrait of Lucas Vorsterman,,1630-1633

The reviewer writes:  "The engraver Lucas Vorsterman  on the other hand, shown against a blank background, appears volatile. In fact, Rubens took out a protection order against him. He has unkempt hair,  wide-set eyes and a powerful right hand partly covered by his cape—we can imagine
 it hiding a dagger. Each sitter in the “Iconography” plays his part in a scripted  performance of friendship"

I see a much more dramatic presentation here -- as well as a more strongly expressed personality.

Multiple states also exist for this print -- the later ones being enhanced by studio assistants.

Once again, we might notice a change in the character being presented.  Several dark areas have congealed into black masses. The mustache no longer seems to extend the expression of the mouth. The person feels more troubled - more dangerous - less vulnerable.

Couldn't  we say that Vorstrman's personality has also been triangulated?


The development from tradition to Modernity is the primary narrative of contemporary academic art history.  It seems like every exhibit at the Art  Institute of Chicago makes that point, one way or another.  It is not surprising that Stephen  Eisenman, a professor of art history at DePaul University, would apply that established trope here as well.  That's his job.

But I am more convinced  by Georg Simmel 's argument that Rembrandt was especially concerned with the inner life of his portrait subjects -- which would stand in sharp contrast to the game-face  portraits of  Van Dyck.

And a similar contrast might be found between the psychological portraits of Oskar Kokochka with the social ambient portraits of Gustav Klimt - two contemporaries who worked  250 years later.


Albrecht Durer, portrait of Philippe Melanchthon, 1526

By the way -- here's another great portrait from the show-  so small, but so powerful.


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