An eye for a lived-in face - and the shadows inside

CorrespondentOctober 30, 2011 

He'd had a charmed life, known success, wealth and fame as an artist. Yet, at 53, old by the standard of his time, he also had experienced sorrow and defeat.

The death of a pretty and beloved young wife, the deaths of three infant children, financial troubles that forced him to sell possessions and his house, and even the eclipse of his reputation.

Rembrandt van Rijn did not turn away from any of this, but looked at himself and his life squarely. The self-portrait this examination produced hangs at the beginning of the magnificent "Rembrandt in America" at the N.C. Museum of Art.

It will nail you to the floor.

What depth of expression, emotion and psychological insight. And with the brushy technique of his later years, what a perfect meeting of artistic means and ends. Look at the forehead alone and imagine the hundreds of decisions he made on color, brushstrokes, shading and more.

Two other of his well-known self-portraits are included, both earlier than this 1659 work from the National Gallery of Art, one strategically placed at the exhibit's end. In between are wonderful pictures from American collections, some by the master and others once attributed to him.

By the time you go through - and do; you can't miss an opportunity that will likely not recur in your lifetime - you'll appreciate who he was and what he achieved.

Presented here is a working artist in 17th-century Amsterdam who hustled portrait commissions, taught a gaggle of pupils and bought and sold art seeking to profit.

As amateurish early paintings demonstrate, his beginnings were not full of promise. Once he got rolling, however, he was hard to beat. His skill in portraits from the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a man and woman dazzles: their lace collars (a sign of wealth among the Dutch), the gold chains on the woman's dark costume and the sympathy of their lived-in faces.

His fellow citizens of the Dutch Republic were busy colonizing the New World, making scientific discoveries and speculating in tulip bulbs. Their collective confidence glows in a portrait of Joris de Caulerij, a military man. The technique of slanting light developed in Italy by Caravaggio glints off the metal plate around his neck and off his shoulder. His mustache and goatee seem to stand at attention.

Rembrandt liked and respected women and was especially good at painting them. Even when portrayed as a character - "Minerva," "Lucretia" and "Flora" from the section on history paintings - they have flesh-and-blood vitality.

The exhibit's subtext is how these works came to our shores and the ongoing challenge of identifying the authentic Rembrandt. Subject to forged signatures, copying by pupils and later alterations, some of these paintings have been stamped "real," "not real" and "real" again.

I grew a tad fatigued reading texts naming which 19th century millionaire bought what work. But examining the differences between Rembrandt and other painters, some of them very good, forms a true and satisfying education. This show will improve your eye.

Beyond the explanations of art history, what matters is an encounter with great art.

Stand before "Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak," with her wispy blond hair, brown eyes and apple cheeks. Such were Rembrandt's powers to evoke personhood that a soul emanates from this small canvas.

Across centuries and through the mystery of art you confront each other. Painted with love and assurance, she offers you both.

Richard Maschal is The Charlotte Observer's retired art critic.

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