Rembrandt, Pt. 3 – Lessons from the Master: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits and Me

This month of July marks the 406th birthday of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn(July 15, 1606 – October 4, 1669), a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history.

To commemorate, guest blogger, Julie Silander, has offered posts for three weeks, exploring various aspects of this genius’ work. See July 2 post for her first; July 9 for her second.

Ms. Silander lives in Charlotte with her husband, David, and the four of their five children still at home.

Art was one of those classes I took to offset my load of “real” course work. The teacher was straight out of the textbook. Perhaps my memory is tainted, but he really did look like Van Gogh, minus the bandaged ear. He was a quirky, melancholy, disheveled man who became highly animated when he talked about artwork. I don’t remember much from class other than sketching leaves, a tennis shoe, and shadowed 3-dimensional blocks. The most lasting instruction I received from Van Gogh was: “Don’t ever say that a painting is pretty.” The humble beginnings of my art appreciation education.

One of the perks of our homeschooling lifestyle is the freedom, flexibility, and capacity to step out of the mainstream pace of life and delve deeply into whatever we’re studying. We’ve begun a (one-sided) relationship with Rembrandt Van Rijn. As with any relationship, we’re in the early stages of turning over various pieces of the puzzle of his life and artwork, and studying them individually. Each gives a glimpse of the larger, finished project. As a side note, I’m struck that even if we had lived down the street from him, shared dinners and holidays, and had the ability to talk with him over a hot cup of Dutch koffie, we’d still limited in how well we could know him. That’s just the way we’re created – as a bottomless box of puzzle pieces. No matter how many are plucked out, studied, and meticulously rearranged, only the Creator has the vision to see us in our entirety. I find it somewhat humorous that we think we have each other “figured out.”

But back to Rembrandt… One of the puzzle pieces we’ve pulled out of the box is his uncanny use of light and shadow. Another is his tendency to buck the convention of the time when painting groups of people. Rather than paint a series of portraits all on the same canvas, he created a storyline of characters. His paintings evoke emotion and questions: “What were they talking about?” “Who was the man in the shadows?” “What was she feeling?” The famous Night Watch was one of those controversial paintings in which Rembrandt created a compelling scene rather than a string of flat portraits. Not all of his subjects were pleased. Some actually demanded their money back.

Personally, one of the most compelling pieces of the Rembrandt puzzle has been his remarkable insight into human emotion. His paintings draw you to the souls of the subject. This unique characteristic of his artwork leaves us with an obvious question: How did he know so much about the nature of people?

In the 50 years of Rembrandt’s career, he produced more than 90 self-portraits. He became a student of himself – not only studying the detail of his physical being, but also exploring the complexities and diversity of human emotion. His discovery of self was not rooted in self-absorption. Artists who were narcissistic tended to paint themselves repeatedly in their best form. Rembrandt, however, exposed his heart as both kind and enraged, his mind as both theatrical and analytical, and his disposition as both carefree and pensive. He used self-study as a tool to gain insight into the full range of the human condition. And the result was his remarkable ability to capture an extensive range emotional and psychological aspects on canvas. He deliberately explored and discovered self for the purpose of gaining in-depth insight into others.

So what lesson can we learn from the master?

We live in a society that has written reams of self-help books, booming syndication of Dr. Phil and Oprah, and promises fulfillment if only you can identify and achieve whatever it is that makes you happy. Self-examination and self-help are in vogue. However, I’d argue that the motivation and methodology behind most of today’s approaches to self-exploration differ greatly from Rembrandt’s. And from the Master’s as well.

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:4-5

Having an accurate self-assessment is one of the first steps to loving others well. We all have some form of plank that blocks our view. The plank can take the form of arrogance or shame. It can masquerade as intellect, discernment, religion, or volunteer service. It’s anything that distorts the Truth of who we are, and it in turn distorts our view of others. If we’re willing to acknowledge the plank, then to have it removed bit by bit, the process is painful yet the result is freeing. I’ve shared a bit of my own journey here, and I hope to continue undergoing the process of log-extraction as long as I have breath. Although there will always be remnants of the log this side of heaven, our eyesight can be greatly restored.

As we begin to see more clearly, we are enabled to love others in a way that more closely resembles the love of the Father. We can begin to get ourselves out the way, and let Him love others through us.

[If you apprecate Rembrandt’s self-portratits, check the short video at this link:]


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Filed under Art, Jesus, Mental health

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