Rembrandt at the de Young
After seeing a Rembrandt at the Frick in New York City in the 80's, I decided that he was the greatest painter of all time.
On a trip to the UK when I was in my 20s, my husband and I took a day trip to Cambridge where we stumbled upon an exhibit of Rembrandt pen and ink drawings. They lay in tables under glass and velvet. You had to slide the velvet back to view the piece and then replace it as you were done, one by one. The work was astounding. There was no one there. I felt extraordinarily lucky to see these. (I had seen some of this before, my mom had a book on Rembrandt etchings and drawings, and I had taken a lot of art history classes, but sometimes there's a right time to see something.)
The way Rembrandt shows so much with the flick of a pen, the variance in line weight, it's always so real and has so much emotion. I think my husband eventually went to wait outside an,d as a dutiful wife, I lingered just a while longer – stayed as long as I dared. I could've stayed all day if I was by myself.
Now that portrait – Rembrandt is young (at 23?) and confident. He has his future ahead of him. It has dramatic lighting and is also glowing. (perhaps they just cleaned it – I noticed one of the others seem to have too much varnish on it. )
Somehow though, it clearly conveys his feelings to the viewer – well to me – I feel as if he is speaking to me through the centuries, artist to-artist. And if I may sound totally cocky – I feel like the painting was there just for me. Perhaps the painting affects everyone like that, as a personal communication. The curators probably got the same reaction. (There is nothing like an artist self-portrait because their mind is on the canvas with nothing between it and you.)
[May I say how I'd like to vaporize anyone wearing an audio device in museums? I understand they want to learn but it's a distraction from the visual sense: they are not seeing, they are not feeling. They also stand too long in the wrong places. It's all I can do to skim the wall statements when I see a gorgeous object in my peripheral vision.]
When I saw a young self-portrait in Edinburgh (at 26?), I felt, "yeah, you and me both – I'm going to try to make great paintings too." I always felt my best skill was in creating a feeling and making something feel real – especially with portraits.
Now I feel differently. Even know I have finally cleared out time to make art – I'm on the far side – I'm not good enough, I don't have enough time, my eyes aren't good enough. Even though I'm painting better than ever and it's easier than ever. Effortless.
Rembrandt had such confidence. If you look at the incredibly regular hatch marks on the edgings at the De Young (they assembled Rembrandt's etchings all over the place next to other artists' etchings), Rembrandt draws lines that are technically wonderful but you don't get a sense that he's trying to make straight lines as you do feel with most of the others' etchings. He's just making a drawing.
Today I wish they had the Rembrandt self-portrait that I saw a Glasgow -- he's 51, nearer the end of his life, and dissolute and depressed and sad. And the feeling is right on the canvas if you give it a minute to speak to you.
I feel more like that painting right now (but without the masterpieces behind me).