Sunday, February 19, 2012

'Gawd he copied ME!' In part 1 Rembrandt speaks out about his copyists

(Joni) I’m not sure where to start – so let’s try a phenomenological interview.  What was it like Rembrandt to watch your canvas drink up black – an image given by Joseph Heller in his book Picture This?

(Rembrandt) Well – to build up form you need the dance of dark and light – Caravaggio…

Allow the canvas to drink more black and the light emanates from a different spot?

It is in the juxtaposition of light and dark. I aimed in my work to give the greatest and most natural movement of it.  Can you not see it more clearly in my etchings?

Yes – it’s stark for instance in the portrait etching of Jan Six…those velvet blacks heavily etched beside the non worked and non inked areas – left as light.  These areas of negation and of silence I have always found to be metaphysical.
Heller wrongly calls the picture he writes about as ‘Socrates contemplating the bust of Homer’ – as it is actually the painter ‘Apelles contemplating the bust of Homer’ – well according to Schama.

The subject matters not – what is important is that the viewer can go into reverie in front of the painting and he imagines it as whatever he wants. I’m not at all miffed.

It was suggested by the historian Simon Schama in his book Rembrandt's Eyes that you identified with Apelles, worked as he did – projecting from the surface and keeping your palette close to what he used – the four colours of black, white, ochre and earth red?

Could be another reverie…

Yes I find that he goes into free association in front of your pictures.  Your Dutch contemporaries had little time for reverie or imaginatively finishing off your pictures – other than Huygens and he was one of your best viewers. 

Idealism and smooth surfaces were ‘de rigeur’ just when I wanted to paint in a freer rougher style. Jan Six too was unhappy with his painted portrait and did not commission me for the painting of his wife’s portrait when he married.  I made the passages closest to the viewer the freest in handling.  But there was also the finest of details in other passages.  More and more I wanted the brushwork to convey the essence of the sitter. 

Can you tell me about what it was like for you when your students became more popular for painting more like Rembrandt?

What do you think it was like!  What a question! 

That’s the phenomenological approach – that I know nothing.  I need you to describe what your experience is.

My experience?  Can you not imagine?  Famous and assuming that I would be rich – set up for life – and then reduced to poverty because of what is popular and that is what I had made popular at one point.  Had I painted what was popular I would have made the sales – I was driven to paint other than what was popular.

Tell me about what drove you?

It was not money!  If I had been driven by money matters, I would have painted what was popular and what would sell – what they thought was ‘Rembrandt’.  I was not allowed to develop as an artist …

I realize that so many of your biographers portray you as the prodigal.  You depicted yourself as the prodigal with your wife Saskia as your whore.

I beg your pardon…immersing ourselves in the roles we were playing. We had fun with that one. I also took on the roles of beggar, king, executioner, immersing myself in the ‘experience’.  A painter can do that!  Painting a history or someone’s portrait, you begin to live with the image as you apply the pigment and glazea part of you goes into that as well and not just through the gesture of painting.  You put on you take off – much like clothing.  And you form your favorite way of putting on taking off – what some call ‘style’.  And really it’s what you feel comfortable with.  What your soul wants to live with – as a painter I tried on different clothes or different roles.

Can you tell me more about what was comfortable for you to live with both in role and as style?

I retract the word ‘comfortable’.  Sometimes I was neither comfortable with the roles put on nor painting.  The portrait as prodigal for instance – seemed as a dark omen now.  But painting - playing with it this way and that – getting it right – you put on you take off – then there comes a time when it seems to be working and you like it and you think you’ve done that passage here well.  But the beauty of it is that you can change it – unlike the mistakes of life which you find you can’t take back.

Did you want to elaborate about that?

Certainly not! – We’ll stick to painting… because the surface is so manipulative – and there are the possibilities to rework and change – your confidence grows.  You feel you can do anything…for instance the way I drastically cut down and reworked the Claudius Civilis from a 6 metre painting to something measuring 196 by 309-cmIt was torture but I did it because I had to make a quick sale after the Town Hall patrons refused to hang it in the place for which it had been commissioned. It was too unconventional!  Cut down it became a better painting, more confrontational with the figures pushed up to the frontal plane; and Claudius cuts a truly dynamic figure with his third eye gleaming from the jewel in the headdress. Claudius only has one eye staring into space and the other is a gashed cicatrice… ‘But if thy eye be single…’


‘If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be filled with light.’

That drove you most of your painting life!

Yes – the message is so overt in one painting. But there were others where the eyes were hidden, or the eyes were shut and still I managed to convey that the body was filled with light.

You take my breath away.

Thank you – dear… but I wanted to do the opposite.  Put the breath into the figures – bring the subject to life. Today they live.  No one remembers Govert Flinck.

Indeed no one remembers. With the Claudius Civilus, Flinck had won the commission for the work on the Town Hall - 8 huge paintings depicting scenes from Tacitus’ ‘History of Batavian Revolt against the Romans’.  But Flinck unexpectedly died with only the preliminary drawings executed –

What fabulous luck and I was among three artists taken on to finish the commission!

(Extracted from a phenomenological interview with the painter in 2005)


  1. Joni, I can just picture you having this conversation with Rembrandt. I love it!

    What does, 'If thy eye be single...' mean? To be focused?

    Hadn't heard of Govert Flinck, but just looked up some of his work. The short bit of information included mentioned that after studying with Rembrandt that he had a hard time 'unlearning' Rembrandt's style and that is why so many of his works are mistaken as Rembrandt's. I wonder what his work looked like before he studied with Rembrandt? Possibly a blessing and a curse that he studied with such a Master before finding his own voice? He must have had the natural talent, but then for some reason not able to carry on in his own style. Wonder if it made his life sad living in the shadow of another, having all of that talent of ones own, but imitating, whether consciously or unconsciously, the work of another? Hmmmmm....

    Great thought for the day;-)Thanks Joni.

  2. 'If thy eye be single' could refer to the third eye - in any case it refers to inner sight. I think it's the 'great' artists who are able to leave behind any early influences (according to Schama Rembrandt was in awe of Rubens' success and wanted to imitate Rubens at the start of his career) and forge their own style irrespective of teachers or mentors...Flinck was unable to do this and preferred to paint 'safe'.