I recently visited the Getty Center in Santa Monica and had the wonderful experience of seeing two spectacular Rembrandt paintings currently on display there. There is something truly different about a Rembrandt. They radiate a kind of power that reverberates throughout a room.
What was really interesting about these two particular pieces is that they were placed side by side in the museum, and were painted roughly thirty years apart in Rembrandt’s career. “An Old Man in Military Costume,” was painted in Rembrandt’s mid 20’s (my age!), and “St. Bartholomew” was painted when he was in his 50’s. “Old Man” showed all the hallmarks of a young prodigy. The sheer technical skill employed in the creation of this portrait is staggering. I couldn’t get over his highlights- they were so delicately applied, in an almost ethereal fashion that they felt just like real light. There is a sort of delight in all the various textures of the feathered cap contrasted against the smooth refracting surface of the armor, compared again to the light touches of hair in the man’s beard.
“St. Bartholomew,” on the other hand, showcased pure emotion. No unnecessary trappings were allowed to stand in the way of mood and drama. The clothes appeared to be quickly painted, with broad strokes punctuated by short staccato ones, especially in the areas of the cape and the shirt. The expression on the face seemed worn, melancholic and deeply human.
Placed side by side, I’d have to say I prefer “St. Bartholomew.” There was a incredibly vital connection present that I think trumps all the virtuoso aspects of “Old Man in Military Costume.” It’s as if, thirty years later, Rembrandt already knew he could pull off the trick of creating reality on canvas and it no longer held sway over his aesthetic choices.
I doubt I’ll ever reach what Rembrandt achieved in his 20’s by the time I am in my 50’s. But what is inspiring about this pair of portraits is that no matter how far one travels in the odyssey that is an artistic practice, there are always loftier, more majestic peaks to climb.