humanities: visual art: baroque, including the transition from renaissance to baroque: part iii

Humanities: Visual Art: Baroque, Including the Transition from Renaissance to Baroque: Part III

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Humanities: Visual Art: Baroque, Including the Transition

from Renaissance to Baroque:Part III

Rembrandt and his exploration of an important Baroque theme: Vision and Blindness

The next several works by Rembrandt involve the theme of blindness. Sight is extremely important to most of us: one would imagine that to visual artists its importance would be even greater. Rembrandt is noted, respected, and beloved because he seems to be able to reveal character through his use of light and surface texture: through appearances. To dwell on the fact of blindness, as many of Rembrandts works do, suggests, perhaps, a recognition that what we perceive with our eyes is only one facet of reality. Rembrandt is revered by many in part because his works – especially those from his later, more mature years – convey a very subtle and sophisticated sense of the inner life of his subjects. One could well compare Rembrandt’s “invention” of an inner life for his characters with Shakespeare’s achievements in exploring the self. Both were “artists” who repeatedly explored the territory between appearance and reality.

Later in the year, I hope we will get a chance to see works by an artist – Pablo Picasso - as important to his own time, the 20 th century, as Rembrandt was to his – who was obsessed both by Rembrandt and by this same theme of blindness. (Both seem to have had outstanding vision! – at least, so far as I can see!) In any case, Rembrandt’s concern with vision and blindness was not just a personal quirk. I’ve included a painting by a less well-known (late) Baroque artist, the Italian Luca Giordano, that explores the same theme, along with a sophisticated three-dimensional “peepshow” device by a Dutch painter known for his images of domestic (household) interiors. The theme of blindness and possibly the insight of those who cannot see everyday reality certainly might carry weighty significance. One of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings is Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. In this work, the famous philosopher, known for his interest in the actual physical world, taking that world as a starting point for his activity of categorizing and ordering, seems to connect in a spiritual way to the bust of the blind Homer, touchstone of classical Greek culture. It’s as if Aristotle were contemplating not just Homer, but the nature of wisdom and knowledge. Around his neck, Aristotle wears a medallion bearing the portrait of his most famous student, Alexander the Great. Thus, the painting, through this small and easily overlooked (especially in a powerpoint reproduction!) detail, suggests the immense “other” world of power, politics, and battle – other, that is, in contrast to the world of quiet contemplation and search for truth and beauty.

In Jacob Blesses the Sons of Joseph, Rembrandt takes his subject from Genesis. Joseph, Jacob’s youngest and most beloved son, has two sons of his own: Manasseh and Ephraim. Manasseh is the elder, and therefore, according to tradition, the one worthy of his grandfather Jacob’s greater blessing, the one he will give with his right hand. But the old Jacob’s sight is dim, and Joseph believes that Jacob is erring as he goes to bless the younger Ephraim with the favored right hand. As Joseph tries to correct him, Joseph rebuffs him, making it clear that he is making this “mistake” purposely: he foresees that Ephraim is to be greater than his elder brother. One suggestion here is that dimming vision is compensated for by inner sense, the ability to foretell the future.

There is a dramatic contrast between the calm and subtle aspect of this late painting, similar in its quiet tone to Aristotle, and Rembrandt’s much earlier, and much more melodramatic, depiction of the Old Testament story of the blinding, at the hands of the Philistines, of the strongman and hero Samson. This is part of a larger pattern: it is well accepted that Rembrandt’s style developed greatly over the years, and that his later works involve less action and deeper exploration of rather subtle yet still powerful psychological states.

The next few images then explore the story of Tobit (told in the Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha – meaning the material not entirely accepted into the Bible, and of questionable origin and legitimacy). Tobit, a righteous Israelite, goes blind when, sleeping outside, droppings from sparrows fall in his eyes. (I don’t think this was what Hamlet meant when he said “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow!”) Tobit’s blindness causes him great grief, and at one point he prays for death. But meanwhile, he has sent his son Tobias on an important errand which will culminate in his son’s betrothal to the daughter of a kinsman; his son will also be guided, along the way, by the angel Raphael who will also direct him to gather materials that will, in the end, restore his father Tobit’s sight.