AMSTERDAM – It is impossible to spend any significant time at all in this city, i.e., more than one day, and not be conscious of the influence and the sheer perennial presence of two of the greatest spirits who haunt it most persistently: Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent Van Gogh. I spent a lot of time here in the middle 2000s on business for Boeing’s commercial airplane division, working out of the inventory-planning offices, at Schiphol Airport, of KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines. In the process, I had ample time to visit all the great art museums in the city – the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum of modern / contemporary art. My wife and I also spent a lot of time here, partly on business when Diane occasionally accompanied me on my business trips and partly for pleasure. It remains our most frequented city in Europe.
This last trip during the first half of October was no exception. What I took away from this latest visit to Amsterdam was a persistent sense of moral insight regarding, not only the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, but also, and in a sense perhaps more importantly, of the way aficionados of those two great artists, no doubt inadvertently and unconsciously, often tend to patronize them when the people who appreciate their art sometimes merge their art with their biographies in a way that diminishes the stature of the latter. As I wandered around with Diane among the paintings of Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum and of Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum, it dawned on me that, like many lovers of their art, I, too, had allowed the art to paradoxically diminish the stature of the men who created it.
To an extent arguably greater than with any other great artists, people who think, teach, and talk about the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh almost always segue seamlessly into biography. Of course, this is true of any great painter or writer or composer. People who love and study the music of Beethoven cannot help but reflect on Beethoven’s progressively more severe deafness, a deafness than eventually drove him to cut the legs off his piano so the piano could lie flat on the floor and Beethoven could lie beside it, ear pressed to floor, and listen to his music via bone conduction as he composed. But it seems to me that the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh is intertwined with their respective biographies to an extent unequalled with the works of other artists. Alberto Giacometti was a great sculptor, but I know of no art critics who merge Giacometti’s works with his life to any degree remotely approximating the same seamlessness I encounter with Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Ditto Alexander Calder and his mobiles or Matisse and his cut-outs. We also similarly tend to keep Shakespeare separate from his plays. But it is much different with Rembrandt and Van Gogh, whose paintings are – to borrow a term coined by a late professor of mine at Tufts – “intrinsicated” with their biographies.
A mere stroll through Rembrandt's paintings in the Rijksmuseum or through those of Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum makes obvious the reasons for this symbiosis of art and artist: both Rembrandt and Van Gogh bequeathed to us an inheritance of self-portraits unexcelled, probably unequaled, by any other painter. For example, you will search in vain for any self-portrait by Vermeer among his bare few-dozen surviving works. (The one Vermeer that might, perhaps, be a self-portrait is a painting of an artist -- perhaps Vermeer, perhaps not -- seen from behind as the artist is painting a portrait of a subject.) By contrast, Rembrandt and Van Gogh used their faces as a means of reflecting on life, on the random effects of chance and circumstance, and of the effects of both on the artist -- not, it should be noted, in any narcissistic sense, but rather because they both seemed to consider themselves typical of the Universal Man. (Compare any of Rembrandt's or Van Gogh's self-portraits with the exercise in self-regard that just is the self-portrait commissioned by Donald Trump, and the difference will be slap-upside-the-head obvious.) This Universal-Man motif of their works positively invites biography. In fact, it would probably be possible to take all their self-portraits, arrange them chronologically, and, in the end, have a biography of both artists executed in the medium of pigment instead of print.
The question then becomes of how we react to both the artists and the art in light of that spectrum of their respective experiences. To address this question, we have to consider historical issues that lie outside the purview of the self-portraits. For example, it is important to remember that Rembrandt lived through the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Rembrandt was born in 1606 and died in 1669. The Thirty Years War began in 1618 and ended with the Treat of Westphalia in 1648. So Rembrandt's lifetime contained the entirety of this violent period when most of central Europe was consumed by the violence of unbridled religious passion. Entire cities and towns were devastated, many over and over again, by religious conflict. The Netherlands in general, and Amsterdam in particular, were largely untouched physically, but Rembrandt did live during the time of Holland's war of independence from Spain. He also lived during a time of the efflorescence of Dutch culture and economic prosperity. The first line of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities could be applied to Holland during this time: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". Both halves of this statement -- violence and peace, prosperity and poverty -- left their respective stamps on Rembrandt himself and on his work. Both are reflected in his self-portraits.
Analogous remarks apply to Van Gogh, who lived during a similar time of political and cultural flux. Van Gogh was born in 1853, immediately following the great political upheavals that shook Europe during the revolutions of 1848. He began to flourish as an artist during the time of the great aesthetic transformations occasioned by the impressionist movement. But this aesthetic revolution was not only, or even primarily, a greater freedom of line and color, but also, perhaps especially, of subject matter.
Like his impressionist cousins, Van Gogh began to paint subjects hitherto considered inappropriate for "serious" art: Belgian coal-miners in the Borinage region of southern Belgium, still lifes of well-worn wooden shoes commonly worn by Belgian and Dutch peasants, etc. He also began to paint outside: his studio was Nature itself, not Nature-inside-the-atelier. Both the subject matter and his free brushwork and use of impasto made his paintings enigmatic at best, ugly at worst, to the upper-class art collectors of Paris and Brussels. (As far as I have been able to determine, he sold -- perhaps -- only one of his paintings to a wealthy collector in Paris: his Red Vines depicting grape vines in a vineyard. And I am by no means certain of even that.) Also, like many of his impressionist cousins, his life was not the life of polite society that was expected by many upper-class artists. (Even before he became an artist full-time, he was summarily fired from his first job as a chaplain to the coal miners of the Borinage for not dressing the part of a representative of the Dutch Reformed Church: starched collar, cravat, waistcoat, and good shoes. Vincent had the scandalous idea that he should "incarnate" himself in the lives of the miners to whom he ministered by dressing, eating, and living as they did. His choice of an artist's life forever alienated him from his father, a rift that never healed.) Toulouse-Lautrec painted the bistro life of Paris, including advertisements for fashionable singers and impresarios. Van Gogh lived off the generosity of his brother Theo and Theo's wife Johanna. (We owe a debt of gratitude to the latter for the preservation of most of Van Gogh's work, and those works comprise the core of the Van Gogh Museum's collection. And if you have never seen the late Leonard Nimoy's one-man depiction of Theo and his response to his brother, by all means, run-don't-walk, locate it, and watch it.) Desperate for love and companionship, Vincent lived with a prostitute and her child for a time. His letters to Theo are often heart-wrenching in their desperation for a companion, a lover, or just a friend. (He famously held his bare hand over a candle flame while he addressed proposal of marriage to a distant cousin, Kee Vos, who rejected him.) But what strikes me again and again, as I wander through the self-portraits of both men, is that, in spite of poverty, in spite of rejection, in spite of social isolation -- they painted what they wanted to paint, not necessarily what others, potential clients / customers, wanted to see or what those clients / customers considered "suitable" or "appropriate". That was true of Rembrandt even during times of prosperity -- Rembrandt was forced to declare bankruptcy at least twice, perhaps three times -- and it was true of Van Gogh all his life, up until the fatal suicide gun-shot that ended his life and that culminated with his burial beside his beloved brother Theo. With both Rembrandt and Van Gogh, we see lives of uncompromised and uncompromising professional and aesthetic courage. Their self-portraits conclusively prove that courage has a face.
As should be obvious by now, I admire them both unreservedly and without qualification. The problem I am left with, however, is the reaction of art lovers -- myself included -- who, altogether understandably, empathize with both artists, but who allow this empathy to degenerate into something much less charitable, something that diminishes the stature of both men. I think Don McLean's song Starry, Starry Night captures just the right blend of empathy and pathos without, for all that, degenerating into pity. There is a fine line between empathy and pity, and I fear that, sometimes, we cross that line. Empathy is good. But pity belittles, infantilizes, and ultimately emasculates those against whom it is, often with the best of intentions, directed. What we admirers of Rembrandt and Van Gogh often to not understand -- and what we need to understand, perhaps more than anything else -- is that both Rembrandt and Van Gogh were men of towering strength who were determined to pursue their art at all cost. And who did so. Even with their talents and their gifts, I could never do what they did. They deserve admiration. They deserve respect. They deserve empathy. They do not deserve pity. They are far, far better than that.
They deserve better of us, their admirers.
James R. Cowles
Rembrandt self-portrait … National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC … Public domain
Rembrandt with feather … National Trust Collection, UK … Public domain
Young Rembrandt with gorget … hape662 … CC BY 2.0
Older Rembrandt … Richard Mortel … CC BY 2.0
Young Rembrandt in shadow … Ben Sutherland … CC BY 2.0
Elderly Rembrandt … Musee Granet … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Van Gogh in straw hat … Detroit Art Institute … Public domain
Van Gogh with bandaged ear and pipe … Kunsthaus Zurich … Public domain
Van Gogh in fedora and greatcoat … Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam … Public domain
Emaciated Van Gogh, painted by Gauguin … Fogg Museum … Public domain
Van Gogh self-portrait as painter … Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam … Public domain
Starry Night over the Rhone … Musee d'Orsay … Public domain
Slaughtered Ox … The Louvre, Paris … Public domain