I am sitting in my living room, cup of hot tea at my side, as I read Simon Schama’s lengthy biography of my favorite painter, entitled Rembrandt’s Eyes. The details are wonderful. Today, I am reading about how Rembrandt reinvented portraiture.
Other great portrait painters of his time, like Anthony van Dyck, were masters of what the author calls “gorgeous lies” – making ordinary people into “idealized pastoral and classical beauties.” Rembrandt rejected this. He simplified the backgrounds, eliminated ornate trappings and focused on summing up a person with basic elements: faces, hands and an occasional object.
He wanted real people to emerge from his brushwork.
As proof, the author shows an early Rembrandt rendering of a sable merchant, Portrait of Nicholaes Ruts. In it, we get a strong sense of the intensity of the businessman, with a hint of sadness. It is masterfully done. I’m not surprised to read that the painting was eventually purchased by J. P. Morgan.
When I have tried, in my career as an illustrator, to undertake a portrait, I have only mimicked a likeness. At best. The essence has always escaped me, probably because I didn’t pick the pose. It’s incredibly hard to get the spirit of a person in a single pose.
And yet, sadly, we think we’re masters at it. We glance at someone – passing on a street, sitting near us in church – and judge the whole of his or her character by that moment. The clothes. The body language. The angle of the eyebrows. The smile (or lack thereof).
I catch myself doing it all the time. It’s one of the greatest, most hypocritical “planks” in the way I see. How dare someone do it to me! Wait -- I’m not angry – this is just my resting face!
Two things are needed for an accurate mental portrait: time and attention. Rushing to frame up someone will always make a poor rendering.
Father, forgive the times I’ve made a rough sketch in my mind of someone and called it a finished portrait. I should know better. Slow me down and help me to engage people, to listen to them, to wait for nuance to surface. Give me glimpses of who they really are, so that I can bless them in your name.