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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rembrandt and Hals

The Night Watch, 1642, Rembrandt van Rijn
When we think of great painters like Rembrandt or Frans Hals, it is with a deep respect, perhaps approaching awe. We are overwhelmed by their power to tell a story, strike a mood, compose a picture, or handle paint with a seeming ease that approaches "magic". They are legends and when we think of them, it is usually their surviving works we think about far more than the artists themselves. Rembrandt's Night Watch or one of Hals rollicking barroom characters come mind. Only secondarily do we place a face with the name of an artist, and then only if that individual (as in Rembrandt's case) left behind a self-portrait (or series of them) for us to remember them by. In Frans Hals' case, I have no idea what he looked like.

Jester with a Lute, 1620-25, Frans Hals
It is hard for us to realize how these men were seen by those who lived at the same time as they did, ate with them, talked with them, argued with them, or bought their paintings. It is hard for us to realize that they were once students--brash young men, that they traveled abroad to learn their art, that they rose from obscurity, or that they had a "heyday" and then fell from fashion and favor in their declining years. These men painted their "souls" onto canvas, not their biographies.   
Yet both men followed roughly the career outline mentioned above. We are perplexed to wonder how the work of a master like Rembrandt Van Rijn could ever be "out of fashion." How could tastes be so fickle? How could the freshness and spirited excitement of Hals's oil sketches of pleasure-seeking carousers possibly be seen as "old fashioned?" What were they, fashion designers? No, it comes down to the fact that they were themselves, stable, lasting, artistic forces to be reckoned with, moving forward,  not zigzagging around pursuing public adulation like movie stars or politicians. That is why their work, not their personalities has survived as monuments, not a string of fads.     

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