A Novice’s View of the Master

The eyes, oh those incredible, penetrating eyes in Self-Portrait, 1659 tell the tale not simply of the artist but of the man. His expression draws you in, swiftly rolling back the centuries. I stood before the portrait and wondered how it was possible that coarse paint applied to stiff canvas more than 350 years ago could stir emotion in me. A sense of connection (with a touch of melancholy) swelled within as I looked at the portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn, painted in his later years when financial woes and personal tragedies had deeply scarred his life.

Approaching the painting, the very first in the exhibition, I knew I would gaze at a masterpiece.

I had heard curators speak of the artist’s incomparable skill, but it was not until I had a visceral response to the painting that I understood. Prior to that moment I could only imagine (admittedly rather skeptically) what they all had described as Rembrandt’s uncanny ability to show dignity, nobility, piety, or anguish to get to the soul of his subject.

Through precision in the finest details—the intricate lacework, the soft curls of fine blond hair, the thoughtful (and ofttimes piercing) gazes—we are invited into the moment. Unquestionably, a better understanding of the circumstances of Rembrandt’s work and the backdrop of the city of Amsterdam in that era enriches the appreciation of the works of art. (The audio tour or the UNC–TV documentary in the adjacent gallery does an incredible job of telling the story.) However, the Rembrandt in America experience is at its essence a personal, even evocative, encounter.

Look closely at the paintings; you will find yourself moved (and perhaps struck by the sense that many of the people depicted look as though they could step out of the frame and join you in the gallery). A master? No question. Even if, like me, you have not studied art history, you will leave with the absolute contentment of being in the presence of pure genius.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Andrew W. Mellon Collection; 1937.1.72

Melanie Davis-Jones is the Director of Marketing at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

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