A Resolution: Looking at the World like Rembrandt
Words from Museum Director Sarah Hall
I like to make sure that at least once a week I remind myself that I work at a museum (and not just a laptop) by walking through the galleries and spending time with the collection. Last Friday, it was a tiny etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) that cast its spell on me, The Peasant Family on the Tramp, from around 1652.
Here’s what I see when I look at this work. I see Rembrandt’s virtuosity in the medium—it is indeed an etching—made by working on a copper plate, but it has the immediacy and vibrancy of a drawing observed from life. In fact, another attempt at the man’s face, at the right of this image and perpendicular to the more finished composition, shows how Rembrandt’s etchings were spaces for thought. He’s using the etching plate much like others might use a sketch book. Rembrandt was trying things, experimenting, and reworking as necessary. Rembrandt’s etchings in particular show his minute observations of humanity (and, indeed they’re often also physically small).
He’s spent more time working on the male figure. We see he’s unshaven, and his hat is pulled low on his face. (The shadows suggest he’s walking into the sun.) His clothes are bulky—he’s dressed for warmth. A pack is on his back. I love the detail of the forked top of his walking stick, which feels somehow particularly personal to me. This is an actual man, and this is the stick that feels right in his hand. (In fact, the way Rembrandt has rendered the texture of the wood, it almost looks like a hand ready to clasp the man’s hand.) His other hand is holding onto his child by the forearm—which to me suggests a squirmy, active toddler who might dash off at any moment. The child looks at us, almost coyly—the look you get from children in restaurant high chairs when they notice they are being observed—the look of a little one ready to charm a new friend. As we run up against the edge of the print we see the child has a string in his/her other hand. Is he/she pulling a toy? A dog? We don’t know.
The way Rembrandt has isolated this group from any other context makes them less part of a particular place or time, and more representative of humanity in general. Perhaps looking at families in the real world like this—studying their postures, expressions, and interactions—informed Rembrandt’s other work. I say this because this group feels almost like a study of the Holy Family; It reminds me particularly of renderings of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Christ—when the two are portrayed as a weary, traveling couple. The mother’s face here is almost reverential, her bowed head exudes the peaceful, yet wistful sadness of Mary, who always bears the knowledge of her son’s future. Look closely to find the sweet surprise of a baby on her back—you can almost count the number of lines it takes to render that chubby face—nine? Ten? Rembrandt has worked with incredible assurance to sketch in the rest of the family around the more carefully delineated father figure. And he has, indeed, invested this group with both realism and a kind of holiness.
In my past job, directing a curatorial department, I would advise new employees working on label copy: Look for yourself first. Don’t read the file. Don’t google. Don’t head to the library. Go out and look at the art. Spend time. Take notes. Figure out your own thoughts—then go and read the thoughts of others. This way of looking at art—open minded, inquisitive, thoughtful, patient—is the way I feel Rembrandt looked at the world around him. This is why his works still touch us deeply.
Rembrandt has been described by one critic as exploring “glorious human disorder” and etchings like this were often criticized as being unworthy subject matter. Artists tend to get flack for showing us things we might rather avoid, no matter the century. So here’s my resolution for 2021—I’d like to take these months of greater introspection with me and look at the world more like Rembrandt. Look at others first with an appreciation for our shared humanity, and bring with it patience, sympathy, and understanding. I’d like to see us all, although battered by the pandemic, move into 2021 caring more for each other.
I mentioned that Rembrandt used his etching plate as a space for thought—I invite you to use the museum as your space for thought. Spending time with art is life-enhancing.
Wishing You a New Year filled with good health, good company, optimism, and of course, art.