Rembrandt’s Integrity by Garan Santicola from Catholic New York

A personal note by the content curator and the blogger Zahra:

” Rembrandt is part of the Blog today due to his interest towards the East/ South Asia. His fascination with the Mughal Painting, Emperor Shahjahan ( who ruled from 1628 to 58), and a body of work he produced inspired by the Mughal Court, Indo-Pak Subcontinent.”

Rembrandt – Self-Portrait, as a young man

Oct. 4 marks the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt van Rijn. Although the Dutch draughtsman, painter and printmaker enjoyed great success during his lifetime, he died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk, one of Amsterdam’s first churches built for Protestant worship. Twenty years later, his remains were removed and destroyed, which was customary treatment for the poor of that time.

Today, Rembrandt is considered one of the greatest artists in history, and exhibitions honoring him have been taking place around the world throughout this 350th anniversary year. The Met’s “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met” brings together some of the most important works in their extensive holdings of 17th-century Dutch art, and 11 of their 20 Rembrandt paintings take center stage here.

His portraiture features prominently in this exhibit, most notably a 1660 self-portrait painted when he was 54 years old. The heavy buildup of paint, used to create the wrinkles of age that accent his face, represents a style characteristic of his later period, when his art started to lose popularity in the Netherlands. Though his devotion to realism led him to depict his own physical imperfections in this self-portrait, the piece also reveals a proud artist determined to explore his craft regardless of the consequences. His eyes look anxious and weary yet also knowing and somewhat defiant, and his stolid posture, clenched jaw and pursed lips seem to convey stubborn resolve. The flamboyance of his enormous cap easily identifies him as an artist, combined with his aged appearance and steadfast demeanor, which infer autonomy and mastery of his craft.

A few years before this 1660 self-portrait, Rembrandt had to sell many of his most valuable possessions as a collector of art and antiquities. His bankruptcy was a result of living beyond his means. Inventories of his possessions demonstrate lavish expenditures but also speak to his appreciation for the work of others and his interest in great ideas.

One of the treasures inventoried in his possessions was a bust of Homer, which served as a model for his “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer,” a painting featured in the Met’s Dutch Masters exhibit. It depicts the figure of Aristotle standing beside the bust, resting his hand on its marble head, and gazing into the middle distance, lost in contemplation. In his book “Rembrandt and Homer,” art historian Herbert von Einem interprets the subject matter of the painting to reflect Rembrandt’s deep religiosity, writing, “The ancient theme breathes a Christian spirit.”

Rembrandt’s Aristotle was done on commission for Sicilian nobleman Don Antonio Ruffo. Aside from two subsequent works of lesser importance produced for Ruffo, Rembrandt’s Aristotle was his only known commission from a foreign collector. He completed the work in 1653, around the time when his popularity was beginning to fade in the Netherlands.

Though Rembrandt never left the Dutch Republic, he gained exposure to Italian Masters in the art market and learned of their techniques from Dutch painters who had studied in Italy, especially the Utrecht Caravaggisti. Conflicts of religion raged throughout Rembrandt’s life, and, like many during that time, he had both Catholic and Protestant influences. His art comfortably hovered between these two worlds, and he drew particular inspiration from Flemish Baroque Catholic painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Considering his wide array of influences, Rembrandt would have felt confident taking on the commission from Ruffo, who collected works of great masters regardless of nationality but who remained strongly influenced by the Italian artistic tradition. Rembrandt chose the subject matter, and the topic he settled on was likely intended to appeal to Ruffo’s Mediterranean background, given that themes of antiquity were popular in Italy throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

In his book “Rembrandt’s Aristotle and Other Rembrandt Studies,” art historian Julius S. Held contends that the painting represents a complex juxtaposition of ideals. A large gold chain hangs across Aristotle’s body from right shoulder to left hip, with a medal that dangles from the right side of the chain and displays the image of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s most famous pupil. The implication is that Alexander gave the gold chain to Aristotle, and, in that sense, the chain represents a great honor bestowed upon him. However, the chain also represents a kind of servitude because, by wearing it, Aristotle acknowledges that his status in life depends upon remaining in the good graces of this powerful ruler.

Aristotle, in fact, did not remain in the good graces of Alexander—they became estranged when Alexander executed a relative of Aristotle’s for conspiring against him. Held asserts that this history may have influenced Rembrandt’s melancholy depiction of Aristotle, who would certainly be ambivalent about having his status in life hinge on the whims of a vengeful ruler.

Homer represents an ideal for both Alexander and Aristotle. For Alexander, who carried a copy of the “Iliad” with him wherever he went, it was the ideal of honor personified by the heroes of Homer’s stories. For Aristotle, it was an aesthetic ideal summed up in his “Poetics,” wherein Homer’s work stands as the measure for artistic achievement. Amid this dynamic, we can imagine the figure of Aristotle measuring the transient honors bestowed by Alexander against the timeless achievements of Homer.

Held relates this meditation to the life of Rembrandt, showing how he faced the same dilemma as Aristotle. Held writes of Rembrandt, “The greatness of his art, in the last analysis, is due to this fact: that it is the work of a man who never compromised, who never permitted himself to be burdened with a chain of honor, and fiercely maintained both the integrity of his art and his freedom as a man.”

This path of integrity contributed to Rembrandt’s hardships in the later part of his career. But that is also a period when he produced some of his most brilliant works, including the two mentioned here, which tell stories that lay bare complex human situations and reveal the soul of a man willing to suffer to create art that is true and stands the test of time.


The Gazi Scroll of West Bengal

Painted on paper, mounted on cotton, scrolls such as these were used as visual props in storytelling performances in India approximately around 1800 AD.

Handprinted in Murshidabad, this scroll is around 13 meters in length, with 54 frames which narrate the story of Gazi and Manik – two Muslim saints or pirs. 

Patua scroll artists use natural colours borrowed from leaves and fruits to create art work.


Exhibition unveils influence of Ottoman culture on Western artists


Early examples of the cultural and artistic exchange between the East and the West in a new exhibition, ‘The Sultan’s World,’ in Brussels illustrate how Ottomans were depicted in Western art

While leafing through books on world history, one might come upon the famous portrait of Mehmed the Conquer by renowned Italian artist Gentile Bellini, depicting the sultan under a carved stone arch, a symbol of power since the Roman period. Commissioned by the Venetian Republic to paint portraits of the sultan and his court, Bellini was one of the first Western artists to travel to Istanbul and was a source of inspiration for his following counterparts.

The exhibition “The Sultan’s World: The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art” explores the perception of Renaissance artists who reflected an imperial culture in their works. It is at the Center for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels until May 31. The exhibition contains works from notable Renaissance artists such as Bellini, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Memling, Paolo Veronese and Titian. Organized within the context of the EU-supported project Ottomans and Europeans, the exhibition showcases nearly 160 works of art and precious objects including Ottoman weaponry, scientific instruments and manuscripts. Opened on February 27, “The Sultan’s World” shows a fascinating mutual attraction and cultural exchange that deserves to be covered in depth.

Italian painter Tititan’s “La Sultana Rossa” is a striking example of how elite Ottoman women like the daughters of sultans were represented in 16th century High Renaissance art celebrating aesthetics and soft colors on canvas. Billed as the first art historian, Giorgio Vasari identified the woman in the painting as Roxelana, also known as Hürrem Sultan, the beloved wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Her royal velvet attire, jeweled bracelet and headdress adorned with pearls and sapphires are enough to create an exotic mystique, also seen in other paintings from the period. The imagined portrait makes reference to status and political significance with Roxelana’s confident gaze and a marten on her hand. Indeed, animals in paintings sometimes suggest wealth and nobility as seen in Da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.”

The next item, a tulip description by Swiss botanist and 16th century encyclopedist Conrad Gessner shows that the interaction between the East and the West was not limited to cultural artistic exchange, but also through the geographical influence. According to historical accounts, the first tulips in Europe were described by Gessner, who saw them in a garden of an Austrian magistrate. German diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq is believed to have brought the first tulip bulb to Europe from Istanbul in the same century. In her literary critique “Beyond East and West: The Language of Tulips” exclusively written for the exhibition, renowned author Elif Şafak said: “While cultural/political teachings divide us into mental categories of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the tulip, in its modesty and simplicity, reminds us of our common humanity. The tulip speaks the ancient language of poetry. Anyone can understand this language, East or West; Christian, Muslim, Jewish or agnostic. … The flower reminds us that even during times of conflict and confusion, and perhaps especially during times of conflict and confusion, there are values that remain basic and common to all of us, and these are values that no dogma or prejudice can take away from our souls.”

A glance at certain Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli, one of the most acclaimed Italian painters from the Florence School reveals an interesting component of European paintings – Islamic carpets. Botticelli’s portrait of poet Cristoforo Landino and author Federico da Montefeltro features a Holbein carpet. Named after German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who depicted a similar carpet in one of his works, the carpets were woven in Anatolia in the 14th century and became popular in Europe a century later. The images of these priceless textiles were first seen in religious paintings and later in portraits, as an indication of high social and economic status.