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Episode 39: Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh (1632)

You know those people who just seem like they were born old?  Those teachers, grandparents, neighbors – it’s so hard to imagine them ever having their own childhoods.  It’s like they just exist to be authority figures, to nurture our youth, to preserve the old way of things, to face old age with dignity.  It’s hard to imagine them unwrinkled, light with inexperience.  And it’s not just how we younger people perceive them; often they’re leaning into their age because they themselves felt like they were always old souls, born to be old and finally just hitting their stride once the gray hairs appear.  And I’ve always appreciated the symbiosis between myself and the people holding up that end of the timeline, for the same reason there’s no safer place than a week with grandma and grandpa.  After all, we couldn’t be young if there wasn’t someone who always seemed old, even if there are, inevitably, fewer of those people as we get older, and we start to realize that just maybe there’s an invisible belt beneath our feet, slowly and silently moving us towards them.

I won’t rehash the philosophies on aging that I spouted in episode 23, when we looked at those amped-up Italian Futurists who never outgrew their adolescence.  But the fact is that there’s just no way to really look at Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch Old Master nonpareil, without reflecting on age.  Both his age – his own lifetime where he always seemed born to be old – and aging in general.  And the most obvious reason for this is that he painted a lot of old people, regardless of where he was in his own lifetime.  It was like he knew that an older face told a different, valuable kind of story, from this woman, Aeltje Uylanburgh, whom he knew when he was a much younger man, to a series old men of biblical stories, all in various, poignant states of comeuppance and acceptance, to himself as an old man.  Especially himself as an old man.  In fact, the period of his work that people are most familiar with is this series of his old man self-portraits, which were depicted with dark, moody backgrounds, warmly-lit subjects, and skin tones so built up and textured, it’s almost like you could pick away half the paint with your fingernail and the face would all come sloughing off.  These self-portraits are soulful, and they’re sad.  They’re paintings of dignified vulnerability, of confronting the quiet lessons of a live lived.  And they’re also the paintings that solidified Rembrandt’s reputation as an old master of the highest order – their emotionalism might have been out of style in the 1660s, when they were painted, but they still prompted 19th century artists like Vincent Van Gogh, one of the many, many artists who considered themselves his acolyte when it came to conveying expressiveness, to write, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.” 

These would have been deeply heartening words for Rembrandt to hear about his own legacy, because if in fact you know anything about his biography, then you’ll know that the last decade of his life lived, which ended in 1669 at the age of 63, and when he was doing this most expressive and affecting work, was a period of tremendous personal and professional loss.  By the second half of his life, he had outlived both his wife Saskia, and the partner who followed her, as well as four of his five children.  He’d blown through the professional superstardom and fortune he’d garnered during the first half of his life as Amsterdam’s virtuoso portraitist, and was ultimately buried in an unmarked, rented grave, penniless, unknown, and alone. 

And we’re used to the tragedy of artists having no sense in life of how famous they would ultimately be in death – I mean, hello Van Gogh – but there’s a special kind of sympathy we should reserve for artists who experienced the meteoric success that comes from their own once-in-a-generation talent, and then saw themselves plummet back to the ground once tastes and circumstances changed.  It’s excruciating to watch the rise and fall of an artist like Rembrandt – who possessed this kind talent for rendering the human experience with so much exquisite technical nuance and compassion – especially when his fall was largely his fault: the result of years of mismanaging the money he’d made in his glory days, like so many subjects of VH1’s Behind the Music.  But this God-given ability to render the human figure with this exquisite technical nuance is what led to Rembrandt’s rise, especially in the city and period that he lived in, which we’ll dive into, and without which, he’d never have had the opportunity to be Rembrandt.  And you could argue that the compassion, on the other hand, came later, after the fall, and, well, with age. 

But put a pin in all that.  Let’s first transport ourselves to back 1632, the year that this portrait of Aeltje Uylanburgh was painted, when Rembrandt was 26 years old.  He had just moved to Amsterdam from his hometown of Leiden, young and eager and with ten years of training under his belt – both in painting and in studying classical and biblical literature.  Amsterdam during this time was already well into what would be called the Dutch Golden Age, a period of Dutch political and cultural dominance that spanned the 17th century.  Having gotten out from under Spain’s thumb, which would be formalized in the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the Netherlands were optimally positioned to thrive from a geographic standpoint, newly independent, and, crucially, in control of their port cities.  This control served to open up significant trade, notably with the Far East.  The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, the first ever multi-national corporation, whose revenue went on to fund the first modern stock exchange.  Money and security was flowing into the country hand over fist, bolstered by a heady sense of national pride from their newfound independence, and a strong cultural proclivity towards religious and intellectual tolerance – so long as you were Protestant or Calvinist (Catholics and their gaudy Counter-Reformation art need not apply).  In sum, the Dutch during this period set the stage for a modern capitalist society, one where money, not religion, determined social mobility, and one where a thriving middle class decided for themselves what their own preferences were, how they wanted to worship, where they wanted to park their money, how they wanted to decorate their homes, and how they wanted to see themselves.  And you can imagine how all of these factors combined couldn’t help but create the first modern art market, also known as the Golden Age of Dutch Painting.

The art from this period, which included the work of Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Frans Has, Judith Leyster, and many others, was created squarely for this newly flush, Protestant middle class had wanted to distance themselves from the art that had been wholly owned and produced by the Catholic church.  In other words, they were commissioning and buying art that they could quite literally hang over their couches – art that was more modest in size, scale, and subject matter.  They were largely scenes of their empirical everyday life: still lives of all the flowers and fruit and jeweled combs they could now afford; scenes of civic life, households, cheersing tavern-dwellers making merry, even epic seascapes that spoke to their newfound mastery over their own ports.  There were so many new artistic genres flying off studio walls that this also became the period that formally identified distinct painting types, presented in the “hierarchy of genres” – the hierarchy ranging from most to least prestigious for an artist to be able to master. 

At the top was the history painting, the only genre not to pull from observable life, which was usually an enormous biblical, mythological, or allegorical narrative scene containing many figures, and often a didactic lesson of sorts.  Then came portraiture, a closely observed depiction of a particular person, which takes a unique gift for accuracy, and which we’ll obviously be coming back to.  Then came genre painting, which is a harder-to-classify depiction of those scenes of everyday life, everything from domestic scenes to militia on guard to those raucous pub scenes.  Then came landscape painting, one up from the bottom, produced by the art world’s working-class heroes, which often contained those observed seascapes and cityscapes, but without the additional pressure of capturing faces.  And bringing up the rear was the lowly still life: expressionless objects that stay put for young artists, often students, to cut their teeth on as they move up the ladder.  Of course, any artist both then and now would be the first to tell you that prestigious doesn’t necessarily translate into sellable, and that if you want to be an artist who makes a decent living, specialize in still life.  Or, if you happen to be a preternaturally gifted draftsman with virtuosic sensitivity and an almost freakish control of your paintbrush, like, say, Rembrandt was, then specialize in portraiture.

Right out of the gate, Rembrandt was a portrait game-changer.  In a period where, as I said, the goal was to see yourself, your wealth, and your life lived depicted on a Protestant Reformation-style commissioned canvas, there wasn’t as much of a demand for artistry as there was for accuracy.  Tell my story right, not necessarily with a lot of soul.  You can see Rembrandt’s imprint on Dutch art in his early genre paintings, those scenes of everyday life, specifically in “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Talp,” also from 1632.  For comparison’s sake, consider other versions of this subject matter, like Pieter van Mierevelt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer” from 1617: both canvases depict medical students gathered around a doctor who is dissecting a corpse, all modeled after the original anatomical plates published by the Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius.  But the difference between the two paintings is striking.  In Mierevelt’s, it’s like they’re all posing for a class photo, with their intellectual seriousness and, I should add, the gruesome viscera of the corpse, on full display.  Compare this to the students of Rembrandt’s Dr. Talp: they’re actually interested in what’s going on inside the scene, and inside that body.  They’re looking at Dr. Talp, and the far less graphic anatomy of the corpse’s arm and hand, with intense, expressive, and individualized fascination.  Dr. Talp is shown mid-sentence, in the act of teaching, not just in the act of being an authority figure.  And there’s an incredible modernness to this way of painting someone’s portrait, this sense of catching them in the moment, that would ultimately set the gold standard for artists like Degas and Sargent in the later 19th century, artists who revolutionized the modern portrait with their artistic sensitivity for capturing the subjective je n’ais se quoi who a person is, not just what they looked like.  Listen again to episodes 4 and 11 on later-19th century portraiture and you’ll see Rembrandt’s fingerprints all over it.  And this modernness calls to mind another painting at the MFA, Rembrandt’s modest, powerful “Artist in his Studio” from around 1628.  He presents the artist as a diminutive figure who confronts a daunting canvas in the foreground, like, in the words of art historian John Walsh, “David sizing up Goliath.”  It’s pretty remarkably profound, Rembrandt recognizing that a kind of responsibility came with painting, and specifically with his own painting talent.  That capturing someone, or something, was more about artistry than accuracy, less a flawless depiction of details than truly understanding the soul of the subject.  And that’s an intimidating task.

So with this in mind, let’s return to this portrait of Aeltje Uylanburgh.  The first thing I should say about it is that it’s basically perfect.  Ask any 17th century Dutch art historian, and particularly any art conservator, and that’s the first word that will come up.  It’s in almost perfect condition, one of the finest Rembrandt portraits in private hands before it was gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2017.  And in case you forgot, he painted this when he was only 26 years old.  For some perspective, when I was 26, I was working at Starbucks.  Rembrandt, meanwhile, was newly in Amsterdam, living in the home of the famed Dutch art dealer Hendrik van Uylanburgh, and if you recognize that last name, it’s because he was also Aeltje’s uncle.  Aeltje was 62 years old, both the wife of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, an Orthodox Calvinist minister, and the cousin of Saskia van Uylenburgh, who would become Rembrandt’s fiancé a year later.  The Uylanburghs were an important family to Rembrandt, is what I’m saying.  It’s not certain whether Aeltje commissioned this portrait, or whether there is a matching oval one of her husband, but what is certain, clearly, is the painterly perfection on display here, the breathtaking meticulous softness of Rembrandt’s brush as he captures this woman.  For comparison’s sake, consider a similar portrait in a similar style by Nicholas Eliasz, who had been Amsterdam’s leading portraitist until Rembrandt showed up.  Honestly, it’s feels a little fruitless to do this, because you can’t actually compare the two, Rembrandt’s is so exceptional.  There’s a photographic quality to Eliasz, a rigid adherence to accuracy.  Take her skin, for example.  It has a slight sheen to it, like it was molded from putty, smoothed out with an SPF moisturizer, “perfect” in a synthetic, airbrushed kind of way. 

Aeltje, meanwhile, is rendered with the same almost compulsive, pitch-perfect precision, but it’s softer, more textured, more like actual skin.  He uses paint itself as a medium to convey substance, not just a tool to convey exactness.  He builds it up with an enormously deft touch, from the teeny dab of white highlight on the tip of her nose, to the texture of the fur over her shoulders, to how he beautifully he captures her age.  It’s extraordinary.  Everything that I remember about the incredible lamb’s ear softness of my grandmother’s cheeks are present in Aeltje’s face.  He paints every delicate wrinkle in her skin, every pore and capillary in her cheeks, the slight sag of flesh over her eyes, the wisps of white hair that disappear under a cap that’s only a suggestion really, more akin to a John Singer Sargent pinafore than to the stiff lace of Eliasz’s sleeves.  These details invite you into the painting.  You want to stand with your forehead against hers, zooming right into those brushstrokes.  It’s a fair statement to say that it’s not a 17th century Dutch gallery unless the guards are nervous; I’d imagine they probably lose a couple years off their lives fretting over how close people go to those paintings.  But it’s only when you do go up close that you see that what seemed so precise from afar isn’t in such sharp focus anymore, which is itself an example of his painting genius.  It’s a gorgeous, perfect portrait.  It makes you understand why the German Impressionist Max Lieberman once said, “whenever I see a Frans Hals, I feel like painting.  Whenever I see a Rembrandt, I feel like giving up.”

But I wonder, too, if Rembrandt is betraying his own age here.  Though we’re not so great at recognizing it at the time, it’s actually pretty easy to be young and talented and successful.  It makes you want to see how far you can push your own technical prowess.  But youth is always wasted on the young, right?  I think that anyone who’s actually gone through the process of aging would be the first to say that perfection stops being the goal pretty quickly.  And in this way, you almost wonder if this painting is a less a perfect portrait of age than it is a perfect example of what a young man’s idea of age looks like.  And you don’t have to look any further than his own self-portraits when he finally arrived at Aeltje’s age – and our collective, emotional response to them – to know how true this is.  Consider his self-portrait from 1669, the year of his death.  It’s considered his last self-portrait, painted when he was 63.  He doesn’t have to capture every individual wrinkle as long as we know that they’re implied, that what are wrinkles anyway than the experience of life lived laminating your face like layers upon layers of paint.  And more than his weathered skin tone, it’s his weathered facial expression – a sense of resignation, of being settled into his own body.  Where Aeltje looks a little blank, a little past us, Rembrandt looks straight at us.  Don’t follow my example, he seems to be saying.  Don’t make a young man’s mistakes, he seems to be telling us.  But if you do – of course, when you do – at least have the wisdom to learn something from them.  And maybe try to go easy on yourself.

And this is where it really feels like Rembrandt was born to be old.  Because this period of his life felt like he was prioritizing compassion over that exquisite technical prowess, even if that prowess is still very much present.  He’s not necessarily painting himself compassionately – we see, after all, an old, wrinkled man who seems very much defeated by his own life.  But he’s showing compassion to himself as an artist.  Think back to the artist in the studio, the intimidating size of the canvas, tasked with achieving perfection.  He’s mastered it.  The canvas has shrunk down.  And from a technical perspective, he’s simply not going to the same pains to fuss over the skin like he does with Aeltje.  Perfection is not the goal.  A young man might have all the time in the world to capture a lamb’s ear texture of skin tone, but a gruff old man who’s seen his fortunes crumble simply gets to the point.  And whether you see yourself in his work, or yourself as born to be old, or never plan to get old, and best of luck with that, I think we can all still learn something from Rembrandt’s example.  And again, I think he’d be heartened to know that.  May we all reach a point in life where compassion, not perfection, artistry, not accuracy, is what matters.

CREDITS:

Special thanks to Emma Starr, Tom Miller, Melanie Funes, Charles Gustine, John Walsh, and the intrepid museum-goers at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  For more information and past episodes, go to theLonelyPalette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, or follow us on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and if you want more people to discover the show, if only so you can say you listened before it was cool, please a rating and review on Apple podcasts.  And if you want to really help support the show and get more episodes sooner, consider becoming a patron on Patreon at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.  If you’re one of the next 9 patrons to pledge, you’ll receive a bonus Beast Jesus enamel pin, so hop to it.

And speaking of which, today’s Patron of the Day is long overdue: Soowan Bag is a complete stranger whose Patreon support blew up my phone one evening, and after I emailed him asking if I was being punk’ed, we had a lovely email exchange, solidifying my believe that the word is seriously chock full of strangers we haven’t yet met.  Soowan, thank you so much.

The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of Boston-centric, idea-driven podcasts. And if you’ve been following the latest abortion rights news out of Alabama as closely as I have, you need to stop everything and listen to the most recent pair of episodes from Ministry of Ideas, Progressive Souls. I don’t even want to spoil them, just go listen, be educated, and be inspired. You can hear them at hubspokeaudio.org, directly at ministryofideas.org, or wherever you get your podcasts.