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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rembrandt, The Artist in His Studio

Rembrandt, The Artist in His Studio, c. 1628. oil on panel, 24.8 x 31.7 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

speakers: Dr. Christopher Atkins, Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director of the Center for Netherlandish Art and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(smooth jazz music) - [Beth] We're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and we're in front of a small painting by the great Dutch painter, Rembrandt, "The Artist in His Studio." And here we see an artist holding the tools of his craft and looking at his painting. This is a subject that has a long history, but this painting comes at the beginning of that tradition. - [Christopher] There aren't that many images that predate this one of the artists in the studio or the artist at work. - [Beth] In later depictions, the artist is right in front of the panel or the canvas that he's painting. And here, the artist is standing back and looking at what he's painting. - [Christopher] Not only is the artist not applying brush to canvas or panel, but he's standing at a remove. - [Beth] There's a sense that he's reflecting. He's thinking about what he's painting and thinking about the next steps, but it's all intensely frustrating for us. I really want to see what he's painting. - [Christopher] Rembrandt has decided to show us the back of the easel, which makes, I think, this painting a larger exploration of painting in the broadest possible sense. - [Beth] Sometimes in his pictures of the artist in his studio, we get other accessories that flesh out the story about what the artist is doing or how the artist sees himself. But here, Rembrandt's reduced everything to just the artist, the back of the panel that he's painting, this very bare studio and some of the tools of the artist. - [Christopher] He's really stripped down the scene. He's restricted the color palette, the accessories, to really hone in on the back of the painting, the artist and the sense of a three-dimensional space in which both exist. - [Beth] This bright light on the space between them activates that space as the space of thought, of contemplation. - [Christopher] The space between is really powerful. And it often is in the history of art. Like Michelangelo's God reaching out to Adam. - [Beth] But you get a sense of the absorption in the world that he's creating on this panel that we can't see. His eyes are so large and draw our attention to him. - [Christopher] Rembrandt placed the hat farther back on the head so we can see the face. At the same time, his head and forehead is in shadow, which is a traditional means of communicating thought. - [Beth] So what does it mean to be painting a painter, standing back from his painting and not painting, but thinking? And is Rembrandt here creating a kind of treatise about what it means to be an artist and what it means to paint? - [Christopher] He's making an argument that painting is an intellectual endeavor. - [Beth] That was an argument that had to be made because, coming out of the medieval tradition, artists were thought of more as specially talented crafts people because they make things with their hands. There was a division between that and intellectual work. - [Christopher] Artists were members of a guild, much like other crafts professions because they made things with their hands. - [Beth] So he's making an argument that the artist should be of that higher status than a craftsman or someone who works with their hands. - [Christopher] Unlike other studio scenes, where you might see an antique sculpture, the bust of a philosopher or books open, he's restricted it. That step back is the only means of expressing that this is an intellectual pursuit. - [Beth] It feels as though part of what Rembrandt is saying here in this treatise on painting, if we want to think about it that way, is that the artist can conceive a world entirely from his imagination. And it's important to remember that this was painted when he was just 22. - [Christopher] Which is a remarkable thing that he was bold enough to create such a statement related to his profession at the earliest stages of his career. - [Beth] He was born in Leiden. He went to Latin school and went on briefly to the university, but he's only really practiced in Leiden. He hasn't yet gone to Amsterdam. He isn't really the Rembrandt that we know yet. - [Christopher] He's not Rembrandt, he is Rembrandt Harmenszoon Von Rijn. He hasn't gone by the single name in the great tradition of Italian masters, of Michelangelo and Titian. But even still, he is formulating an image of where he wants to be or what he wants painting to be. - [Beth] So let's talk about the painting formally for a moment. We have on the right side, that wooden doorway, where we would get a real sense of the wood and how that door was built, but that's all in shadow. And then the next quarter is also largely in shadow, that back of the panel and that beautiful silvery line, that forms the edge. - [Christopher] It's one of several moments within the painting, which are just virtuoso displays of what Rembrandt could do with paint. The floorboards at the bottom corner, you get the texture, you get the craggy lines of irregular cuts of wood. You've got the knots and the whirls at the edge of the door where the paint or the plaster has cracked, and you can see the structure beneath. All of these are opportunities for Rembrandt to show off his technical virtuosity. - [Beth] In the 17th century in Holland, people were really interested in artists and how they worked. - [Christopher] There were a lot of people who were interested in pictures and paintings, engravings and etchings, and by extension, they became really interested in the people who made those things, and they became figures they wanted to know more about, the conditions in which they created these things and their working process. - [Beth] It's important to remember that in some ways, this is when the popularity of painting as an art form takes off, in these early decades of the 17th century. In Holland, everyone bought paintings. - [Christopher] We have tales of visitors writing back to other locations about how they were amazed how many paintings an individual had. It was a hyper visual culture. And in that way not that different from our own, perhaps. - [Beth] So this is this rare moment when we get to see a young Rembrandt reflecting on what it means to be an artist. (smooth jazz music)