ON REMBRANDT'S CHARACTER AS AN ARTIST

A general impression prevails with the large picture-loving public that a special training is necessary to any proper appreciation of Rembrandt. He is the idol of the connoisseur because of his superb mastery of technique, his miracles of chiaroscuro, his blending of colors. Those who do not understand these matters must, it is supposed, stand quite without the pale of his admirers. Too many people, accepting this as a dictum, take no pains to make the acquaintance of the great Dutch master. It may be that they are repelled at the outset by Rembrandt's indifference to beauty. His pictures lack altogether those superficial qualities which to some are the first requisites of a picture. Weary of the familiar commonplaces of daily life, the popular imagination looks to art for happier scenes and fairer forms. This taste, so completely gratified by Raphael, is at first strangely disappointed by Rembrandt. While Raphael peoples his canvases with beautiful creatures of another realm, Rembrandt draws his material from the common world about us. In place of the fair women and charming children with whom Raphael delights us, he chooses his models from wrinkled old men and beggars. Rembrandt is nevertheless a poet and a visionary in his own way. "For physical beauty he substitutes moral expression," says Fromentin. If in the first glance at his picture we see only a transcript of common life, a second look discovers something in this common life that we have never before seen there. We look again, and we see behind the commonplace exterior the poetry of the inner life. A vision of the ideal hovers just beyond the real. Thus we gain refreshment, not by being lifted out of the world, but by a revelation of the beauty which is in the world. Rembrandt becomes to us henceforth an interpreter of the secrets of humanity. As Raphael has been surnamed "the divine," for the godlike beauty of his creations, so Rembrandt is "the human," for his sympathetic insight into the lives of his fellow men.

Even for those who are slow to catch the higher meaning of Rembrandt's work, there is still much to entertain and interest in his rare story-telling power—a gift which should in some measure compensate for his lack of superficial beauty. His story themes are almost exclusively Biblical, and his style is not less simple and direct than the narrative itself. Every detail counts for something in the development of the dramatic action. Probably no other artist has understood so well the pictorial qualities of patriarchal history. That singular union of poetry and prose, of mysticism and practical common sense, so striking in the Hebrew character, appealed powerfully to Rembrandt's imagination. It was peculiarly well represented in the scenes of angelic visitation. Jacob wrestling with the Angel affords a fine contrast between the strenuous realities of life and the pure white ideal rising majestically beyond. The homely group of Tobit's family is glorified by the light of the radiant angel soaring into heaven from the midst of them.

Rembrandt's New Testament scenes are equally well adapted to emphasize the eternal immanence of the supernatural in the natural. The Presentation in the Temple is invested with solemn significance; the simple Supper at Emmaus is raised into a sacrament by the transfigured countenance of the Christ. For all these contrasts between the actual and the ideal, Rembrandt had a perfect vehicle of artistic expression in chiaroscuro. In the mastery of the art of light and shade he is supreme. His entire artistic career was devoted to this great problem, and we can trace his success through all the great pictures from the Presentation to the Syndics.

Rembrandt apparently cared very little for the nude, for the delicate curves of the body and the exquisite colors of flesh. Yet to overbalance this disregard of beautiful form was his strong predilection for finery. None ever loved better the play of light upon jewels and satin and armor, the rich effectiveness of Oriental stuffs and ecclesiastical vestments. Unable to gratify this taste in the portraits which he painted to order, he took every opportunity to paint both himself and his wife, Saskia, in costume. Wherever the subject admitted, he introduced what he could of rich detail. In the picture of Israel Blessing the Sons of Joseph, Asenath, as the wife of an Egyptian official, is appropriately adorned with jewels and finery. In the Sortie of the Civic Guard, Captain Cocq is resplendent in his military regalia.

With all this fondness for pretty things, Rembrandt never allowed his fancy to carry him beyond the limits of fitness in sacred art. The Venetian masters had represented the most solemn scenes of the New Testament with a pomp and magnificence entirely at variance with their meaning. Rembrandt understood better the real significance of Christianity, and made no such mistake. His Supper at Emmaus is the simple evening meal of three peasant pilgrims precisely as it is represented in the Gospel. His Christ Preaching includes a motley company of humble folk, such as the great Teacher loved to gather about him.