Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a brilliant pairing of two artists who had much more in common than one would normally suppose. As this superb, one gallery, exhibit reveals, these two great masters were kindred spirits in many ways.
Despite the nearly two centuries that separated the lives of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917), both artists were devoted to finding and depicting the true nature of the world around them. For both, this involved the intense study of their own facial features, in searching self-portraits. Although Degas did not follow Rembrandt’s lead in painting himself into old age, self-portraiture was the point of departure for both artists and the key theme of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition.
Rembrandt was revered during the 19th century as “the master of chiarascuro.” When the young Degas began to study art, his appreciation of Rembrandt would have been informed by the Dutch artist’s extraordinary facility in handling light and shadow. One look at the amazing early self-portrait by Rembrandt, dating to 1628-29, will explain why Degas and other aspiring artists should have held the 17th century master in such high regard.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as a Young Man was painted just as he was beginning to make a name for himself as a painter of religious works in his own distinctive style. His powerful oil on panel, Samson and Delilah, painted in 1628, is a clearly recognizable Rembrandt. It is a far cry from the derivitive works, done in the style of his teacher, Pieter Lastman, from only a few years before.
When Rembrandt chose to paint this self-portrait, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, he chose a most unorthodox mode of presentation. Instead of revealing his character, the self-portrait conceals it. His forehead, his upper cheeks and, most importantly, his eyes are shrouded in deep shadow. Look closely and you will see his eyes, little more than dilated pupils, deep pools of black, intently staring forth. But Rembrandt’s eyes give no indication of his state of mind or character.
In 1629, Rembrandt painted another self-portrait, which shows him wearing protective military armor around his neck. Self-Portrait in a Gorget (one of the few significant works not in the exhibit) shows one half of his face, to the right of the canvas, almost submerged in shadow. The other half is bathed in a subtle wash of light. The effect, however, is the same as the previous year’s self-portrait. It is impossible to get a reading of the real man, the real Rembrandt, from either of these early works.
Degas, when he came to paint his self-portrait, did so in the manner of Self-Portrait in a Gorget, with one half of his face in shadow. Degas’ Self-Portrait, painted between 1855-56 created the essential persona which the young French artist wished to present to the world: proud, sensitive, thoughtful with a hint of melancholy. This was the same face that Degas would paint or draw again and again in all his self-portraits.
This was the essential difference between the young Rembrandt and the young Degas. Rembrandt masked himself with different guises, wearing exotic costumes like turbans or armor, or shrouding his face in partial shadow. Later, as life inflicted countless sorrows and humiliations, he would reveal the true nature of his soul in the magnificent self-portraits of his sad years of loss and decline.
Degas, on the other hand, created an official version of himself that never changed, except in minor details. A self-portrait painted in 1857-58, from the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, shows Degas wearing a felt hat which shades his eyes in similar fashion to Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as a Young Man. But the same cool, emotion-checked regard appears on Degas’ face that reoccurs on all his self-portraits.
When his vision began to fail during the 1880’s and the tide of life turned against him, Degas ceased painting self-portraits, as well as the brilliant portraits he occasionally painted of family members. But before he retreated into his private realm of race horses and ballet dancers, Degas was fully engaged with the contest of light and shadow in the spirit of Rembrandt. Degas was greatly affected by Rembrandt’s drawing skill, and the accomplished way that he reproduced his line art in etchings and dry point. The etchings of the Dutch master were an education in themselves.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill is a fine example of the scope provided by these etchings to a young artist contemplating both content and technique. Dating to 1639, this self-portrait, created with etching, drypoint and burin, recalls the panache with which Frans Hals invested his portraits of Holland’s rising middle class. It shows a beaming, confident Rembrandt, whose career was still in the ascendent.
A later etching by Rembrandt, Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window, done in 1648, is of special interest. It shows the growing maturity of Rembrandt’s character, without the pretences and role playing of the earlier self-portraits.
During the late 1850’s, the young Degas was clearly inspired by these Rembrandt etchings. In 1857, Degas did a sketch that was a reworking of Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill. This was entitled Young Man with Velvet Cap. In the same year, Degas created a far superior drawing, for no artist of his skill could content himself for long merely copying Rembrandt.
Degas drew his 1857 Self-Portrait with black chalk and graphite on heavy woven paper. It was masterfully executed, capturing the guarded, austere essence of his character in a way that photographs of him from the same period fail to do. Degas was already showing disdain for the contemporary cultural scene in Paris, where “pictures are produced like stock exchange prices by the friction of people eager to gain.” He went to Italy around this time as a means of escape. There he not only studied the art of the Renaissance masters, but also learned the technique of etching. One of his first etchings was a version of this splendid self-portrait.
Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a superbly curated exhibition. Given the quality and variety of the works on display, its relatively small size actually works to its advantage. Rather than trying to broaden the theme with paintings or prints of marginal relevance, the two dozen works on display enable the viewer to readily grasp the ways in which Rembrandt inspired Degas and other 19th century artists to begin their explorations of the great themes of art.
Given the importance of etching in the creation of many of these self-portraits, a helpful display of the tools and techniques used in etching is presented. Also of interest is the display of multiple copies of some of Degas’ etchings to show the difference in quality between the first and subsequent copies of an etching.
Two of the most remarkable works on display are not finished paintings or etchings at all. These are two working drafts that reveal the degree of scrutiny that both Rembrandt and Degas put into their self-portraits.
Rembrandt’s etching, Sheet of Studies with Self-Portrait, created at some point between 1630 and 1634, and Degas’ black chalk drawing from 1856-57, Self-Portrait and Details of Hand and Eye, convey an almost surreal quality. The facial expression on the Rembrandt etching has a peculiarly hypnotic cast, while the disembodied eye in Degas’ drawing looks as if it has been plucked from his face. Of all the works on view, these are likely to remain lodged in the minds of those who view them for some time to come.
The similarities in these works and in the lives of Rembrandt and Degas continued beyond their respective experiences as “young artists.” Although their subsequent careers are beyond the scope of this exhibit, it is worth a moment of reflection to recall that both of these great artists experienced stunning reversals of fortune, heartbreak and measures of personal disgrace later in life.
Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656, his alleged involvement with his son’s nurse that lead to legal proceedings and the tragic early death of his son, Titus, in 1668, were matched by the tribulations of the aging Degas. His family’s financial woes, though no fault of his, stung his hypersensitive code of honor. He compounded his humiliation by vindictively condemning Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the innocent victim of spy allegations and a French Army cover-up. This cost Degas many of his Jewish friends and Impressionist colleagues. He died, blind and alone, in 1917.
Yet, one can hardly resist being inspired by the efforts to achieve self-awareness that Rembrandt and Degas made in creating the works of art on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition. In his book, The Romantic Rebellion, Kenneth Clark commented on Degas’ “passion for truth: not the truth of the eye, as Monet had, but, one might almost say, for moral truth.”
That was certainly true for Rembrandt, and, through their mutual concern for integrity in art, it is a legacy that Rembrandt and Degas continue to share with us.
Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man February 23–May 20, 2012
The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY 10028