Rembrandt Laughs

Rembrandt Laughing—Self Portrait ca. 1628

One thing about the later paintings of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s later paintings: They were pretty somber. Not only somber, but Old Testament somber. Therefore, it was nice to see something he painted in a lighter vein when he was in his early twenties.

What made Rembrandt laugh? He must have seen me accidentally dump a bowl of clam chowder in my lap at the Getty Center. The original is a small painting, only 22.2 cm × 17.1 cm (8¾ in × 6¾ in).

I think that, as we get older, we sometimes forget to laugh.We look at the news and are dismayed. We examine the younger generation’s report cards and strange subculture and are nonplussed. We visit the doctor and realize we are not immortal. But we can still laugh. If we can laugh, I think we will live longer and better. The young Rembrandt knew that. The older Rembrandt? Not so much.

For Rembrandt to yuck so heartily while wearing an uncomfortable-looking steel collar is all the more remarkable. I like this Rembrandt. He is fun without being quite so Harmenszoon, and that is a good thing.

This is the first of a series of posts I refer to as gallery talks, based on my visits to various art museums. This particular painting is at the Getty Center.

Serendipity: African Laughter

A Laughing Epidemic Swept Tanzania in 1961

Between 1962 and 1964, there was a laughter epidemic in Tanzania that started in one girls’ school and spread like wildfire around the country. The following is from the How Stuff Works website.

At a small girls’ boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), three students started to giggle. Starting and stopping abruptly, their fits would last anywhere from a minute or two to several hours. This “laughter” proved contagious — soon other girls were doing the same thing. No one could concentrate on their schoolwork, and restraining the laughing students proved ineffective. Six weeks later, more than half of the school’s middle and high schoolers had caught the laughing bug.

School officials shut the place down. But when they reopened it two months later, the laughing plague immediately restarted and the school was once again shuttered. The laughing epidemic spread to other schools and lasted somewhere between six and 18 months.

So what caused this? “The bad news is, it had nothing to do with humor. There was no merriment. Laughter was one of many symptoms,” said linguist Christian F. Hempelmann, who researched the incident. He noted that the students also had fits of pain, fainting, crying and rashes.

He blamed excessive stress for the uncontrollable giggles. The boarding school where the laughter began was a very strict one. Plus the country had just gained its independence, and people were anxious about the future. With all of the terrorism in the world today, experts say another laughing epidemic wouldn’t be surprising.

Check out this video regarding the incident: