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.

Rainy Day Museum

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

Alfred Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

We typically scoff when the weather forecasters tell us that rain is on the way. Well, today it finally happened. Not that the heavens opened up, but my windshield did get a bit dirty. So Martine and I decided to visit the Hammer Museum in Westwood, which is located only a few hundred paces from where I work. I knew from passing it many times that the focus was on modern art, but there are two galleries with European art from the 19th century and earlier.

The painting which most caught my eye was by the Belgian painter Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823-1906). It was an 1885 portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). I was particularly impressed with the theatrical-style lighting from the left, including a striking glint around the model’s right eye. At the height of her career, Bernhardt looks like a commanding figure, even with the frilly ribbon around her neck. Her lips are pursed as if determined to get her way, yet she is delightfully feminine at the same time.

Also impressive was a Titian entitled “Portrait of a Man in Armor” and Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Wearing a Black Hat” (both below).

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

It’s not that the museum’s holdings were all portraits: It’s just that it was the portraits that most held my attention.

What did not hold my attention was the museum’s substantial holdings of contemporary art. Call me a Philistine if you will, or even a Visigoth, but I prefer art that holds my attention. Stevens’s portrait of Bernhardt had me coming back several times. I did not even feel like entering the contemporary galleries after even the most cursory glances of their contents.