A split second of humanity, caught with swift assurance
Rembrandt's drawings are little miracles of character and identity. They tell us precisely how his subjects looked and how he felt about them. Now that may seem like a simple thing to do: to master the rudiments of drawing, respond fully to a subject, and transcribe that experience directly onto paper.
The trouble is that it hardly ever works that way. It's easy enough to learn how to draw, to master the skills necessary to make an accurate rendering or an interesting transcription of a subject, but it's extremely difficult to convey the full range of perceptual and emotional experience through a few lines and washes.
For one thing, while many of us have the ability to translate what we see intom a drawing, an incredibly small number of us see asm drawing.
And that can make all the difference in the world. Perceptual and emotional experience is often so swift and direct that time spent in their conscious translation into graphic symbols can significantly weaken the impact of that experience.
It's like code. Only someone totally familiar with it can receive or send it at top speed.
Western art history records the names of many men and women whose drawings conveyed one or another facet of reality or experience crisply and fully, and of quite a few who managed a degree of formal and emotional complexity in their draftsmanship. But it lists only a small handful whose drawings capture and communicate the full range of human experience asm line or tone. And of these, Rembrandt ranks extremely high.
In fact, in certain areas, namely in the articulation and conveyance of character and compassion, he has no peers.
In the most immediate sense, Rembrandt was a religious artist. To create art was for him to be in dialogue with God. And to draw and paint man was to record evidence of divine consciousness.To Rembrandt, the faces of mankind -- especially the faces of the very old and the suffering -- were the truest indicators of the meaning of life, for on them was etched the record of countless battles between human and divine will.
Of all things on earth, man was the most aware of himself, and thus of God. And this dual awareness registered and impressed itself upon the faces and actions of mankind. Human character, compassion, and love were the direct manifestations of this divine intuition, and were thus, to Rembrandt, the important raw materials of art.
To see truly was to perceive the interconnection of every living thing, and to understand something of life's spiritual hierarchy. Rembrandt's world descends downward from man, and upward toward God through man's flawed but growing awareness of divine law. But, while man was the clearest mirror of God's reality on earth, everything else also had its place. Nothing was isolated or alienated. An animal reflected divine consciousness a bit less than man, but more than a tree. And a tree reflected it more than a rock. But they were all part of the divine whole and so could not be overlooked.
It is this holistic vision of life which permeates Rembrandt's art, and which gives it its particular quality and grace. Unlike Durer or Michelangelo, who often gave an elbow or a toe equal emphasis with the expression on a face, Rembrandt only gave formal significance and emphasis to what communicated the deepest emotional or spiritual resonances.
A good case in point is his drawing "Sleeping Girl." Nothing could be simpler or more everyday than this rough sketch. It probably required less than five minutes and two brush-loads of ink to complete, and was probably one of several studies he made of the same model at the same time.
And yet it is a magnificent human and formal statement.
In many ways it is pure visual code. We recognize and respond to the drawing's subject immediately, and know right away all we need to know about the girl's approximate age, general appearance, and what she is doing. We also get a clear idea of what she is wearing, the kind of light she is in, and something of the way the artist felt about her. And we feel comfortable about the drawing itself, about the way the forms are defined, given volume, and placed. And the way Rembrandt emphasized and gave greater clarity to the head than to anything else.
And yet, if we look closely and separate the parts from the whole, the drawing turns into a jumble of meaningless lines and washes.
Whoever heard of a hand drawn that way? And what happened to the lower portion of the girl's face? Or to her left arm and her legs? And what are those messy slashes of ink below her right arm?
The more one studies this drawing in the light of the laws of classical draftsmanship, with its notions of careful delineation of form, controlled continuity of line, and neatness of execution, the more one has to admit that it fails the test.
But if one views it as the record of a split second of humanity, as a flash of human experience caught in the twinkling of an eye, the drawing changes drastically and becomes a very warm, compassionate, and intimate sharing of a moment in the life of a young Dutch woman in the middle of the 17th century.
Viewed this way, over three hundred years drop away, and we can see and experience something of what Rembrandt saw and felt. Because he saw life whole and felt deeply about it, and because he devoted his life to capturing and communicating those qualities directly onto paper and canvas, we get to share something of his compassionate perception of humanity.