Rembrandt painted thought

They seem to emerge out of the rich, dark shadows into a sudden illumination, Rembrandt's figures. The glowing light appears to catch and accentuate their often rugged yet sympathetic features, but it does more than that. Light is the tool that the 17th-century Dutch artist used to reveal character and to suggest that, although physical presence may be what obviously strikes the eye, it is the inner thought and feeling of these men and women that truly define them.

A persistent self-portraitist, Rembrandt's contemplation by means of paint (or etching needle) of his own features usually has little or nothing to do with vanity. Instead, he seems to be asking penetrating questions about the nature of appearance or even of existence itself. He often posed for himself as some persona. He apparently saw the painter as a kind of actor or dramatist, investigating humanity.

The Bible - the Jewish Old Testament and the Christian New - as well as writings that expanded on these narratives, provided Rembrandt with much of his subject matter. He brought to such subjects a convincing realism instilled with a contemplative sensibility. His Protestant vision had more to do with a down-to-earth compassion and understanding than with the exultant celebration or ecstasy of the Baroque.

He was a wonderful storyteller in many of his paintings and etchings. These involved groups of people. But he also represented single biblical characters. He would have friends and family pose as such personages, and these works fell intriguingly between portraiture and historical dramatization. Such historical portraits are in the tradition, perhaps, of religious icons, but they are not presented as saintly figures to be worshiped. They look back at the viewer as questioningly as the viewer looks at them. They are not extraordinary, except as paintings; you feel you might meet such people on the street.

Seventeen of his paintings of apostles and evangelists from the 1650s and early '60s, including "Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul," form an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through May 1. They prompt discussion about the artist's religious beliefs, the intensity of his state of mind after considerable misfortune, his unfashionableness at that period, and whether he was then painting for patrons or principally for himself.

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