Painting time

Reflecting on Rembrandt's power to draw the past into the present through art.

When I was a child, we owned an oil painting like something from the Old Testament. It hung darkly over the green chesterfield in the living room, its complicated gold frame both beautiful and worrisome. On days when I was home from school with a bad cold, I would lie on that chesterfield, looking up at the painting, and think about what would happen if it fell on me. That serious face suddenly so close to mine. The frame looked heavy. The paint looked so thick it might still be wet.

Years later, my dad explained it was a museum print – not a real oil painting at all – and that the painter was a Dutch man named Rembrandt who lived a long time ago. The man in the centre of the painting looked old fashioned, too, wearing a dark robe with bright sleeves made of miles of fabric that hang in folds. I imagined he was a prophet, listening to God, lamenting the sins on the people. He wore a golden chain across his chest that made me think of the chain that hung from our lamp by the bookshelf. I would stand beside it in the corner of the room, tracing its shining links one by one. But the painted man wasn’t paying any attention to his chain, nor to the books on the table beside him. Instead, his hand rested on the head of a statue and his eyes focused away as if he was seeing something unseen or thinking deep thoughts.

This central figure is thought to be Aristotle, the famed philosopher from Ancient Greece, and the statue represents Homer. Five hundred years separated them – this philosopher who elevated sight amongst the senses and the blind poet. In the painting, the chain Aristotle wears is decorated with a medallion commemorating his pupil Alexander the Great, but his contemplative gaze seems to turn away from this political success and towards the lasting consolation of literature. Rembrandt’s composition suggests a quiet wisdom that draws us away from the glitz of decoration and towards an older, deeper source of light.

This fleeting life

Rembrandt himself owned a bust of Homer; it was listed on his 1656 bankruptcy inventory. This painting was completed three years before that, when his studio was still full, his works and collected pieces not yet auctioned off. I wonder what inspiration Rembrandt found in Homer’s face. Did he watch the afternoon light shift across the stone? What ways of seeing did he find reflected there? What did the painter see in the blind poet’s face?

Between Aristotle and Rembrandt, there are over 2,000 years. Between Rembrandt and us, not quite 400 years. And it’s over 50 years since my dad bought that print and had it framed. He was a young man then, buying furniture for his new family home and thinking his own deep thoughts about the riches of time. He told me later that he loved how Rembrandt used light and shadow to express the depths of human character. When I went to Amsterdam a few years ago to see an exhibit of Rembrandt’s later work, he asked me to send him a postcard. Something wonderful, he said, with good faces.

It’s often said that still life painting depicts the passage of time. A bowl of perfect fruit, a crumpled tablecloth, a vase of flowers. These things do not last, so capturing them on canvas becomes an ironic reminder of the brevity of life itself. But I prefer faces. They, too, pass away, and even their expressions are fleeting, yet, in paint, they last. They continue. In their stillness, we recognise our own feelings and begin to see new ways of being. Time may hang in the many folds of cloth that catch the light, but in a shared moment, we are brought together. The past can be closer than we think.


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