Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653, Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 x 53 3/4 in.,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In The New York Times, WeekendArts Fine Arts Leisure section, Friday, January 9, 2009, Holland Cotter wrote an excellent article entitled, In the Gloom, Seeing Rembrandt With New Eyes. His illuminating thoughts on Rembrandt’s work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dutch painting galleries encouraged me to revisit these familiar friends. Reading Cotter made me think of Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, unmentioned in the article but a work dear to my heart. It was purchased by the Museum in 1961 for $2,300,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. In the immediate decades after its purchase it had quite a following but now seems neglected by visitors.
I had not seen it for probably a year or more and was surprised at the painting’s emotional impact. With thoughts of our current economic collapse and financial scandals, it was almost painful for me too look at the aged philosopher. He is depicted here in deep thought, melancholic, remorseful. He seems sad and introspective – so very inwardly focused that the viewer may feel like an intruder.
To put the painting in context, a few brief words about the time of its creation is needed. The 1650’s were difficult for the Dutch Republic what with naval wars with England impacting the country’s commercial success, plagues, and floods. By 1651, Rembrandt was in financial trouble. He was deeply in debt due to his extravagant spending on collections, money still owed for his house, increased payments demanded by his former servant/mistress and loss of income. His business declined. Patrician patrons were losing interest in his style of art. Rembrandt was becoming unfashionable and commissions were not plentiful. Paintings that were colorful with clear-edged contours that looked smooth and finished were preferred to his rough, fluid, manipulated painting style. By 1656, Rembrandt was bankrupt and, lucky for us, an inventory taken during his property’s liquidation. From this, we know, for instance, that in Rembrandt’s plaster collection, a bust of Aristotle stood next to a bust a Homer, implying that the artist saw a close association between the two.
Yet, there is the theory that the image of the contemplative old man may not represent Aristotle, the teacher of Alexander the Great, but may depict the Alexander’s favored painter, Apelles. The identity of the figure as either the philosopher or artist is cogently presented by two exceptional art historians and reviewed by Simon Schama in his book, Rembrandt’s Eyes, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Although I favor the Aristotle identification, either one will do for I feel in this work, Rembrandt is talking about the fleeting values of worldly and monetary success as opposed to timeless values like those inherent in works of art. For me, the painting is the contemplation of what will endure, survive, and have value in contrast to material and public success that may come and go. Whether philosopher or painter, what we see is a man lost in thought whose lowered left hand, in shadow, touches a gold chain. A medal attached to the chain is acknowledged as a depiction of the helmeted Alexander. Such gold chains were associated with worldly rewards, usually given by monarchs as an indication of honor. The figure’s well-lit right hand is raised and rests on the head of the Homer bust. The right has a long association with goodness, “rightness” and light with illumination, knowledge. We like to touch those things we are fond of. Rembrandt signs his name and dates the painting on the bottom of the bust, thus identifying himself with the poet and his enduring qualities.
Late in life, Aristotle had a falling out with Alexander and after his death, the philosopher was exiled. Apelles also outlived Alexander and late in life the painter had to depend on uninformed, powerless patrons. In this painting, Rembrandt seems to be commenting how temporal power may come and go. What will last? The qualities that make Homer last. Think about it. Looking at the richness of this painting and noting that I have not even begun to interpret the library setting, the costume of the figure or the brushwork and painterly technique that pushes and pulls you, drawing you into the painting and the thoughts of Aristotle/Apelles. Many have experienced financial ruin today because of the ongoing economic crisis. I would like to hope, those who have, are thinking about more enduring values than wealth and goods. What will endure when your money goes? What should we value? These are questions, I feel, this thoughtful figure is contemplating. These are the questions many of us are asking now. Go visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spend time with Rembrandt’s Aristotole/Apelles Contemplating the Bust of Homer. It is a valuable experience.