Which is your favorite Rembrandt painting?
Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph. It’s an intimate, moving image, but the painting technique is just absolutely phenomenal. It doesn’t really come across in reproduction. He treated it almost like a sculptural surface with a translucent glaze over paint that he scratched into with the back end of his brush. It’s really quite amazing to see.
You traveled to Europe for the Rembrandt 400 festivities—what was it like to see these paintings in person?
The Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph one was really interesting to see, because it was in a museum in Germany which is actually a castle, a classical style palace on the top of a hill, and you have to hike up. You have to be in good physical shape. Nobody thinks being an art historian is physical work, but it is.
That particular trip sounds almost like a pilgrimage.
Yes, and I think that feeling was one of the hardest things for me about working on this piece, because your subjective response is something you’re supposed to set aside as a scholar, and yet it’s there. The humanity, the simple direct humanity of his figures—you feel like they’re real people that you can empathize with. He treats them with a certain dignity, it’s not like he’s trying to belittle them by making them seem so down-to-earth. He has respect for the ordinary person.
Is that what you like most about him?
That, and the brilliance of his painting style. And the fact that he went through such an enormous evolution—looking at him as a whole, his style changed dramatically from his earliest years. That, to me, is one of the marks of a great artist. Rembrandt didn’t just find a shtick that worked, he kept trying new things, he kept pushing himself even when the direction that he was going in may not have been the most popular or the most marketable. He did what few artists at the time were willing to do, so he was very courageous in that way.
What made him so different?
He had very big ambitions, and he fulfilled them in ways that his contemporaries seldom did. You think of someone like Vermeer, who’s famous today because of that movie, The Girl With the Pearl Earring: what does he paint? He paints a woman in an interior over and over again. That’s just what he does. He does it well, but he’s a one-note pony compared to Rembrandt. Rembrandt was an independent creative thinker, handling both paint and etching materials without necessarily sticking to the rules of what people expected at the time. He created the idea that you can take these materials and mess around with them in whole new ways and see what happens, you don’t have to just paint the way everybody’s taught to paint.
Have you tried your hand at art?
I’ve tried to make prints, and I have taken a couple of painting classes, and I’m really bad at both of them. As a person who has written a lot about Rembrandt’s etchings, I became even more in awe of what he can do when I tried it myself and discovered how hard it really is.
How did you get interested in Rembrandt in the first place?
I fell in love with Rembrandt when I was a teenager. My girl scout troop took a tour of Europe (it was a big deal—we had bake sales and rummage sales and things like that to raise the money). We went to Amsterdam, among other places, and we visited the Rijksmuseum, and I bought some postcards of Rembrandt paintings that I had seen. At that time I had no idea I was going to become an art historian, but I just kind of became intrigued with Rembrandt. In a way it was the beginning of my art history career—I didn’t know it at the time, but it was.
In the course of writing this article, did you come across anything that you hadn’t known before—did you learn anything that surprised you?
One thing that really surprises me is the extent to which Rembrandt exists as a phenomenon in pop culture. You have this musical group call the Rembrandts, who wrote the theme song to Friends—“I’ll Be There For You.” There are Rembrandt restaurants, Rembrandt hotels, art supplies and other things that are more obvious. But then there’s Rembrandt toothpaste. Why on Earth would somebody name a toothpaste after this artist who’s known for his really dark tonalities? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I think it’s because his name has become synonymous with quality. It’s even a verb—there’s a term in underworld slang, “to be Rembrandted,” which means to be framed for a crime. And people in the cinema world use it to mean pictorial effects that are overdone. He’s just everywhere, and people who don’t know anything, who wouldn’t recognize a Rembrandt painting if they tripped over it, you say the name Rembrandt and they already know that this is a great artist. He’s become a synonym for greatness.