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.