Rembrandt's realism

I love wandering around the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, still giddy with the liberty of free entry and the opportunities of living in a great city. “Wander” is usually the correct verb because I like to have my eye caught by the art on display, rather than examining the works carefully and systematically. However shallow this may seem, I’m looking for something that will grab my attention. One man always does.

There are plenty of dramatic events and carefully posed portraits on display, many on massive canvases. In these bombastic pieces the subjects’ eyes are usually rolling in ecstasy/agony, or gazing serenely into the unknown distance, both of which seem incompatible with typical human experience. That’s why, I think, Rembrandt’s self-portrait arrested my gaze the first time I saw it – he was staring straight at me.

I stared back, and wondered what he was thinking. His expression invited the question. He looked rather crestfallen and yet defiant, sad but masterful. Biographical information confirms that he had experienced a great deal of personal and financial trouble by the time he painted this. What kind of artistic skill and emotional intelligence does it take to produce something that invited those questions?

He always seems the most real person in the building.