Whenever I accompany someone to a museum they inevitably ask the same question, “Why did you stop in front of this particular painting instead of the hundreds of others we’ve walked past?” The answer is simple: I’m looking for a moment when an artist reveals himself.
This picture is a perfect example of what I mean. This wasn’t painted for nobility or a wealthy merchant. Rembrandt was painting a portrait of his son, not something that would have carried much value at the time. He emulated in paint what a novelist would take hundreds of pages to describe. This portrait hangs in the Wallace Collection in London. It is a depiction of Rembrandt’s twelve year old son, Titus, and it contains what is arguably the most revealing passage in all of art.
If you look closely (please enlarge the detail) you will confront the colors of extinction and the grave. This is an eye without a future, not just a revelation of a soul but a portal to nothingness. I could go on at length about the fantastic dexterity that went into creating this detail; the strong brushstrokes and indescribably beautiful juxtaposition of tone and color, but I can’t get beyond the notion that any father would have the honesty to describe such emptiness in his child’s gaze.
How could Rembrandt know that his son would be dead in a handful of years? This painting seems to confirm that he knew, and it’s hard to understand how such knowledge didn’t drive him mad. I tend to think that this painting is Rembrandt’s way of preserving his child. He lavished love on this canvas as if it, not Titus himself, were his flesh and blood, his link to posterity.
Rembrandt didn’t need a crystal ball to see the future. Titus van Rijn would not have a long and happy life. He would marry and die shortly after the birth of his first child. The artist followed his son into the grave less than a year later.
Rembrandt’s painting serves as a gut-wrenching expression of parental agony, a silent shriek of loss and anguish to haunt the centuries. The question shouldn’t be: Why pause in front of this painting? The question should be: How can we ever look away?