Rembrandt – The Man With The Gold Helmet

As usual in a Rembrandt portrait, this is a combination of keen psychological analysis with a subtle, powerful music of lights and shadows. His faces are always full of meaning and of character, strongly individualized through emphasis on a few distinctive contours. They are never bland, impersonal, regular masks, but bear the marks of experience, thought and feeling, which tempt us to wonder what reserves of personality lie behind them. In this psychological interest Rembrandt is akin to Leonardo da Vinci, and also in his reliance upon soft, mysterious shadows as the basis of his form. There is little range or brilliance of color in either. But Rembrandt had profited by sixteenth century Venetian painting, and knew how to blend his colors with light in a way that Leonardo did not, and so to make the most of what he used. In his own works (there are many falsely attributed to him) the shadows are never drab and dead, the modelling never hard and sculptural, the transitions from dark to light never flashily theatrical — all faults common in Leonardo. Nor does he rely on a beautiful or interesting face to cover up lack of pictorial form.

As suggested above, his use of light is a kind of music, that can be enjoyed for its rising and falling play over various surfaces, without thought of what it represents. Here there are three contrasted keys of light and shade: first the glittering, strongly lit helmet; second the face in a dull half-light; third the shadowy plumes above and the shoulders below, almost lost in darkness. The same colors appear throughout: a dark reddish brown, gray-green and gold. In the lowest key they are spread in dull vague films, the gray almost obscuring the red. In the face they separate a little to form a gray mustache and shadows, brown weathered skin and dull yellow highlights. The face is stern, rugged, worn, but with a hint of kindly softening in the lines about the eyes. It is the climax of the picture’s expressive interest. Yet the face is not the most emphasized part, as a more obvious ” character-study ” would have made it. In intensity of light, the picture rises to a yet higher climax in the helmet, which, though still dark, is brilliant by contrast with the rest. It is in no glare of sun, but in the indoor yellow gleam of some torch or candle, which flickers on the ridged embossing of the surface. The embossing is represented in a literal way unusual in Rembrandt, and in good painting generally—by actual ridges of paint in impasto. But here it does not seem to break away from the rest of the picture, but only to heighten the decorative contrast between the rich, ornamental surface of the helmet and the waxy, smooth, dull face below.