Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Love and Art

In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur Danto writes about Rembrandt's painting of his mistress, Hendrijke, as Bathsheba at her bath (http://tinyurl.com/hendrijkebathsheba).  The woman so convincingly portrayed is not an idealized image of feminine perfection, but rather appears to be drawn from life, complete with sagging folds of skin and irregular features. And yet, Danto points out, Rembrandt has given us an image in which a rather ordinary woman "with just those marks of life upon her, is Bathsheba, a woman of beauty enough to tempt a king to murder for the possession of her." And, he goes on to say, to paint a "plain, dumpy Amsterdam woman as the apple of a king's eye has to be an expression of love."

It seems to me that Danto is onto something important here, something too easily missed in most discussions about the nature of beauty. That Rembrandt could see the woman that he loved as beautiful is not remarkable. Indeed, this is an experience that is common to anyone who has ever fallen in love. When we are in love, we delight in the way a tendril of hair curves over a cheekbone, the particular way the skin around the eyes crinkles when the beloved laughs, the incomparable melody of our loved one's sighs. New parents, too, are can stare by the hour at the delicacy of their child's fingernails, their hearts melting at the smell of newly-washed skin or the soft resistance of a pudgy thigh.

Artists often see this way. It is a commonplace of life drawing class that the favorite model is not the one who is lean and athletic, but rather the one who has interesting folds and contours to explore with pen or brush. In the process of attempting to follow the curve of a fleshy hip, the sinews of an aging hand, the wrinkles that define a sagging breast, the artist comes to see the model with the eyes of love.

What is remarkable in Rembrandt's painting, then, is not that he saw Hendrijke as beautiful, but that he invites us to see her as beautiful, too. When I look at his painting of Bathsheba at her bath, I do not see a plain, dumpy Amsterdam woman. I see a woman who already is a queen, thoughtful, composed, and fully herself. And she is beautiful, seen as Rembrandt saw her, with loving attention to every inch of both her inward and outward self.

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