A Scholar in his Study


A Scholar in his Study (detail, 1650–1654) by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt produced many etchings throughout his long career, and if he hadn’t also distinguished himself as a painter his etchings alone would have ensured that his reputation survived. For an example of his mastery of deep shadow see St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber (1642) where the solid masses of shade are created by a virtuoso display of cross-hatching.


One etching is reproduced far more often than any of the others, the piece known as A Scholar in his Study, which can also be found labelled The Magician, or simply Faust even though it was never intended as an illustration of anyone so specific. The etching is often used as an illustration for Goethe’s play, of course, understandably when it’s one of the few instances in Western art of a first-rate artist depicting a visible occult event. Prior to the 19th century the depiction of magic in paintings or graphic works was generally limited to either mythological or religious tableaux, or to scenes of generic witchery. Rembrandt’s piece is unusual in showing what appears to be a manifestation of some sort, with a disc of Divine Names either partly concealing or forming the head of a spectral figure. The figure is barely visible in smaller reproductions but this large copy reveals the pair of hands below the disc which are drawing the scholar’s attention to what might be a mirror reflecting the glowing disc. Rembrandt produced a number of paintings and etchings on the theme of the scholar or philosopher in his study but none are as curious—or as popular—as this example. If it wasn’t for over-familiarity it’s likely it would seem even stranger today.


The Angel of the West Window (1991). Design by Tim Gray.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Rembrandt’s vision

Robert Hughes, 1938–2012


Read this book. Revised edition, 1991, no designer credited.

“Robert Hughes”: those were the first words I wrote in the first post for this blog, six years ago, referencing a piece Hughes had written about Rembrandt for the Guardian that week. Re-reading his polemic Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America earlier this year I was feeling guilty about not having read more of his books; in slight mitigation I did watch every appearance of his on British television following The Shock of the New, and still have his American Visions series imprisoned on VHS in a box somewhere, along with The Fatal Shore, The New Shock of the New, some one-off things he did about Barcelona and Goya, and Visions of Space, a series of three films about European architects: Albert Speer, Mies van der Rohe, and Antonio Gaudi. Thanks to YouTube many of these exceptional documentaries can be given a fresh viewing; follow the links. Hughes used to write for the Guardian regularly so it’s no surprise they’ve filled several pages with memorials:

Obituary by Michael McNay
“Robert Hughes was Australia’s Dante,” says his friend Peter Carey
Robert Hughes on art
Robert Hughes quotes: 20 of the best

NYT obituary by Randy Kennedy
“Robert Hughes: The art critic with a dash of the streetfighter”: Judith Flanders at the Telegraph
At Open Culture: Remembering Robert Hughes, the Art Critic Who Took No Prisoners

Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009


Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine; The Red Shoes (1948).

Jack Cardiff, who died this week, was one of the great cinematographers from the postwar era, a period when British cinema was raised for a time to world-class level. His three films for the Archers, aka Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, are masterpieces of Technicolor photography. He won an Oscar for one of these, Black Narcissus, while his photography in The Red Shoes includes Moira Shearer’s 18-minute ballet performance, one of the most strikingly surreal sequences in the whole of British film.

Cardiff taught himself about lighting from scrutinising the Old Masters and the Impressionists, and teaching himself to observe colour, shade and reflection in everyday things. “As they say, ‘Love comes by looking’, and I was looking all the time. That’s how you learn.” He picks up one of the dozens of books on Rembrandt that he owns and draws my attention to the exquisitely painted shadow of a nose in one of his favourite portraits. We look at the interiors of other Dutch masters – Pieter De Hooch, Vermeer. It was to the work of Vermeer that the starkly beautiful images of nuns he created for his Oscar-winning movie Black Narcissus (1947) were likened.

Elizabeth Lowenthal, The Independent, 1994.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Deborah Kerr, 1921–2007
Freddie Francis, 1917–2007

Sex at the Barbican


Still from Blowjob by Andy Warhol (1963).

Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now opens today at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, and runs until 27 January 2008.

Seduced explores the representation of sex in art through the ages. Featuring over 300 works spanning 2000 years, it brings together Roman sculptures, Indian manuscripts, Japanese prints, Chinese watercolours, Renaissance and Baroque paintings and 19th century photography with modern and contemporary art.

Seduced presents the work of around 70 artists including Nobuyoshi Araki, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt van Rijn and Andy Warhol among others. Stimulating the mind and the senses, provocative and compelling, Seduced provides the historical and cultural framework to explore the boundaries of acceptability in art. Seduced is curated by Marina Wallace, Martin Kemp and Joanne Bernstein.

Barbican gallery selection
Guardian gallery selection

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Male Gaze

Rembrandt’s vision


The Netherlands celebrate four hundred years of Rembrandt’s genius.

While looking around for links I noticed this story for the first time:

Margaret S. Livingstone and Bevil R. Conway, neurobiologists at Harvard Medical School, say Rembrandt’s many self-portraits reveal that his eyes are focused in slightly different directions, depriving him of the “stereo” effect that makes vision three-dimensional. As a result, they argue, Rembrandt would have struggled with depth perception – though he may never have known he had a vision defect.

Rembrandt’s flat world view may have helped him more precisely capture reality on a flat canvas, where painters create the illusion of three-dimensions through techniques such as shading. In fact, Livingstone and Conway say that visual artists are far more likely to be “stereoblind” than the general public, suggesting that limited depth perception may actually be an advantage over normal sight.

“Art teachers often instruct students to close one eye in order to flatten what they see,” the researchers write in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, explaining their theory about Rembrandt. “Stereoblindness might not be a handicap – and might even be an asset – for some artists.”

Similar assertions from doctors about conveniently dead artists surface from time to time; we had Michelangelo suffering from Asperger’s recently and I recall a story about Shakespeare having a brain tumour based solely on scrutiny of very vague portraits. The Rembrandt story is significant for me because my eyes have always been mis-aligned and I don’t see stereoscopically. I have permanent double-vision as a result, something people are always surprised to hear, although I only notice this when I think about it. My brain treats the mis-aligned (and weaker) data from my right eye as redundant information and so ignores it.

The point is, whether Rembrandt had a similar defect or not (and I’m sceptical; how can you be so sure by looking at a few paintings?), it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to judge what effect this has on artistic ability without conducting a mass survey. Even then I doubt that you’d discover much. The doctors in this case want to imply that Rembrandt’s damaged eyesight gave him an extra edge with regard to depth perception but I find this incredibly difficult to demonstrate with any degree of certainty. What gives Rembrandt more of an edge (and keeps us looking at his work) is his exceptional drawing skill and peerless mastery of the oil medium, something that’s partly innate talent but mostly prodigious ability and the result of years of labour. Whatever assistance stereoblindness might lend him would be a very small thing next to this combination of natural gifts and hard work.

Previously on { feuilleton }
“One measures a circle, beginning anywhere?”