Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Norton Simon Museum

The museum is an exquisite and beautifully designed masterpiece. Starting in the shaded circular parking lot through the walkway up to the museum where Rodin sculptures are grouped on the lawn, there is nothing that is not perfection.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Boy, 1606-1669. Oil on canvas
25-1/2 x 22 in. (64.8 x 55.9 cm). @The Norton Simon Foundation

The boy in the painting has often been identified as Rembrandt's son, Titus, because his face is rendered in sensitive, intimate detail, as if depicting a beloved family member. Although research suggests otherwise, the painting is still often called Titus.

 In its unfinished state, this exceptional picture offers invaluable insight into Rembrandt's working method. Over the rich, dark ground, the body and costume have been indicated merely with a few broad, sure brushstrokes. The collar, hair and head have been developed further, with layers of scumbles and glazes, while the face, particularly the eyes, has been fully modeled and highly finished. The child's face, bathed in an even, frontal light, radiates from the velvety darkness of the background. This unusually straightforward presentation reflects and enhances the engaging charm and openness of the ingenuous child, who eagerly presents himself to the viewer.

A mysterious animal, perhaps a pet, sits on the boy's shoulder. Some experts identify it as a parrot, others, a monkey. According to Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., National Gallery of Art curator of northern baroque painting, it may be that the unfinished, cut-down painting is related to an anecdote described by the Dutch theorist Arnold Houbraken in his early 18th-century biography of Rembrandt: The artist, while painting a group portrait of a husband, his wife, and their children, decided to include an image of his pet monkey because it had just died and he had no other canvas on which to paint it. The family objected and the group portrait was left unfinished. Although Houbraken's anecdotes may not be entirely accurate, this one may account for the curious animal on the boy's shoulder and the unfinished character of this remarkable image.

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