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Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt (2011)

Ordovas, London. 07 October 2011-16 December 2011

Essay by Taco Dibbits

Extract taken from the Irrational Marks exhibition catalogue. Reproduced with the kind permission of Ordovas.



When confronted with a portrait by Rembrandt, it seems that one stands eye to eye with a real person and not with a painted image. This probably explains why Rembrandt is one of the most famous portrait painters of all time. Indeed, he was preoccupied with likeness (levensechtheid)—to paint images that seem real—and he mastered it to perfection. This might seem rather obvious, but bearing this in mind is key when trying to gain more of an understanding of Rembrandt’s portraits. The pictorial problems he confronted when trying to achieve a likeness remained more or less the same throughout his career but the way he approached them changed, from the detailed and finely painted works early on, to the vibrancy of the broad brushstrokes (or rather patches) for which his late work is so famous.


No other Old Master produced as many images of himself as Rembrandt: about thirty painted self-portraits and the same amount in etchings are known today. Whatever the reasons for this might be, Rembrandt never fatigues; neither do the self-portraits become formulaic. In each self-portrait, Rembrandt continued his search to perfect his likeness. The artist was his own most patient model and would have spent hours staring in a mirror, changing position, making faces, choosing a different lighting, and so on. The early etchings probably illustrate this best. To master the art of etching, Rembrandt made a large number of small studies of himself, researching different facial expressions such as looking intensely at the mirror grinning or surprised. He did not always pull a strange face, but they do all seem to have served as exercises to master the art of the medium. With vivid lines and different hatching patterns, he experimented with bringing these tiny images of himself to life. The same can be said of a stunning small panel from circa 1628 in the Rijksmuseum. Like the small etchings, it is hard to consider this a real self-portrait; instead, it seems to be the artist using his own image for his personal study. Rembrandt sits still, with a plain expression, looking at the viewer. It is the first, and among the very few exising self-portraits, where an artist leaves his eyes, usually considered to be the most important part of a face, in deep shade. Its great originality is probably largely the result of the young artist studying the effects of raking light. A source outside the picture brushes over Rembrandt’s shoulder illuminating only a small angle of his coat, the white rim of his shirt, the side of his neck and his ear; all are painted with a thick impasto. The light travels over his right cheek, brushes his upper-lip and finally creates a shiny highlight on the side of Rembrandt’s nose, leaving the artist’s eyes completely in the shade. The effect of the light darting amongst his thick, bushy hair is evoked by scratching curls into the wet paint with the back of a brush, thus laying bare the light ground of the painting. The way light reflects differently on each surface is imitated by the different treatment of the paint surface. The illusion of three dimensions, rilievo, is created by continuously contrasting light and dark, and by positioning his body at an angle, a device Rembrandt often uses in his portraits.


In another small panel in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich—probably painted less than a year later than the small panel in the Rijksmuseum and showing a very similar lighting—Rembrandt introduces another element: movement. It seems as if the artist is slightly stretching his neck while having just quickly turned his head towards us, his hair is still in movement and his mouth is slightly open. While light is most important when trying to create likeness—and it may be no coincidence that Rembrandt is most admired for his use of it—movement is equally important. Even though less is written about it in contemporary treatises on art (or by later art historians) it must have been a great preoccupation of the artists. Can one create a perfect likeness if the image does not move, and how does one introduce movement in a static image? It is particularly difficult when depicting an object falling: transfixed in the air, it nearly always looks unsatisfactory. This is perhaps the reason why Rembrandt hardly ever tried it, with the falling knife of The Sacrifice of Isaac in the Hermitage a rare exception. In history paintings, Rembrandt often chooses (contrary to tradition) to depict the moment just before the climax of the narrative. By suggesting what will happen in the instant after the instant he depicts, a sense of movement is created. In his group portraits he creates narratives.

An example of this is the late Syndics (Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam), in which merchants are going over the accounts. In this group portrait, movement is suggested by the poses (houding) of the figures. One merchant is gesticulating over the book while the other is about to turn the page, another is about to sit down (or get up) and the man on the right is holding his gloves as if he has just arrived or is about to depart. All these different suggestions of movement through pose give the present day viewer the impression that they have actually disturbed a meeting by opening the door to the wrong boardroom. In his portraits of single figures, Rembrandt often introduces the suggestion of movement. In what is probably his most striking portrait, Jan Six (Stichting Amstel 218, Amsterdam), Rembrandt places his subject to the right of the composition, with his riding cape over his shoulder while putting on his gloves as if he is about to go out into town. Even the broad swishes of the paint on his cape add to this sense of movement.


In what is probably one of his most enigmatic and monumental selfportraits, held in Kenwood House, Rembrandt started out depicting himself while painting, but later changed it to the present pose. It is one of his last self-portraits; painted with broad brushstrokes, the old artist stands out against an extraordinarily light background. Detail is absent in his garments that fill a large part of the picture plane, with the exception of the scratching in the wet paint to indicate a minute detail in the trimming of the collar of his shirt. The brushes and maulstick are effectively indicated with just a few brushstrokes. Rembrandt’s face and hat are the most developed: with rather dry brushstrokes, his much-lived skin reflects the light on the right side of his face. The left side, covered in shade, is showing only grayish tones that are hardly worked out, with only an indication of the left eye. Rembrandt has aged, and contrary to the early images where smooth skin covered the bone structure of the face, an ingenious sequence of patches of paint now make up the slightly puffy skin on his drooping cheeks. Dabs of thick paint suggest also the bushy curls that catch the light coming from the left, and most of them are covered by a hat that is indicated by broad patches of white paint.

It has been argued that the painting is unfinished, but even if this is the case, the result is highly effective: it seems as if the artist is standing in front of us. The likeness is complete. The small oil sketch in half-tones from circa 1659 in the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence is unique in that it shows the broad brushwork and absence of detail for which late Rembrandt is so admired more than any other late self-portrait. Painted with broad dabs of grayish and core paint applied fleetingly and without any detail, it gives a forceful impression of the artist’s disintegrated face with a dark, troubled and nearly violent look. The painting was celebrated for this, probably also because it conforms to the myths around Rembrandt’s troubled personal life that were created in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of its unusual appearance within Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, it was discarded in the late 1960s as a later imitation, until the Rembrandt Research Project convincingly argued in 2005 that it is indeed an unfinished autograph self-portrait. Its appearance is explained by the fact that it only shows the first layout of the face, indicating light and dark areas in half tones. According to them, the patchy impression is possibly enhanced by the different ageing of the paint and the light ground colour that is left exposed in many areas.


Even though Rembrandt appears to have abandoned this painting, what remains is an image that has great appeal and shows a great likeness to the present day viewer. In his interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon commented: ‘... if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks... in this Rembrandt self-portrait... there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt’s profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another. And abstract expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt’s marks. But in Rembrandt it has been done with the added thing that it was an attempt to record a fact and to me therefore must be much more exciting and much more profound’ (Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, p. 58).

Bacon’s interest in Rembrandt and especially the late self-portraits appears to have much to do with the pictorial problems that he himself also confronted in his (self-)portraits. Like Rembrandt, Bacon also seemed to search for likeness in his portraits. That this concept of likeness is different from Rembrandt’s is clear from the terms he uses in this quote: ‘non-rational,’ ‘profound sensibility,’ ‘profound’ belong to an age where psychology—which did not exist in Rembrandt’s, time—has taken a central position in our perception of the human figure. Bacon admires Rembrandt’s late works because they achieve a true likeness through a highly abbreviated vocabulary of broad and vibrant brushstrokes from which detail is omitted. It is this contradiction that Bacon describes as a ‘coagulation of non- representational marks’... ‘that record a fact’ that he finds so exciting. In a certain way, Bacon does the same in his portraits, using a vocabulary of often seemingly irrational marks that together create a likeness. Yet his likeness also includes another dimension, depicting not only the physical appearance of his sitter but also trying to capture the sitter’s true self, a concept that did not exist in Rembrandt’s time.

Bacon and Rembrandt lived in entirely different moments of the history of visual representation, but both accumulated an enormous collection of reproductions. Rembrandt had a very substantial collection of prints (especially reproductive prints after paintings) that he kept at close reach within his workshop. Bacon’s studio was filled with photographs of paintings, including Rembrandts, as is clear in photographs such as Irving Penn’s of Francis Bacon in his studio. Although Rembrandt made drawings after the paintings he had seen, his use of the collection was entirely different from Bacon’s: for Rembrandt, the images hardly ever formed the direct point of departure for his paintings. A parallel could however be drawn between the use of some of the few existing drawings that Rembrandt made of his models that later served for his painted portraits and the photographs that often lay at the basis of Bacon’s portraits, as is clear from the study of Jacob van Loon made for his portrait in The Syndics (Rijksmuseum). The discovery of photography made it possible to see a likeness of movement that Rembrandt could never have observed and which made it possible for Bacon to develop a method to depict movement. There will be numerous reasons why both Rembrandt and Bacon some three hundred years later produced so many self-portraits. Probably not least because their own image was much sought after by collectors. Yet their goal as portraitists to paint images that show a great likeness to their subject made them themselves the ideal subject of study. Their contin- ued search to come to a better representation is reflected in their self-portraits, which are always different and never bore the beholder. Bacon’s remark on Rembrandt could also be applied when leafing through a book of Bacon’s self-portraits: ‘I think that’s probably what is so haunting about that small German book where they have put all of Rembrandt’s self-portraits together, from a young man to the very end of his life. [...] On the other hand, there are painters who find a subject and just go on doing the same thing, which is not at all the same as somebody who is reinventing the methods by which the subject can be recorded' (Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, Looking Back at Francis Bacon, 2000, p. 242).