The artist Scarcity and Sorrow

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Rembrandt is famous for his self-portraits and this one conveys an air of self-confidence and dignity.  On the opposite wall where this is hung, you find the portrait of his son Titus. Dad and boy looking at each other, keeping an eye on one another.  Dad, the famous artist, whose paintings were in high demand and who was paid well for them. But Titus looks older than his years – here he is only about 15.  His face looks fretful – weighed down with worries.  Titus’ mother, Saskia, had died in 1642, just a year after giving birth to him, but his step-mother Hendrickje had done well by them.  No doubt, both Titus and Hendrickje worried a bit about Dad’s spending – he seemed to have a taste for expensive things, but times were good, so what could go wrong?  The world could go wrong!  Outside of one’s control, outside of one’s little lives, the broad strokes of history paints its own backdrop, capriciously, for us to etch our stories, as best we can, in the foreground.  Amsterdam was hit by a massive economic depression – people with large debts stood to suffer the loss of much.  Rembrandt’s mortgage was too big: he owed too much.  He couldn’t pay it.  He was bankrupt.  He was able to apply for a kind of bankruptcy that meant he could avoid imprisonment.  So Rembrandt and wife and son, moved to a poor district.  The teenage Titus took on the role of managing Dad’s finances.  Let Dad keep painting – he was good at that.  But money?  He didn’t handle that well.  So Titus did that.

No wonder this portrait shows the marks of worry and anxiety on young Titus’ face. Scarcity is its own kind of artist, chiseling lines on the surface of the face and folding  wrinkles into the fabric of the skin. Scarcity is a harsh mistress: she demands constant attention and won’t let you think of much else – and even if you do, she will gnaw away at your thoughts until you return your attention to her.  How could Titus’ face be anything but old-before-time.

Rembrandt painted himself many, many times.  But surely, even he saw that he was painted by that other artist, Sorrow.  She sketched him thoroughly.  After his first wife, Saskia died, he had happiness with Hendrickje.  But in 1663 she died too.  Brief joy for Titus, who married in 1668.  But within seven months, he had died.  Son in the grave before Father.  That is wrong, all wrong. He was only 27.  He left a wife, three months pregnant – Titia would be born six months later.  Rembrandt, thoroughly painted, died the following year.



[These two marvellous paintings are in the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London]

Thanks to Catasaw at for an interesting discussion about computer generated Rembrandt copies 🙂




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