We were at the Louvre recently with Lisa's sister to show her some of my favorite Flemish painters and we stopped at the area devoted to Rembrandt. We happened to meet a nice French gentleman, Gaston, who was kind enough to share his favorite painting shown above, Philosophe en Méditation from 1632. While my French and his English was not perfect, we had a lovely conversation about the painting and I was inspired to write a post.
Philosopher in Meditation is the traditional title of an oil painting in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that has long been attributed to the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt. It is signed “RHL-van Rijn” and dated 1632, at the time of Rembrandt's move from Leiden to Amsterdam.
Recent scholarship suggests that the painting depicts “Tobit and Anna waiting for their son Tobias” instead. This is supported by an 18th-century source identifying a painting of the same dimensions by Rembrandt representing a “Composition with Tobit and a winding stair.” The painting appeared in Paris around the middle of the 18th century and made the rounds of aristocratic collections before being acquired, with a painting now attributed to Salomon Koninck, for the royal collections housed in the Louvre Palace in 1783. The French art historian Jean-Marie Clarke argues that the scene is ultimately derived from the Book of Tobit or Tobias, one of Rembrandt's favorite Old Testament sources (in the Jewish Apocrypha). The presumed subject matter, the finely graded chiaroscuro treatment and intricate composition were widely appreciated in France and the painting is mentioned in the writings of many 19th- and 20th-century literary figures, including George Sand, Théophile Gautier, Jules Michelet, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Gaston Bachelard, Paul Claudel, and Aldous Huxley. The painting is on wood and a thick layer of yellowed varnish obscures some of the details. For instance, there is a figure at the top of the stairwell that is currently obscured.
The best explanation for the long-standing misinterpretation of the Philosopher in Meditation lies in the fact that in the middle of the 18th century, it was sold together with a painting of identical size that presented similar motifs, including a spiral staircase, and that was also attributed to Rembrandt. The paintings were exhibited together in the Louvre and titled interchangeably Philosophe en méditation and Philosophe en contemplation, or referred to simply as the Philosophes. Vincent Van Gogh says in his letter of May 31, 1875 to his brother Theo, in which he tells of his visit to the Louvre: “I wish you could see the small Rembrandts there, the “Supper at Emmaus” and two pendants, “The Philosophers”. In 1955, examinations with X-rays and infrared photography at the laboratory of the Louvre revealed notable differences in treatment between the two paintings and caused the attribution to be switched to a Rembrandt imitator Salomon Koninck and dated to 1645. The Rembrandt Research Project initially said neither painting was painted by Rembrandt but it seems that they now believe Philosopher in Meditation is a true Rembrandt.
So this is the provenance of the painting, the interpretations have been wide ranging from philosophical to occult to religious interpretations. Back to my discussion at the Louvre, my friend introduced himself as Gaston. We inititially observed the layout of the painting, the spiral staircase that divides the room/painting, the old man in front of a window and the woman at the fire. The size of the room is unknown although the fireplace seems very large, the arched roof and window, thick stone walls and small arched door all point to a small place in a rather grand house, not to mention the spectacular spiral staircase. The man, who is clearly the subject of the painting is resting comfortably while the woman at the fire seems to be intent on making him comfortable. The man does not have any of the usual trappings of an alchemist or philosopher as for instance seen in Vermeer's “The Astronomer” (see my post), simply a book or Bible. The shrouded figure at the top of the stairs is unexplained. It is worth pointing out that there are two sources of light, arranged on a diagonal, the window and the fire (one might also say natural and manmade). Also, there are many curved surfaces with a central round form in the center, complimented by or some might say resolved by many straight lines.
Gaston was quite emphatic that the staircase was ephemeral or could not be built. In fact, in the 16th Century, European architects experimented with staircase design, improving upon an Italian 13th century invention: the empty stairwell, or the spiral staircase without a central core. No matter, either Rembrandt was intent on keeping us up to date on the latest architectural trends or he had something else in mind. In fact, I find the construction of the staircase in the Salomon Koninck painting a little incredulous and the setting is clearly less complex. It also has far less chiaroscuro than we would expect from Rembrandt with views into other rooms, decreasing the intimacy, reminiscent of Pieter de Hooch (see my post).
At this point I have three interpretations of the painting, not necessarily exclusive, depending on the title. Yes, in this case I believe the title actually matters. The wonderful staircase may well have been an exercise in domesticating the figura serpentinata (later called Line of Beauty by Hogarth), a very popular topic both among painters and calligraphers, especially since the late 16th century. Rembrandt, as we know, was a very well-read young man. In both interpretations, the spiral staircase can represent a connection between the earth we inhabit and heaven. The term chiaroscuro refers to a strong, self-conscious juxtaposition of light and shade which results in a stunning visual effect in a work of art. The technique was initially pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci, further developed by Caravaggio, and finally perfected by Rembrandt. Rembrandt often used multiple sources of light (and darkness) to define the scene. As you can see above in the painting St Paul in Prison, you can see his natural tendencies toward this artistic technique.
In 1629, Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (a famous Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646. Huygens was patron to René Descartes and Rembrandt and Huygens was one of the “great and very active” Dutch whom Descartes came to know best after his arrival in Amsterdam in 1629/30. In 1629 Huygens wrote in his diary that Rembrandt, then only twenty-three years old, was already the equal of the most famous painters of Europe and predicted that he would soon surpass them. In 1632 Huygens began the relationship with Descartes that lasted until the end of Descartes's life. Descartes indicates that he composed the first draft of the meditations by this time. In 1631 Rembrandt moved from Leiden to Amsterdam. It seems clear that Descartes and Rembrandt knew each other directly and in fact Rembrandt even painted Descartes in a place of honor in “The Hundred Guilder Print”. At this point you might say, so what, but I intend to show a close resemblance between the philosophy of Descartes and the painting of Rembrandt.
Sanford Budick states “For Descartes one face of every material thing, or of every cognito, in every concursus, is turned toward nothingness. For us the significance of the relation of Descartes's ideas to Rembrandt's highly contrastive chiaroscuro does not lie merely in the models that may have influenced Descartes. Rather, the transposition of a painters language of chiaroscuro into Descartes's language allows us to glimpse something like the cultural enabling of Descartes's freedom of choice between light and shadow, being and nothingness. That Descartes neglects to name specific cultural objects, or occasions, of this kind creates a false impression of his intellectual independence, which is contradicted by the way in which freedom becomes available, or is derived, in his own representations and resolves. His choices are made within a cultural context.” That cultural context is the wilderness of Holland where he chose to live.
Carl Jung, the world famous psychoanalyst and father of depth psychology, speaks in his work of archetypes. Archetypes are universal symbols that arise into human consciousness out of what he calls, the Collective Unconscious. One such circular-like universal symbol is the spiral. It is the universal symbol for the spiritual journey. In his Fifth Discourse on Method Descartes states: “It was my design to include all I thought I knew of the nature of material objects. But like the painters who, finding themselves unable to represent equally well on a plain surface all the different faces of a solid body, select one of the chief, on which alone they make the light fall, and throwing the rest into the shade, allow them to appear only in so far as they can be seen while looking at the principal one.” This sentence seems tailor-made for the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt in which the important details are brought out by light, others hidden by shadow. The spiral staircase is also perhaps an instance of the figura serpentinata attempting to bring light to many sides of the same object. It was after all named for the famous Lacöön statuary group in the Vatican.
The “motif” of the meditating philosopher “seems particularly close to Rembrandt and can be called one of his most personal choices. Whereas in other contemporary Dutch painters “the outward attributes” of the philosopher's inquiry are most prominent, in Rembrandt the emphasis is on the old philosopher enjoying the privilege of meditating in complete seclusion in his search for truth. Light and shade, a penumbral atmosphere gain a particular importance in connection with this subject. A recurrent theme in Rembrandt's paintings of the philosopher is that he meditates near a window, usually in a darkened room. This explains the absence of philosophical paraphernalia (globe, books or scientific instrument). The philosopher meditating in seclusion could easily represent Descartes, who moved to Holland to “seclude” himself from pre-existing beliefs. The window, representing the choice or cognito between nothingness and reality. The spiral staircase representing the concursus of choices that lead either up or downwards. A concursus is the divine activity in its relation to finite causes in the preservation and development of the world. Also called divine co-operation, it is immediate and universal because on it absolutely depends the continued activity of all creation.
The story of Tobit in the Jewish Apocrypha can be summarized as follows. Tobit lives in Ninevah and while sleeping one night is blinded by bird droppings. The main narrative is dedicated to Tobit's son, Tobias, who is sent by his father to collect a sum of money that the latter had deposited some time previously in the far off land of Media. The angel Raphael represents himself as Tobit's kinsman Azariah, and offers to aid and protect Tobias on his journey. Under the guidance of Raphael, Tobias makes the journey to Media, accompanied by his dog. Along the way, while washing his feet in the river Tigris, he is attacked by a fish which tries to swallow his foot. By order of the angel he captures it. The heart, liver and gall bladder are removed to make medicines by order of Raphael. Upon arriving in Media, Raphael tells Tobias of the beautiful Sarah, whom Tobias has the right to marry, because he is her cousin and closest relative. He instructs the young man to burn the fish's liver and heart to drive away the demon when he attacks on the wedding night. After the feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael tells the youth to use the fish's gall to cure his father's blindness. Raphael then reveals his true identity and returns to heaven. Tobit sings a hymn of praise.
The second interpretation of the Philosopher in Meditation relates to the Book of Tobit (in the Jewish Apocrypha) and to the many representations of it that Rembrandt executed. According to Sanford Budick: “The episode superimposed on the meditating philosopher here is that of the victory of Tobias, blind Tobits son, over a demon who has attempted to murder him in a dark room below the stairs. Tobias, pictured at the window, overcomes the demon without striking a blow and also restores his father's sight. The advanced age of the man at the window suggests that, in addition to being an exemplum of Rembrandt's philosopher, he is also a composite of son and father, the dual heroes of the Book of Tobit. This painting and Descartes's pictured scene share the specific combination of familiar primary theme and exotic secondary theme. The former is that of the philosopher and his windows; the latter, that of the battle fought (without blows) between the hero and the demon (one of whom is blind) in an intensely dark room to which they have been locked together.” Or it could simply be a painting of the blind Tobit and his wife waiting for the cure from Tobias.
Certainly the circular motif in the center of the room suggests an eye. Jean-Marie Clarke interpreted the concentricity of the composition and wealth of circular motifs as metaphors for the underlying theme of the painting: the eye and vision. Like Julius Held, Clarke believes that the drawing dated ca. 1630 at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford with the caption “HARMAN GERRITS van der Rhijn” written in Rembrandt's hand that shows his father in a pose similar to that of Tobit here, suggests that he may have been blind at the end of his life. Accordingly, the figure of the blind old man (Tobit) stands for Rembrandt's father (died 1630), who opposed his son's wish to become an artist and whose vision the young Rembrandt (Tobias) “healed” with the help of the archangel Raphael (a name that symbolizes Art).
If you don't like these interpretations, there are plenty more out there. This painting speaks of mysteries and unspoken psychological truth. It remains one of his most famous works even today. If you are interested in learning more about René Descartes please see my post on the philosophy of Descartes which I put in a separate post to shorten this discussion.
I rely on Wikipedia extensively and the articles are uniformly accurate although the writing is sometimes stilted because they are written by committee. The article on Philosopher in Meditation is a masterpiece, with 44 references and nuances of philosophy and religion along with really good quotes. I highly recommend you read this if you are interested in Rembrandt and/or Philosopher in Meditation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosopher_in_Meditation
Madeleine Hours, “Rembrandt. Observations et présentation de radiographies exécutées d'après les portraits et compositions du musée du Louvre,“ Bulletin des Laboratoires du Musée du Louvre, 1961, 6, 3-43.
Rembrandt Research Project: http://www.rembrandtresearchproject.org/
John Goff: http://johngoff.capcog.com/?p=1800
Harry Staut: http://www.harrystaut.fr/2008/10/half-light/
Jean-Marie Clark: http://www.rembrandt-signature-file.com/remp_texte/remp011.pdf
Eighteenth-Century Literary History: An Mlq Reader: Article by Sanford Buddick edited by Marshall Brown