In Leonardo’s “Treatise on Painting,” only one contemporary is named–Sandro Botticelli…. The Pagan and Christian world mingle in the work of Botticelli; but the man himself belonged to an age that is past and gone–an age that flourished long before men recorded history. His best efforts seem to spring out of a heart that forgot all precedent, and arose, Venus-like, perfect and complete, from the unfathomable Sea of Existence.
One Professor Max Lautner has recently placed a small petard under the European world of Art, and given it a hoist to starboard, by asserting that Rembrandt did not paint Rembrandt’s best pictures. The Professor makes his point luminous by a cryptogram he has invented and for which he has filed a caveat. It is a very useful cryptogram; no well-regulated family should be without it–for by it you can prove any proposition you may make, even to establishing that Hopkinson Smith is America’s only stylist. My opinion is that this cryptogram is an infringement on that of our lamented countryman, Ignatius Donnelly.
But letting that pass, the statement that Rembrandt could not have painted the pictures that are ascribed to him, “because the man was low, vulgar and untaught,” commands respect on account of the extreme crudity of the thought involved. Lautner is so dull that he is entertaining.
“I have the capacity in me for every crime,” wrote that gentlest of gentle men, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Of course he hadn’t, and in making this assertion Emerson pulled toward him a little more credit than was his due. That is, he overstated a great classic truth.
“If Rembrandt painted the ‘Christ at Emmaus’ and the ‘Sortie of the Civic Guard,’ then Rembrandt had two souls,” exclaims Professor Lautner.
And the simple answer of Emerson would have been, “He had.”
That is just the difference between Rembrandt and Professor Lautner. Lautner has one flat, dead-level, unprofitable soul that neither soars high nor dives deep; and his mind reasons unobjectionable things out syllogistically, in a manner perfectly inconsequential. He is icily regular, splendidly null.
Every man measures others by himself–he has only one standard. When a man ridicules certain traits in other men, he ridicules himself. How would he know that other men were contemptible, did he not look into his own heart and there see the hateful things? Thackeray wrote his book on Snobs, because he was a Snob–which is not to say that he was a Snob all the time. When you recognize a thing, good or bad, in the outside world, it is because it was yours already.
“I carry the world in my heart,” said the Prophet of old. All the universe you have is the universe you have within.
Old Walt Whitman, when he saw the wounded soldier, exclaimed, “I am that man!” And two thousand years before this, Terence said, “I am a man, and nothing that is human is alien to me.”
I know just why Professor Lautner believes that Rembrandt never could have painted a picture with a deep, tender, subtle and spiritual significance. Professor Lautner averages fairly well, he labors hard to be consistent, but his thought gamut runs just from Bottom the weaver to Dogberry the judge. He is a cauliflower–that is to say, a cabbage with a college education.
Yes, I understand him, because for most of the time I myself am supremely dull, childishly dogmatic, beautifully self-complacent.
I am Lautner.
Lautner says that Rembrandt was “untaught,” and Donnelly said the same of Shakespeare, and each critic gives this as a reason why the man could not have done a sublime performance. Yet since “Hamlet” was never equaled, who could have taught its author how? And since Rembrandt at his best was never surpassed, who could have instructed him?
Rembrandt sold his wife’s wedding-garments, and spent the money for strong drink.
The woman was dead.
And then there came to him days of anguish, and nights of grim, grinding pain. He paced the echoing halls, as did Robert Browning after the death of Elizabeth Barrett when he cried aloud, “I want her! I want her!”. The cold gray light of morning came creeping into the sky. Rembrandt was fevered, restless, sleepless. He sat by the window and watched the day unfold. And as he sat there looking out to the east, the light of love gradually drove the darkness from his heart. He grew strangely calm–he listened, he thought he heard the rustle of a woman’s garments; he caught the smell of her hair–he imagined Saskia was at his elbow. He took up the palette and brushes that for weeks had lain idle, and he outlined the “Christ at Emmaus”–the gentle, loving, sympathetic Christ–the worn, emaciated, thorn-crowned, bleeding Christ, whom the Pharisees misunderstood, and the soldiers spat upon.