The Skin of a Painting

Rembrandt's "St. Bartholemew"

Janet Bruesselbach

Art History 109B

Dr. C.P. Sellin

"St. Bartholomew" may be the most striking painting in the Getty museum's "Rembrandt and his circle" display, and holds the most prominent position in the room.  Framed in ornate but muted black and brown wood, once seen it holds the viewer intimately for some time.  It is an ideal example of Rembrandt's later work, signed and dated in 1661, with his signature loose brushwork and serene composition of that time.  It is a biblical portrait of the apostle Bartholomew, certainly one of a series of the apostles painted at the time[1].  However, the only overt reference to the subject's identity is the tanner's knife in his hand, his attribute, which alludes to his martyrdom by flaying[2].  Once this reference is understood, the impact of Rembrandt's approach to the painting can be understood as deeply subtle.  The saint is treated as a human, certainly based on a human model, and as a man contemplating his own mortality.  The analogy of greatest impact and this painting's central message is the emphasis on Bartholomew's skin.  Rembrandt's use of paint induces a light and a movement that carries his subject implicitly throughout his entire story.  Rembrandt's paint is skin on canvas, weak but not insubstantial.

The provenance of this work is unknown.  Although it was painted at a time during which Rembrandt had much less income than previously, he was also then comfortably in an art-dealing arrangement with his domestic partner Heindrikje Stoeffels and son Titus, and was made around the time of his unsuccessful commission for the Amsterdam Town Hall.  As one of a series of biblical portraits it was probably painted without commission but nevertheless sold to one of Rembrandt's wealthy patrons.  It is its confrontationally human, exemplary of Rembrandt way spiritual, although its status as a history painting seems at first barely marginal.  In fact it is extremely subtle compared to most depictions of the saint, especially Baroque-era, which portray the flaying itself, and traditionally a typical portrait of the saint would involve a much larger knife.  Instead, the emphasis is on character, with the martyr's grisly drama played out subtly in Rembrandt's mature craft.

Several attributes of the painting lead to its psychological impact.  Firstly, it is approximately three by three feet, the centrally placed subject being life size and directly confronting the viewer.  Secondly, as with most Rembrandt, the majority of the composition is dark, these obscure areas bearing a much lighter load of paint than the few tactile highlights.  Also, almost no cool colors are used, and no bright color; the emotional impact is primarily through tonality and gesture.  St. Bartholomew makes direct, intimate eye contact with the viewer, and rests his chin on his hand with a bemused expression.  He seems almost to rest his other hand, holding the almost marginal knife, on the edge of the canvas before us.  The knife is tilted at a perfect angle so that the eye is caught by the eyes, moved by the broad sweep of Bartholomew's brown cloak down his arm, to his white shirt, hand and back to his face.  This gestural movement imparts life to subject in its familiarity, and the knife is crucial to this movement and to the meaning of the painting.  Through that movement the viewer follows the story to its conclusion, and is capable of imagining the painted skin on Bartholomew's hand peeling away.  Thus the entire narrative is implicit within the simple and uncomplicated figure of one future martyr of a man.  The knife, inspected closely, appears to have been painted with a single brushstroke.  It reflects the hand that holds it and interacts with the face as the only other bright, thick highlight, especially conspicuous against the black infinity under the saint's cloak.  Bartholomew's jacket even seems to have been sliced open (the wedge ending at the level of the knife) to reveal the finer texture of a white shirt underneath.  The cloak is ambiguous in texture, sometimes resembling rocks (against which the subject may lean) and almost standing in for Bartholomew's own skin, his usual second attribute, which it parallels in hue.  What most humanizes Bartholomew is the specificity and painterly duplication of wrinkles, blemishes, whiskers and hair; the weathered features of a middle-aged man.

Rembrandt's style at the time he produced this personalized spiritual image was counter to the classical tendencies of art at the time, and indeed may not have suited the intentions of other major paintings as patly as they do in this.  The brushwork is of greatest importance on this canvas, as it is the direction of strokes that lead to the tactile textures of cloth and skin, and the impact of the knife.  Bartholomew's dark hair, slightly tinged with gray, is underplayed, although its highlights extend from the canvas.  For Rembrandt, consistently throughout his art, painting is the physicalization of light.  "St. Bartholomew" makes a potent message of the physicality of paint, while still impressing upon us the humanity of the historical figure to which it alludes.  The fabric of Bartholomew's jacket, for instance, is crosshatched, while his cloak appears as several broad patches of color. 

The most varied and effective concentration of paint texture is in the hand with which Bartholomew strokes his chin.  This hand is emphasized through shadow, and very subtle but transparently painterly tones produce its layered effect.  It is as if there is a skeleton and muscle resting beneath the flesh, and the optical impact of anatomical topology may exceed that of even "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp", an earlier work unrestrained compared to "St. Bartholomew"'s almost entirely suggestive powers.  Yet the paint itself is not only suggestive but actually duplicates the loose wrinkles of skin on the subject's hand, eyelids and forehead.  The strongest coloring and light is reserved for these areas of skin.  The physical lines of impasto, therefore, contrast the personal closeness Rembrandt evokes through content, although the difference between content and form is notably fluid.  The psychological impact is, of course, in the deep and weathered hazel eyes, whose large, empathetic pupils meet us with a resignation familiar from Rembrandt's self portraits.

Yet the painting's message lies not in the potential depths of Bartholomew's dark eyes but in the light on his face.  With the thickness of the impasto and the textural replication of skin, Rembrandt emphasizes the presence of the paint by which we see this martyr[3]  When we see the stretching of brushstrokes like wrinkles across bone, we recognize what those brushstrokes themselves flexibly protect, and that is the canvas itself, muscle of the painting stretched over a wooden skeleton.  With his slight smile, Bartholomew is reflecting the viewer's discovery of this representational mortality.  The impressive evidence the portrait provides of the application of paint to canvas, and the creation of humanity from such earthly stuffs, also gestures towards its undoing.  The painting has become humanized by the analogy between suggested flaying alive and the lifelike skin of the painting.



[1] Christopher White, Rembrandt, p. 198

[2] See http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintb11.htm

[3] I deliberately bypassed rhyming "paint" and "saint", because that would have hurt.

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