Rembrandt and Degas make an odd pair. Rembrandt van Rijn, the 17th Century Dutchman, has captured the painterly heart of every Romantic since his death in 1669. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, the very epitome of 19th Century French haute-bourgeois, has methodically enraptured each cerebral formalist’s thinking from Gauguin to Carl Andre. Tucked away back in the Metropolitan Museum’s Lehman Wing are near miniature etchings, paintings and drawings that attempts to create a lineage between the two artists. Organized by the Rijksmuseum by way of the Clark Institute in Massachusetts, ‘Rembrandt and Degas’ strikes the lineage between the two artist’s self-portraits both made as young men. Interestingly, Degas, who lived to the age of 83 and painted and drew nearly every crevice of Paris, did not turn often to depictions of self. Self-portraiture, for which Rembrandt is the near summit, requires irony and compassion to become remarkable art. Degas had only one of those qualities. Cool, distant and methodical, Degas’ work is instead the result of a near perfect optical, and detached, temperament. Rembrandt’s early self-portrait paintings, a sampling on display at the Metropolitan, are not only exquisitely crafted, but also slightly self-mocking. Degas’s self-depiction is as a pouty and stiff young man, his bottom lip slightly swollen in diffidence. Degas most certainly looked at Rembrandt, but he also looked at everything, his painting visual acuity being all consuming. Degas heart is not with Rembrandt, however. Besides the early Rembrandt inspired self-portraits presented here, Degas’ temperament demanded compositional perfection, a subsidiary quality in Rembrandt’s art. Every laundress, race horse and ballerina were a puzzle piece in an impeccable compositional schema. Rembrandt’s temperament, while achieving remarkable pictorial coherence, revolved around flesh and age. Depicting himself as a young vibrant painter apprentice or as an old sagging voluptuary, flesh was the reason Rembrandt’s paintings were invented. As young men both Rembrandt and Degas made self-portraits, as so many young artists do who cannot afford other models. From there, however, their respective temperamental visions traveled poles apart.
Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam), , Ca. 1628-29, Oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Edgar Degas (French, Paris 1834–1917 Paris), , Ca. 1855-57, Red chalk on laid paper, 31 x 23.3 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Woodner Collection 1991, (1991.182.23)