I went home to Virginia for a couple of days this past weekend, and while I was there I visited the National Gallery of Art. It’s one of my favorite museums. Since I grew up in the D.C. suburbs and the museum is free, I spent a lot of time there. Now when I return there’s a feeling of comfort – I recognize paintings like old acquaintances, some famous, others just familiar. There’s the woman whose eyes unexpectedly met mine one day in Two Women at a Window, or da Vinci’s painting of Ginevra de’ Benci, or the Dutch painting of a sailboat in a cove whose name I can’t recall and whose image eludes me.
My favorite of all of these is a self-portrait by Rembrandt. I stumbled upon it accidentally on my way to a different exhibit, in an unfamiliar section of the museum. It caught my eye from the next gallery over and I walked over to look at it in the way I’ve tried to learn to look at paintings like this, up close where you can see the brushstrokes and see, perhaps, something of the creator’s hand, some evidence of how the painting was made. If you zoom into the face on that linked image, you can see how Rembrandt left the gray underpainting exposed in places amid the brushtrokes – in the corner of an eye, below the nose – though when you step back a few steps (or zoom out) the portrait appears smoothly executed.1
Seeing paintings like that makes me want to learn to paint, not even in hopes of accomplishing anything in particular so much as the prospect of learning something about what to appreciate in the paintings that I see.
My attention was first drawn to these passages by a book by James Elkins called What Painting Is, about oil painting and alchemy.↩