By Sarah Lees, Associate Curator of European Art
As the in-house curator for Rembrandt and Degas, an exhibition that was first shown at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I worked with my colleagues to decide how we would present these prints and paintings at the Clark—meaning both how to place them within our gallery space, and what to say about them.
As I worked on the installation, I realized that I was thinking about the artists in more personal terms than I expected, rather than seeing the show as primarily a set of themes or images. That’s because the exhibition consists entirely of portraits, most of them self-portraits, which means that it’s easier than usual to imagine being the artist as he stood in front of his canvas, deciding how to portray himself. It’s really that process of thinking that struck me most—you can see Rembrandt considering how different expressions look, and also trying out different kinds of approaches to convey them, using lighter or darker shadows in prints and paintings, and thin or thick lines in his prints.
Degas does the same thing, but he also clearly thinks about the artists who came before him, and how they made portraits. If you were Degas in 1857 or so, looking into a mirror and then at a blank canvas or etching plate, wouldn’t you see not just your own features but also those of Rembrandt—and Ingres and Delacroix and Titian—and wouldn’t you have to decide whether to reject their examples or follow them a little bit—or a lot?
Degas’s etching of his friend and fellow printmaker Joseph-Gabriel Tourny is probably the best example of the French artist adopting some of Rembrandt’s ideas. Tourny wears a Rembrandtesque hat and sits at a window with a stack of paper, just as Rembrandt did in one of his self-portraits, and wears an ambiguous expression that many of the faces in the exhibition share, his head largely in shadows. And Degas printed this image over and over again in different ways, following a method for which Rembrandt had become famous. Even though we’re only showing one version of it, you can see evidence of Degas’s thought process in the two different framing lines that he drew around the central image.
When you see this image in the context of this exhibition, you can find a surprising number of ideas coming together in this one portrait, and maybe you can even feel a little bit closer to that small room with its fringed curtain and sturdy table, and to the artist Tourny is looking at…
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Self-Portrait with Beret and Neck Cloth, 1633. Etching second state, 13.9 x 11.9 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-32
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), The Engraver Joseph Tourny, 1857. Etching; sixth printing on Japanese vellum, 32.2 x 25.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929, 29.107.55 [© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY]