There have been many great artists throughout the history of mankind. World famous and household names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Picasso may be the first to come to mind. However there is one artist who perhaps surpasses the aforementioned names in terms of technical skill; a man who is incredibly proficient in the fields of painting and especially etching; a man who’s work symbolizes an entire period of art spanning the majority of the 17th century: Remrandt van Rijn. He has produced quite a large amount of paintings, many of them portraits, but one is of particular interest.
The Portrait of Marten Looten is an extraordinary painting, commissioned by successful Dutch merchant Marten Looten himself in 1632. The painting is quite impressive. Using oil paint on a wooden canvas, Rembrandt created an almost unreal representation of another human being. The amount of detail put into the piece is staggering; it is incredibly lifelike. Considering how beautifully Marten is modeled, and the size of the painting (about life-sized), the viewer actually gets the feeling that they are looking at the figure through a window into the next room.
The composition of the painting is more or less that of the traditional portrait style. Rembrandt placed Marten directly in the center of the painting, in front of a rather plain background, with his entire body above the waist in sight. Marten is looking directly at the viewer. His face, the most attractive feature of the painting, is placed just above the main horizontal axis, intensifying the attraction of the viewer. Rembrandt portrayed Marten as the true businessman he was; his large black hat and long black cape are symbols of his wealthy status.
Marten’s hand gestures and turned head suggest movement, as if he has just turned to face the viewer. He is holding an open, previously folded piece of parchment in his left hand, most likely a letter. Looking directly at the viewer, his somewhat solemn facial expression suggests he has just received worrisome news; the outside portions of his eyebrows are slanted slightly downward, and his parted lips imply he has softly gasped in astonishment and is about to speak. His body language indicates that the viewer has just startled him; he is placing his right hand over his chest, much like someone would do if they had just been surprised.
He is also turning away from the viewer, ever so slightly, but in just a way that the viewer can recognize he possesses a fearful feeling. He may actually be stepping back a bit. The whole image of Marten suggests tension. Perhaps the letter he had been reading brought an uneasy feeling upon him, and in that fragile state, the viewer unintentionally startled him. The composition of the painting is near flawless, however Marten looks a bit stiff. Perhaps if Rembrandt portrayed Marten with slightly hunched shoulders, his fear would look more believable.
Then again, a dapper and wealthy man would not want to be portrayed as weak and submissive, would he? In terms of color, the majority of the portrait is monochromatic; the only noticeable color is found in the face, hands, and parchment. There are also slight hints of tan in the lower background and lower cape, however the more apparent colors of the hands and face overpower it. The entire background becomes progressively lighter in value going from the top of the composition downward. The hands and face are painted with an exquisite and believable flesh color, with the hands having a more saturated tone to them.
The shadowed areas of the aforementioned body parts are much darker in value, particularly the right hand, which almost seems to disappear within the black cape. Marten’s beard is painted excellently with a light brown color, along with his eyebrows. The irises are a deep, piercing dark brown, and the ears a dark tan color. The nose and cheeks have a lush, rosy pink added to them, indicating embarrassment or nervousness. The lips are painted with a wonderful shade of red, with high and low values used to indicate three-dimensionality.
Even though the amount colors used in the portrait are very minimal, they are believable and make the piece comfortably appealing to the eyes. Perhaps the most technically impressive aspect of the painting is its remarkable three-dimensionality. Rembrandt is well known for his strikingly accurate portrayal of human shape and form, and this painting lives up to such reputation. With the use of oil paint, he was able to carefully and selectively layer color to create an astonishing representation of the human figure. The most alluring aspect of the piece, in terms of modeling technique, is the face.
It contains so much detail; it is hard to believe this painting was done by hand. From the light, wispy texture of the facial hair to the subtle wrinkles surrounding the eyes, attention to detail is what sets this portrait far above many others. Rembrandt’s playful chiaroscuro on the nose and right hand truly give the piece a sense of depth, and the painterly quality of the piece produces a soft and elegant look. Also present within the face is the famous Rembrandt triangle. The result of a specific lighting technique frequently used by Rembrandt, a small triangle is formed underneath the eyes.
It is present under the left eye in Marten’s portrait, which gives his face a more natural look. Another technique that intensifies the three-dimensionality of the visible body parts is the use of strong contrast between them and the dark clothing. The nearly pitch-black cape and hat force the face and hands outwards, yet they still retain a strong connection. Also remarkable parts of the piece are the fold marks of the parchment, which further amplify the realism of the portrait. The physical size of the portrait is 36 ? x 30 inches.
Since the actual painting of Marten Looten is about life-sized, the viewer almost gets the feeling that they are conversing with him. Perhaps if the painting was placed a bit lower on the gallery wall, with Marten’s eye level more or less matching that of the viewer’s, it would feel more like so. The figure style resembles those of the High Renaissance; it boasts accurately proportioned body parts, intricately modeled shadows, and chiaroscuro. Rembrandt could even be compared to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Titian in terms of technicality, perhaps even surpass them.
Martin’s pose itself is not common, nor is it astonishingly lifelike, however it is unique all its own. Rembrandt van Rijn has always put time and effort into his work, and it truly shows. Descriptions of even his simplest works could fill up pages. His study of the human figure, especially facial expressions, is one of the main reasons why he is one of the most famous artists in history. The Portrait of Marten Looten was produced in 1632 in what was “rightfully known as Holland’s Golden Age” (Broos). This was a highly innovative period for the arts, especially painting.
The migration of numerous skilled artists to Amsterdam, particularly Rembrandt, made the city a sort of central hub for artist activity and business in Northern Europe. The painting’s iconography is pretty straightforward. It portrays a wealthy businessman, as indicted by the hat and cape, who has just read an important letter and is now facing the viewer, nothing more and nothing less. It was produced during a period when art was becoming more accessible to the general public, so understandably portraits were in high demand.
Considering Marten is reading a letter with his name written in rather large letters, we can assume that his status was quite high. This portrait can also be a representation of Amsterdam itself, as the city was a “bustling commercial centre” (Broos) at the time. An image of a wealthy businessman could easily connect with the state of Amsterdam in its prosperous state. Living in such an environment, Rembrandt may have been inspired to do his best work on the piece, along with the fact that the painting was a paid commission.
If an individual living in 17th century Holland were to observe the painting, they would most likely understand and appreciate its features more thoroughly and appropriately than a person in today’s world, generally speaking. The recognizable clothing and painting style would be more familiar. Other portraits done by Rembrandt that are similar in terms of composition and/or style include “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp,” “Portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn,” and “Portrait of Dirck Pesser” (rembrandtonline. org).
All three of the previously mentioned portraits are similar in terms of style, particularly the Portrait of Dirck Pesser. The right cheek is turned towards the viewer, and the figure has an almost identical facial expression. The Portrait of Marten Looten was produced during Rembrandt’s early career in Amsterdam, when he was only 25 years old. Receiving numerous commissions during that time, including the Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, his “first real commissioned portrait” (Westermann), his reputation as an artist was quickly rising.
In 1632, just after the Portrait of Marten Looten was completed, Rembrandt received the prestigious commission of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (Broos). It seems that Marten’s portrait played a big role in assisting Rembrandt skyrocket to international fame. The Portrait of Marten Looten was most likely meant to be hung up in the home of its subject, Marten Looten. Wealthy individuals have always been interested in displaying their status, and owning a portrait of him or herself produced by prestigious and reputable artist was an effective way of doing it. The art of portraiture was also in high demand at the time of the painting’s production, and the prosperous state of Amsterdam meant more materials needed to produce art were available. The Portrait of Marten Looten was a staple of portraiture in terms of technicality. Some of finest pieces of art have come from 17th century Holland, and even though The Portrait of Marten Looten is not among the most famous, it was still an important part of portrait development.
From the masterful brushstrokes to the carefully planned composition, the painting is among the finest in the world. Rembrandt really set the bar for portraiture. After struggling with his personal life and grieving over the death of his wife and son, Rembrandt passed away in 1669. His ability to “capture bodies, actions and emotions in unidealized terms” (Broos) was a signature of his. Considering how anatomically accurate all of his works are, it is no wonder his skills have been compared to the likes of Leonardo and Titian.
Broos, B. P. J., et al. “Rembrandt van Rijn.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Westermann, Mariët. “Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed.Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
<http://0-www.oxfordartonline.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e2198>. www.rembrandtonline.org. 2002-2012.
Rembrandt Online. November 2012. <http://www.rembrandtonline.org/>.