“Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait as a Young Man (c. 1628-29), oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm.; courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Apples and Oranges—that’s a colleague’s alternate title for  Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has a point: What commonality is shared between history’s most humane artist and its most perfect? (Really, did anything Degas touch not turn to gold?)

Box office receipts may have prompted The Met, along with co-organizers The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, to mount this jewel-box exhibition. Place the name of either artist on a banner and a steady stream of visitors is guaranteed. Still, cynicism shouldn’t prevail—at least, not initially. Part of a curator’s job is to explore the possible and render it revelatory.

Turns out  Rembrandt and Degas  isn’t revelatory in the least. Sure, Degas made a copy of Rembrandt’s  Young Man in a Velvet Cap  (1637) and paid keen attention to the Dutch master’s distinctive way with line, light and “the depth he is able to achieve.” The Frenchman was a voracious student of tradition; it’s fair to say every artist Degas came into contact with was funneled through his steely, elegant intellect. Rembrandt was one amongst many, that’s all.

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait (Ca. 1855-57), red chalk on laid paper, 31 x 23.3 cm.; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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As a study in contrasts, the Met exhibition has its uses. Degas’ exercises in self-portraiture are heady and pitiless, their rigor is risky, pointed and sure. Psychological insight wasn’t alien to Degas’s vision, but neither was it a driving force. Rembrandt, on the other hand, couldn’t make a mark without embodying a distinctive and inquisitive generosity of spirit.

Even as a cocky young buck, Rembrandt was a mensch—take a look at the showy  Self-Portrait as a Young Man (1629). In it, the 23-year-old artist daubs oil paint with a brilliance that borders on the vulgar. Then check the gaze, hidden in shadow: Rembrandt is both startled and haunted—as if he had become aware of, and daunted by, his own boundless empathy. It’s a disquietingly naked moment.

Forget historical illumination: As a tidy array of exquisite little pictures, Rembrandt and Degas is a welcome anti-blockbuster of a show.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 6, 2012 edition of City Arts.

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