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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer

Met curator Walter Liedtke on reflection in Rembrandt van Rijn’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) rests his hand reflectively on a bust of Homer, the blind epic poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey. A medallion representing Alexander the Great, whom Aristotle tutored, hangs from the heavy gold chain. The philosopher contemplates material rewards as opposed to spiritual values, with the play of light and shadow on his features suggesting the motions of his mind. Painted for the great Sicilian collector Antonio Ruffo, the picture also refers to Aristotle's comparison of touch and sight as a means of acquiring knowledge. 

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Video transcript

To me this is one of the monuments of Western culture. We have Aristotle as a philosopher with a central moral problem of human experience. The main thing is the hands and the balance between the arms. His right hand is resting on a bust of Homer. And the other hand, which has this gleaming pinkie ring on it, is stroking this great gold chain, which in Rembrandt’s day was the kind of thing that an artist would get from a great prince, but Rembrandt, himself, didn’t. We see Aristotle in his late years and he’s thinking, “Will I be remembered like I remember Homer? Material things, honor, fame: so what? Did I say anything important?" which was Rembrandt’s problem, too, he was going bankrupt at this very time. He’s making this choice. In Poetics, Aristotle tells a story about Homer, and he says, “What would Homer do if there were a great battle scene? Would he show a hundred thousand guys running down a hill at the other group? No, what Homer does is put the general in the tent the night before, and he’s brooding as to what the battle would bring.” That sounds so much like Rembrandt. He tends to isolate a historical figure and make it a matter of personality and character. The central problem of Western civilization is reduced to one guy who’s got to puzzle it out for himself. Aristotle’s really pondering this deep problem. Aristotle emphasizes immediate experience as a way of knowing. In terms of light, space, volume, the wonderful texture, Rembrandt’s approach is so intensely naturalistic, it seems to be direct optical experience. There’s more packed into the meaning than usual in a Rembrandt, but I’m drawn to it initially because it’s compelling. I sort of got it in my gut or my heart. It’s still got all the freshness and directness that Rembrandt always does.