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The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer

Video transcript

[Music] we're standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a painting that I've loved for many years this is Rembrandt's Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer and I'm looking at it today with Jim Coddington who was for many years the chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art what I'm drawn to is the surface of the painting the areas where the brushwork seems quick almost like Rembrandt is showing off and his ability to depict texture but other areas were it's dinkley built up I do think he's showing off I think painters are making things for the public to see and they want to differentiate themselves I too AM attracted to that texture but I'm also trying to understand how some of this textured surface is lying underneath and is not part of what the final composition is that we see today so you're noticing some discrepancies in what seems to be underneath right and I think that looking at the texture of a painting is often a way to arrive at that kind of understanding part of what I as a conservator will do is walk to a point where what we call specular light light that's falling directly on the surface of the picture and here I'm looking particularly in the area of Aristotle's hat and above his proper right shoulder I see a lot of what looks like a crustiness under the surface of the dark paint and also a crustiness that disappears above that proper right shoulder and that crustiness is the evidence of the build-up of paint which is evidence of labour on the part of the artist so does this mean that Rembrandt scraped away that perhaps semi-dry paint above the right shoulder at some point or perhaps the shoulder came up that high originally and that is something that he was rendering in the background that he had since come over and painted this dark almost black on top of it what we're looking at here is the process the editing of the composition as Rembrandt worked his way along and we're seeing that a little bit along the left arm as well it looks like there were some changes that took place in the position of that arm if you look closely and get in a little to the left you can begin to see the residue of a few brush marks that make no sense as part of the background they have a purposeful mist that does not match the flatness of the overall background and in fact parallels the line of the arm from the shoulder and so we see evidence of him possibly having edited both shoulders perhaps scraping down on the proper right and simply painting over on the proper left this is so interesting to me because these seem like inconsequential decisions but all of these compositional decisions create meaning they certainly were important to Rembrandt and that's why I want to understand them Rembrandt is a genius and so why does it matter to lower the right shoulder why did he pay so much attention to the gold chain and yet leave that proper left hand so seemingly unfinished seemingly unfinished and let's be frank about it it's a huge hand is this another one of his devices for drawing attention to something by making it slightly different that gesture which art historians have argued about what its meaning is what the meaning of that chain is but that chain is given meaning by the fact that Aristotle is touching it and it's so heavily encrusted if we look at it in a little bit of making light we can see the amount of paint that's built up there I think in the case of the hand on top of the head of homework we can see the few very light strokes of black paint beneath the palm of the hand and above the head of Homer suggesting that there is space there and then there's not a lot of pressure by the hand in the case of the hand touching the change we just see two fingers barely they're not deep inside the chain they're just sensing it seems to me that crusty texture of the chain both of these are contemplative gestures and what I'm looking at right now is the ring on the problem left hand as one looks at this picture one becomes and more aware of it and to me that gleaming metal stands in real contrast to the simplicity of the stone bust of the great ancient Greek poet Homer if one moves their way up the proper left arm when goes into a passage of the painting that just is riveting to me it's not just because of the handling of the paint which is just delicious but as you stand back about ten feet from this picture suddenly these things just fall into place creating that complete sense of the fabric down the shoulder and then up the arm which means that Rembrandt standing close to the painting had to know and had to have this really intense familiarity with technique and his materials to know that when what stood back these things would come together one does see different things as one moves back and forward and to the right and to the left for example when we moved to the right we noticed there was a lighter tone underneath the brim of the Hat moving around a painting gives you many opportunities to see more about the painting not just the surface looking at a painting takes time I always think about how many hours how much work went into the painting and why should I think that I can understand it in 10 seconds when Rembrandt flavored for so many hours over so many of the different kinds of decisions that we've been talking about here they're all meaningful to him and I think that I can understand the depth of this painting by thinking about it a bit longer you