Philosopher in Meditation
Philosopher in Meditation (Bredius 431) is the traditional title of an oil painting in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that has long been attributed to the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt. It is signed "RHL-van Rijn" and dated 1632, at the time of Rembrandt's move from Leiden to Amsterdam. Recent scholarship suggests that the painting depicts "Tobit and Anna waiting for their son Tobias" instead. The painting appeared in Paris around the middle of the 18th century and made the rounds of aristocratic collections before being acquired for the royal collections housed in the Louvre Palace. The presumed subject matter, the finely graded chiaroscuro treatment and intricate composition were widely appreciated in France and the painting is mentioned in the writings of many 19th- and 20th-century literary figures, including George Sand, Théophile Gautier, Jules Michelet, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Gaston Bachelard, Paul Claudel, and Aldous Huxley. The popularity of the painting may be measured by its presence on the internet, where it is often used as an emblem of philosophy, or interpreted along esoteric or occult lines.
Painted in oils on an oak panel measuring about 11 x 13 in. (28 x 34 cm), the painting depicts in slightly accelerated perspective two figures in a partially vaulted interior that is dominated by a wooden spiral staircase. The architecture includes stone, brick and wood, with arched elements (window, vault, doors) that create an impression of monumentality. On the pre-iconographic level, this is one of the most "graphic" works painted by Rembrandt, in the sense that it contains many straight, curved, circular, and radiating lines: from the lines of the flagstones to those of the window, the bricks, the wainscotting, and of course the staircase. As in the staircase and the basketwork tray at the center of the composition, the curved lines can be said to organize the straight lines. The first figure is that of an old man seated at a table in front of a window, his head bowed and his hands folded in his lap. The second figure is that of an old woman tending a fire in an open hearth. A third figure—a woman standing in the stairs carrying a basket and turned to the spectator—is visible in 18th- and 19th-century engraved reproductions of the painting, but virtually invisible in the painting's present state. As it is, the overall painting is quite dark due to the aging of the varnish.
The panel is signed "RHL-van Rijn 163_" at the bottom and left of the center, at a vertical from the figure of the old man. The signature is traced in light pigment on a dark background and is quite difficult to make out. The last digit is a tiny blob of paint, the form and placing of which would tally with a "0," "1" or "2." The type of signature—monogram plus patronymic—would argue for 1632, for the artist used this type of signature only in this year. This does not mean that the picture was painted in that year or even in Amsterdam, to which Rembrandt had moved in late 1631. In any case, this type of signature is so rare in Rembrandt's oeuvre and date-specific that it argues for authenticity.
While the traditional title Philosopher in Meditation has to a large extent been responsible for the painting's popularity, it is iconographically untenable. The painting shows none of the conspicuous attributes of scholarship or philosophy—books, globe, scientific instruments, etc.—and the presence of at least one other figure involved in domestic tasks does not fit in with the solitude associated with study and meditation. Though a large book and a quill seem to be among the few objects on the table in front of the main figure, they are summarily depicted and impossible to identify more precisely: a Bible alone would not suffice to make the figure depicted a scholar or "philosopher." Staircases—whether spiral or not—were not an attribute of philosophy in the early 17th century. Similar observations argue against identifying the main figure as an "alchemist," a subject that would allow for other figures, such as an assistant tending a fire. The objects depicted suggest a domestic setting, yet the improbable architecture speaks more for a history than a genre subject. The French art historian Jean-Marie Clarke argues that the scene is ultimately derived from the Book of Tobit, one of Rembrandt's favorite Old Testament sources. The sole objection to this interpretation is that, apart from the two main figures—the blind Tobit and his wife Anna— there is no identifying attribute, such as Anna's spinning wheel. Nevertheless, a plausible interpretation of the scene is Tobit and Anna waiting for the return of their only son, Tobias, a scene that Rembrandt had already represented in another version in 1630. This is supported by an 18th-century source identifying a painting of the same dimensions by Rembrandt representing a "Composition with Tobit and a winding stair." Earlier inventory mentions of a "winding stair with an old man sitting on a chair" or "winding stair" attributed to Rembrandt are vague and might even refer to the companion painting long attributed to Rembrandt, but now given to Salomon Koninck. Although the title in the Louvre's publications remains Philosophe en méditation, catalogues of Rembrandt's painted oeuvre, starting with Bredius (1935) identify the subject more soberly as a "Scholar in an Interior with a Winding Stair." With the rejection of the attribution to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project in 1986, the title became "Old Man in an interior with a winding staircase."
Companion painting: Philosopher in Contemplation or Philosopher with an Open Book
The best explanation for the long-standing misinterpretation of the Philosopher in Meditation lies in the fact that, in the middle of the 18th century, it was sold together with a pendant of identical size (28 x 33.5 cm) that presented similar motifs—including a spiral staircase—and that was also attributed to Rembrandt. The paintings were exhibited together and titled interchangeably Philosophe en méditation and Philosophe en contemplation, or referred to simply as the Philosophes. The companion painting shows an old man in a vaulted interior seated in front of a table at a window on which we can see books, a globe, and a crucifix. These objects and his solitude make him a much better candidate for philosophical endeavor than the old man in the alleged Philosopher in Meditation. In spite of the obvious differences in the composition and execution, no one called its attribution to Rembrandt in doubt. The great exception is the American art historian John C. Van Dyke, who whittled Rembrandt's oeuvre down to less than fifty paintings and made short shrift of the Louvre's Philosophers: "Small pictures over which, in the past, there has been much spilling of good printer's ink with no marked results. The pictures are not wonderful...". In 1955, examinations with X-rays and infrared photography at the laboratory of the Louvre revealed notable differences in treatment and caused this attribution to be dropped. Jacques Foucart (1982), Curator for Dutch and Fleming Painting at the Louvre, like Horst Gerson (1968) and Werner Sumowski (1983), attributes this work to Salomon Koninck (1609–1656), a Rembrandt imitator, dating it to around 1645 and titling it Philosopher in Contemplation or Philosopher with an Open Book. Yet the real credit for the attribution to Koninck should go to John C. Van Dyke, who wrote: "In fact, one may be heretical enough to think that someone like Koninck or Dou may have painted them..." The subject matter and details of the Koninck picture seem to have been directly inspired by a Rembrandt etching dated 1642 and representing St. Jerome in a dark chamber (Bartsch 105), which is the only other known work by Rembrandt that features a complete helical staircase. The traditional iconography of the Doctors of the Church and St. Jerome in particular provided the attributes for 17th-century representations of scholars in their study. In the last analysis, the only thing that the pendant has in common with the Philosopher in Meditation is the medium and format, which reflects more on Koninck's intentions than on those of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt Research Project and disattribution
In the second volume of its Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, which covers the years 1631-1634, the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) rejected the attribution to Rembrandt of the Philosopher in Meditation. Until then, and except for the "heretical" John C. Van Dyke, this attribution had been unanimously accepted by experts and art historians. The RRP did not introduce any new objective or documentary evidence, but based its judgment on an assessment of Rembrandt's "habits," an appraisal of the painting's style, and the difficulty of fitting it within Rembrandt's production in 1632 or the later 1630s. The RRP did not make any guesses as to who the author of this painting might have been, but relegated it to "Rembrandt's immediate circle, or even his own workshop." This judgment was analyzed by Jean-Marie Clarke who pointed out, among other things, that the RRP may have had a special stake in rejecting this painting, as the following quote suggests: "In the later part of the 18th century the painting enjoyed a great reputation in France as Le Philosophe en contemplation, and it helped to determine the image of Rembrandt's art to an unwarranted extent." This disattribution was not accepted by the Louvre and other Rembrandt scholars, and the newly configured RRP seems to have taken a more moderate stance since. In the fifth volume of the Corpus (2011), which covers "small history paintings," the painting is discussed by the current director of the RRP, Ernst van de Wetering, in terms that clearly imply Rembrandt's authorship.
Esoteric, psychological, and philosophical interpretations
In a lecture given at the Goetheanum in Dornach (1916), the ex-theosophist and founder of the Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner, described the Louvre Philosopher as the "purest expression of light and dark... All that you see here—the architecture and all the other features—merely provided the occasion for the real work of Art, which lies in the distribution of light and dark." This, he held, was precisely the essence of Rembrandt's art. As it was, he showed only a "lantern slide" of the companion painting by Salomon Koninck discussed above. With his inversion of the title, Aldous Huxley (1954) sums up most of the "deeper" interpretations of the painting: "There hangs in the Louvre a Méditation du Philosophe, whose symbolical subject-matter is nothing more or less than the human mind, with its teeming darknesses, its moments of intellectual and visionary illuminations, its mysterious staircases winding downwards and upwards into the unknown. The caption to an illustration of the painting (reversed) in the psychoanalyst C. G. Jung's Man and His Symbols (1964) reads: "The inward-looking old man provides an image of Jung's belief that each of us must explore his own unconscious." Jean-Marie Clarke (1980) advanced a psychological interpretation based on the circular form of the composition and the Yin-Yang-like distribution of light, reading the painting as a Mandala in the Jungian sense: an archetypal symbol of the integrated Self. The chiaroscuro treatment and the presence of many straight lines that are structued by curved lines speaks for a deliberate effort at reconciling the Opposites. Further, Clarke interpreted the concentricity of the composition and wealth of circular motifs as metaphors for the underlying theme of the painting: the eye and vision. Like Julius Held, Clarke believes that the drawing dated ca. 1630 at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (Benesch 64) with the caption "HARMAN GERRITS van der Rhijn" written in Rembrandt's hand that shows his father in a pose similar to that of Tobit here, suggests that he may have been blind at the end of his life. Accordingly, the figure of the blind old man (Tobit) stands for Rembrandt's father (d. 1630), who opposed his son's wish to become an artist and whose vision the young Rembrandt (Tobias) "healed" with the help of the archangel Raphael (a name that symbolizes Art). More recently, Clarke published an interpretation on the internet that relates Rembrandt's composition to the design of his signature in 1632. Jean-Pierre Dautun (1983), a student of the French philosopher Raymond Abellio, offers a detailed phenomenological reading along Gnostic lines, interpreting the central motif of the painting (the basketwork tray) as "the navel, the omphalos of the luminous hermetic secret that Rembrandt wishes to transmit: the phenomenological secret that the eye of the genius will be given to those who will conquer the genius of the eye. It is the ineffable secret of this transmission itself, the 'thou art that' of this mutus liber that is his painting, as if to permit an Occidental satori to a koan of his own devise." The French philosophy professor Régine Pietra (1992) published an essay in which she used the painting to illustrate the rhetorical figure of hypotyposis; Rembrandt's painting, with its interplay of light and dark, renders the experience of philosophical meditation visually perceptible. The Dutch philosopher Otto B. Wiersma (1999) published an article on the internet that he summarizes in these terms: "The painting of Rembrandt Philosophe en méditation (1632, Louvre Paris) can be characterized as a pictorial meditation on the miracle of vision. A better title would be Méditation visionnaire, because the painting catches the eye in more than one sense." A discussion of the Philosopher in Meditation along essentially Gurdjeffian lines can be found on the Objective Art website (2011).
- Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt Gemälde, Phaidon Verlag, Vienna, 1935, 18: "Gelehrter in einem Raum mit Wendeltreppe." A few decades earlier, Wurzbach merely translated the title from the French, Alfred von Wurzbach, Niederländische Künstler-Lexikon vol. II, Vienna and Leipzig, 1910: B. 122, Der Philosoph in Betrachtung.
- Jacques Foucart, Les Peintures de Rembrandt au Louvre, Éditions de la R.M.N., Paris, 1982, 19-23, 89.
- See the Provenance in J. Bruyn, B. Haak, H. Levie, P.J.J. van Thiel, E. van de Wetering, Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. II, 1631-1634, Martinus Frijhof, Dordrecht, Boston and Lancaster, 1986, 644. See also, Anne Leclair, "Les deux Philosophes de Rembrandt: une passion de collectionneurs," La Revue des Musées de France-Revue du Louvre, 5, 2006, 38-43.
- Jean-Marie Clarke, "Le Philosophe en méditation, de Rembrandt," Cahiers de Psychologie de l'art et de la culture, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 6, 1980, 132.
- For example, this figure is visible in the engraving of the painting by Devilliers l'aîné in Joseph Lavallée, Galerie du musée de France, vol. 8, Filhol, Paris, 1814, pl. III. The third figure does not appear in the turn-of-the-century engraving by Timothy Cole in John Charles Van Dyke, Timothy Cole, Old Dutch and Flemish Masters Engraved by Timothy Cole With Critical Notes by John C. Van Dyke and Comments by the Engraver, The Century Co., New York, 1901, 32.
- Ernst van de Wetering et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. V, The Small History Paintings, Springer, Dordrecht, 2011, 197. As Van de Wetering notes, "the paint layers were covered with an extremely thick, yellowed layer of varnish, as a result of which it is very difficult to get any clear insight into its pictorial characteristics."
- Jean-Marie Clarke, "Le Philosophe en méditation du Louvre: un tableau signé 'RHL-van Rijn' et daté '1632,'" Revue du Louvre, 3, 1990, 193-94.
- Horst Gerson, Rembrandt Paintings, Artabras Books, Harrison House, N.Y., 1968: "The date has always been regarded as 1633, but the last digit may just as well be read as a one or a two, which accords better with the style of this tender painting," 492.
- Corpus, II, 641: the members of the RRP who examined this painting in 1968 were unable to see the signature. Subsequent examinations by Foucart (1982) and Clarke (1990) confirmed its presence.
- Clarke, 1980, 138-9.
- Op. cit., 198.
- Julius S. Held, Rembrandt and the Book of Tobit, Gehenna Press, Northampton MA, 1964.
- Anna and the Blind Tobit, 63.8 x 47.7 cm. This painting at the National Gallery in London has been re-attributed to Rembrandt, with a possible participation by his student at the time, Gerrit Dou. David Bromford et al., Art in the Making: Rembrandt, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006, 62-69.
- Corpus, II, p. 644: "Eene ordonnatie met Tobias, ende eenen draeyenden trap door Rimbrant" at the sale of the collection of the Comte de Fraula, Brussels, 1738. The Rembrandt Research Project dismisses this evidence as "certainly incorrect since there are two women in the picture and there is no specific motif from the story of Tobias," 642.
- See the Provenance in Corpus, II, p. 644: "Een wenteltrap van Rembrandt van Ryn met een oudt manneken sittende op eenen stoel" (1673) and ""Een wenteltrap van Rembrandt van Ryn" (1687). Here, as Clarke (1990) points out, the RRP uses the mention of a winding stair to support their hypothesis that the painting was intended as an exercise in perspective by a member of Rembrandt's studio or circle, but ignore the evidence of the mention of the master's name to identify the author.
- Gerson, 1968, loc. cit.. Gary Schwarz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings, Penguin Books, London, 1985, 198: cat. 214, Scholar in a room with a winding stair.
- Corpus, II, 638-44, C 51.
- A typical example is Vincent van Gogh in his letter of May 31, 1875 to his brother Theo, in which he tells of his visit to the Louvre: "I wish you could see the small Rembrandts there, the 'Supper at Emmaus,' and two pendants, 'The Philosophers."
- John Charles Van Dyke, Rembrandt and His School; a critical study of the master and his pupils with a new assignment of their pictures, New York, C. Scribner's Sons, 1923, 114-5.
- Madeleine Hours, "Rembrandt. Observations et présentation de radiographies exécutées d'après les portraits et compositions du musée du Louvre,“ Bulletin des Laboratoires du Musée du Louvre, 1961, 6, 3-43.
- Gerson, Op. cit.
- Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, vol. III, PVA, Landau, 1983, 1649 (cat. no. 1133): "Interieur mit meditierenden Gelehrter."
- Foucart, 1982, 98.
- Van Dyke, 1923, loc. cit. He continues with: "The second picture, with the light coming from the left, seems a companion piece, but there may be some doubt about its being by Koninck. Its assignment is tentative."
- Clarke, 1990, 194-95.
- Clarke, 1980, 121-28.
- Corpus, II, 641.
- Clarke, 1990, 191-200.
- Corpus., II, 642.
- Roelof van Straten, Young Rembrandt: The Leiden Years, 1606-1632, Foleor, Leiden, 2006, 229: "It is not understandable that the Rembrandt Research Project does not accept the picture as an original work by the master."
- Corpus, V, 197. The question mark after the mention "Rembrandt" in the caption of the illustration was an editorial oversight. The painting will be officially re-instated in the forthcoming vol. 6 of the Corpus.
- Rudolf Steiner, "The History of Art: Rembrandt" (lecture 5), November 28, 1916, Dornach (Eng. translation, Rudolf Steiner Library, Anthroposophical Society of America, N.Y., 9).
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Harper & Brothers, N.Y., 1954, 95.
- Carl Gustav Jung (ed.), Joseph L. Henderson, Marie-Louise von Franz, Aniela Jaffé and Jolande Jacobi, Man and His Symbols, Doubleday, Garden City N.Y., 1964, 103.
- Held, 1964, 26-27.
- Clarke, 1990, 198.
- Clarke, 1980, 115-86.
- Jean-Marie Clarke (2006). "Article 11 (Br. 431)".
- Jean-Pierre Dautun "Le Philosophe en méditation de Rembrandt", Cahiers Raymond Abellio, 1, 1983, 42-51, 51
- Defined as a "lively description of an action, event, person, condition, passion, etc. used for creating the illusion of reality
- Régine Pietra, Sage comme un image. Figures de la philosophie dans les arts, Editions du Félin, 1992, 105-15.
- Wiersma, Otto (1999). "Het is een kunst om te lezen: de dubbelzinnigheid van spiegelbeelden bij Rembrandt en Salomon Koninck".
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