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

Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, oil on canvas, 143.5 x 136.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] 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.

[0:22] What I’m drawn to is the surface of the painting, the areas where the brushwork seems quick, almost like Rembrandt is showing off in his ability to depict texture, but other areas where it’s thickly built up.

James Coddington: [0:35] 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.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] So you’re noticing some discrepancies in what seems to be underneath.

James: [1:00] 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 [there is] what we call specular light, light that’s falling directly on the surface of the picture. Here, I’m looking particularly in the area of Aristotle’s hat and above his proper right shoulder.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] I see a lot of what looks like a crustiness under the surface of that dark paint and also a crustiness that disappears above that proper right shoulder.

James: [1:33] That crustiness is the evidence of the buildup of paint, which is evidence of labor on the part of the artist.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] Does this mean that Rembrandt scraped away that perhaps semi-dry paint above the right shoulder at some point?

James: [1:45] Or perhaps the shoulder came up that high originally, and that is something that was rendered in the background that he has 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.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] We’re seeing that a little bit along the left arm as well. Looks like there were some changes that took place in the position of that arm.

James: [2:10] 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 purposefulness that does not match the flatness of the overall background.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] And in fact parallels the line of the arm from the shoulder.

James: [2:28] 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.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] This is so interesting to me because these seem like inconsequential decisions, but all of these compositional decisions create meaning.

James: [2:48] 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?

Dr. Harris: [2:56] Why did he pay so much attention to the gold chain, and yet leave that proper left hand so seemingly unfinished?

James: [3:03] 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.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] It’s so heavily encrusted. If we look at it in a little bit of raking light, we can see the amount of paint that’s built up there.

James: [3:34] I think in the case of the hand on top of the head of Homer, we can see a 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 that there’s not a lot of pressure by the hand.

[3:48] In the case of the hand touching the chain, 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.

[4:04] What I’m looking at right now is the ring on the proper left hand. As one looks at this picture, one becomes more and more aware of it.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] To me, that gleaming metal stands in real contrast to the simplicity of the stone bust of the great ancient Greek poet Homer.

James: [4:21] If one moves their way up the proper left arm, one 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 10 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.

Dr. Harris: [4:44] 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 one stood back these things would come together.

[4:57] One does see different things as one moves back and forward, and to the right and to the left. For example, when we move to the right we notice there was a lighter tone underneath the brim of the hat.

James: [5:09] Moving around a painting gives you many opportunities to see more about the painting, not just the surface.

Dr. Harris: [5:15] Looking at a painting takes time.

James: [5:17] 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 labored 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.

[5:33] I think that I can understand the depth of this painting by thinking about it a bit longer.

[5:38] [music]

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Cite this page as: Jim Coddington and Dr. Beth Harris, "The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer," in Smarthistory, October 9, 2017, accessed June 25, 2024,