Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638)

This landscape by Rembrandt is often praised for its beauty but, whatever terms are used to describe it, the picture always remains a landscape drawn from nature. Wassily Kandinsky, the artist who first moved from naturalism to complete abstraction, warned that the greatest mistake you can make is to think that Art is a copy of Nature.1 Few listened then; few now. 

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Rembrandt, Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638)

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For instance, here is Rembrandt's Self-portrait in a Gorget from two years earlier. As discussed in its own entry, the painter is dressed in armor to wage battle with art. Note how his eyes stare straight out (or straight into his own reflection), one of them nearly lost in the shade. His curly hair falls diagonally across his forehead while a dark shadow rises up from the inside corner of his eyebrow on the left till it almost touches a lock of hair above it. Now compare Rembrandt's face to........

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a Gorget (1636)

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.....his landscape. One "eye" is the bridge with the other darkened one virtually unseen on the right. His "hair" becomes dark clouds descending diagonally while a copse of trees, like the shadow, rise up from the inside corner of his "eye". The landscape is a view inside Rembrandt's mind, behind his forehead. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Rembrandt, Landscape with a Stone Bridge 

Right: Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a Gorget (detail)

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Great artists can make connections like these on their own. The bridge and boat, for instance, so resemble an eye that any true artist might have interpreted this scene similarly without the benefit of the self-portrait. And any interpretation lacking awareness of the underlying face should be greeted skeptically. Once seen, Rembrandt's symbolism shines through: a fisherman sits quietly in the "pupil of the artist's eye" while a river pours timelessly through it. This means that the artist will catch (and perceive) some visual element to turn into poetry, perhaps even suggesting we only use a very small portion of the visual data entering our eye as science now confirms. Storm clouds hint at how Rembrandt's compositions are formed by the dark and powerful forces of nature in his mind while the verdant land expresses its fertility. A copse of trees, perhaps mimicking "a paintbrush", rises up from his "eye", blown to the right by winds. Like all prophets he, the artist, is merely a channel through which divine power express its will. "As above, so below" goes the motto, inside like outside.

Remember methods like these; look out for features that resemble an eye; become familiar with an artist's self-portraits; and you too will be amazed at what you can see on your own, no help required. 

Notes:

1. Cited in Ulrike Becks-Malorny, Kandinsky (Taschen) 2002, p. 14

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