METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, Aristotle Observing The Bust Of Homer By Rembrandt

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The collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings is one of the jewels in the Metropolitan’s crown: it is one of the finest in the world, thanks to the presence of five works by Vermeer and some thrilling masterpieces by Rembrandt. This work, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, exceptionally intense and original, was painted in 1653 for an Italian client, the nobleman from Messina, Antonio Ruffo, who wished to collect a series of idealized portraits of illustrious men from ancient times.

The theme requested was one of a learned, classical culture: the Greek philosopher Aristotle observing a bust of the even more ancient poet Homer. Instead of reproducing a scholarly, historical scene, Rembrandt preferred drawing us into a sentimental maelstrom of memories and presences. In the shadows, drawn out by a grazing light, the mustachioed Aristotle is not dressed in a Greek-style peplos, but in a strange black and white garment with a vaguely exotic appearance, peculiar for the time, embellished with a striking, heavy, gold chain. Under the brim of his velvet hat, we can see a face marked by experience and gratitude, with a moving, yet virile expression. The philosopher’s hand is caressing the bust of the ancient poet, and – as if awakened by this timid yet intense caress – the marble warms up, takes on color and appears to spring to life. Thus, we can today contemplate a painting from the 17th century, depicting a philosopher from 2000 years ago, engaging in turn with a poet who lived 500 years before him. And we’re all present in the same room: Rembrandt, Aristotle, Homer and ourselves, the visitors, brought together by the very same human nature that transcends centuries and generations.

At the time the work was painted, Rembrandt had entered a downward spiral that was to drive him to financial ruin in the space of just a few years, with all his assets seized and put up for auction. On the other hand, he was now completely free to establish his own style, unfettered by the fashions of the time: the Dutch artist increasingly worked not only with a paintbrush, but also with his fingers, and on this canvas you can also clearly see these strokes and lumps of paint.



An interesting fact: the collector from Messina was so thrilled with this masterpiece that he immediately commissioned two additional paintings from Rembrandt. He was so disappointed with these works, however, that he sent one of them back to Amsterdam.




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